Hand-Carved Traditional Dugout Canoes Take to the Water Again

(Photo by Mary Marshall)

By Jon Waterhouse with Mary Marshall

Every summer, U.S. Tribes and Canadian First Nations of the Pacific Northwest hold an extraordinary canoe event which takes them far from their home waters to gather on the traditional lands of other PNW host communities. As paddlers make their way toward their destination in magnificent traditional dugout canoes, they stop in communities along the way to be regaled with food and celebration. When they depart, they are joined by canoes and paddlers from those Tribes or First Nations.

Most of the beautifully hand-carved vessels in which they travel are made from giant cedars or fir trees—up to 40 feet in length and often weighing well over a ton.

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(Photo by Mary Marshall)
The author's brother, Joe Waterhouse, was one of the original founders of the "Paddle to Seattle." Here he is in 1989 paddling a traditional dugout canoe he carved by hand. (Photo courtesy Jon Waterhouse)
The author’s brother, Joe Waterhouse, was one of the original founders of the “Paddle to Seattle.” Here he is in 1989 paddling a traditional dugout canoe he carved by hand. (Photo courtesy Jon Waterhouse)

The Native custom of canoe carving and paddling had all but vanished in the last century, but thanks to several Native folks concerned about the loss of our culture, the art of carving was revived in the 1980s. Today this positive and empowering focus is involving entire communities, or “canoe families,” in preparing their paddlers and canoes for public events, significantly strengthening cultures and boosting pride for countless Native People.

(Photo by Mary Marshall)
(Photo by Mary Marshall)
Jon's brother, Joe Waterhouse carved his own traditional dugout canoe for the original 1989 "Paddle to Seattle." (Photo courtesy Jon Waterhouse)
Joe Waterhouse at the original 1989 “Paddle to Seattle.” (Photo courtesy Jon Waterhouse)

In 1989 this annual canoe event was launched from Suquamish, the traditional homeland of Chief Seattle. Calling the event the “Paddle to Seattle,” a handful of paddlers in six carved canoes steadily pulled their way across the Salish Sea. The crossing was a huge success, even drawing the attention of media outlets from around the world.

The event has grown significantly each year. The most recent paddle saw the inclusion of canoes and Native paddlers from as far away as Hawaii and New York, growing the number of canoes arriving in Olympia, Washington and the Nisqually Reservation on July 29, 2016 to over 120, with paddlers numbering around 5000. Even Washington Governor Jay Inslee came out to cheer the paddlers and share his insights about the event.

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(Photo by Mary Marshall)

An added twist in this traditional paddle event has dramatically advanced its purpose: the inclusion of scientific water data collection.

Back in 2007, after acquiring a YSI sonde probe and attaching it, custom software, and solar power to my canoe, my small team and I made the 2000-mile Yukon River journey, while collecting water-quality data and visiting communities along the river. As we listened to Elders who shared the oral history of changes witnessed within the massive Yukon Watershed, the probe collected the data, and sent it to the USGS labs in Denver in real-time, at the river’s own pace—something that had never been done. We soon shared this technology with my friends and relatives in the Pacific Northwest and now they have mapped the entire Salish Sea.

(Photo by Mary Marshall)
(Photo by Mary Marshall)

This year the great people of Nisqually hosted the landing at the Port of Olympia, and the week-long gathering afterward on the Nisqually Reservation, roughly 15 miles north of Olympia. My wife, Mary, and I were honored to witness these stunning canoes and their amazing paddlers arrive on the shores of the host community, while singing or chanting their request to come ashore, as is tradition. I was happy to reconnect with many of our friends and family who paddled or joined us, along with a crowd of thousands who welcomed the paddlers and witnessed this awe-inspiring event.

See Joe Waterhouse and Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell, a Maori canoe carver who came to the Salish Sea area to help revive the ancient tradition there, in a local news clip from King-TV, Seattle, in 1988.

2017’s Canoe Journey will be hosted by the Sliammon First Nation whose homelands are on the Powell River in British Columbia. We hope to be there, and I’m extending an invitation to all of you, who might like to be there, as well.

Happy Paddling!

Jon and Mary

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river." Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.