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Ancient river, ancient boat

Updated: May 31, 2023

I have always loved the water.


Apparently as a baby it was one of the only things that would send me to sleep! I have swum in lakes, rivers and the sea, kayaked, sailed, but it is the open canoe that has always captured my imagination.


Maybe it's the stories of great adventures, maybe the connections to history- from modern fibreglass and plastic canoes all the way back to the dugouts and Curacs of Prehistory. I first learned to canoe in scouts, but it was when I spent two months working at Camp Wapomeo on Canoe lake in Algonquin that I really fell in love. It was the elegance, the solitude and the freedom of the canoe. Evenings spent teaching myself J stroke, guide stroke and even the silent, stealthy 'Indian stroke'; gliding around the lake in golden sunsets with loons calling around me, and once at night with the stars mirrored so perfectly in the glassy calm lake that I might have been paddling through space.

Below; The camps largest canoes, often used in races between Ahmek ( Orange) and Wapomeo (green). The lake was a magical place, and the experience of working there was lifechanging.


In summer 2021 Me and mum paddled the Thames. Starting at Cricklade, and ending at Datchett. Although the Thames can hardly be called wild, sleeping on the little islands and paddling into relative unknown still felt like an adventure. It rekindled my desire to do a similar trip in an ancient style boat. I mentioned the idea to Theresa, asking details of the boat she made for the ' survive the stone age' programme, and a plan was hatched for a joint trip! Its a river surrounded by history; from the hillfort at Wittenham clumps, to the famous Battersea helmet ( a masterwork of iron age metalwork)and so many Mesolithic digging picks that the from is named after the River- the 'Thames pick'.



Its quite a serious proposition in terms of distance- overall the navigable section from Cricklade to Teddington is just over 200km. Me and mum averaged 25-30km per day but there were two of us in the boat which makes for a good speed. The boats may impose their own limitations, as well as the weight of our stone age sleeping gear etc, but that will be part of the fun. Mum and I weren't exactly pushing ourselves though, so i and cautiously optimistic that we can make at least 25kms long as we leave early and put in long days.

Birch bark big enough and thick enough for canoe building is almost impossible to find here, and not easy to obtain from abroad. I have seen birch bark canoes in Canada, but they are not a technology I can replicate here. I have seen coracles made too, but while they are perfect for fishing, or crossing small bodies of water they aren't much good for travelling serious distances.


I have a dugout in progress, but they are usually fairly heavy, not that maneuverable and likely not the option our Mesolithic ancestors ( living in an era before larger polished tree- felling axes were common) would have found favor with. Maybe next year the trip will be more than myself and Theresa Kamper, perhaps we will be joined by another prim tech aficionado in a dugout and a gaggle of coracles! It is the more ephemeral Wood and hide boats that have caught my interest. Light enough to be transported between waterways, easy ( relatively) to make with minimal tools and a small group of people and yet capable of carrying a reasonable cargo, or hunting party. The basic idea is to create a bentwood frame and cover that with a hide shell. But within that reasonably simple idea are a whole range of complexities- the hide tends to shrink hard, and can pull the boat into a reverse curve- the ends bowing DOWN into the water, rather than bowing up in the characteristic ' rocker' that produces maneuverability. The stitching joining the two skins can leak, the frame can be too flexible, or too heavy or too brittle....as ever the one bare sentence 'Watercraft can be made from hides stretched over a wooden frame' barely scratches the surface of the real picture.


This is the Canoe Theresa Kamper made for the TV series 'Survive the Stoneage:

One of the reasons for this trip is to raise interest and possibly funds for Theresas planned Ancient technology centre in Sweden. You can find out more here :


When i first mentioned this as an idea i was told to read the 'Brendan voyage' - the book about a brilliantly eccentric 1970's recreation of the supposed voyage of an ancient saint . His journey as shown in the book of Kells, seems to tell of a crossing to America in a leather boat! For their boat they used steam bent ash, and oak tanned cowhide. I looked into using ash, but concluded that felling , splitting and steaming it was more of an involved process, and required more advanced tools than my ideal of using Mesolithic and even Paleolithic technology allowed. So I opted for hazel, which I have access to lots of, and willow for the woven gunwale section.


There will be lots of lashings involved- I can make cordage, and I could use rawhide string as I have done on various parts of the coracle frame, but for several reasons ( not least my already achy fingers and desire not to get arthritis) i used factory made 'tarred twine' which is strong, doesn't rot, and is visually unobtrusive.


For the skins I have procured two large cow skins. these have been fleshed, dehaired and will need to be sewn together.


The basic method is very similar to a coracle-

1)Mark out the shape on the ground, deciding on width and length. ( i used a pair of long straight hazels tied together at both ends and spread in the middle by some stout pegs, and a taught string for the centre line. 2) Poke long straight hazel rods into the ground around the template, thin ends upwards. then once you've done step 3, bend the whippy ends over and poke into the weave next to their opposite number, so you end up with paired rods. I would say this has more cance of working if you're using willow rather than the hazel i had- which didn't like bending without the aid of the fire. OR ( and this is what I did) bend sections of hazel to form ribs and poke the ends into the ground. Start with the Middle ribs, then half way between the middle and each end and so on, until you have the desired profile. 3) Weave around them with 7' willow that has been soaked for at least a week if dry, or use spring fresh stuff( not ideal because it shrinks) for the basket makers- I used pairing/ twining, but waling is good too. I will probably do a 3 rod wale around the gunwale....curious similarity in the words there.... i would say you want a woven section at least 15cm high, but more cant do any harm!


4) Find some really long, straight hazels, a bit thicker than the ones used for the ribs- 2-2.5cm diameter rather than 1- 1,5. I got quite creative using forked hazels for the bow and stern, partly because it seemed to make sense in engineering terms, but also because it looked beautiful. These will be the longitudinal pieces.. not sure what the proper term should be, but we'll call them strakes. I added the centreline first, lashed very tightly with a couple of square lashings then others, trying always to keep it as symmetrical as possible. every crossover of ribs and strakes will end up lashed, but I did just enough to hold it all together at first, just in case i had to move or change a piece.



That's where i'm up to at the moment, but the next stage will be to finish the lashings ( i ran out of string, and daylight last time!) Then remove the boat from the ground, trim the ends, push the weaving section down a bit into its proper position and add more if necessary....then bind on seats, handles and carrying yoke, and cover with hides... which need to first be sewn together with a waterproof seam.


Be sure to follow the adventure on here, and on @memmathecavewoman on Facebook and Instagram. And checkout Theresa's Gofundme!




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Stringers is the word you were looking for, not strakes.

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Canoe from the Stoneage!

Just saw you on the water as you passed my boat at Lower Shiplake. Love what you're doing. Felt authentic. Peace. Jacobus.

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Excellent!

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