Sink or swim

Once heated, the spruce gum is applied to the canoe.

What to do when a bear eats your canoe

by Terry Woolf | photos courtesy Aggie Brockman

It’s about an eight-hour canoe paddle to our cabin. There are five portages, three of them approximately one-kilometre long. Over the years we have accumulated enough old beater canoes to have one stashed for each major portage. Now we just carry our packs across, pick up the next canoe and paddle on.

On our last trip things were going well. The winds were in our favour and using a tarp tied to a paddle we managed to sail some of the largest lake. The day was clear and hot, the bugs tolerable. We got to the last canoe and discovered that bears had been using it as a plaything. It was an older canoe with five layers of vinyl and foamed plastic; a tough, heavy old tripping boat. The bears had left if full of punctures. Believe it or not, this had happened to us before and our solution was the same. Spruce gum. Nature’s own plastic. Warm it up, it becomes pliable (and sticky). Heat it up a lot, it becomes runny (and sticky). Pour or push it into a hole, let it set for a few minutes then cure it in a cold northern lake; it becomes a plug.

I once had the privilege of working with some Tlicho elders as they built a birch bark canoe. I watched the ladies gather spruce gum in birch bark baskets, carefully clean all the wood and insects from it, heat it over the fire in a coffee can and then use it to seal the seams of an entire canoe. If a fire wasn’t possible, you could chew the gum to make it more malleable. Joe Souzie Mackenzie told us that when he was 15, his father was building a canoe and wanted him to chew lots of spruce gum. His father said, “If you help me with this, I will give you a whole caribou tongue for yourself.” This was a treat and a delicacy usually reserved for guests and elders, so Joe Souzie happily chewed the pungent gum and laughed about it more than 70 years later.

The first time we had a bear-punctured canoe, my partner and I gathered gum from nearby spruce trees and chewed it until we could work it into the holes. Just after we launched the canoe, we saw Mama Bear and two cubs heading back for another round of canoe drumming. We quickly paddled away.

This time the damage was more serious. Multiple deep punctures, full jaw bites at both ends. We needed a lot of gum — more than I thought we could easily chew. We needed to heat the gum over a fire.





From top left, heating up the spruce gum and then applying it to the canoe.

At this point you might be saying: doesn’t this guy carry duct tape or some kind of repair kit with him? On most trips I am the tool-carrying, fix-it kind of guy, but the trip to the cabin is a very familiar one. No rapids or tricky stuff. Just zone out lake paddling broken by long buggy portages. We carry the basics; tarp, matches, rain gear, food and a couple of beers. There are tools in town and tools at the cabin — with eight hours between them.

Now we need something to heat the spruce gum in. I could pour out one of the beers (Yeah, right!) and use the can, but I’m not that desperate yet. While this is a remote part of the country, it’s not unused. As we tromp around looking for wounded or bleeding spruce trees, I find a flattened, rusty tin can. Using the pliers on my Swiss Army knife to hold the flattened can over a small fire, I heat up the spruce gum. Then using a green willow branch I spread the sticky, messy stuff into the damage. It sets solid and we paddle off happily — leak free — into the sunset.

I figure this incident falls into the ʻwhole knowledgeʼ category. Take some gleaned traditional/local knowledge, mix it with a high-tech plastic item and add the chance someone left the one piece of litter that will help you. Stir it all up in a desperate frame of mind and voila. Happy campers.

Black bears are fascinating critters. They are big intelligent omnivores. Dene elders say to talk softly to them and respect them. They do have the habit of chewing on snow machine seats, gas cans and plastic canoes. Why? I think that for bears, it’s like popping bubble wrap.

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