Great Paddler
Edited and Foreword by Bob Graham
Copyright 1990 

"I made a faithful study of canoe-building, and I thought that I should like to serve an apprenticeship at that trade for one season, going into the woods for bark with my 'boss,' making the canoe there, and returning in it at last."

Great paddler never got around to making a canoe, but on the last two of his three trips through the wilds of Maine, in 1853 and 1857, he made detailed notes not only on the methods of construction used by the Penobscot Indians, but also on the management of this indigenous craft--so uniquely suited to navigating the varied watercourses of what was then still a largely unexplored and uncharted territory inhabited only by lumbermen and hunters.

Prior to 1853, except for a trip to Maine in 1846 when he traveled by batteau, Great Paddler's experience as a boatman had been confined to the slow-moving tranquil rivers of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In 1839 he and his brother John had built a fifteen-foot boat, the "Musketaquid", in which they made a two-week excursion to the White Mountains via the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Nathanial Hawthorn wrote of his skill as a boatman:

"He managed the boat so perfectly, either with two paddles or one, that it seemed instinct with his own will, and to require no physical effort to guide it."

As did Edward Hoar, his companion in Maine in 1857, when painting this somewhat romantic image,

"Nobody who had seen him among the Penobscot rocks and rapids, the Indian trusting his life and his canoe to his skill, promptitude, and nerve, would ever doubt it."

"The Indian" referred to was, Joe Polis, who had bestowed on him the name Great Paddler; to others he was known as Henry David Thoreau--"half college graduate and half Algonquin," Oliver Wendell Holmes said of him in his Life of Emerson.

The following remarks are Thoreau's, excerpted from his journals and from the three travelogs which make up THE MAINE WOODS, which was published in 1864, two years after his death. While Thoreau nearly always refers to his guides as "the Indian," in these accounts which he prepared as lectures or for publication, I have substituted the names by which he addressed them in his travels to make it clear about whom he is speaking: "Joe" is Joe Aitteon, a twenty-four year-old Penobscot; and "Polis" is Joe Polis, a forty-eight year-old leader of the same tribe--both of Old Town, Maine.

These excursions by water were a far cry from messing about in boats: scudding before the winds across Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River with Ellery Channing; sculling over the flooded meadows of the Concord or Assabet with his brother John; or, sitting under the stars of a summer evening in his boat on Walden Pond playing his flute. On a 325 mile trip through wilderness, the canoe was their lifeline.



Joe Aitteon's canoe, 1853:

"Our birch was nineteen and a half feet long by two and a half at the widest part, and fourteen inches deep within, both ends alike, and painted green, which Joe thought affected the pitch and made it leak. This I think a middling-sized one. This carried us three and our baggage, weighing in all between five hundred and fifty and six hundred pounds. We had two heavy, though slender, rock-maple paddles, one of them of bird's-eye maple. Joe placed birch bark on the bottom for us to sit on, and slanted cedar splints against the cross-bars to protect our backs, while he himself sat on a cross-bar in the stern. The baggage occupied the middle or widest part of the canoe. We also paddled by turns in the bows, now sitting with our legs extended, now sitting upon our legs, and now rising upon our knees; but I found none of these positions endurable, and was reminded of the complaints of the old Jesuit missionaries of the torture they endured from long confinement in constrained positions in canoes, in their long voyages from Quebec to Huron country; but afterwards I sat on the cross-bars, or stood up, and experienced no inconvenience."


Joe Polis' canoe, 1857:

"It was about 18 1-4 feet long by 2 feet 6 1-2 inches wide in the middle, and one foot deep within, as I found by measurement, and I judged that it would weigh not far from eighty pounds. Polis had recently made it himself, and its smallness was partly compensated for by its newness, as well as stanchness and solidity, it being made of very thick bark and ribs. Our baggage weighed about 166 pounds, so the canoe carried about 600 pounds in all, or the weight of four men."


"Polis was always very careful in approaching the shore, lest he should injure his canoe on the rocks, letting it swing round slowly sideways, and was still more particular that we should not step into it on shore, nor till it floated free, and should then step gently lest we should open its seams, or make a hole in the bottom. He said he would tell us when to jump."

"He had previously complimented me on my paddling, saying that I paddled 'just like anybody,' giving me an Indian name which meant 'great paddler.' When off this stream he said to me, who sat in the bows, 'Me teach you paddle.' So turning toward shore he got out, came forward and placed my hands as he wished. He placed one of them quite outside the boat, and the other parallel with the first, grasping the paddle near the end, not over the flat extremity, and told me to slide it back and forth on the side of the canoe. This I found was a great improvement which I had not thought of, saving me the labor of lifting the paddle each time, and I wondered that he had not suggested it before. It is true, before our baggage was reduced we had been obliged to sit with our legs drawn up, and our knees above the side of the canoe, which would have prevented our paddling thus, or perhaps he was afraid of wearing out his canoe, by constant friction on the side."

