{Editor’s note: We are only what our forefathers left to us, with a bit of invention layered on top. Rivers were man’s first highways, and today’s rivers are the same that flowed then. This month of October we take a journey back in time with Taz Riggs to find the roots of our culture in the shape of The Boat in it’s many forms. Enjoy each Thursday until the full article runs at the end of the month!}
Archaeologists have discovered examples of dugout canoes on every continent in the world. Some have been carbon dated to be more than 8,000 years old. Almost every culture that exists near water  would have watched logs and trees float past with seasonal rains; as water receded they would have found pieces and whole trees caught on rocks, sandbars and along the shoreline. Curiosity would surely lead to seeing if the log might float again if they put it into the water. Soon it would be noticed that one shaped piece would float better than another. A flatter shaped piece of wood had the ability to stay flat or more stable than a round one. So, it would be logical to look for the type of tree that performed the best.
Methods for shaping boats would have been a process of discovery as well. Quite possibly the most common form of fire was delivered by lightning. When a tree has been soaked by rain, lightning has a tendency to ground to earth following the water on the outside of a tree, and other than peeling some bark, little damage is done and the tree will repair itself and continue it’s life. When struck while dry on the outside, the charge of electricity will find the moisture on the inside of the tree. The explosive expansion of the water inside will split a fully grown tree. Many species of trees at maturity will begin to decay from the inside, leaving soft wood that acts something like a sponge, increasing the conductivity. Quite often fire remained, and experience taught them that they needed to harvest and preserve this flame for cooking and warmth. Easy to imagine that they could carry the flame back to their dwelling or maintain it right where it was, in the trunk of the tree. The trunk could have been elevated above a saturated ground that could not support a fire and the log became a kind of hearth. They may have noticed that the trunk got thinner over time and that in order to conserve the hearth they may have moved the fire back and forth. The portions that were charred became soft and chipped and broke off as they poked and and shoved the fire to a new location, possibly using sticks and limbs as simple tools.The connection was surely made, that the burnt log took the shape of the better pieces of scavenged wood that they would find in snags and along the shores.
Tools were first discovered by chance. Sharp rocks and large seashells made natural scrapers to pull away charred portions. A more advanced tool was easily crafted by adding a stick to the scraper enabling them to work at hotter temperatures further from the fire itself. 
This form of transportation allowed people to travel. Before written or even spoken language, observation was the most effective way of communicating ideas. The more that we traveled the more observations we made; new tools, different shapes of boats, ways to harvest the type of tree that worked best. For so many different people to have discovered methods, tools and forms almost simultaneously all over the world and then to begin traveling, sharing and observing what was found, it is not surprising that these were the earliest form of transportation on the face of the globe. In some places boats, and dugouts in particular, are not only a form of travel, in places where water is more prevalent than land, they also become dwellings.
As our travels increased so has our knowledge: new foods, places, peoples, tools, have all contributed to our survival and advancement as a species. Dugouts have lasted for generations and are kept by families and communities for many, many years. A solid piece of wood such as a boat made from a log is almost indestructible. In some cultures the dugout is so revered for it’s usefulness and longevity that they are made in  such ornate forms that speak loudly to the influence of the craft on their culture, such as the indigenous of the Pacific Northwest, whose boats are somewhere between art and religion.
The first thing I do when entering on a new subject is to get a brief overview in the most basic way. First thing is to pick up an old dictionary; if that doesn’t satisfy, then on to a newer dictionary. It would be simple to go with what I already know, but for all I know my understanding might be a little off. Most Americans were introduced to rafts by Mark Twain in “The Adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.” The basic structure of a raft is a number of logs joined together in some fashion to provide a floating platform. But once again, it goes much further. 
First and foremost we should consider different types of naturally occurring rafts. Floods, heavy rains, tsunamis, earthquakes and other phenomena can uproot trees, clumps of grass, or reeds, sending them floating away as a mass or “mat.” There are even instances of pumice stones released by volcanic activity that have covered thousands of square miles of ocean. Most of these mats are loosely congealed or un-connected in any way other than being somewhat tangled. In the case of plants that grow in groups where the root systems are naturally woven together it might be observed that the individual parts that cannot support weight; a mass that is bound together is more stable and can carry additional weight.
