Big Canoe Orillia

Update: September 2016

At the end of September, my canoes will be on display in Culture Days in Orillia. I will be giving workshops on bark and roots, plus a lecture on the whole experience. If interested please attend the event. I would like to thank my Dad for giving me vision, my friends Mark, Paul, and Ian for the endless rides into nowhere, nature for showing me who's boss, and myself for having patience.
- John Harrison
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Big Canoe

What the heck is Big Canoe? Let me try to explain.

I believe it all started with my Dad. When I was 5 years old I thought naturally that you built canoes. I did not realize that you could purchase one at a store.

Back in 1970 over the course of the summer, Ron Harrison aided by some of his students from Park Street Collegiate, proceeded to construct a series of fibreglass canoes. I understood quite early on that if you are going to paddle it, you better be able to fix it. Pops has built 86 canoes so far...hence my adventure with "Big Canoe."

Five years ago I initiated study on the historical aspects of canoes. My thesis of study was about form and shape, including the relationship between the overall shape of the canoe and the Algonquin snowshoe.

Three years ago I began the physical process of harvesting raw materials efficiently and sustainably in traditional fashion. I created a site in the Algonquin Highlands to build canoes as they would have been built thousands of years ago. Only simple hand tools were used. Only locally harvested materials were incorporated into the canoes. Sweet split cedar, fir and spruce roots, and of course the majestic white birch, all came from within 500 metres of the canoe. Over the past two summers I have lived alone next to the boats with no power, no cell, no Internet, and no distractions. This gave me a real perspective of how to construct canoe from nature. Shapes, volume, tension, strength, flexibility, contour and balance come from nature...naturally. This Native technology is thousands of years old but is still the fastest mode of travel involving energy consumption, weight and longevity.

So, I built some boats. The first one is a traditional Ojibwa round nose: 12 feet long,11.5 inches deep, 30 inches wide, with a 500 pound capacity. The second is basically the same boat but 2 feet shorter. This is an excellent river canoe, a one-seater with a 325-pound capacity. It is also the first canoe that will be for sale.

Birch Bark Canoe Album
Some pictures of canoes, both under construction and after completion. Click an image for a larger view.

The view from the camp site where the canoes are built.


A 10-foot river canoe.


Built for speed, weighing only 18 pounds (8 kilograms)


Inside the 12-foot birch bark canoe


The first time floating a new 12-foot birch bark canoe.