The Canadian Canoe Museum [58]

Preserving International Canoeing Heritage

By Brian Burton

Wherever there is a channel for water, – there is a road for the canoe.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

There is a long and extensive history around the world of sea kayaking and canoeing. Natives in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Britain, Scotland, South America, Africa and many other locations around the globe have used kayaks and canoes since antiquity.

For example, the canoes that Maoris arrived in traditionally gave rise to the different tribal groupings: the genealogy of Maori culture derives from each of the canoes of their ancestors. The fleet was, according to tradition, inspired by Kupe, the great navigator who, according to who tells the story, either discovered New Zealand intentionally, or was blown away from Hawaiiki, and accidentally discovered New Zealand some time around 925. Either way, he returned to Hawaiiki and brought back his people to this new land he named “Aotearoa” or “Land of the Long White Cloud”, inspired by the clouds that hovered over the length of the Southern Alps.

The Canadian Canoe Museum is North America’s only canoe museum where the history of canoeing and kayaking is recorded and displayed. With more than 600 canoes and kayaks and 1,000 related artifacts, the Museum’s collection is the largest of its kind in the world. The collection features examples of Aboriginal craft that span the continent of North America. They range from great cedar whaling dugouts of the West Coast, fine bark canoes, to the skin kayaks of the Arctic. The Museum houses historic wooden canoes, many examples of international craft from Senegal, Africa, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, and Polynesia, dugout craft with outriggers, and unique sewn plank canoes.

What do you know about skin covered sea kayaks?

Skin-covered sea kayaks are excellent examples of a technology developed over centuries of experimental refinement and everyday use. Geographical boundaries, cultural needs and individual craftsmanship made each kayak design unique to its region.

These craft were constructed with wood frames lashed together with sinew and covered in skins. The craftsmen did an amazing job of designing and constructing kayaks, many with complex shapes, using only the limited materials available to them. Kayak designs flourished throughout the Arctic with distinctive designs evolving in many parts of the South Pacific.

Kayaks are distinct in their sleek lines and low profile. A graceful upswept bow and stern, combined with an extremely low deck profile, gave these kayaks great visual appeal. The narrow, single chine V hull on this hunting craft required a highly skilled paddler.

Kayaks were long, wide, and high volume. An extremely high cockpit coaming was designed to give the paddler a dry ride even in rough conditions. These load-carrying kayaks had a very stable, flat hull with flared sides. Others were short and wide with multi-chined hulls and high crowned decks. These kayaks had tremendous storage capacity for their length. They were stable, efficient and very easy to use.

The Aleuts designed and built fast, seaworthy kayaks. These cruisers were long and narrow with multi-chined, rounded hulls. In order to increase seaworthiness, they often carried ballast of up to sixty pounds. A unique forked bow design was created to maximize the efficiency of slicing through waves while maintaining sufficient buoyancy in rough conditions.

Natives developed a multitude of kayak designs. Each design reflected the needs of its people and their fine artistry. Some modern day kayak designers have drawn upon this rich heritage to develop today’s recreational sea kayaks.

The Arctic skin boat known to Inuit as the umiak was both wider and deeper than the kayak and, unlike the latter, had no decking. Capable of carrying heavy loads of passengers and equipment, the umiak was well suited to its main functions: transporting families during seasonal moves from one settlement to another and carrying men in pursuit of large whales. When used for transportation, umiaks were rowed by women with oars, but when they were used for whaling, umiaks were propelled by men with single-bladed paddles.

Skin kayaks have a distinctly “live” feel on the water, especially if the frame has been built with flexibility in mind. Such boats are responsive in ways that their hardshelled counterparts are not, especially in absorbing wave action. This flexibility is not inherent for all skin boats, but must come from how the frame members are sized and joined. This is one of the most talked about and least understood aspects of skin boats, one that can provide the interested builder with a lifetime worth of R&D.

