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Articles / From bullet to bullboat

Published: 2014-05-03
Category: Experimental Archeology

In 2010 the SMM was fortunate enough to make and paddle our very own bullboat. For some reason this article was only planned for but never written. So, let’s walk down memory lane with the lacks and flaws it may contain and start from the beginning!

What’s a bullboat?
Most travel during the Rocky Mountain fur trade was done by horse, but every once in a while a river or other water obstacle demanded a watercraft to be traversed. To solve this problem many fur traders and trappers adopted the Native American invention; the bullboat. The bullboat in its most simple design was made by stretching and drying a green buffalo hide (hair side out) around a framework of saplings, creating what looks like a furry round tub. When the hide was dry the boat was ready for water travel. Quality probably varied as some were discarded after one use while others were used for weeks of travel.

Obtaining the hide
As weird as it might sound, plains bison are not that uncommon in Sweden anymore. Bison farms exists in a few places, but they are still rare enough to keep prices on meat, hides and other parts way too steep for most people. But since the SMM aren’t “most people” our brother Charlie “Muleskinner” Blomqvist is one of the few who actually owns a small heard of his own.

When Charlie brought up the idea to donate one of his hides for a bullboat project we were of course thrilled, after all we live in Sweden. Said and done Charlie skinned one of his precious buffaloes and put it in the freezer until project bullboat could start.

Making the framework
As spring was starting to turn green David Wallström and Sebastian “Char” Scheler decided to meet up and create the frame for our flimsy water craft. Willow saplings were collected, rawhide thongs were cut and we set to work in a sunny forest glen.

We started by hammering down four sturdy sticks to mark the circumference and support the frame while under construction. To this we attached bent willow hoops that created the round shape of the boat. One to act as gunwale and one to act bottom frame. With these in place we bent more saplings into the hoops to act as sides and bottom ribs. All intersections were then fixated with rawhide thongs.

Attaching the hide
A few weeks later the sapling frame and David arrived at Muleskinners place. The mission was to apply the hide and dry it for use later that summer. We started by fleshing the hide, a heavy task all by itself. Once free from meat and membranes we started attaching it to the frame. This was done by stretching the hide around the frame and folding it around the gunwale. By now it was obvious the hide was much larger than the frame. But we all decided it would have to do. The hide was finally attached to the frame by stitching it in place with rawhide along the gunwale. Our bullboat was now finished, but it still needed to dry before its maiden voyage.

Traveling the water way
It wasn't until September and the Älvkarleby Rendezvous we finally had a chance to put our bullboat to use. This rendezvous is held on an island in the river Dalälven, so finding water wasn’t a problem. Sadly Charlie wasn’t able to attend, instead three eager SMM boys (David, Mike & Char) decided to give it a try. Armed with a field made paddle and a bullboat thrown on Char’s back we walked the few yards it took to reach main current side of the island. But being very uncertain on our maneuvering capabilities we turned around and decided to try the four yard wide creek on the other side as a start.

Char gave it a first go across the water and back. David made the same journey and gave the paddle to Mike for his turn. We all got wet, but not soaked. The paddle technique took a while to figure out, and finding the right balance in such a flimsy craft was tricky. But all in all we agreed it was a success.

One year later at High Chaparral Rendezvous Char made a second short journey down Storån (another river) into camp. Although the journey only lasted for about a mile the bullboat was more or less ready to sink on arrival. It was now obvious there were a few holes in the hide. It was also obvious that cutting holes along the gunwale to let the rib tops penetrate the hide was a bad idea (You hear that Ray Mears!). As the hide soaked, softened and became heavy it dragged the gunwale sapling down.

Since then the bullboat has been resting in David’s barn. Perhaps we will soon find another good opportunity to use it.

Skepp ohoj!

/David and Char


Inspiration and facts

• Women of the Fur Trade
• Ray Mears
• Discovering Lewis and Clark
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