In the days when voyageurs paddled the lakes of the United States and Canada, there were seemingly unlimited beaver, mink, and muskrat. The waters swarmed with fish. Deer, moose, and elk browsed in abundance and roamed through great stands of bone-white birch trees (Betula papyrifera). Like the fish and game, the trees provided the native people with essentials.
Paper birch, as it came to be called because of its paperlike curls of outer bark, yielded a complete bark layer thick enough to skin canoes. But the easily peeled, tough material also became sheathing for lodges. Campfires began with fast-burning kindling made from bark shavings. Tightly tied into a taper, the leather-like bark slowly smouldered to ward off swarming mosquitoes.
The paper birch also was tapped for sweet sap every spring. When chewed, its small twigs were aspirin-like in relief. Even the branches were bent and formed into snowshoe frames.
To the lumbermen of later years, however, the paper birch's wood was of little use. Yet, in imitation of the first inhabitants, they made the bark into waterproof roof liners. In their leisure, it became postcards to send home, baskets, and tiny canoes.
Today you'll find paper birch's workable wood as dowels, toothpicks, and clothespins. Its bark presently has no common use.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson