History Returns To Lake
Friday, August 3, 2007
By Matt Crawford
Burlington Free Press Staff Writer
FERRISBURGH -- Their names have long been forgotten, washed away in the years that morphed into decades
that turned into centuries.
The men -- and we assume it was men, not women -- helped Samuel de Champlain secure his legacy. When the
French explorer decided to investigate the big lake called Bigawkagok in 1609, Champlain found he couldn't
navigate the large boats of his party through the rapids at Chambly, Quebec. Our now-nameless men entered
the picture -- the history books say they were members of the Algonquin and Huron tribes -- giving Champlain
their birch-bark canoes to paddle through the rapids and into the lake that came to be named after the
It might be hard to picture now, with sleek bass boats, glistening cruisers as long as houses, stunning sailboats
and paddle craft made of lightweight, space-age materials creating wakes all over the place, but the first vessel
to master the lake we now call Champlain was born simply from wood and labor.
At the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Aaron York of Swanton, an Abenaki himself, is putting the finishing
touches on a re-creation of the big, sleek canoe the now-nameless Indians shared with Champlain. It's a
20-foot-long birch-bark canoe, and will hit the water this weekend as the museum celebrates the significant
contributions of American Indians on Lake Champlain's history.
"This boat," York said, "will be fast, stable and super strong."
The way York figures it, if Champlain used a 20-footer, he could have hauled about 1,200 pounds (three men
plus gear). Built in the Penobscot Indian-style, the boats are of low profile, with mellow-shaped bows that won't
catch wind and can be paddled or poled, depending on the depth of the water.
History books say Champlain made the trip with 23 birch-bark canoes.
York began the museum project following tradition -- hollowing out a small depression in the ground and building
the canoe (bark first) from there. He speculates that at the time of Champlain's arrival, canoe-making sites were
fairly common near river mouths on the big lake, passed down among families who would return to their sites in
the middle of each summer.
"It was a family affair," York said, "one that probably took place from late June to early August. That was best time
for them to take the time needed to build a canoe."
York estimates he has some 300 hours into this museum boat, which is about the 70th re-created canoe he's
made, but, he adds, unlike his Abenaki forebearers, he's done it without help from family members who had
learned the secrets after years of working alongside more experienced canoe makers.
Besides birch bark, York uses ash, white cedar, white spruce root and sugar maple in making the boat. Side
patches of bark are sewn together with strips of ash bark, laced like a baseball glove and sealed with a mixture of
pine pitch and sunflower oil.
"That probably was bear grease or goose fat," York says of the sealant.
York says the boat's length helps make it fast, handling "more like a Rolls Royce than a mini-van." Perfectly
contoured for big water, York says the commercial canoe makers of northern New England, like Old Town and
E.M. White, borrowed liberally from the American Indian styling.
Just like Champlain, in 1609, borrowed from the nameless men who helped him through the rapids.
Contact Matt Crawford at 651-4852 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
Step back in time to the 1600s, with members of the El-nu Abenaki Tribe and Woodland Confederacy, as a
hand-crafted birch-bark canoe is ceremonially launched Saturday at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in
This launch is the kickoff of a weekend-long event that will be a celebration of Abenaki history and culture. There
will be demonstrations of Abenaki living skills, crafts and Wabanaki singing. Traditional Abenaki craft items will be
available for sale.
The event is open to the public. Here is a schedule of Saturday's events:
11 a.m.: Speeches from those in the Abenaki community
Noon: Launching of birch-bark canoe
1 p.m.: Festivities, events, music, etc.
For more information, call 475-2022 or log on to www.lcmm.org.