History of the Canoe – is it a Kayak or a Canoe?
Some technologies are so simple, yet so effective, that it seems as though they were always going to be designed; their development was simply inevitable. The number of different cultures that are responsible for developing the canoe in some form or other is astonishing. Of course, they all had their own name for what is essentially a lightweight watercraft with an open top and a curved bottom.
There is a bit of confusion surrounding the canoe, partly due to the fact that they are everywhere around the world and there are so many variants. A Kayak is very similar in design to a canoe, developed by the Inuit, Yup‘ik and Aleut people of the Northern sub-arctic regions. However, the canoe came first; the main difference between the two craft being that a canoe is propelled by a single-bladed paddle, and sometimes features a seat.
The word canoe most commonly used today comes from the word ‘kenu’ which originated in the Carib language; a language native to the Caribbean that hasn’t been spoken in its true form since the 1920’s.
Canoe Construction and Design
The earliest known canoe dates back further than you might imagine. Constructed in the early Mesolithic Period, archaeologists place its construction somewhere between 8040 BCE and 7510 BCE. The Pesse canoe as it is known was discovered by the Dutch while they were building the A28 motorway, preserved within what would have once been a peat bog.
The Pesse canoe was a dugout canoe, the simplest form of canoe. The name dugout fairly well describes the building process, as they are not so much built, rather they are formed from pre-existing materials by carving with sharp tools. Dugout canoes are usually made from tree trunks that are large enough that, once the core has been removed, they are capable of carrying at least one passenger.
Dugout canoes were used by a number of different indigenous cultures. The Aboriginal people of Australia originally constructed their own canoes in this fashion in order to hunt and to travel the coastline.
The Maori of New Zealand created enormous dugout canoes from the native Totara tree in various configurations for the purpose of transportation, hunting and fishing; but also for war. These war canoes (Waka Taua) were used in order to battle neighbouring tribes, and could be used as rams during marine battle. There is evidence that they even used rudimentary sails while travelling across the deep ocean, but the primary means of propulsion was by paddle, some canoes capable of transporting and being propelled by up to 80 paddlers.
In the Americas, canoes were often made in a different way using tree bark. A lightweight framework was made from wood and then coated in bark, usually Birch. While this style of canoe was more fragile than heavier dugout styles, they were effective for travelling narrow, shallow waterways of Canada and North America and could carry a surprising amount of cargo despite their own weight.
The Modern Canoe
As we often see it today, the canoe is constructed from a range of different materials, using advanced engineering techniques; the dugout canoe has been replace by lighter, stronger craft.
Canoes are typically made from modern composites such as fibre glass, aluminium, Kevlar, and plastic compounds like Royalex. While they might be made differently to dugout and bark canoes, the shape has pretty much remained the same – the average length staying around the 5 metre (17 foot) mark. Canoes are designed to carry either one paddler, two, or even multiple passengers. The length and shape of a canoe will be determined by the type of canoeing for which it will be used. Those used for touring and long expeditions at sea will typically be longer and slightly wider making them stable and comfortable, while those used for paddling down white water will be shorter and lighter, enabling them to bounce around with the rapid wild water.
Canoeing Accessories & Additional Gear
Canoers also use a range of accessories and additional gear in order to paddle effectively out on the water. In most countries and location, it is required by law that you wear personal flotation device (life jacket) while paddling. Canoers also use trolleys to carry their canoe to the waters edge when they are within walking distance. Canoers will often wear specially designed clothing that is very good at keeping you warm and dry in marine conditions.
Without one of these you’ll be up a creek without a…you get it. Canoers use single-bladed paddles that they sweep the water alternately from one side of the boat to the other in order to keep their forward momentum balanced. The shaft of the paddle is usually constructed from a lightweight stiff material such as fibre glass, aluminium or carbon fibre, with the blade itself usually consisting of a different slightly more flexible plastic compound. Paddles come in a range of lengths and blade sizes to suit the type of canoe and type of canoeing you intend to perform. Many canoes will come with a leash attachment that creates a constant connection between your craft and your paddle ensuring that you can always get up that creek.
What are the different types of canoe?
Canoes come in many configurations these days suited to a number of different canoeing activities. Some people like to race canoes, some use them for fishing, others just enjoying being out on the water, moving under their own power and being in nature. There is a canoe for all of these activities. Sprint canoes are used for racing on flat water and are usually piloted in the traditional kneeling position, one leg raised, paddling each side of the boat alternately.
White-water canoes are designed to cope with the thrills and spills of being paddled down turbulent rapids. These canoes are piloted from a sitting position, where the paddler sits in the bottom of the craft in a low lying seat that supports their back, their legs out straight before them.
Recreational and touring and camping canoes are designed primarily for comfort and transporting equipment. Traditional North American and Canadian style touring canoes are often constructed from lightweight natural materials to fit with the aesthetic of the environment and a cruisier style of paddling. They often feature seats; the paddler or paddlers control the craft from a raised position leaving space in the base of the craft for their camping and fishing gear.
Freestyle canoes are a modern variant used for performing stunts on white water. They are typically much shorter than other forms of canoe and only carry one paddler.
See also: Some good tips for staying safe at sea
Why canoe? Where can it take me?
Nearly every body of water you can imagine can be travelled by canoe. Unlike modern powerboats and sail boats they don’t require wind or engines for propulsion; all they require to get from A to B is you, your paddle and a bit of elbow grease. Because they are so light they were the favoured craft of early European explorers in Canada and North America, light enough to pick up and carry across sections of land between water ways. You can recreate this scenario yourself, easily carrying your canoe between two people down the water’s edge to experience the joy of cruising across the surface of the water at your own controlled pace.