It was the first time a dugout canoe had sailed those waters in almost a century. On January 14th, 2016, Tlingit master carver Wayne Price and his crew of apprentices wheeled their cedar dugout, Jibba, down to the harbor in the remote island village of Hoonah, Alaska.
The guys asked the Creator to bless them with a safe journey, then tucked me and my camera into the hull of the red canoe. It was raining as we slipped out into the grey winter waters just south of Icy Strait Point.
When I met Wayne and his apprentices they were beginning a long stay in Hoonah—they’d spend the winter, spring and summer carving dugout canoes in an open-air shop near the center of town, helping Hoonah villagers to learn the art, and to reconnect to that part of Tlingit culture. They’re making the canoes for the Huna Tlingit’s return to Glacier Bay, an ancestral homeland they were forced to abandon more than a century ago by an advancing glacier. In August, they’ll all paddle the new dugouts about thirty miles to the clanhouse they’ve built there ( Xunaa Shuká Hít), and a new chapter of their cultural history will begin.
The guys spend seven days a week swinging axes in an incredible cloud of cedar fragrance. It's everything they do right now-- living the sober life, dressing head to tow in Carhartts and sleeping in the Forest Service bunkhouse. Locals stop by daily to take a whack or two at the dugouts and learn to carve paddles—you’ve got to carve your own paddle if you want to help row eventually.
Wayne calls his canoes 'healing dugouts', and he wants to use them to fight the pain and emptiness he says plagues young folks he knows. He says it’s pretty simple in action—“You replace A with B”. Instead of indulging in vices that leave you empty, or falling victim to the patterns that have plagued your family for a long time, you join the kwaan. You find the form of a canoe within a cedar log, and you uncover it, one chip at a time, until the ground beneath you is blanketed in curls of cedar two feet deep. You teach others how to carve. Sometimes you harvest a seal. And you and your culture find a way forward together.
In our two hours on the water we paddled through every kind of weather—fog, gentle rain, a short window of sunlight, and then a faint rainbow arcing over the cannery. Sometimes the guys sang and joked. Sometimes it was fully quiet. When the sun came out, everyone grabbed their phones for a selfie.
As the morning stretched on, villagers started lining up on the docks with phones and cameras, shouting, “Hooh-ha!” in call-and-response to the guys as they rowed by.
Jibba is bright red and hard to miss, even from far away. Heather Powell, a Tlingit language teacher and culture bearer, told me later she was cooking fry bread in her grandparents’ house high on a hill when she caught sight of the canoe and rushed out on the porch with her drum, singing.
Heather's voice echoed in the grey stone bowl of the surrounding mountains, and landed full and clear around us as the guys raised their paddles high. I’ve never seen that particular kind of pride on people’s faces before.
It’s Spring now, and Wayne still texts me pictures of their progress every few weeks. They’re almost done with the first canoe, and soon they’ll start drawing the lines for the second one. “See any change?”, he wrote a month ago. I did.
When I saw the canoe in person, it was more log than boat. Now it was a true sailing vessel, curved front and back, and almost hollow, just like Jibba. A few weeks later, another photo arrived. They had molded the prow like the hook of a bird’s beak. The wood shavings on the floor lapped over their boots. His caption: “We out here chipping away”.