"I told him that I had been accustomed to sit in the stern, and lifting my paddle at each stroke, getting a pry on the side each time, and I still paddled partly as if in the stern. He then wanted to see me paddle in the stern. So, changing paddles, for he had the longer and better one, and turning end for end, he sitting flat on the bottom and I on the crossbar, he began to paddle very hard, trying to turn the canoe, looking over his shoulder and laughing, but finding it in vain he relaxed his efforts, though we still sped along a mile or two very swiftly. He said that he had no fault to find with my paddling in the stern, but I complained that he did not paddle according to his own directions in the bows."


"A very little wind on these broad lakes raises a sea that will swamp a canoe. Looking off from a lee shore, the surface may appear to be very little agitated, almost smooth, a mile distant, or if you see a few white crests they appear nearly level with the rest of the lake; but when you get out so far, you may find quite a sea running, and erelong, before you think of it,a wave will gently creep up the side of the canoe and fill your lap, like a monster deliberately covering you with its slime before it swallows you, or it will strike a canoe violently and break into it. The same thing may happen when the wind rises suddenly, though it were perfectly calm and,smooth there a few minutes before; so that nothing can save you, unless you can swim ashore, for it is impossible to get into a canoe again when it is upset. Since you sit flat on the bottom, though the danger should not be imminent, a little water is a great inconvenience, not to mention the wetting of your provisions. We rarely crossed a bay directly, from point to point, when there was wind, but made a slight curve corresponding somewhat to the shore, that we might sooner reach it if the wind increased.

"The following will suffice for a common experience in crossing lakes in a canoe. As the afternoon advanced the wind increased. The last bay which we crossed before reaching the desolate pier at the northeast carry, was two or three miles over, and the wind was southwesterly. After going a third of the way, the waves had increased so as occasionally to wash into the canoe, and we saw that it was worse and worse ahead. At first we might have turned about, but were not willing to. It would have been no use to follow the course of the shore, for not only the distance would have been much greater, but the waves ran still higher there on account of the greater sweep the wind had. At any rate it would have been dangerous now to alter our course, because the waves would have struck us at an advantage. it will not do to meet them at right angles, for then they will wash in both sides, but you must take them quartering. So Polis stood up in the canoe, and exerted all his skill and strength for a mile or two, while I paddled right along in order to give him more steerage-way. For more than a mile he did not allow a single wave to strike the canoe as it would, but turned it quickly from this side to that f so that it would always be on or near the crest of a wave when it broke, where all its force was spent, and we merely settled down with it. At length I jumped on to the end of the pier, against which the waves were dashing violently, in order to lighten the canoe, and catch it at its landing, which was not much sheltered; but just as I jumped we took in two or three gallons of water. I remarked to Polis, 'You managed that well,' to which he replied, 'Ver few men do that. Great many waves; when I look out for more, another come quick."

"Polis remarked several times that he did not like to cross the lakes "in littlum canoe."

"When the wind is aft, and not too strong, the Indian makes a sprit sail of his blanket. He thus easily skims over the length of this lake [Moosehead] in a day. Think of our little egg-shell of a canoe tossing across that great lake, a mere black speck to the eagle soaring above it."


"Polis commenced by running through the sluiceway and over the dam, as usual standing up in his tossing canoe, and was soon out of sight beyond a point in a wild gorge. This Webster Stream is well known to lumbermen as a difficult one. It is exceedingly rapid and rocky, and also shallow, and can hardly be considered navigable, unless that may mean that what is launched in it is sure to be carried swiftly down it, though it may be dashed to pieces by the way. it is somewhat like navigating a thunder-spout. With commonly an irresistible force urging you on, you have got to choose your own course each moment, between the rocks and shallows, and to get into it, moving forward always with the utmost possible moderation, and often holding on [maintain a position], if you can, that you may inspect the rapids before you. According to my observation, a batteau, properly manned, shoots rapids as a matter of course, which a single Indian with a canoe carries round."


