Shovel-nose canoes were well-suited to ply the region’s rivers and lakes, the region’s “sweetwater.” They were often small enough for a single person to guide and portage, with the rounded bow, stern and bottom providing stability. The purpose of a true shovelnose canoe is to cross currents. They do not have a sharp entrance to the water so when they cross currents their bows (or sterns) are not immediately pushed in the direction of the current. A typical saltwater canoe like the standard “chinook canoe” is very difficult to manage in that situation. The shovel-nose canoe also travels up-stream well, especially on boils and other unstable water.
Women used shovel-nosed canoes to gather and transport shellfish and roots. In 1806, William Clark described women gathering wapato, a root similar to a potato that grew in swampy environments, in his journal:
“womin collect [wapato] by getting into the water, Sometimes to their necks holding by a Small canoe and with their feet loosen the wappato or bulb of the root from the bottom from the Fibers, and it imedeately rises to the top of the water, they Collect & throw them into the Canoe, those deep roots are the largest and best roots.” [Clark, March 29, 1806]
Clark wrote this description when expedition members stopped at Cathlapotle, a large village on the Columbia River located near present-day Ridgefield, Washington. The area where the expedition camped is now called “Wapato Portage” in recognition of the site’s importance among Chinookan people.
- Audio: Sam Robinson, Vice Chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation talks about the special shape of Chinook paddles.