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One of the two main types used by the Nor’Westers was the canot du maître or Montreal canoe, up to 40 feet (12 metres) in length, with a capacity of 4 tons (3.5 tonnes) and manned by ten paddlers. At the western end of Lake Superior, the goods were transferred to canots du nord, or north canoes, smaller vessels with half the carrying capacity but light enough for two men to lift across portages. Birch bark was strong enough to carry economical loads, yet sufficiently light to be spun away from rock outcrops with the flick of a steersman’s wrist.

Fashioned from the bark of the yellow birch the canot du maître weighed less than 300 pounds (136 kilograms) yet was capable of carrying 4 tons (3.5 tonnes) of crew and freight. Only an axe, a crooked knife, a square or Indian awl, plus some spruce roots and pitch (spruce gum) were required to build a canoe.