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Birchbark Canoes

A connection to the Wabanaki and their land

By Laurie Schreiber

As a child in West Virginia, Steve Cayard loved camping out in the woods. There he discovered what would become a lifelong interest in subsistence living and the skills that make such a life possible. 

Steve Cayard sits at a traditional shaving horse and uses a drawknife to shave cedar stock to the general dimensions needed for a birchbark canoe rib. Photo by Laurie Schreiber In the 1970s, Cayard—the son of college professors—dropped out of high school and spent the next 13 years hitchhiking across the United States and Canada. He lived in the woods wherever he landed, and visited libraries to continue his research on techniques for living off the land. He read up on indigenous peoples and their skills, such as hunting and gathering techniques, building a fire without matches, tanning hides, making snowshoes, and wigwam and building canoes with birch bark. 

“My thinking was that I wasn’t getting the kind of education I wanted in school, so I designed my own education,” he said. “I was looking for the old ways of living in the woods.”

Photo by Steve Cayard By 1987, when Cayard bought a backwoods homestead in Maine with his wife, Angela DeRosa, he was ready to settle down. He hoped to make a living from his talents, with a focus on traditions of the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland”—the collective designation given to the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet (alternately spelled Malecite), Mi’kmaq, and Abenaki tribes. 

He began by building and selling birchbark baskets. Then in 1995, he turned to birchbark canoes, and never looked back. Over the years, he’s become known for his gorgeous work as well as for his rigorous research into traditional Wabanaki designs and craftsmanship. In the somewhat insular world of birchbark canoe fandom, his canoes are known across the country, and even overseas. He is also a renowned teacher among both native and non-native students who, like Cayard, cherish this craft born from the woods.

Photo by Steve Cayard A recent visit found Cayard in his shop making two sets of ribs for two canoes. Unlike many cluttered workshops, his is tidy and full of natural light, more like an artist’s studio. The aroma of clear white cedar, split into flat planks from the log, filled the air. 

“Cedar is perfect for canoes because it’s lightweight and pretty strong for its weight,” said Cayard. Dressed in a well-used plaid shirt and L.L. Bean boots, he sat at a shaving horse—a traditional European woodworker’s vise rigged with a foot-held block to secure a narrow, four-foot length of cedar. 

Using a drawknife, he peeled long curlicues from each side of the stock to get the general width needed for a rib. Cedar swirls piled up at his feet. Next, he did some further shaping with a plane, then took up a crooked knife for a finer trim.

“It’s a very accurate carving tool,” he said, using his left hand to pin one end of the cedar against a sawhorse and the other against his knee, while gripping the crooked knife in his right hand. “It’s easy to control. You’re pulling, rather than pushing, so you have more force.”

Although he spoke tentatively, frequently pausing to get his thoughts in order, Cayard’s enthusiasm for his craft was obvious.

When sliced vertically to at least an eighth of an inch, birchbark peels off easily in large, rectangular sheets, which Cayard lays out, then rolls up, inside out, and stores until ready to use. Photo by Laurie Schreiber Delicate shavings falling on the floor looked like ribbon candy. He turned over the rib to hollow its bottom ever so minutely—just a stroke of the plane. The face of the rib is rounded. Using a modified cornering tool, he softened the top edges. Other parts awaited attention, including long split gunwale stock stacked in back. 

“That’s quite a trick, splitting a 20-foot length of cedar, keeping an even thickness,”
he said.

Elsewhere were stashes of rolled-up birchbark, which is peeled off trees in large, rectangular sheets. 

“In the summer it peels pretty easily,” he said. “Just climb a tree and peel it and lower it down.” The entire outer bark, which must be at least 1/8 inch thick, is cut through vertically.

Cayard learned a lot about the craft from The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, by Edwin Tappan Adney. He also has done his own research—in museums, old photos, and written accounts—on Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet builders of Maine and New Brunswick from the early- to mid-1800s.