Digging into Dugout History

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

Depictions of the Corps of Discovery's voyage on the Missouri River typically portray the expedition's keelboat. But did you know the explorers made three-quarters of the trip in dugout canoes? These versatile, easy-to-make cargo carriers were the 18-wheelers of their day.

A dugout canoe is just a log that has been hollowed out. The Corps of Discovery once built three dugout canoes in two days. You can make one, too, although it probably will take you a little longer.

First, find a suitable tree. Your log must be straight and free of limbs or knots that could cause leaks. Almost any species will work, but cottonwoods are preferred. Big cottonwoods are plentiful, and their wood is soft and straight-grained, making it easy to work.

Some of Lewis and Clark's dugouts were more than 30 feet long, but anything longer than 10 feet and broad enough to accommodate your own girth is adequate. Dugouts are heavy, so choose a size that will be manageable when you have to move it.

Make the thickest end of the log the stern of your canoe. To decide which surface of the log goes on the bottom, place the log on a flat surface. Roll the log to check for curvature. Put the outside of any natural curve on the bottom of the finished canoe.

The next step is to flatten the bottom of the canoe. This will allow you to work on the upright log safely. Roll the log onto its top and secure it with blocks on both sides. With a carpenter's chalk line, snap a straight, horizontal line along each side of the log a few inches from the bottom (which is now on top). Cut off the rounded slab of wood above the line.

Before righting your log, drill a series of 3/4-inch holes at 3-foot intervals along the center line of the canoe bottom. These "gauge holes" will allow you to gauge how thick the floor of your canoe is when chopping out the interior. Make the holes as deep as the desired thickness of the canoe floor. For very large canoes, this might be as much as 4 inches. For a 12-footer, 2 inches is enough.

Now, roll the log onto its flat bottom and snap a straight line on each side to mark the top of the gunwales. You want to create a flat surface wide enough to accommodate

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