Dugout Canoes and History
Michael Salat, History Teacher

Whack, whack, whack! - This is the sound of the adze chopping wood from the center of a giant log. This sound could be heard echoing outside the LAB next to Little Donahue Lake during history class last week. Students got a small taste of what it is like to build a dugout canoe. It takes two days, four different periods of history class, and many Conserve School semesters of this particular lesson for a dugout canoe to be completed. 

Students making a dugout canoe

The Corps of Discovery was a division of the United States Army that made up the heart and lungs of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from May 1804 to September 1806. My lesson in dugout canoe building helps emphasize that for over 12 hours a day, the Corp of Discovery tediously went about the process of making canoes to continue their journey in the spring of 1805. As we look at different aspects of the western migration of the North American continent, we take time to reflect on the immense work that was required in 1805 to get across this vast land. This woodworking lesson exemplifies work that explorers would have had to do to depart on a lake or river voyage.

Students making a canoe paddle

I have always felt that history is learned best through experiences. To make the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Corps of Discovery come to life, we incorporate physicality. Students swing the adze to make a dugout canoe and use the spokeshave to carve and form the canoe paddles. We may not spend 12 hours on the project, but students certainly get the point that this is indeed hard work. The lessons of what it took for explorers to explore the land are not learned readily, felt in the body, or made memorable through readings or a lecture. History students at Conserve School have the opportunity to step back over 200 hundred years to make history come alive through learning about and doing the physical work required of those explorers of a bygone era.

Teacher showing students how to shave a canoe paddle into shape


Students working on a paddle together
Student shaving the edge of a canoe paddle
Students digging out the dugout canoe
One student watching another student hollowing out the log for a dugout canoe
Two students smiling for the camera as they hollow out the dugout canoe
Two dugout canoes sitting on the shore

Photos contributed by, Kate Houle, Communications Specialist.

  • Dugout Canoes
  • Explorers
  • History Class
  • staff stories
  • The Corps of Discovery