Hidden Elements

About Richard M. Nash

My professional background includes a decade of commercial photography in the New York based ad industry. In the summer of 1972, I was approached by Ken Dominick, a high school friend, who was experimenting with video recording, and asked if I would be interested in doing still photos of the construction of a birch bark canoe. The subject turned out to be noted bark canoe builder Henri Vaillancourt of Greenville, New Hampshire. As a result of that exposure to bark canoes, I tried my hand at building a 10 foot bark canoe the following September, with poor results.

I acquired a copy of “Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America” by Adney and Chapelle, the best book to date on this subject, which I studied diligently while learning and building during those early years. I also became better acquainted with Henri and we made several trips together to Northern Maine gathering building materials for our canoes. Those outings resulted in a long-lasting and productive friendship. Henri and I visited museums, talked to still practicing Native builders and followed leads to historical canoes on display at almost any location.

On one such trip in September 1973, we traveled to Ridgeway, Ontario where Henri and I stabilized a Fur Trade class canoe, known as “Le Quebec”, that had been built in 1860 for a pageant involving the Prince of Wales during his visit to Canada. The canoe belonged to a sailing club on Lake Erie and had been hanging, totally neglected, in their boathouse for many years. The restoration work lasted about 5 days, and during this time I chanced to meet Hugh MacMillan, a field archivist for the Government of Ontario Archives. During one of his visits with us, he brought up the existence of the Kanawa Canoe Museum located in Haliburton County, Ontario which housed a wide range of bark canoes and skin kayaks. Over the years Hugh and I kept in contact and and he regularly mentioned the museum and his opinion and recommendation that I should be working there.

During the same period Henri and I began making trips to Northern Quebec to research Native building techniques. In 1974, and 1975, arrangements were made with the Hudson Bay Company’s post on Lake Mistassini, Quebec for us to observe and document Native residents building snowshoes and toboggans. We were able to accompany these people on material gathering excursions, and through documentation and photographs, studied the various methods used in making several types of snowshoes, double-hooded toboggans, and snow shovels. By watching these skilled craftsmen I learned bush skills and woodworking techniques that I still use today.

In early 1977, I was asked by Hugh MacMillan to make a visit to the Kanawa Canoe Museum with the possibility of conducting repair and maintainance on canoes in their collection The collection included most of what is referred to as “the George Heye Collection”, acquired from the Museum of The American Indian in New York City by the Kanawa. I had previously made trips to the New York museum for the purpose of studying these canoes, but had been told that they were stored elsewhere, and not accessible. So I was excited to finally have the opportunity to examine these original birch bark canoes.

When I arrived in Haliburton I found the collection housed in a remote log building at the end of a mile long bush road! A two week visit was arranged for that summer with the director and owner of the Kanawa, Kirk Wipper. Two bark canoes were restored at that time: a longnose Ojibway, and an Eastern Cree (Nascapi). A short time later in June, 1978, our family immigrated to the museum site in Ontario where I took up the position of curator, resident builder and general caretaker of the collection.

During my years there I restored, documented and photographed the collection which greatly increased my knowledge of bark canoes and skin kayaks. Through this “hands on” experience I observed and documented the results and the evidence of building techniques used by historic builders but not readily seen by casual observers. Much of the work involved the dismanteling and major restoration which allowed me to view parts of the construction hidden in a finished product. This experience has enriched my understanding of period bark building techniques to a degree not obtainable in any other way. While at the museum I also constructed more than a dozen full scale canoes. We left the museum in 1983 and now reside only a few miles from the former museum site.

I build many styles of birchbark canoes including 1/5 scale museum quality models, full size usable canoes and full Fur Trade styles. I also make snowshoes, paddles of many Native classes, toboggans, bark baskets, quill boxes, and other related items. I have also repaired and restored many original canoes in private collections in Canada, the United States and abroad, as well as canoes in the Canadian Canoe Museum, in Peterborough, Ontario, which now holds the Kanawa collection.

I continue to study, document, and make these fine canoes.