First Peoples' Means of Travel
The Indian Trails

The Indian Trapper - Arthur Heming defined the look of Canadian history for generations of Canadian schoolchildren

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Many of the means of travel that were used to explore and develop Canada were inherited from Canada's First Peoples. Many of these methods of travel are still used today, for work and recreation.

For thousands of years First Peoples walked most places especially in winter.

They developed two outstanding devices for making travel over deep Canadian snows more manageable: the snow shoe and the toboggan.

Toboggans could be pulled by hand or by dog teams.

They used well-defined routes of travel, for going on hunting trips and on the war-path.

They made use of the waterways wherever possible and used portage paths to avoid rapids.

Cornelius Krieghoff painted many Canadian scenes of Indians travelling in winter and summer during the 1840s to 1860s.

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The toboggan and the dog team permitted fast travel, with large loads, in winter.

Arthur Heming pays tribute to the superior skill of native canoeists who made possible the development of Canada.

Canoe portages were called carrying places because here the baggage was offloaded, and along with the canoes themselves, carried on the backs of the men to the next place where canoes could safely be used again.

Some portages, like around a waterfall, were extremely short; others were several miles long.

The carrying place at Niagara Falls was nine miles long on the eastern bank. The paths were worn six inches to a foot deep through the woods.

To save time, First Peoples often avoided doing short portages in favour of one long one. If it was extra long, they would often abandon their canoes and build new ones out of elm at the far end.

A print from the early 1700s showing Indians portaging
down the steep right hand side of Niagara Falls

Canadian Canoe at a Portage - Currier & Ives 1860
Without the Indian canoe, Canada's founding industry, the fur trade, could not have been developed

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The First Peoples avoided canoe travel on the open water of the Great Lakes because of the danger of capsizing from waves or sudden wind storms.

They hugged the shore or snaked between islands for safety.

To reach Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay they headed mainly up rivers that flowed into Lake Ontario.

These Indian trails were the main routes that were later used by early Europeans to get to the Upper Lakes.

Indian trails could be found all over Southern Ontario especially the Niagara region.

By far the most important route to travel north from Lake Ontario was the Humber Trail. It followed the Humber River north across a portage to Lake Simcoe.

Showing exactly how not to paddle Canada's national boat, is former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who used to go out in this canoe without a life jacket, and so set a bad example that has cost hundreds of Canadians their lives.

The Canoe

When the Europeans first arrived in North America they found the First Peoples using the canoe as their only means of water transport.

The name canoe actually came from the West Indies, where the people told Columbus that this is what their boats were called.

The birch tree was indispensable to the Indian and the voyageur. Its bark made the best canoes, was the covering for the wigwam or hunter’s camp, served a s a surface on which to knead flour, or was folded to make pots to boil food or make baskets.

Indians used birch bark to leave hieroglyphic notes at portages for his fellow tribesmen. It was used as writing paper, for maps, or to make sketches.

In the 1790s, Mrs. John Graves Simcoe made many drawings on birch bark.

The bark was rolled into resin soaked torches to light the portage path at night, the camp for making repairs, or the spear fishing site. It was good for firewood.

The birch canoe was by far the most important boat used by the Indians of Canada. In fact even after the Europeans arrived, it was for many years, the only means of long-distance travel by water.

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Ojibwe bark tipi Black River, Ontario - Julius Humme c 1860s
Birch and elm bark were primarily used as shelter coverings
and for making canoes

Champlain in Georgian Bay 1615 - JD Kelly

Champlain was the first European to use the birch canoe in his travels to Ontario in 1615.

For the next two hundred years it was used universally by explorers, missionaries, traders, and soldiers.

The two main fur trading companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company used huge birch canoes to carry huge cargoes of trade goods to western Canadian trading posts and return to civilization with huge bales of fur.

Birch canoes were usually built in early summer when the sap made the wood easy to work with. Only a knife was needed to make a birch canoe. Large birch trees are found from which large rolls of bark are removed. Sometimes a tree was found big enough to supply a single piece of bark to make a twenty-foot canoe, without seams.

To make a birch canoe a frame of cedar giving the outline of the boat was hung from four strong posts. Gunwales of cedar are run along the sides from stem to stern. Cedar ribs are then bent to the shape of the bottom and attached to the gunwales. The ribs are then sheathed with thin, flat, and flexible pieces of cedar placed lengthwise. The birch bark rolls are then placed like a skin over top and sewn together with cedar roots. The seams are coated with gum, boiled and prepared from the pitch pine. The bow and the stern are curved, sewn shut, and decorated with paint or porcupine quills. An extra gunwale is added to hold the birch skin tight to the ribs. Bottom boards could be added at the bow and stern to protect the bark skin from damage when pulling it ashore or going over rocks.

Birch canoes could be twelve feet long holding two persons to the thirty-six foot long war canoe carrying fourteen paddlers.

Ojibwe bark tipis - Frederick Verner, 1878

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James Bartlett - Canoe at a Camp

Champlain and help portaging a birch canoe 1615 - JD Kelly

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The Dugout Canoe
Dug out canoes made by the Carrier First Peoples of the BC interior

In Indian country the trees offered a much wider variety of boat-making possibilities.

