Expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula,
South Georgia, Cape Horn, Falklands & Tierra Del Fuego

On this virtual tour you may see: Majestic mountains dipped in snow...
Crystalline waterways... Whales, seals, Soaring Andes condors...
Ice-blue Glaciers that shimmer like jewels..

Artist's drawing of Yagan Beech Bark Canoe

Following are extracts from E. Lucas Bridges book "Uttermost Part of the Earth. Indians of Tierra del Fuego" 1949, reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc (New York, 1988. Now out of print.)
Lucas Bridges was a son of Thomas Bridges, a missionary who established the Anglican mission at Ushuaia in 1871, at a time where the Yamanas still lived their traditional lives. Lucas was born there in 1874, and he grew up, played and worked with theYamanas and Onas. He spoke their languages and saw the decline and extinction of these tribes.

Here are paragraphs that relate to the canoes and life of the Yamanas.

p.61: (a reference to the people that lived to the west of the Yamanas) The Alacaloof were a tribe of canoe Indians.
They lived almost entirely on birds, seal, fish, mussels and limpets. As their neighbors (the Yamanas) they made bark canoes.
They also made dug-outs, which were much larger than the bark canoes. Father found one that measured twenty-nine feet in length and well over three feet in depth. For these the Alacaloof used not only paddles, but also oars of primitive design, with wooden row-locks....Adventurers, both the Alacaloof and Yamanas, had passed around the Brecknock Peninsula in their canoes, and inter-marriages between the two tribes occurred from time to time.

p.63: There was a fair division of labour between the sexes. The men gathered fuel and fungus for food, while the women cooked, fetched water, paddled the canoes and fished. The men tended the fires, made and mended the canoes and prepared material for them. They also attended to the hunting - otter, seal, guanaco, foxes and birds - and speared the large fish. Being in charge of the canoes - for it was only on long journeys, or when in a hurry, that the men helped with the paddles - the women were also good swimmers, but it was a rare thing to find a male Yamana who could swim.
The women were by no means slaves, for what they caught was their own. The husband used only what the wife gave him, and she did not ask his permission before making gifts to her friends. Members of this tribe often lived in places where for many miles there were no beaches on which it was possible to haul up their canoes. They were compelled, therefore, to anchor them off the rocks in the best shelter to be found.
This anchoring was done by the women. After the canoe was unloaded and the husband had gone up into the forest to collect fuel for the fire, the wife would paddle off in the canoe a few fathoms into the thick kelp (a large species of seaweed), which makes a splendid breakwater. She would grasp a handful of the kelp's rope-like branches and secure
them to the canoe, which was thus safely anchored by their roots, then slip into the water, swim ashore and hasten to the fire to dry and warm herself.
The Yamana women swam like a dog and had no difficulty getting through the kelp....They learnt to swim in infancy, and were taken out by their mothers in order to get them used to it. In winter, when the kelp was coated with a film of frost, a baby girl out with her mother would sometimes make pick-a-back swimming difficult by climbing onto her parent's head to escape the cold water and frozen kelp.

p.65: Fires were also kept going in the canoes when they were in use. There was little danger. Seawater leaked through the seams and kept the interiors of the canoes perpetually damp. The fires were built on little heaps of sand and moist turf in the centres of the canoes. On reaching the night's camping-ground after a day in the canoes the Yamanas would carry embers or blazing torches ashore. When they re-embarked the following morning, or if women went off for a few hours' fishing, fire was carried back to the canoes. Thus, except when men hunting and passed the night away from home, it was rarely necessary to kindle a new fire.

There is another interesting point about the fires of the Fuegian Indians. In the the numberless sheltered nooks round the shores, at points where canoes could safely be beached, were Yamana families living in their wigwams. If a distant sail appeared, or anything else occurred to startle those who had remained at home, they would send out a warning to those away fishing by piling green branches or shrubs on the wigwam fire. At the sight of the black signal smoke the fishers would hurry back home. The early explorers of that archipelago would see the countless columns of smoke and fires at short intervals for miles along the coast. This is doubtless the reason why they named those regionsTierra del Fuego.