"Joe prepared his canoe for carrying in this wise. He took a cedar shingle or splint eighteen inches long and four or five wide, rounded at one end, that the corners might not be in the way, and tied it by cedar-bark by two holes made midway, near the edge on each side, to the middle cross-bar of the canoe. When the canoe was lifted upon his head bottom up, this shingle with its rounded end uppermost, distributed the weight over his shoulders and head, while a band of cedar-bark, tied to the cross-bar on each side of the shingle, passed round his breast, and another longer one, outside of the last, round his forehead; also a hand on each side rail served to steer the canoe and keep it from rocking. He thus carried it with his shoulders, head, breast, forehead, and both hands, as if the upper part of his body were all one hand to clasp and hold it ... A cedar-tree furnished all the gear in this case as it had the woodwork of the canoe."

"We carried round [Whetstone Falls] just below on the west side. The distance was about three fourths of a mile. When we had carried over one load, the Indian returned by the shore, and I by the path; and though I made no particular haste, I was nevertheless surprised to find him at the other end as soon as I. It was remarkable how easily he got along over the worst ground. He said to me, 'I take canoe and you take rest, suppose you can keep along with me?' I thought that he meant, that while he ran down the rapids I should keep along the shore, and be ready to assist him from time to time, as I had done before; but as the walking would be very bad, I answered , 'I suppose you will go too fast for me, but I mill try.' But I was to go by the path, he said. This I thought would not help the matter, I should have so far to go to get to the river-side when he wanted me. But neither was this what he meant. He was proposing a race over the carry, and asked me if I thought I could keep along with him by the same path, adding that I must be pretty smart to do it. As his load, the canoe, would be much the heaviest and bulkiest, though the simplest, I thought that I ought to be able to do it, and said that I would try. So I proceeded to gather up the gun, axe, paddle, kettle, frying-pan, plates, dippers, carpets, etc., etc., and while I was thus engaged he threw me his cow-hide boots. 'What, are these in the bargain?' I asked. 10 yer.' said he; but before I could make a bundle of my load I saw him disappearing over a hill with the canoe on his head; so, hastily scraping the various articles together, I started on the run, and immediately went by him in the bushes, but I had no sooner left him out of sight in a rocky hollow, than the greasy plates, dippers, etc., took to themselves wings, and while I was employed in gathering them up again, he went by me; but hastily pressing the sooty kettle to my side, I started once more, and soon passing him again, I saw him no more on the carry. I do not mention this as anything of a feat, for it was but poor running on my part, and he was obliged to move with great caution for fear of breaking the canoe as well as his neck. When he made his appearance, puffing and panting like myself, in answer to my inquiries where he had been, he said, 'Rocks (locks) cut 'em feet,' and laughing added, '0, me love to play sometimes'."


"After clearing a small space amid the dense spruce and fir trees, we covered the damp ground with a shingling of fir-twigs, and, while Joe was preparing his birch-horn and pitching his canoe,--for this had to be done whenever we stopped long enough to build a fire, and was the principal labor which he took upon himself at such times,--we collected fuel for the night."

"We now proceeded to get our dinner, which always turned out to be tea, and to pitch canoes, for which purpose a large iron pot lay permanently on the bank. This we did in company with the explorers. Both Indians and whites use a mixture of rosin and grease for this purpose,--that is, for pitching, not dinner. Joe took a small brand from the fire and blew the heat and flame against the pitch on his birch, and so melted and spread it. Sometimes he put his mouth over the suspected spot and sucked, to see if it admitted air; and at one place, where we stopped, he set his canoe high on crossed stakes, and poured water into it. I narrowly watched his motions, and listened attentively to his observations, for we had employed an Indian mainly that I might have an opportunity to study his ways."

"Polis had discovered [one day] that his canoe leaked a little, and said it was owing to stepping into it violently, which forced the water under the edge of the horizontal seams on the side. I asked where he would get pitch to mend it with, for they commonly use hard pitch, obtained of the whites in Old Town. He said that he could make something very similar, and equally good, not of spruce gum, or the like, but of material which we had with us; and he wished me to guess what. But I could not, and he would not tell me, though he showed me a ball of it when made, as big as a pea, and like black pitch, saying, at last, that there were some things which a man did not tell even his wife. It may have been his own discovery. In Arnold's expedition the pioneers used for their canoe 'the turpentine of the pine, and scrapings of the pork-bag'."

"Tahmunt [Tahmunt Swases, a St. Francis Indian hunting moose] was making a cross-bar for his canoe with a singularly shaped knife, such as I have since seen other Indians using. The blade was thin, about three-quarters of a inch wide, and eight or nine inches long, but curved out of it's plane into a hook, which he said made it more convenient to shave with. As the Indians very far north and north-west use the same kind of knife, I suspect that it was made according to an aboriginal pattern, though some white artisans may use a similar one."


