Carving Our Past Into The Future: 2009 Dugout Canoe Project

As told by Ben Gribben

When I think back to that summer in 2009, I cannot sum up the experience in a few short words. I can say that it was life changing and empowering, but that still wouldn’t be enough.
So, instead I want to take you back to the beginning, when it all started.

The journey began with one man who had a vision. An idea to create the first dugout canoe in the Yukon in over a hundred years; this man’s name is Andrew Finton.

Back in the days when Northern Cultural Expressions Society (NCES) was known primarily as Sundog carving studios, I was part of a group of young emerging artists that worked every day on improving our carving skills. As time went on, Andrew brought master carvers in to work with us. It was one of those master carvers that made him think of the possibility of a dugout canoe. This master`s name is Wayne Price. Hailing from Haines, Alaska, he has been carving and designing dugout canoes for over thirty years.

If you knew anything about Andrew Finton you`d know that he is a man of action. So with this one little spark inside his head, Andrew immediately set off to make his vision a reality. After only a month of searching for funding, Andrew acquired the log the canoe would be sculpted from, the food, the cook and even the site in which this project would take place.

There were over eighteen of us young artists that spent the next two and a half months of our lives helping sculpt Andrew’s dugout canoe. We did not realize at the time that this experience would play such an important role in our lives. As well as impact the lives of others for years to come.

The first few days on Egg Island were half work, half play. Due to the fact that there was a sheer drop in the bank we needed to create a hill with a slope to make it easier to hoist the log up and over the bank. Work started as soon as we got off the boat. With everyone helping, it took no time at all to complete the first leg of the project.

Within an hour of finishing the hill we all watched our soon-to-be canoe being hauled down the river. We were captivated by the size of the red cedar log; weighing thirteen thousand pounds, with a length of close to thirty-five feet. Being new carvers, we had no idea how this log was going to make it up onto Egg island. This was when Wayne Price, and all his knowledge and experience, stepped in to show us what to do. We took small logs from around the island and built a rolling system that helped us drag it over sixty feet up to our workspace.

For the next two days, we worked from morning to night heaving the cedar log into position. Finally, after many draining hours, we all brought it to it’s resting place.

Wayne didn’t waste any time getting to work; beginning by tracing a design of the dugout into the wood. Wayne brought forth his ship adzes (carving tools) and placed them in our hands. Immediately, the chopping began. This we did in shifts, working constantly to shave away the bark and wood underneath. After a few days real headway was made.

The heat from the hot summer sun made it necessary for us to constantly wet the log with buckets of water. We each took turns running back and forth from the river with buckets of water to keep the log from drying out. As time went on, all of us left our mark in the dugout, chip by chip. Before we knew it, we had finished carving the hull. It took all of us to flip the log it over onto the other side.

When we did, Wayne took his chainsaw to the top and cut out the last remaining parts to make it truly come to life. We couldn’t take our eyes off of it, for it now looked like a real canoe. Yet it was back to work, for Wayne would always say “You got a break when you got this job.” We made sure to keep the middle of the dugout intact to be used in for masks and other carvings. Next it was time to steam the hull.

The way we steamed the wood was by first building a fire in which we stacked lava rocks. Once they were hot enough they were lowered on a steal grate into the canoe, which we filled with water. Over time the steam allowed the hull to widen into the traditional dug out shape.

At this point it was mostly fine-tuning. We worked on it night and day, until it was finished. By the end, we had carved over twelve thousand pounds of woodchips. The finished canoe weighing four hundred and fifty pounds.

The experience wasn`t all smooth sailing (if you pardon my pun). For instance: at one point, when we were steaming it, one side cracked open. Wayne, even with the steaming water burning his feet; ignoring the pain to make sure that the crack didn`t spread further.

Being out on the land for this project and working with a team of artists, provided an opportunity to reconnect with nature, our culture and each other. Free from everything that complicates the world many of us did not want to leave the island, myself included. No one wanted the feeling to end. It is a feeling that will be everlasting; a feeling of revitalization, a feeling of strength, of culture but most important it is a feeling of unity.

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