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Jim Poulter Author of Books on Aboriginal Culture and Child Protection
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How to Build a Bark Canoe

A Summary of Historical and Contemporary Documentation in making a Koorong

Paper presented at Wurundjeri Tribe Council, Koorong Committee Workshop, May 2012

Making a bark canoe		
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Making a bark canoe

In mid-2011 a sub-committee was set up under the aegis of the Wurundjeri Council and chaired by Bill Nicholson, to create a koorong, the Woiwuring word for a traditional Aboriginal bark canoe. Historical documentation was sought and consultation undertaken with others who had contemporary experience in trying to recreate the technology of traditional bark canoe making. This document therefore represents a step-by step summary to date of this historical and contemporary documentation and experience. In a very real sense then, this is a living document. It will continue to be updated in the light of ongoing experience and as further documentation on the various aspects of traditional bark canoe making is unearthed.

  1. In all documentation and contemporary experience reviewed, the process of bark canoe making seems to have been essentially similar across southern and eastern Australia. There were however variations in the types of tree from which bark was harvested, according to the dominant species within particular areas. This included for instance Grey Sheoak, Stringbark Gums, and Red River Gums.
  2. From the very start of British settlement observations were made on bark canoe making. In 1788 Governor Phillip observed that the season for canoe making was August. This is reinforced by contemporary experience when harvesting was undertaken in July. This subsequently proved to be too early to gain proper pliability in the bark as the sap needs to have started flowing.
  3. Canoes typically lasted three or four years and the length of canoes varied from eight feet (two and a half metres) to sixteen feet (five metres).
  4. Bark was most often harvested from the south-east side of a tree for a number of reasons.
    • A tree would be more likely to have a lean toward the sun in the north-west, thus creating a natural camber in the bark that would assist in shaping the canoe.
    • The resultant exposed wood in the scar on the south-east would be less affected by sunlight and desiccating winds, thus giving the tree greater chances of survival.
    • Harvesting in August also meant that the tree had time to heal sufficiently before the heat of summer.
  5. To harvest the bark the shape of the canoe is first marked out on the tree. The sides are essentially parallel and shaping to a point at either end. Axe cuts to the depth of the bark are then made around the shape drawn, starting at the bottom and working up each side. Once the cuts are above hand height, stout branches are laid against the tree and toe hold cut outside the perimeter of the cut. Thisenables the person cutting to maintain balance while cutting higher and theoretically would seem to require only two sessions of cutting. That is, to deliver a five metre canoe the first cut could be made unaided to a height of more than two and a half metres, then the second cut would take the finished height to six metres.
  6. Once the cut is completed, the outer rim of the canoe (the inside of the cut) is then hammered with the blunt side of the axe so as to loosen the edges. The bark is then often left in this state on the tree for a couple of weeks, presumable to start the healing process in the tree and aid ease of harvesting. It can alternatively be harvested on the same day.
  7. Once the bark is deemed ready for harvesting, long poles are forced under the loosened edges at the top and the bark levered away from the tree, gradually progressing downward. Other people hold the bark in place whilst it is being levered off, and then lower it to the ground.
  8. When removed, the sheet of bark is laid upside down (inside of the bark facing down) over a fire of twigs and leaves. The heat stimulates the resins in the bark and it then becomes more pliable and able to be molded to the required shape. The fire should be distributed along the length of the canoe or the canoe progressively manoeuvered to distribute the heat.
  9. Once pliable from the firing, the bark is removed and placed right side up on the ground. A log is placed transverse under the bow to aid the bending of the bark and keep the bow out of the water.
  10. Pressure is then manually applied to each end to assist the curving inward of the bark. Once achieved, the ends are tied either with vine or with rope made from hair and the inside bark of a stringybark gum.
  11. Thwarts about 45cm in length are then placed in the canoe one for about every metre in length of the canoe, to stop the canoe from collapsing inward with the water pressure when launched. Wet clay is then mixed and packed into the rear of the canoe to make it watertight and give rear-end stability when paddling.
  12. Cracks and holes are filled with molten grass-tree glue and patched over with cabbage-tree leaves or paperbark. These patches may also be stitched into place with a bone bodkin and sinew of other thread and then smeared over again with grass-tree glue.
  13. Once completed, the canoe should be left for a few days try dry out before launching.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Attenbrow, V. (2009) Building a canoe –noe, nowey, www.australianmuseum.net.au/Building-a-canoe-noe-nowey/

Green, I. (1989) Aborigines of Bulleen, Doncaster-Templestowe Historical Society, Melbourne

Kennedy, R (2011) –personal correspondence by Richard Kennedy to Bill Nicholson 14/12/2011

Meacham, S. (2010) From a Stringybark Tree a Canoe Grows, www.smh.com.au/nsw/from-a-stringybark-tree-a-canoe-grows-20100818-12f96.php

Vautier, F. (1886) –personal correspondence from Francis Vautier at Warrandyte 29/12/1886

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