Atractor-trailer winds its way along the Alaska Highway from Terrace, B.C.
Its cargo is a single gigantic log, 30 feet long, weighing 13,000 pounds.
Within weeks, the massive red cedar will be transformed into something that hasn’t been seen in the Yukon for hundreds of years – transforming 19 young lives in the process.
“The vision was to have a log taken to an island,” begins Alan Code’s film Dugout. “We’ll stay there until it’s made into a dugout, and then paddle it off, and listen to the songs of the ancestors, sung by young people.”
Dugout tells the amazing story of how a group of youthful carvers reclaimed an ancient tradition and learned a lot about leadership, determination and the strength of their own spirit in the summer of 2009.
Code is an honours English graduate of Queen’s University who minored in film studies. He moved north to direct a documentary on the disastrous relocation of a group of Dene families to Churchill, Manitoba, and ended up staying.
From when the log arrived in June, 2009, until this April, Code and archivist-photographer Robin Armour worked diligently on a labour of love to finish the enthralling documentary, shooting steadily over a 10-week period, then editing over the next two years.
“I had to work at other things, to make enough money to buy the time to do the edit,” Code says.
“There’s no grants or anything that made this show happen; it was just your own income, and what you can glean from other projects, that allow you to get a bit of time to finish projects that you really love.”
Despite a dramatic setback that is captured on film, the giant log was successfully transformed into a sleek, seaworthy, red-and-black craft. It is now housed at the new Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre that will open on the Whitehorse waterfront next spring.
Contained in a special room with doors that open directly onto the river, the canoe is not intended merely for display, but to be launched for special cultural celebrations.
“The only music we had was the birds, the wind and the river,” observes one of the 19 young carvers, all of whom gave up their cell phones and computer games, and pledged themselves to be alcohol and drug-free for the duration.
Guitars were allowed, as was the occasional session of entertainment from elders such as Art Johns and Nola Lambkin at the Egg Island carving site near Lake Laberge.
“This log was flawed, just like we are,” comments another participant.
“We’re going to fix it, and in so doing, we’ll fix ourselves,” vows Wayne Price in the film.
A Tlingit master carver from Haines, Alaska, Price supervised the dugout project, working hours on end, adze in hand, alongside the students.
“This is the biggest and the baddest log in this whole valley… and it’s ours, and we’re going to get it up this bank to the carving spot, and we’re going to make a ship out of it. We’re going to put it back in this water and sail home,” he adds.
As the log is being towed ashore, Price shows the students a model he had bought – in exchange for some artwork – from Haida master carver Charles Edenshaw, whose brother had carved it.
“What Charles Edenshaw’s brother left me was all the directions that I need to know to make a full-size dugout,” he assures the young carvers. “I brought this out here so that all of us could pick it up; it’s not a museum.”
Like many of the participants, Price had been “pursued by demons of alcohol,” Code explained in a recent interview.
“He beat those demons, and in gratitude to the people and the spirits that helped him, he decided to make a healing totem and a healing dugout.”
“Do we have a problem?” Price asks the students rhetorically. “Yes, we do. Are we going to do something about it? Yes, we are.”
“It was really like a community, where everyone was there learning something at some level or other, and passing on and passing it around,” says Code. “It was phenomenal. I think those young people are still processing what they learned that summer.”
Code sums up the transformative effects of the dugout project, which took place under the aegis of Sun Dog Carvers co-founder Andrew Finton.
“Experiences like that do not always have an immediate effect, but they are a touchstone for people in their lives to go back to, and to sense and feel in a very tactile way a success – something where a challenge was met and overcome,” he adds.
“I think unless we have those experiences, in a way we go through life missing something.”
Dugout will be screened at the Yukon Arts Centre on Wednesday, November 2 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7, with all proceeds going to the Northern Cultural Expressions Society.
Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.