The following good rundown on Yagan Canoes by Erhard Kraus is from http://www.interlog.com/~erhard/patcanoe.htm

The canoes of Patagonia are similar to their North American cousins, but there are differences.
Indians in North America built bark canoes that were pretty uniform i.e. It's easy to tell the builders were related. Sure, shapes differed from one culture to the next, reflecting the demands of the predominant watercourses of the culture and the material on hand. What about the remainder of the Americas? If the people of North America all built canoes, and the settlement of the continent proceeded from the north, then one should expect bark canoes in South America, and these canoes should be similarto their cousins in the north. On a recent trip to the southern tip of South America, I had the chance to explore this possibility.
The canoe below is in the museum of the Silesian Mission in Punta Arenas, Chile. It is a canoe that Yamanas had paddled into Punta Arenas in the first half of this century and been bought for preservation.

To understand the boats, let's look at the job they were supposed to do and the material used.

The Yamanas used the boat for transportation in the channels and bays of the southern archipelago. Martin Gusinde asserts that the shores down there are not suitable for travel and thus the canoe was indispensable for the natives. Ferocious winds and braking waves necessitated to build a canoe that is higher than its northern counterpart.

The miserable and cold weather with its constant dampness made them carry fire on the boats, on a bed of stones, turf (7 cm thick) and gravel. The boat was meant for use by the family: the husband built it and presented it to the wife who, from then on, stayed in charge of it. She would paddle, tell where to land and how to take special precautions and would request help from the oldest daughter or the husband when wind demanded more power. Trips as long as 200 miles have been heard of.
By the way, there was a native word "atégaatas" and it meant "to be clever in paddling". Other words, gleaned form a website: "appi" meant "oar" (more likely "paddle") and "anan" for canoe. For comparison, the Ojibwe words are "abwi" and "tchiman" (Frederic Baraga, 1853). The Yamana's life style which included hunting for sea lions and the diving for shellfish would not have been possible without the canoe. The picture on below depicts such a boat with paddles, bows and harpoons, all arranged arbitrarily for the benefit of the observer.

Yagan Canoe with harpoons

There is a book that documents what a boy observed as he grew up near Yamanas that were living the traditional way: Lucas Bridges, son of the author of the famous Yamana dictionary, published "Uttermost Part of the Earth" in 1949 and, since it is no longer in print, I have extracted comments that shed more light on how the canoes and the Yamanas. Click here to read the observations by someone who lived to see these canoes being built and used in the 1800's!
Martin Gusinde's book "Die Feuerlander Indianer, volume 2 (Yamanas) " documents how such a canoe is built. I owe access to this rare book to Father Ambrosio Lipovec, the temporary librarian of the museum in the Silesian Mission in Rio Grande:

1. A proper tree had to be found, preferrably "lenga", the magellan beech. Its bark is brittle and rough, and thick and I feel sorry for the native that might have remembered the ease of building with birch bark. Finding a straight tree trunk of sufficient length (5 m) was not easy since "lenga" has the tendency to branch out fairly low. I guess that they had to find sheltered coves where trees could grow tall. In those days, the forests grew down to the shore.
Finding a tree close to the water was essential as the bark is heavy and must be kept intact
during transport.

2. The bark had to be stripped, a difficult process. The men would go in spring (middle of September till end of October) { Ursula, the last Yagan, told me recently that she could still get bark as late as the end of February, but with some difficulty. Ben Garrett} when the bark comes off easiest. One man would climb the tree and stay secured with a rope that was thrown over a higher branch so he was able to work with his hands free. He would make circular incisions at the top and the bottom of the sheet to be peeled, and a lengthwise cut to allow the sheet to be opened. He would work from the top to force a gap to open and, once the gap was big enough, would wedge himself between bark and trunk so that gravity would help prying the sheet off the tree. Each sheet was immediately submerged in swamp water so it would stay pliable until needed. The modern builders of such a canoe noted as a major problem the tendency of the peeled bark to become brittle quickly.

