Paddling into the present:
It was the first long-distance Haida canoe journey in living memory, and Diane Brown of Skidegate remembers watching the 50-foot Loo Taa take big waves for the first time.
The paddlers had already covered hundreds of miles since their departure from Vancouver and were stormbound in Kelsey Bay on northern Vancouver Island. But the young Haida crewmembers were chomping at the bit to bring the canoe—created by Bill Reid and many others for Expo ’86—back home to Haida Gwaii.
Brown was in charge of logistics on this leg of the 1987 journey. She remembers hearing the whooping of the paddlers as they started out across the bay at 4:30 am.
“I never saw anything so beautiful as how she handled in rough weather, ” says Brown, thinking of the flared bow gently cutting, not pounding into each wave.
That the Haida canoe was designed for exactly this kind of ocean conditions is well known in coastal lore, but before the Loo Taa (Haida for “wave eater”) was made, a couple of generations of Haida hadn’t actually experienced the sea in a war canoe themselves.
Three more Haida canoes are now under construction in Skidegate—the first carved in the village since Reid and his apprentices reinvigorated the tradition more than 20 years ago.
The yet-to-be-named canoes, carved by Garner Moody, Guujaaw and Billy Bellis, will provide a centerpiece to the festivities at the grand opening of the Haida Heritage Centre at Qay’llnagaay in August.
And that’s the way it should be because, as Guujaaw—Haida president and one of the master carvers—says, the canoe is the essence of his culture: “Our culture is about the relationship to the land, and the canoe was the means of accessing the land and provisioning for a family.”
Reid’s Loo Taa was modeled on the old, sea-worthy crafts that carried the Haida on missions from Alaska to California. The new canoes are all smaller “utility” versions, designed for traveling, hunting and fishing. Sponsored by the Skidegate Band Council, the project’s goal is to get more Haida people on the water in their traditional canoes.
Two of the canoes, by Guujaaw and Bellis, are 35 feet long and will be housed in the canoe shed at the Heritage Centre. These will be available for community members, and used each summer in canoe races during Skidegate Days. Moody’s smaller, 29-foot boat will be used at the Swan Bay Rediscovery Camp, where young people go to learn cultural skills.
Before Guujaaw worked with Reid on a 24-foot prototype for the Loo Taa in the 1980s, it had been more than 60 years since a canoe had been carved on the islands. Although some remembered Alfred Davidson of Massett working on a canoe during the first decade of the twentieth century, no one had the knowledge needed to recreate another.
So they had a shipwright make blueprints of old vessels. Guujaaw recounts that the man who did the work was amazed at how uniform the old canoes were: no more than one sixth of an inch difference in thickness from side to side.
Guujaaw also combed the forests of Haida Gwaii looking for canoes that had been started but never finished, and left in situ. “Then we made notes on the steps.”
Made from a single, straight-grained log of red cedar that might take more than 20 men to move, the canoes were mostly hollowed in the forest, either by controlled burning or by cutting wedges out. “By the time they were through, it could be lifted by two guys.”
Then the canoe makers spent the winter shaping and outfitting the canoe with seats, spreaders and paddles. By spring, the Haida were ready to take their new canoes on the water, often heading to the Nass River for the eulachon run, where they would trade their much-respected vessels for other goods.
But none of this all-important finishing work can happen before the most nerve-wracking part of canoe making is undertaken: the steaming process that differentiates Haida canoe designs from others on the coast. “It all hinges on that one day,” says Bellis.
Steaming helps open the sides of the canoe, widening the shape, creating a more stable craft. Other coastal canoes are long and narrow, he says.
But the secret to the success of a Haida canoe can also be its downfall. If the heat isn’t evenly distributed throughout the wood, the canoe may crack.
That’s why Bellis, who worked with Reid on the Loo Taa, came up with a new innovation to take some of the risk out of the age-old method. Although traditionally done on the beach—where rocks, water and firewood were readily available—Bellis decided to steam his canoe indoors.
Much like his ancestors would have done, the rocks were superheated in the fire and the canoe was lined with cedar boughs and filled with water. But when the hot rocks were brought by wheelbarrow and dropped in, the entire boat was wrapped in tarps to ensure the steam penetrated right through. Bellis also rigged up 90-pound weights on either side of the canoe to provide an even pull during the steaming, and set wooden guides in place to mark the desired final width.
The scent of cedar (with a hint of ammonia—used instead of villagers’ urine to help soften the wood) filled the air in the canoe shed on January 17, 2008 as the steam rose to the ceiling, eventually saturating the room.
After more than an hour the canoe was unwrapped and the shape assessed. School children, elders and other passers-by had come to witness the event and—much to everyone’s relief—no cracks were found.
Today, string—instead of cedar bark—is used to make straight lines, and synthetic or hide glue is used instead of glue made from halibut backbones. Otherwise, except for the use of a few power tools (electric sanders are preferred over the traditional dogfish skins), most of the techniques remain the same as in the past.
After seven months of flat-out work, Bellis is not sure who’d get the job done faster: his ancestors, or he and his hard-working apprentices—Tyson Brown and Robert Vogstad. “They probably had a lot more guys around then who understood the process,” he says.
Steering from the stern
As skilled as one has to be to make a canoe, steering one is no simple task either. Andy Wilson, who has looked after the canoe for the last 20 years, has been on all three voyages the Loo Taa has made: from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii in 1987, from Masset to Hydaburg (a Haida village on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska) in 1989, and down the Seine River to Paris, France later that year. He’s also taken a replica of Reid’s boat into the current in the Ottawa River and ferried it between the Museum of Civilization and the Parliament buildings.
Standing at the back of the boat with an eight-foot long steering paddle, the helmsman has to deal with current, wind and tide. The pull of the paddlers may propel the boat, but it’s the wedge-like action of the big, heavy paddle that maneuvers the canoe around a buoy in the Skidegate Days race.
Wilson’s looking forward to having the new canoes available for training a new crew of young Haida, and plans to take the Loo Taa out again this summer to the Indigenous Games in Duncan, on Vancouver Island.
Memories of the fires on the beach and the people singing as the Loo Taa came within sight of shore after the three-week-long post-Expo journey are vivid, but Wilson also recalls a hairier ride. The crew had been invited to Hydaburg. At midnight they started on the 10-hour journey, but when Dixon Entrance turned stormy the trip became a 24-hour epic.
Wilson said they couldn’t stop paddling or they’d be blown backwards and lose their last two hours’ work.
But he was never worried about the boat capsizing. He said the crew had tried their best to tip it over while training for the journey from Vancouver. A bunch of them would jump from side to side in the craft, and although water would get in, it only acted as ballast in the bottom of the boat, keeping the great Haida canoe perfectly in balance.