The sketches are from the pages of Thoreau's journal.

1853--"Behind one house [in Old Town], an Indian had nearly finished one canoe and was just building another, outdoors. I looked very narrowly at the process and had already carefully examined and measured our birch. We asked this Indian his name. He answered readily and pleasantly, 'My name is Old John Pennyweight.' Said he got his bark at the head of passadumkeag, fifty miles off. Took him two days to find one tree that was suitable; had to look very sharp to be sure the bark was not imperfect. But once he made two birches out or one tree. Took the bark off with a shovel made of rock maple, three or four inches wide. it took him a fortnight or three weeks to complete a canoe after he had got the materials ready. They sometimes made them of spruce bark, and also of skins, but they were not so good as birch. Boats of three hides were quicker made. This was the best time to get the birch bark [September]. It would not come off in the winter. (I had heard Joe say of a certain canoe that it was made of summer bark.) They scrape all the inner bark off, and in the canoe the bark is wrong side outward."

"He had the ribs of a canoe, all got out of cedar,--the first step in making a canoe, after materials [have been] brought together,--and each one shaped for the particular place it was to hold in the canoe. As both ends are alike, there will be two ribs alike. These two were placed close together . and the next in succession each way were placed next on each side, and thus tied up in bundles of fourteen to sixteen till all were made. In the bundle I examined, they were two and a half inches wide in the middle and narrowing to the ends. He would untie a bundle, take out the inmost, or longest, or several, and place them on their ends in a very large iron kettle of hot water over a fire, turning them from time to time. Then, taking one of the inmost or longest ones, he bent and shaped it with much labor over his knee, giving it with his eyes the shape it was to have in the canoe. It was then tied firmly and held in that shape with the reddish cedar bark. Sometimes he was obliged to tie a straight piece of wood on tangentwize to the rib, and, with a bark tie, draw out a side of the rib to that. Then each succeeding smaller rib in one half the bundle is forced into this. The first bundles of fourteen or sixteen making two bundles of steamed and bent and tied-up ribs; and thus all are left to dry in that shape."

"I was sorry that I could not be there to witness the next step in making a canoe, for I was much struck by the method of this work, and the process deserves to be minutely described,--as much, at least, as most of white man's arts, accounts of which now fill the journals. I do not know how the bark is made to hug so tightly the rib, unless they are driven into place somewhat like a hoop. One of the next things must be to make the long, thin sheathing of cedar, less than half an inch thick, of pieces half the length of the birch, reaching each way close together beneath the ribs, and quite thin toward the edges of the canoe."

However, I examined the canoe that was nearly done with minuteness. The edge or taffrail is composed first of two long strips of cedar, rather stout, one on each side. Four narrow hardwood (rock maple) cross-bars, artfully shaped so that no strength may be wasted, keep these apart, give firmness to the whole, and answer for seats. The ends of the ribs come up behind or outside this taffrail and are nailed to it with a single nail. Pennyweight said they formerly used wooden pegs (Polis canoe in '57 had them). The edge of the bark is brought up level with this, and a very slender triangular cleat of cedar is nailed over it and flush with the surface of the taffrail. Then there are ties of split white spruce bark (looking like bamboo) through the bark, between the ribs, and around these two strips of cedar, and over the two strips one flat and thin strip covering the ties, making smooth work and coming out flush with the under strips. Thus the edge of the canoe is completed. Owing to the form of the canoe, there must be some seams near the edge on the sides about eighteen inches apart, and pieces of bark are put under them. The edges of the bark are carefully sewed together at the ends with the same spruce roots, and, in our canoe, a strip of canvas covered with pitch was laid (doubled) over the edge. They use rosin now, but pitch formerly. The canoe is nearly straight on the bottom--straight in principle--and not so rounded the other way as is supposed. Vide this section in middle. The sides bow out an inch or so beyond the rail. There is an additional piece of bark, four or 'Live inches wide, along each side in the middle for four or five feet, for protection, and a similar protecting strip for eighteen inches on each side at the ends. The canoe rises about one foot in the last five or six feet. There is an oval piece of cedar for stiffness inside, within a foot of each end, and near this the ribs are bent short to breaking. Beyond there are not ribs, but sheaths and a small keel-like piece, and the hollow is filled with shavings. Lightness, above all, is studied in the construction. Nails and rosin were all the modern things I noticed. The maker used one of those curved knives and worked very hard at bending knees."

1857--"Here was a canoe on the stocks, in an earlier stage of its manufacture than I had seen before, and I noticed it particularly. The St. Francis Indian was paring down the long cedar strips, or lining, with his crooked knife."

