Who Knows What?

Page 1 of 10

We had just paddled a hollowed log upstream against rapids in a big, fast river – a bit more excitement than I expected – when I began this project in the library. I had been asked, as a scholar and canoeist, to look at our knowledge of the Lewis and Clark canoes. All of the canoes they made were dugouts: one log hollowed out and shaped to work well in the water. There have been a number of excellent articles on the dugouts in the last fifteen years, and much of the hard work – sifting journals for references – has been done by Large, Boss, Chenoweth, Huser, and others.1 Chenoweth, who is Curator at the Nez Perce National Park in Spalding, Idaho, has done a remarkable job of finding and cataloguing old Indian canoes on the West Coast similar to ones that Lewis and Clark might have seen. Of course, those West Coast canoes could not be models for the earlier ones carved at Fort Mandan (six canoes, including one short canoe) or at the Great Falls (two additional canoes), or the five new ones made at the Canoe Camp on the Clearwater River. No significant dugouts were carved on the return trip. The small one made at Camp Chopunnish merely for crossing the river soon wrecked and was abandoned. The small ones on the Yellowstone were made for floating downstream only, the two logs lashed together to form a catamaran raft).

Although the journals sometimes mention length and breadth or "beam" (some canoes were over thirty feet long and over thirty inches wide), they are almost silent on hull design. The cottonwood trees were split and windshaken; the party made a "stout" canoe – that tells us a little, but not much. What we know for sure about the dugouts, from reading the journals, is very little indeed.

Three separate groups have been interested in the dugouts: the Lewis and Clark scholars, who comb the texts for useful references, and make guesses when they find little information; the replica builders, who would like good guidelines but have had to shape the hulls pretty much on their own; and the canoe historians and designers, who are usually canoeists themselves but not necessarily involved in Lewis and Clark debates. Often these three groups have little contact with each other.

Consider the constraints on the replica builders, beginning with no explicit guidelines from the journals. They are usually operating with a self-funded group of re-enactors, they have to buy a $2,000 log, they often try to use authentic tools (but chainsaws save a lot of time). Their boat will have to be trailered right side up, floated on and off the trailer at boat ramps; therefore a wide, flat bottom is preferable (any V or rounded bottom is much harder to load and transport). The replicas are usually built to float downstream only. Although cordelling is often demonstrated, no hard canoeing against the current is anticipated when the boats are being shaped. Often re-enactors in the boat will not be canoeists. Several scholars have recommended a scow bow, flat bottom and vertical sides. But the scholars, too, are often not canoeists. Canoeists and modern canoe designers shudder, imagining such a long, narrow barge of a boat ascending and crossing the Missouri in flood – it should turn over easily. In "Hull Designs" (page 3) we will explain why.

However, a heavy dugout (2,000 pounds), low in the water, bottom heavy, might behave very differently from a modern canoe (70 pounds), drawing only three inches of water, skimming the surface. So maybe modern canoeists don't know how the scholars' square-sided dugout would work. Does anyone?

I soon found, to my surprise, that no one had tested these various replicas in demanding conditions: upstream ferries2 and eddy seam crossings3 in high water – canoeing techniques the Lewis and Clark party probably used many times a day from the Mandan villages to the mouth of the Yellowstone and up to present day Helena on the Missouri in late May and June, as they crossed to the opposite shore for better poling and cordelling. How were these canoes shaped? How did they behave in river conditions? Was the party loathe to cross to the better shore, because it was dangerous in high water, or did they easily and often cross to the best shore for cordelling?4 We really have not known.

So my job evolved from an overview of the journals and the scholarship, to seeking more subtle clues from Ohio and Voyageur dugout designs in 1800, to what the present dugout makers have come up with and what modern canoe hull designers have to say. In June 2005, my job came to river testing three of the best boats I know in a 13,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) riffle at the Big Eddy of the Clearwater River, near Orofino.


1. Arlen J. Large, "The Rocky Boat Ride of Lewis and Clark," We Proceeded On, 21:1 (February 1995), 16-23; Richard C. Boss, "Keelboat, Pirogue, and Canoe: Vessels Used by the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery," Nautical Research Journal, 29:2 (June 1983), 68-87; Robert Chenoweth, "Wali-mliyas: The Nez Perce National Historical Park Dugout Canoe Collection and Dugout Canoe Use Among the Nez Perce Indians," Northwest Journal of Anthropology, 42:2 (Fall 2008), 167-204; Verne Huser, On the River with Lewis and Clark (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004).

2. To make an "upstream ferry" is to paddle upstream against the current at a 45° angle in order to cross the river.

3. An "eddy seam crossing" is to cross the line between an eddy and the main current. At that line the swirling eddy current is flowing upstream.

4. "Cordelling" is pulling the boat upstream by a cord, or rope, the crew either wading in the stream, or walking on shore ("tracking") One or more men in the boat.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program.