If one log has a tendency to roll, attaching another to it makes it more stable. More logs, more stability and carrying capacity. The same applies to almost anything that floats, and floating things occur all over the world. Wood, reeds, bamboo and other plants that have air trapped inside providing buoyancy; attaching them one to another in some way provides structure and rigidity. Without any means to control or move these, they are at the mercy of the wind and current. Sails, oars, paddles or polls can provide maneuvering and control of the craft.
One of the most impressive rafts known to us from modern times was the “Kon-Tiki” built in 1947 by Thor Heyerdahl and crew. Their goal was to prove that such a basic craft could have been responsible for the peopling of far away places. Built in Peru in a classic form known to the indigenous population since before memory, constructed out of balsa-wood logs and propelled by sail, “Kon-Tiki” traveled over 4,300 miles on the Pacific’s Humboldt Current to Polynesia in 101 days.
In places where bamboo grows, rafts are still made of this material. I was introduced to these when I was very young. My grandparents had taken a vacation in Jamaica. They brought back photos of them riding on one, and even a little model of one made of the same materials. As a kid I always daydreamed of building one. In different parts of the world these same basic boats still exist for the entertainment of tourists and as a form of travel and transport of goods. Innovation and experimentation changed the shape, size and complexity of construction, from boats that suggest the basis for the modern surf-ski to ships complete with storage and living space, rigged with sails and anchors for ocean going.
Rafts can be constructed of basic raw materials that can be floated to their destination, and then dismantled and the materials used for other purposes. The logging industry still makes tremendous structures of logs bound together with chains, floating them for many miles to deliver them to lumber mills downstream.
Reed boats have also seen innovation and in many places around the world they too have been made seaworthy. The finished product can be ornate enough to suit royalty and they do. Bound in just the right way, they can be made to follow graceful lines and provide amazing strength, both artistic and functional.
To make the careless assumption that a modern inflatable raft has no connection to these is really missing the path of history. Although they are made of modern materials, they are still no more than a collection of floatable containers filled with air and attached to each. Even the “modern” self bailing floor is a positive step backward and forward at the same time.
Frame and skin boats are the next category of boats. They occur all over the world, quite often right alongside the other boats already mentioned. What was needed, in most cases, was a boat that could go where larger boats could not. The most common of these types of boats is known to us by the names used in the Northern Hemisphere: either the coracle, a name of Welsh origin; or the Bull-boat, of North America, referring to the hide of a Bull Bison also known as a Buffalo. In India it is known as a parisol, it is a kuphar in Iraq, a kudru in Tibet, and thung-chai in Vietnam. What all these boats have in common is a round lightweight frame, similar to a loose woven basket. Over that frame, the skin or hide of an animal is stretched, fastened, or stitched in place, then dried and treated with oils or grease to make them waterproof. In almost all cases the most common means of propulsion is a single bladed paddle used in a sculling or figure 8 pattern, to pull the boat forward or to the side. These little craft could be picked up and easily carried by one person, making it easy to travel upstream or over mountain passes by foot, and traveling by water when possible. Where larger boats may be moored to shore or in shallow water as a semi-permanent homes, the little round boats act as shuttles to flooded farmland or sunken nets and traps to gather harvests of food.
Although the round shape of the frame and skin boat is probably the most prevalent around the world, we should include a couple of other important craft built in the frame and skin construction style. Because the kayak enjoys the popularity that it does, most would quickly hold it up as another example. The kayak is the Inuit version of the boat for one passenger; the biadaka of the Aluet is related, yet has some distinct differences. The umiak is a larger vessel, designed to carry multiple passengers and usually with a payload. The framework of these boats usually consists of the bones of game animals or drift wood that is collected along the seashore. The hides used are of the animals that were within their range and could be of sea lions, walruses or whales.
