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In August 1934, the Gunnarson family discovered a dugout canoe as they were extending their dock on North Arm Bay. The canoe has been dated to 1025-1165 A.D., making it the oldest dugout canoe found in Minnesota. Pictured here is G. A. and Helmer Gunnarson moving a canoe. | WESTERN HENNEPIN COUNTY PIONEER ASSOCIATION
Strange Tales

Strange Tales: The Ancient Dugout Canoe

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A rare artifact was pulled out of Lake Minnetonka’s North Arm Bay in August 1934 by Helmer and Arthur Gunnarson, sons of Gustave A. Gunnarson. It was an extremely dry summer, with the lake’s water level seven feet below its ordinary high water mark, resulting in a receded shoreline. The Gunnarsons were building an extension to their dock and couldn’t pound in one of the posts. Thinking they had hit a rock or log about 12-16 inches down, they started digging through the silt and mud, and they pulled out a well-preserved Native American dugout canoe. More than 80 years later, radiocarbon testing dated the ancient watercraft to be about 1,000 years old—the oldest dugout canoe ever found in Minnesota.

The Gunnarsons donated the canoe to the Minnesota Archaeological Society (MAS). After being on display at various venues, it was sold in 1961 to its current owner, the Western Hennepin Country Pioneer Association (WHCPA), and added to their collection in Long Lake, Minnesota.

In August 1934, the Gunnarson family discovered a dugout canoe as they were extending their dock on North Arm Bay. The canoe has been dated to 1025-1165 A.D., making it the oldest dugout canoe found in Minnesota. Pictured here is G. A. and Helmer Gunnarson moving a canoe. | WESTERN HENNEPIN COUNTY PIONEER ASSOCIATION
In August 1934, the Gunnarson family discovered a dugout canoe as they were extending their dock on North Arm Bay. The canoe has been dated to 1025-1165 A.D., making it the oldest dugout canoe found in Minnesota. Pictured here is G. A. and Helmer Gunnarson moving a canoe. | WESTERN HENNEPIN COUNTY PIONEER ASSOCIATION

The ancient dugout, which is 11 feet by nearly 1.5 feet, was on display in the museum’s hallway, when Maritime Heritage Minnesota archaeologists Ann Merriman and Chris Olson received a $9,000 state grant to radiocarbon date and study the Lake Minnetonka dugout canoe as well as seven other dugouts they located in Minnesota. The radiocarbon analysis dated the Lake Minnetonka wood to 1025-1165 A.D., which would put it into the Late Woodland Period of the Woodlands Culture.

The results of the study by Merriman and Olson are outlined in their “Minnesota Dugout Canoe Project Report” (2014) for Maritime Heritage Minnesota. In addition to the Lake Minnetonka canoe, the report includes seven other dugout canoes: Big Swan Lake (AD 1039-1210), Chippewa River (AD 1436-1522), Minnesota River (AD 1626-1679); Dutch Lake/C. Maki (AD 1770-1830); Minnesota River Valley (AD 1790-1850); Rice Lake (AD 1790-1850), and Lake Auburn (AD 1920-1933).

Dugout canoes are the oldest boats found by archaeologists. They were used by people around the world dating back to the Stone Age. In prehistoric times, people made dugout canoes by carving or hollowing out a large tree trunk, alternatively burning (to make it easier to chip out) and gouging with tools until it was hollowed. The exterior was also shaped using fire and stone tools.

The world’s oldest dugout canoe is considered to be the Pesse canoe in the Netherlands, carbon dated to be about 10,000 years old. Other noteworthy ancient dugouts include the 8,000-year-old Dufuna canoe from Nigeria (Africa’s oldest boat and the world’s third-oldest); and three dugouts from Germany near the old Hansaetic town of Stralsun, two of which were around 7,000 years old and a third, 6,000 years old. Many dugout canoes have been found in northern Europe, with the oldest being made of linden wood and found in Denmark in 2001. It was carbon dated to around 7,000 years old.

While dugout canoes have been found across North America, the earliest dugout in the Great Lakes region was discovered in 1996 by a 12-year-old girl and her grandmother in Lake Mary, Kenosha County, Wisconsin and carbon dated to be 2,000 years old. They were boating when they saw a piece of wood sticking out of the mud. They left it in place for underwater archaeologists from Wisconsin Historical Society to investigate.

In the 21st century, the traditional dugout canoe culture still survives in places, including Estonia in Northern Europe. Each year, when seasonal flooding covers 175-square-kilometres of Soomaa National Park, some local villagers use dugout canoes (“haabjas”) made of aspen to get around, just like their ancestors did in ancient times. Nowadays, international visitors came to take canoe-building workshops and explore the flooded wilderness area of bogs, forests, rivers and meadows, an ecotourism experience being promoted as “preserving Estonian dugout canoe history through tourism.”

During World War II, a traditional dugout canoe probably saved the life of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Two men from Solomon Island in their dugout canoe found Kennedy and his surviving crew shipwrecked after their PT-109 was rammed and wrecked by a Japanese destroyer in the Pacific Ocean in August 1943. Kennedy and his men swam 3.5 miles (6 km) to nearby Plum Pudding Island. They survived on coconuts and fresh water for six days before being found by the two islanders. Kennedy sent a carved message on a coconut husk with the islanders who rowed 40 miles (65 km) through hostile waters patrolled by the Japanese, to an Australian military unit which arranged for a rescue. The island was later renamed Kennedy Island.

Dugout canoes were also thought to have brought the original inhabitants of Hawaii from British Columbia (B.C.). To test this theory, three B.C. adventurers successfully sailed in 1978 from Vancouver to Hawaii in their 40-foot (12-metre) Haida-style dugout canoe made of Douglas fir. They arrived in Waikiki after 54 days at sea, having travelled 4,500 miles.

Back at Long Lake, the dugout canoe from Lake Minnetonka is now the WHCPA museum’s centerpiece, a fitting permanent home about six miles from where it was first discovered by the Gunnarson brothers.

“The dugout canoe was probably the first type of canoe made by indigenous groups across North America. It was constructed by selecting a tree of suitable size, which was then chopped or burned down at the base. The top of the tree would then be cut off, and the outside roughly shaped, while the inside was carefully burned and removed. Once the canoe was the desired size, many holes were drilled through it so as to gauge the thickness of the hull. Once the desired thickness had been reached, the holes were plugged in with wooden pegs. The canoe was then filled with hot water to soften the wood and make it more pliable. The sides of the canoe were stretched apart at the top and held apart by shaped rods called thwarts.”

Monk, Kimberley E. (1999). “The Development of Aboriginal Watercraft in the Great Lakes Region,” The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology: Vol. 7: Iss. 1, Article 9.

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