The earliest boats used by the Indians were dugout canoes. They were made of a half-log and hollowed out.

The chief woods used were pine, black walnut, butternut, and basswood. The last two were the lightest and not easily split by the sun. A well made dugout could be portaged by one man.

Dugouts were used for short trips and by women.

Dugouts were an advantage when one wanted to make as little noise as possible like when hunting in a marsh.

The wild rice and rushes would make a great rustling against the side of a birch canoe. But the solid wooden walls of dugout deadened the sound.

The biggest dugouts, and the most artistic, were built by the Northwest coastal Indians. They built huge sea going dugouts to hunt whales and go to war. These huge cedar canoes were elaborately carved and decorated.

A Haida war canoe

All that remains of a massive Haida war canoe abandoned, a century ago or more, during construction,
deep in the Queen Charlotte Islands forests
The Elm Canoe
Elm bark covered Iroquois wigwam

Elm bark

Elm bark canoes were often roughly made, disposable boats.

Elm bark was highly useful for native families. Trees were huge and so provided bark that could be peeled off in huge slabs.

You could make a big house or tipi shelter quickly with these large pieces of bark.

The elm bark canoe was used by many tribes of Indians living in the eastern woodlands. They were in used by the Chippewas of Ontario into the 1830s.

Unlike dugouts or birch canoes, elm bark canoes were designed to be only short-term boats.

Because Indians had to travel so often in rapids, which could destroy a valuable birch canoe, or had to carry goods over long portages they designed a throw-away canoe.

The elm bark canoe was built when you needed to make a boat in a hurry. It was easy to make so it was commonly abandoned at the start of a long portage, and new ones built at the other end.

Since huge elm trees were common, the Indians developed an ingenious way to make a canoe quickly.

The elm canoe was made out of a single piece of elm bark, some eighteen feet long cut lengthwise from an elm tree that was felled. 

By folding it in, this single piece of bark became at once, the bottom and sides of the canoe.

The bark of both ends was sewn shut with cedar or tamarack roots that had been scraped, split, and soaked in water to make them pliable.

A preparation of cedar and pine gum mixed with pitch or resin, was used to seal the seams.

Two three-foot pieces of cedar were fastened across the middle of the boat to keep the sides some three feet apart.

In 1764 Alexander Henry’s Indian guides built two elm bark canoes at the foot of the Humber River and used them to travel across Lake Ontario to Niagara.

The two eighteen foot canoes carried seventeen people and their gear.

Of course stripping a tree of its bark killed it. But in those days no one worried because the forests were huge and dense.

Today elm bark poaching is killing lots of trees as slippery elm bark is stripped for sale to a very well paying herbal remedy market.

The Kayak
Probably the first photo of an Inuk and his kayak 1854

Kayaks came in a variety of shapes and sizes

The skin canoe was used almost entirely by the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic. The most common canoe they used was the kayak, which was fifteen foot long and designed for one person. It was pointed at both ends and completely watertight.

Wood of any kind was scarce in the arctic, so the Inuit had to find other construction materials to build a kayak. Since they hunted whales, they used the whalebones that littered their camps to construct the frame. Not having bark from trees they used skin from the grey seal to cover the frame.

The skins were sewn together and stretched as tightly as a drumhead over the entire frame of the kayak. Only a small hole was left in the top, just big enough for a hunter to slide in. He sat on the bottom and tied the extra folds of skin from the boat around his middle so that no water could possibly enter the kayak anywhere.

The hunter used a double bladed paddle, which made a kayak fast and highly maneuverable. It could be spun completely around in a flash. Since the hunter sat right on the floor of the boat it had a low center of gravity and was hard to tip over.

Should it flip over a hunter could use the paddle underwater to right himself instantly. Since the kayak was completely watertight the hunter who flipped only got his hair wet.

The kayak was extremely maneuverable and was used as a hunting canoe. The hunter would lay his harpoon on the foredeck, sneak up to his prey, and spear the animal. Long lines of sinew, which were attached to the harpoon head buried in the seal or whale would pay out. A bladder of air attached to the end of the line allowed the hunter to find the line and retrieve an animal that dove and died.

On larger kayaks a whole family could be fitted down inside if they had to move camp

The Umiak  

The other skin boat used by the Inuit was the umiak, or family cargo boat.

It was flat-bottomed and huge. It was made of the same materials as the kayak but was not decked in.

It was big enough to take 20 people with all their gear to a new hunting camp or fishing ground.

It was propelled by oar power or by a sail on some occasions. An oarsman at the back kept it on track.

As unwieldy as the kayak was nimble, the umiak was really a cargo scow

Travel on Land

Buffalo hunt by Art Hider, one of Canada's top artists of all time

Land travel, by Aboriginal peoples, for thousands of years, was on foot, with dogs doing service as pack animals.

It wasn't until the 1700s that horses began to be used by Indians in the US, captured from wild herds that formed from escaped animals from the Spaniards in Mexico.

Later plains people, notably the Sioux, in western Canada, also got the horse.

In short order they became among the finest horsemen in the world.

The travois, made by crossing poles across a horse's back, provided an angled platform at the rear on which you could tie heavy loads, especially the many skins needed to make a tipi.

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Painter - George Catlin

The travois on horses allowed you to drag heavy loads across the plains

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