Bark canoe workshop, Ulladulla – Part 1

Saturday, 21 January

In late October 2011, the museum awarded a grant through the Maritime Museums of Australia Project Support Scheme (MMAPSS) to the Budamurra Aboriginal Corporation at Ulladulla, allowing them to host a weekend workshop to build tied bark canoes with material supplied by Forests NSW.

The grant also included sending me (David Payne, museum curator) to share my research of Indigenous watercraft and recent experience building a tied bark canoe, as reported in my blog last year.

Two days before the workshop, Paul Carriage, Cultural Heritage Officer, with the Forests NSW Southern region, and his colleague Dave felled four stringy barks. They peeled off the bark and took it to a stream where it was left to soak.

Paul was a key member of the workshop group, along with his brother Shane from Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council (ULALC) who applied for the grant, and other ULALC members. We also had Jonathan Hill and Gordon Campbell representing Vincentia High and the Jervis Bay region, while Elder Tom Butler came up from Mogo Local Aboriginal Land Council with James and Cameron.  During the workshop other people came and went – they looked on, joined in or just gave their encouragement as we steadily turned sheets of bark into canoe hulls over the two days, all out in the open.

We followed the steps recorded and illustrated in reports from the late 1700s and early 1800s. The information is short on detail, but clear on concept.  Essentially we had to fold the ends and tie them with strips of bark, then support the middle with branches.

The build…

The weekend started on Saturday morning with four of us up to our knees in a stream well off the main road, heaving three 4 metre long pieces of wet, heavy bark to Dave’s Forestry truck. The bark was taken to ULALC and their backyard, the site for the canoe building.

Loading stringy bark logs onto truck

Step one

We had to invert the bark so the outside of the tree became the inside of the canoe. Then came the long, laborious process of peeling off the loose exterior bark, back to the good fibres tightly woven together that give the canoe its strength and form.

The sheets were about 4 metres long and 1. 4 metres wide – a lot of area to cover on hands and knees. Hatchets and other blades are used to lift an end of the bark to start a strip peeling. Then you stand up and peel it back as far as it will go. 

When we reached an even clean surface, both ends needed further thinning down for about a metre in, to make it easier to fold. Peeling this back showed the wet, resin coated nature of the live bark. This moist and supple feel is vital to the process – old dried bark is not suitable.

Stripping back bark

Step two

After a late lunch, we lit a fire – our means of heating the ends of the bark to help with the folding process.  After the flames died down we put the first end over the hot coals. Quite quickly it picked up the heat, almost to a point where you could not leave your hand on it – that’s the temperature test. The bark is then taken off the coals and laid down on the grass. Working on their knees, two people, one either side, grasp the bark at the edges and fold the sides into the middle with two folds. A third person lassos it with a rope, further compressing the ends. A fourth person pierces the folds with a screwdriver so a branch peg can be hammered through, helping secure the folds. Finally wet strips of bark lash the end together and its complete. 

Tying the ends of the bark canoe

Over the first afternoon we heated and folded four ends to form two boats. As we progressed, each end improved on the last. We encountered problems as we went, such as tears in the bark ends, uneven thickness at different points, and the general nature of a material that none of us were all that familiar with.

We made the fire wider to help with the heating and began to hose the ends lightly to reduce drying out. Each end was part of a learning process and that summarises the intention of the weekend. We expected mistakes, and problems, but by doing a series of canoes we also hoped to learn and improve. With a mixture of modern tools and traditional materials we went upwards on the learning curve.