Also in the category of skin and hide boat, it would be important to include the bark skinned canoes of North America. While not of an animal, it is the skin of a plant. The bark of various paper Birches are easily removed from the tree whole in large sheets, then steamed, shaped, secured and stitched in place. Where sheets would need to be overlapped, they are stitched and sealed with some sort of tar or pitch made from the sap of fir trees mixed with distilled animal fat. Twelve to twenty foot lengths in these style boats were common, requiring fewer seems, yet still small enough for a man or two to carry overland or around rapids. Larger versions were made popular in our memories by the Voyageurs, French Canadian explorers and trappers that opened up vast amounts of territory using these versatile boats to move men and material into an unknown land and to bring out the resources that were found there.
When I started this project I knew the subject would be broad, no matter how much I tried to break it down into simple terms. Like so many subjects, you quickly discover, that the more you learn, the more questions you ask.
I would suppose that volumes could, and have been, written on the subject. All three of the forms of boats that I identified had their genesis before written language. They also appear all over the world, so far from each other that it would be difficult to track any one origin of these most basic of craft.
Dirt Bag Paddlers offers the opportunity to travel the globe for a taste of whitewater in far away places, thanks to the friends we have made. What we cannot do is take you back in time. Even though these boats had their beginning long before our time, they still occur in many “undeveloped” places in the world and are much more common than we are aware of. Like so many things in the modern world, we tend to close our eyes to the past and fool ourselves into thinking that we have advanced to the point where there is no point in looking back. Come now, we haven’t been making plastic boats for very long. The designs that were popular ten years ago, are no where to be seen today. While at the same time, deep in the forest, someone is hacking away at a log, collecting bamboo or cleaning a hide to cover the frame that they made to cover it with. Just as they have for many thousands of years. Because they work.
If you were on an expedition and lost a boat, be it a support raft or a kayak, leaving a person or persons behind may not be an option. Would you know how to build something sturdy and controllable to bring them out? In the mid-nineties a group of friends were inspired to build a dugout. They started out in the traditional way, to burn the core of the boat out. After two weeks and many cases of beer, it became obvious that their daytime jobs took too much time from the boat. They did learn though, that it took a lot of attention and time to do so in this manner. They switched to hand tools such as axes and adzes to hack at the wood. That’s right, you guessed it, after a while they finally switched to a chainsaw. To their credit though, they removed any sign of modern tools, by returning to fire to finish the boat. I remember carrying that piece of wood with six or seven people to get it to the water. Once on the water it’s primary stability was at about forty five degrees and required a bit of concentration and effort to keep from being dumped. It provided us with years of fun on the lake. I don’t know where that canoe is now, but I don’t doubt that it still exists somewhere. 
I remember training a new guide one year, his nickname quickly became Huck. He had related to us that when in high school he had made a log raft for a class that was studying Mark Twain. He actually got film floating it downstream on the French Broad River. He said it was a good thing that they got it on film as it broke to pieces shortly after.
The internet is an amazing place. I discovered instructions on making almost all of these boats. Another interesting thing I found was that almost all were used at one point or another during Lewis and Clark’s Expedition of Discovery, traversing the North American continent. Only bamboo rafts were missing from their list of craft used. The dugouts that they used were strapped together by a frame making them look a lot like a modern cataraft or pontoon boat and “bull-boats were with them throughout the trip.
I encourage you to think about discovering one of these boats yourself. Try something from the past that’s new to you. Make it a group effort, build a couple of them. Challenge the guys down the road to see if they could do better. Then make a Regatta, race or parade. When I was a teen living in Atlanta, they held the “The Ramblin’ Raft Race” on the Chattahoochee River north of the city. The Guinness Book of Records listed it as the largest participation sporting event in the world. The word raft was loosely applied and you could see just about anything that would float. The event came to an end eventually as it grew out of control over the years. One of the biggest problems was the debris and abandoned boats left behind. I don’t remember seeing anything made of raw materials and that stuck with me. 
Discover our past, use your own hands. And the next time you need a weld…think wood.

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