"As near as I could see and understand him and Polis, they first lay the bark flat on the ground, outside up, and two of the top rails, the inside and thickest ones, already connected with the cross-bars, upon it, in order to get the form; and, with logs and rocks to keep the bark in place, they bend up the birch, cutting down slits in the edges from within three feet of the ends and perpendicularly on all sides about the rails, making a square corner at the ground; and a row of stakes three feet high is then driven into the ground all around, to hold the bark up in its place. They next lift the frame, i.e. two rails connected by cross-bars, to the proper height, and sew the bark strongly to the rails with spruce roots every six inches, the thread passing around the rail and also through the ends of the cross-bars, and sew on strips of bark to protect the sides in the middle. The canoe is as yet carried out square down at the ends, and is perfectly flat on the bottom. (This canoe had advanced thus far.)

"Then, as near as I could learn, they shape the ends (?), put in all the lining of long thin strips, so shaped and shaved as to just fit, and fill up the bark, pressing it out and shaping the canoe. Then, they put in the ribs and put on the outer or thinnest rail over the edge of the bark ... 11

"We reached the Penobscot about four o'clock, and found there some St. Francis Indians encamped on the bank, in the same place where I camped with four Indians four years before. They were making a canoe, and, as then, drying moose-meat ... Our Indian said that he used black spruce-roots to sew canoes with, obtaining it from highlands or mountains. The St. Francis Indian thought that white spruce-roots might be best. But the former said, 'No good, break, can't split 'em;1 also that they were hard to get, deep in ground, but the black were near the surface, on higher land, as well as tougher. He said that the white spruce was subekoondark, black, skusk. I told him that I thought that I could make a canoe, but he expressed great doubt of it; at any rate, he thought that my work would not be 'neat' the first time. An Indian at Greenville had told me that the winter bark, that is, bark taken off before the sap flows in May, was harder and much better that summer bark."

"I asked Polis to let me see him get some black spruce root, and make some thread. Whereupon, without looking up at the trees overhead., he began to grub in the ground, instantly distinguishing the black spruce roots, and cutting off a slender one, three or four feet long, and as big as a pipe-stem, he split the end with his knife, and taking half between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, rapidly separated its whole length into two equal semi-cylindrical halves; then giving me another root, lie said, 'You try.' But in my hands it immediately ran off to one side, and I got only a very short piece. In short, though it looked very easy, I found that there was a great art in splitting these roots. The split is carefully humored by bending short with this hand or that, and so kept in the middle. He then took off the bark, from each half, pressing a short piece of cedar bark against the convex side with both hands, while he drew the root upward with his teeth. An Indian's teeth are strong, and I noticed that he used his often where we should have used a hand. He thus obtained, in a moment, a very neat, tough, and flexible string, which he could tie into a knot, or make a fish-line even. It is said that in Norway and Sweden the roots of the Norway Spruce (Abies excelsa) are used in the same way for the same purpose. He said that you would be obliged to give half a dollar for spruce root enough for a canoe, thus prepared. He had hired the sewing of his own canoe, though he made all the rest. The root in his canoe was of a pale slate color, probably acquired by exposure to the weather, or perhaps from being boiled in water first.

"Polis wanted to sell us his canoe, said it would last seven or eight years, or, with care, perhaps ten; but we were not ready to buy it."


"The canoe was securely lashed diagonally across the top of the stage, with bits of carpet tucked under the edge to prevent its chafing. The very accommodating driver appeared as much accustomed to carrying canoes in this way as bandboxes.

"Polis sometimes went a-hunting to the Seboois Lakes, taking the stage, with his gun and ammunition, axe and blankets, hard bread and pork, perhaps for a hundred miles of the way, and jumped off at the wildest place on the road, where he was at once at home, and every rod was a tavern site for him. Then, after a short journey through the woods, he would build a spruce-bark canoe in one day, putting but few ribs into it, that it might be light, and after doing his hunting with it on the lakes, would return with his furs the way he had come. Thus you have an Indian availing himself cunningly of the advantages of civilization, without losing any of his woodcraft, but proving himself the more successful hunter for it."



Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, or, Life in the Woods, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1854.

Thoreau, Henry David, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 14 Vols., Houghton Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1906.

Thoreau, Henry David, The Maine Woods, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1864.

Milton Meltzer and Walter Harding, A Thoreau Profile, Thoreau Foundation Inc., Concord, Mass., 1962.

Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, Alfred. A. Knopf, New York, 1966.

Another Thoreau article by Bob Graham hosted at Iron Orchid

Bob's website dealing with the explorations of John Charles Frémont