Tlingit 'pullers' say canoe stands up to weather
Members of a Chilkat Valley-based Native canoe group say they’ll be paddling to Skagway and Katzehin following a successful voyage – including through rough seas – to Juneau’s Celebration event.
Twenty members of North Tide Canoe Kwaan made the week-long trip that culminated at a meet-up with other Southeast Natives who canoed from their towns to Juneau’s Sandy Beach. Pilots in planes overhead dipped their wings and motorists on Egan Drive tooted their horns as the Tlingit seafarers made their way along Gastineau Channel.
“It was quite a trip, especially to have the children with us,” said Bosh Hotch, 67. “It may never happen again, something like that. We were all really proud to be on it.”
The paddlers, or “pullers” as they call themselves, said they were impressed by the stability of their 28-foot, ocean-going dugout canoe, which was completed in May and was making its first major voyage. It holds seven passengers and, like historic versions, can be affixed with a sprit sail toward the bow.
Unlike the other fiberglass hulls at the meet-up, which kicked off Celebration, the red cedar vessel was hewn from a single log. Pullers carved their paddles from cedar and spruce planks.
“I was amazed by the way it handled in rough water,” said Wayne Price, who leads the group. He said sailing a traditional canoe to the biennial Native festival in Juneau was the realization of a long-held dream.
On their first day out, the group was expecting to make Shikosi Island, about 12 miles south of Portage Cove. Instead, they went more than twice that distance, reaching Sherman Point. The vessel’s first test came from the wake of a cruise ship at Battery Point earlier in the day. The canoe rode it out smoothly, Price said. “We all hollered, ‘Is that all you got?’”
In the afternoon of the voyage’s second day, approaching Berners Bay, south winds blew up and swells reached three to four feet, but the vessel rode stable between the swells, pullers said. “I was sitting in the front and I didn’t feel the difference,” said Don Hotch Jr. “Even when we hit the waves, I couldn’t feel it. It was good.”
The boat made Echo Cove that day. By the time it made Admiralty Island a day later, pullers had gained a lot of confidence in their vessel and themselves, Hotch said. “By then we knew what the ship could do and we had the system worked out. It was automatic by then.”
Price said the vessel reached a speed of 6.9 knots against the tide and the wind. With flat water and a good crew, the boat might be able to reach 10 knots, he said. Canoeists from other communities who checked out the boat during the meet-up liked the way it handled. “They called it the Rolls-Royce of the sea,” he said.
Price said the Northern canoe was created centuries ago by Haida Natives and was quickly adopted by Tlingits for its seaworthiness. The lines for the group’s vessel came from a similar, 31-foot vessel in a Skagway museum.
It’s stable enough that crews were able to switch out, with the help of support boats, in rough seas. Members of the canoe group also used it for subsistence fishing in Chilkat Inlet last weekend.
Price said he’s already planning his next vessel, a 22-foot Northern canoe made of cedar strips. “We want to continue to work with our young people and old people and get more ships in the water.” Price also said he’d like to take the vessel out halibut fishing – using traditional halibut hooks. “I don’t think we’re going to slow down at all.”