Quinault man using plane to smooth side of canoe near Lake Quinault, Washington. Note the rounded stern and bow that characterized these prevalent and indispensable watercraft. Image courtesy of University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division
Shovel-nosed canoe in the Chinook Tribal office in Bay Center, WA . Over a hundred years old, it was owned by Lewis Hawks (grandfather of Chinook elder Phillip Hawks) made for him as a youth (12 to 14 years old). Image courtesy of Gina Bu

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.

The Clam Diggers. Photo by Edward Curtis, ca. 1910. Courtesy of Library of Congress Women used woven baskets to gather clams well into the twentieth century. The two women pictured above  may have used a shovel nosed canoe like the one pictured on the left to traverse the coastal sloughs as they collected clams. Note the nice spruce root baskets in the image of a woman’s shovel-nose canoe at Bay Center in 1899


  • Audio: Sam Robinson, Vice Chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation talks about the special shape of Chinook paddles.