Qayaqs and Canoes

Dug-out canoes

This 20-foot red cedar Haida-style canoe, named "Against the Wind," is fully functional with paddles representing the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. This boat was the first in more than 100 years to have been built following the traditional style.

Without blueprints, squares, levels, compasses, or curves, the complex shapes of the bow and stern were chopped out with an adze so the canoe would cut the water cleanly. The sea mammal hunters, halibut fishermen, and traders needed a vessel that would glide swiftly and noiselessly through the water.

Long ago, when guests arrived in ocean-going canoes like this one, they announced themselves in song, and host villagers answered them with another song, followed by dancing, feasting, and speeches.

The Haida people have historically lived in the dark purple area of the map -- part of which is in Alaska, but most of which is in British Columbia, Canada. Similar canoes were used by the Eyak (yellow on the map), Tlingit (orange), and Tsimshian (green), all in Southeast Alaska. Although the languages of these people were unrelated to each other, their material culture and social structure were similar.

The canoes were so seaworthy that they were used not just for interisland voyages to visit relatives or allies, but also to wage war and to engage in trade missions over hundreds of miles. In fact, dugout canoes plied the waters between Southeast Alaska and Kodiak Island in the days before the coming of Europeans.

Master boat builder Wayne Price (Ian.xi) an Eagle Wooshkeetaan Tlingit who was brought up in Haines, Alaska, is shown here with a model of his boat. Behind him is his apprentice, Vanessa Pazar. "Against the Wind" was the fifth dugout canoe Wayne had built. He explained,

"Every log I've been on is very different. . . . I went to Wrangell and actually found out where the old-timers had picked their trees from. I went and I picked a tree. . . . I'm still learning about the dugout canoe. . . .

"[Vanessa] didn't know anything about carving a canoe, but I knew she was a real hard worker. . . . We had ten to twelve hours a day on a regular basis and we only had two days off in sixty days."

Vanessa (Kaalkeis', an Eagle Kaagwaantaan) noted, "When I think of the traditional ways, sometimes I just have to sit back and go, 'Whoa, they did this with stone tools.' . . . I'm the first female canoe carver for this style and I get to see thousands of females come to this place every day and every one of them is gung-ho for it. So I know there is going to be some future women canoe carvers out there."

Wayne explained the canoe-building process, after the blessing of the log: "The first cut I made was the very bottom cut. . . . We started chopping on her and first thing we noticed is that the blades were a lot tougher than the adze handles. We smashed four or five handles in the first week."

After fashioning the outside shape, Wayne and Vanessa began the eight-day process of hollowing out the log. Then came the steaming to expand the gunwales from the round shape of the log. They filled the boat with salt water and placed hot lava rocks inside to make steam. Wayne noted, "George Bennett brought about a thousand pounds of lava rocks from Sitka for the steaming."

This process expanded the canoe's width eight inches, flattened the bottom, and increased its height at the bow and stern by six inches.

The entire surface of the boat was finished by hand. This photo shows Wayne's even adze marks. This distinctive texture is a hallmark of the dugout canoes of Southeast Alaska and the British Columbia coast.

The finished boat, carved from a log donated by Sealaska Corporation, now hangs -- upside down to preserve its shape -- in the Alaska Native Heritage Center's foyer. It was painted traditional colors, red and black. During the summer of 2000, it was launched into the waters of Kachemak Bay, a triumphant end to a long process that extended from finding the log to its inaugural sail.