3. Three sheets were needed to make the canoe: one shorter cigar-shaped piece to form the bottom and two longer pieces for the sides, all cut without the help of any scaling or measuring tools.The bark was scraped on both sides to remove loose fibers and rough ridges. They were then roasted over a long open fire and turned constantly, until the bark was as pliable as thick leather. The joining edges were mitred with the sharp edges of shells so that later there was less chance of leakage at the seam.

4. Stakes were pushed into the ground to outline the shape of the hull and then the three pieces were sewn together. At some point, before the sewing was complete, the thwarts were tied into place - why so, was not explained in Gusinde's book but maybe this method puts less internal stress into the bark structure when completed. For thread, the Yamanas preferred strips of walrus hide but the youngest wood under the bark of Ñirre (nothofago antarctica) could also be used.

5. The seams had to be caulked. The wife would do this as she was acknowledged to be more skilful at this task. The caulking material was moss, grass, clay and fine red algae. The modern group seems to have unsuccessfully tried other means until they finally settled for the "original recipe".

6. The ends were tied high with string and a supporting stick to counteract the tendency of the canoe ends to bend down during the canoe's life with its constant cycles of soaking and drying.

7. The gunnels were attached: they took the form of a branch that ran the length of each side and was split lengthwise so that both halves could be clamped over the rim of the hull. Sticks the thickness of a man's index finger served as ribs: they were split lengthwise, ends sharpened, and forced into the inside of the hull and secured by the gunnel. About 50 such sticks, closely laid beside each other, were used. Extra bark strips were installed to allow some comfort for sitting, to build the place where the fire is kept, and to give extra strength to the hull. A gap between the inner bark pieces was left in the centre of the boat to permit easy bailing. Thus, the building of such a boat takes two to three weeks for a dedicated worker, all work done in the shade to avoid drying out the bark. According to Gusinde, the boats do not exceed 5 m in length, 1 m in width and .7 M in depth. Individuals were highly respected when they were known to build good boats. The boat would typically last less than a year, and then another boat had to be built. As this happens before the proper boat building season, the boat will be makeshift and of less quality.
Necessary accessories were paddles, a painter (rope for typing up the canoe) about 1.6 M in length and a bailer made of bark.
The paddles were made from split wood, the blade with a width of up to 20 cm and the shaft making up one third of the total length of the paddle.
Today's Yagan people, some of them of partially native origin, have no bark canoes, just boats made from planks or steel.
The only reminder of the forgotten canoes are tourist souvenirs: bark canoes up to 40 cm long, with nicely sewn gunnels made by the Yagans and their descendents in Ukika Indian Village, Puerto Williams. To appear complete, there are always paddles placed at the bottom of such toy canoe. But Alas! These "paddles" always have the shape of rowing oars.....

Note: the Darwin expedition noted these boats but did not go into details. Darwin documented geology, plants and animals so well on this trip, but he certainly was remiss in his observations of the human members of Patagonia's ecology.

In the Journal of Syms Covington is a sketch of a boat which is different from what I saw in the museums:

It has a double-hull construction
and a double-blade is used.

Old photos of a Yagan Canoes

Drawing of Yagan canoes from Dutch expedition of Jacob L'Hermite 1631

More info on Yagans, canoes and Onas:

The first two links are in Spanish, but from a museum in Ushuaia and good

Tierra del Fuego

Maritime Museum of Ushuaia

( Sister Ursula, the last Yagan, told the author that she had rowed from Puerto Williams
many times to Cape Horn with her husband in her younger days to hunt Sea Otters!
She is presently on a voyage to make a new maps of the area. This will have only the Yagan names, which she still remembers, for the ports! )