Canoes, Lifeways, Waterways

Canoes were integral for many Nations on the Pacific Northwest Coast. From inland rivers to coastal waters and the open sea, different nations employed different designs in order to expoloit the water based resources of their unique territories. Models like these offer insights into the history of Pacific Northwest Coast canoes. They show how different styles were built and used in the various territories within the region. Sometimes, especially in the case of older styles, models are all we have to learn from.

Each of our models tell us something different about style and use. 


These types of canoes were created by master canoe makers along with one or more assistants. They were usually carved out of a single cedar log.  Trees were chosen for their size, straight and even growth, and their proximity to water. Depending on the intended size and design of the canoe, up to three different vessels could be made from a single tree.

Once a suitable tree had been chosen and felled, the trunk was stripped of its branches, bark, and sapwood. The master would then cut two wide “V”s, one toward each end of the log. The would between these “V”s was then removed and the ends of the logs shaped to a point using an adze. Finally, the log was turned over and the outer shape of the canoe was formed with careful attention to symmetry.

The end result, if all went well, was a vessel that looked much like these models.


The northern canoe was a specific design which spanned a region from the far north to the southern Straits of Juan de Fuca. Among other, the Kwakwaka’wakw, Tsimshian, Tlingit, and Haida Nations are known to use this particular style of canoe. Northern groups required large watercraft to make long journeys that included travelling large stretches of open water. Our northern canoe model is an example of a Haida design.

After 1852, the Northern Haida was the most common canoe style and reached a length of over 60 ft. The large canoe was dug out from a single red cedar log. The high vertical prow was designed to cut through water and throw off waves. The central notch you can see in the prow, was used to store spears used in mammal hunting. We can see that the sides of the craft are flared and the bottom is rounded. These design features aided in speed and buoyancy. 


This “West Coast Salish” style canoe was used prominently by the Nuu-chah-nulth on the west coast of Vancouver island, the Macah on the north western tip of the Olympic Peninsula, and the Quileute of La Push, Washington. This canoe was designed to be able to navigate the rough open water of the Pacific Ocean.

Like other canoes on the North West coast, the west coast canoe was constructed from a single red cedar log. However, unlike other models we have, the prow and stern were crafted as separate pieces and then fitting onto the main body of the canoe. Characteristic of the west coast canoe is the high upturned prow and vertical stern. These features allowed the canoe to face forward on the beach and enabled the craft to back out and cut through the breakers. The relatively flat bottom was designed to increase the stability of the craft in rough waters.

The Nuu-chah-nulth style of west coast canoe had its own distinctive features. These include the distinctive thirty degree flair of the canoe sides along most of the vessel’s length. As well, we can see that the flattened gunwales sweep up at the prow and terminate in a “wolf head” feature. The groove between the “ears” of this feature functioned as a support for harpoon shafts used in sea mammal and whale hunting expeditions. 


Traditional canoeing still continues today. One example are the racing competitions that gather many Coast Salish villages together.

Now the racing canoe is a sleek, elongated hybrid of traditional and European designs. Our model shows us one of the stages in the evolution of this combined design. Like many styles of canoe on the Pacific Northwest Coast, racing canoes were traditionally carved from a single cedar log. These vessels were named, polished, and maintained with great care.

This Nuu-chah-nulth style canoe was the dominant watercraft from the 1860’s into the late 19th century. Its versatile design allowed it to be used for both commercial fishing as well as racing.


The development of a stable bark canoe design took decades of experimentation. It was important to make sure that the canoe was stable, but still light weight and portable. These canoes were constructed by Woodland peoples with access to deciduous tree resources including elm, hickory, spruce, cedar, and birch.

Birch bark is an ideal material for canoe construction. It is light weight, resilient, relatively tough, and has natural waterproofing features. This means it can be used effectively on the rivers and lakes of the Woodland region, but also survive portages through the wilderness around rapids and waterfalls. Birch bark canoes were constructed by shaping a bark envelope within stakes driven into the ground. A light wood framework was then set within the bark skin.


"Baidarka” is actually the Russian word for a portable boat made of skins stretched over a wood frame. These sea kayaks were widely used by Alaskan coastal natives and Aleuts for sea mammal hunting. They had to be seaworthy as well as sturdy enough to transport game back to land.

The low, sleek, and sturdy construction of sea kayaks was designed for speed and silence when approaching swimming caribou, polar bears, water fowl, and sea mammals. The paddles are long and narrow in order to reduce the noise from dripping water while still ensuring speed.

The construction of kayaks is the opposite of bark canoes. First the frame is constructed, then wet skin is fitted around the frame before it is left to dry.

The Aleut used black spruce to construct the kayak frame and paddle. Yellow cedar was used for the ribs and spear holder because of its strength, light weight, and flexibility. The black spruce frame was lashed together with cord made from sea lion sinew while the shell was made from the esophagus. Baidarka were waterproofed monthly using boiled seal oil. This process made the exterior translucent.

© 2016 SFU Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, created by Denee Renouf and Marie Gurr.
Photographs courtesy of M.K. Nilson