What about the history of the Folding Boat? Did you know that on the cover of Life magazine in 1957, for his epic unassisted crossing of the Atlantic in 1956, Dr. Hannes Lindemann drew worldwide attention to the modern-day rigid kayak’s precursor, the folding kayak. Before Dr. Lindemann’s crossing was Capt. William A. Andrews’ July through November 1892 singlehanded, trans-Atlantic voyage in a 14 1/2 foot folding boat named “Sapolio” chronicled in “Columbus Outdone! Capt. Andrews’ Cruise in the Sapolio”, edited by Artemas Ward.

Folding boats go as far back as the mid 1800’s including use during the American Civil War in 1863-64. The first commercial production was in 1907, however, and is attributed to a German tailor, Johann Klepper who was approached by a Munich architect that had designed a folding kayak and needed someone to sew a skin to cover it. The original “Klepper” folding kayak design was based on the idea of a skin and frame Eskimo kayak for seaworthiness but with a larger body for roominess. The boat’s shape was a cross between a kayak and canoe, folding by means of ingenious fastenings in several sections.

What set this design apart from its predecessors was the principle that the framework be pushed into a ready-made hull or kayak skin, whereas most previous attempts were limited to attaching canvas in one form or another to the outside of a framework. They were also designed to be carried easily in bags and allow their users to journey by train. And so the folding kayak was born. (Note: To this day most folding kayaks share some of these basic design and assembly features and are still carried in bags or backpacks, some weighing less than 20 lbs.)

The folding kayak or “foldboating” sport grew rapidly from 1920 to 1930 in Europe with thousands of Clubs organized all over Central Europe. In 1934, foldboating was elevated to the Olympic Convention in Athens, Greece. Literally hundreds of folding kayak manufacturers produced folding boats through the years leading to WWII.

Skin boats are among the oldest type of boat – dating back to the neolithic period, perhaps longer. A skin boat is simply a frame and a covering. Wood was the obvious frame material for thousands of years but aluminum tubing is some modern builder’s first choice now. (What about bamboo, or PVC pipe?) The original covering was animal skin, but canvas has been used for a long time, and synthetic fabrics play an important part in the current skin boat revival. Skin boats resist generalization – a klepper, an Aleut iqyaq (also called the baidarka) an Irish Curragh, a Welsh corracle, a Dyson aluminum framed – each is distinctive in its own way.

The Canadian Canoe Museum

The Museum contains a vast store of information. As briefly recounted above, it is the kind of place where you can go to learn more about the heritage of skincovered boats and their modern day cousins. Kirk Wipper, a Canadian who has a remarkable passion for history and canoes had the idea to create a museum of canoes and kayaks. Every Canadian owns part of this collection and they present a wonderful story of survival and there is a story behind every canoe in the collection.

The Museum is situated on an eight-acre site in two refurbished buildings totaling 140,000 square feet. The collection is displayed according to a comprehensive historical sequence configured to illustrate the European experience from the first contact in North America. As the British and French explorers gradually discovered the extensive aboriginal trade networks that were already in place along established canoe routes, they also discovered the amazing range of watercraft constructed from available natural resources.

The exhibits are professionally designed to demonstrate the unique relationship between aboriginals and Europeans, and the development of the canoe over time as it was used for different purposes. Visitors can also understand the extent of aboriginal ingenuity and adaptability and their environmentally sustainable approach to life.

Until last summer, attendance steadily increased. However, last year the number of visitors dropped dramatically. While very successful in obtaining private and government funds for capital projects, the Canoe Museum, like many cultural and heritage organizations, has always had difficulty obtaining enough operating funds. Last October the museum was forced to shut its doors and lay off all paid staff.

Recognizing the value of this unique and irreplaceable collection, the City of Peterborough, the Hudson’s Bay Company and a donor stepped forward to rescue the Museum. A Manager was hired and with only two full time staff and an army of volunteers, the Museum reopened its doors May 1, 2004.

Brian Burton is affiliated with the Tree Canada Foundation, e-mail: To learn more about the Museum visit