As the motorboat rounded a slight bend in the Yukon River, suddenly a white-arched shelter can be seen on the not-so-distant shoreline. Once the lifejackets are shed, everyone climbs out and onto a tiny makeshift dock.
A few people gather around a softly smoking fire, but the focal point of this campsite is the makings of a huge red cedar canoe that devours space under the white structural tent.
“This was a vision that I’ve had somewhat on the back burner for a few years,” explains Wayne Price, a Tlingit master carver who leads Sundog Carving Studio’s Dugout Canoe Project.
“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to take a bunch of young people and just see how long it would take to do a dugout, if that’s all we had to do. I think the timeline on this speaks for itself. It’s fast.”
It’s Week 6 of the roughly two-month-long project, and the hard work is undeniable. Nearly the entire edging of the canoe has been carved out. Certain areas are darkened with rot and are in the process of being patched with stronger, healthier wood removed from what is now the inside of the vessel.
Since the beginning of June, 19 young carvers with Sundog have been a part of the journey to craft this 30-foot dugout canoe using traditional methods and living a traditional lifestyle.
Gone are the technological gadgets, automobiles and residential life.
“This is definitely really different … staying out here and getting eaten by mosquitoes,” Duran Henry says with a laugh.
“But it gives me a lot more focus on my carvings and on my personal health. It really helps me focus on what’s important to me and got me out of trouble. It really helped me clear out my mind, you know, because of all the chaos of downtown and people. It’s something that I really needed that I didn’t think I needed.”
The group suddenly calls out a chant and quickly gets back to work. As others chip away at the canoe and prep the wood patches, Henry sits inside a mesh tent carving a mask.
“When we’re not working on the canoe, we work on our own personal projects and right now I’m working on a mask made out of red cedar. I just sort of roughed it out right now, but I’ll get to the fine-tuning in a bit,” he says displaying the soft lines of the face.
As Henry speaks, Jared Lutchman intently chips away at his own project. He promptly explains that it is a frog helmet, which is an old-style type of Tlingit armour.
“Basically they kind of make a person seem taller and a bit more fierce,” he says and alludes to a book of traditional Tlingit designs that lies adjacent to him.
“The first little while that we were here, it certainly looked a lot different. It was just rugged, natural terrain,” Lutchman says, looking around the camp. “As we set-up shop over the last little while, it’s changed and become like a little community.”
Tables, lined with tools, crowd the edges of the large white shelter while tents sprawl beyond its perimeter. The floor is almost entirely covered with wood chips, creating a mound of texture.
Pointing toward the shoreline, Lutchman explains that getting the once-13,000-pound red cedar log into the area, in the first place, was no easy feat.
“We winched it and we set-up a team with a rope and pulley system. When the log came around the corner of the island, it made every other tree in sight look like a little toothpick,” he says with a laugh. “It was an all-day excursion to bring it up.”
By the time the dugout canoe is complete, it will weigh roughly 400 pounds. “It’ll be our big chunk of artwork,” Henry jokes.
For Price, this is his eighth dugout project, one he considers to be a healing process.
“When I got the vision for this, in the first place, I had asked what makes this a healing dugout over any other dugout?
“And the Creator told me all the chips that we’re standing on, which are about 35-feet long and two-feet deep. Each represents someone that’s been lost to alcohol and drugs,” he says glancing down at his feet.
Visitors are welcomed to write a name on a chip to remember someone they have lost. And when the canoe is near completion, the chips will be burned in a ceremonial fire. That fire will also produce red-hot rocks for the final step of the dugout: the steaming.
“The sides of the gunnels are curved in and so it looks quite narrow. And, actually, on the bottom it has an arch; there’s a rise in the centre,” Price explains as he smoothes his hand over the canoe.
“We’re going to fill this a third full of water and then we get rocks red-hot in the fire and we’re going to steam this whole dugout. And after a while the bottom of the dugout is going to relax and it’ll go flat and that’ll trigger the sides to spread open about one foot wider on each side.”
Then the crew will be ever closer to their final goal: to ride the dugout canoe to the shore of the Yukon River in Whitehorse.
A sail will eventually be added and Henry says the outer design is also in the works.
“We’re not going to use anything too traditional. It’ll be something more formal and neutral,” he says.
“So we’ll probably use something that all nations can connect with, not clan crests or something like that. Like maybe a healing spirit or the sun and moon.”
Working in teams, through a cycle of four different shifts, the progress on the canoe is already remarkable. Though some parts were cut out using a chainsaw, it is primarily the product of chip-carving and precision.
Even a veteran like Price is astonished by how quickly they’ve all come together to turn what was once a mammoth log into a near-vessel.
“When we started hollowing out the inside, the students got to a peg hole, in the bottom, in one day. It was pretty remarkable to watch. That was a lot of chopping in one day, and then boom!” he says with a gesture of his arms.
A peg hole is a small wooden peg placed throughout the canoe structure as it is being crafted. It acts as a measuring tool to identify a specific thickness of the wood. If a peg is reached during carving, then the correct thickness has been met.
“To get to the peg hole in the bottom, in one day on a dugout, is a record, if not very impressive.”
Their secluded journey has included visits from Elders, talking circles, sweat lodges and traditional carving teachings along the east side of the river near the Sundog Retreat. And the finished canoe will be a gift for the Kwanlin Dun First Nation for their cultural centre once it is constructed along the Whitehorse waterfront.
But Price says it is much more than just that; it’s a lasting voyage.
“We’re all a team. It’s a family. And we all have made this pledge to reach this common goal of being able to paddle out of here.”
See the project at www.yukoncanoeproject2009.blogspot.com.