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11 March, 2009

Can You Canoe?

About a century ago, this photo was taken on a beach of Whidbey Island. In those days, local tribes plied the waters around Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, and the Pacific in canoes that their ancestors a millenium ago would have recognized. These days, their descendants still do, especially during the summer Canoe Journey, when tribes from hundreds of miles around converge on a different place and tribe each year in a celebration of canoe culture. Cedar armadas like the one above migrated with the seasons, hauling in at one place to harvest shellfish, another to net finfish runs, another to pick hops, and still others to visit and dance. Canoes throughout time have had the ability to glide over borders that trip up travel for the West: bureaucratic jurisdictions, cartographically frozen tribal territories, international borders.

My childhood was in a different canoe culture: Aluminum craft on rivers and lakes, pleasure paddles enabled by cars with roof racks, recreational fishing, and later on the escape to a quiet cove for, um, some boat-rocking. Then there were years in Hawai'i, when I went mauka (inland), happier knee-deep in taro ponds than on the water. Canoe culture was stronger than I could handle: outrigger racing too competitive, and double-hulled voyaging too serious for a guy who knows just a couple of knots and spews chum at the first side-swell. I satisfied myself with apprectiating the rennaissance in canoe building and navigation and the artistry of the vessels, and was lucky enough to find some canoe-making artifacts. More recently, I had the good fortune to play a small role in the restoration of a canoe house in Nu`alolo Kai, a place important in Kaua'i canoe culture, a beach where I landed again and again and hope to forevermore.
Here as there, the journey from forest tree to oceanic vessel draws my attention as much as the trips from shore to shore (although I suspect thast in the more placid Puget waters, I could be more easily coaxed aboard). Cedars felled, roughed out, adzed to perfection and steamed to streamline, adorned and oiled. Even archaeologists fall into the misconception that there was a "stone age," but canoes remind us that it was always the Wood Age. And Fiber Age, and Mat Age, I suppose, but my heart is in the wood. I want to be the guy in the photo above, carving the canoe. A long trip, and I have yet to produce even a paddle (or an adz, for that matter), but I've got time...


  1. I had no idea you got seasick ... The things you learn. (Leedle Seestah)