Great Lakes Lifeways Institute

    Embracing Regional Traditions, Land, Arts and Culture

Great Lakes Lifeways Institute

Embracing Regional Traditions, Land, Arts and Culture


The North Star Voyageur Canoe

Nearly 200 years have passed since the great bark canoes with their French and Indian crews pushed their way up the Grand River.   This authentic fur trade canoe, christened the “North Star”, is the first of such vessels to see the waters of the Grand River Valley since the 1830’s.  The canoe was crafted with traditional, simple hand tools and age old techniques by Kevin Finney, Patrick Cronan and fifty one 5th grade students from the Goodwillie Environmental School in Ada, Michigan as a part of the Institute’s Place Based Education Initiative.  It is currently on display at WMCAT as a part of the ARTPRIZE competition in Grand Rapids.  Click on the album on the left to see a slideshow of building the canoe.


Canoe Name: The North Star

Style: Canot de Nord (North Canoe)

Length: 24.5 ft.

Weight: 270 lb.

Cargo Capacity: 3000 lb.

Passenger Capacity: 14 people

Constructed: Ada, MI.   January - June 2010

Panels of Birch Bark: 6

Cedar Trees: 12

Linear ft. of Spruce Root: about 3/4 mile

Other Materials: Sugar Maple, Square Nails

A Window to West Michigan’s Roots

Large birch bark canoes like the North Star were once in common use on the Grand River.  Waterways such as the Grand were once the highways of the continent forming a vast transportation network of rivers and lakes crisscrossing the North American Interior.  Bark canoes, long used by Native Americans to travel these waterways, were quickly adopted by the French as the central vehicle of the fur trade indispensable to transporting goods, animal pelts and people deep into the interior of the continent. 

Unlike wooden boats, birch canoes were lightweight and easy to portage around rapids, small passages and other obstacles common in the interior.  They could be manned by a small crew of paddlers, make tremendous distance in a day, carry thousands of pounds of cargo and be easily repaired in woods.

As early as the late 17th century, canoes like the North star brought the French explorers, missionaries  and fur traders into Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  As the fur trade grew and developed, seasonal trading posts were established throughout the region.  The first post documented on the Grand River was established in the mid-1700’s near Grand Haven by Charles Langlade, a French-Ottawa Metis from the Mackinac Area and by 1790 a number of posts were in operation along the Grand.   Prominent early residents Louis Campau and Rix Robinson each operated dozens of posts on the Grand and Kalamazoo prior to the arrival of American settlers.

For nearly a century, Fall and Spring in West Michigan were marked by the arrival and departure of dozens of birch canoes manned by French Canadian and Metis paddlers, called voyageurs, laden with animal pelts, maple sugar, brass kettles, cloth and array of other trade goods.  

The trade goods, shipped from Europe to Quebec and Montreal, were loaded into 36 foot canoes and paddled along the Ottawa River into the Great Lakes to regional depots like Fort Michilimackinac.  Each Fall, hundreds of smaller canoes called North Canoes (24-28 ft.), would set off from the Straits to supply trading posts along the rivers of the Interior, including the Grand.  Traders and their employees spent the winters at the posts dispensing goods and collecting animal hides, maple sugar, corn and other Native products.   In April, the canoes would again depart for Mackinac loaded with 90 lb. bales of furs.

North Star

A Representation of our Journey as a Community

As an art piece the canoe represents our journey through time as a community and the values we carry with us; the blending and sharing of diverse cultural traditions,  our spirit of adventure and innovation, the natural resources that sustain us, our investment and belief in young people and what we can achieve working together as a community.


Current Initiatives

   Place Based Education

    Wild Rice Restoration   

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    Black Ash Basketry Film    

Past Projects

     Voyageur Canoe

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