Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Canoe project keeps memories flowing

The steady thump of adze against cottonwood harkens to the deep rhythmic sound of a native drum beat.

The steady thump of adze against cottonwood harkens to the deep rhythmic sound of a native drum beat.

Two people are bent in labour over the hull of the dugout canoe Friday at The Exploration Place as another stands off to the side and takes a puck sharpening stone to his favourite ax.

It's day nine and the canoe is almost done.

Once completed and after its inaugural dip into the Nechako and Fraser Rivers during the Northern Hardware Canoe Race this Sunday, the 16-foot canoe will be part of the Path of Our Paddle exhibit in the museum.

Robert Frederick, 66, has been commissioned to create his fifth dugout canoe. On site there was Frederick's wife Edie, artist Jennifer Pighin and longtime friend Edward Dennis, 67, who takes his turn at shaping the canoe.

Passersby stop to watch, only to be quickly invited to join in the quest of making the bulky Cottonwood into a sleek canoe. Most respond quickly and take up the adze with vigor.

As members of the public wander away, it is time to reflect.

"In the days of Six-Mile Mary, she was the clan head, and my dad told me a story," said Edie, eyes closed, lost in the memory, as she stands with the tip of the canoe between her feet, using her legs to brace it so Jennifer and Edward can focus on the cuts they are making to the hull.

"She was the clan head and I suspect she was clan head of the Grouse clan, because my dad and his sister are both from the Grouse clan. When we had our village here (indicating Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park) at hunting time there used to be 50 of these dugouts going up to McGregor to harvest their meat. They wouldn't come back until all 50 canoes were full of meat. That was enough for winter."

Mountain sheep and marmot were favourites.

"You could put on weight with marmot," said Robert.

"It gave you energy."

When the hunters returned from their trip, they could be seen from the village at the turn of the river.

"When the families saw all the hunters come back they would bring out the drums and do a welcome song for them," said Edie, as she bends to hold the canoe with her hands to offer more stability as Pighin and Dennis continue to shape the canoe. "There used to be like 50 canoes - can you imagine? Fifty canoes like this one, only back in the day they were really long, all coming down the river."

It's times like this where the transfer of knowledge happens, said Edie, as everyone works together for one goal.

"It's settings like this - we don't set a time for it - it just happens and that's how it's been for generations," said Edie, acknowledging the quiet camaraderie set to the continual cadence of the adze and ax working on hollowing out the cottonwood.


Robert hones the blade of the cherished tool.

"This is my favourite ax," said Robert, as he hefts an old ax head on a new handle. "I always think that this is God's ax."

It used to be his dad's.

As he works on the blade of another ax, he inspects the cutting edge.

"Well, that one's ready to be used," said Robert. "Look at that, I sharpened it up pretty good."

Robert will make a pole to accompany the paddle he just made to be used with the dugout canoe.

"When I was a young kid my dad took us across the river and his friend Patrick John and his son were building a dugout - we were just little kids and we jumped in there and checked it all out and it was just like this here, maybe a little longer and a little smaller (indicating the width of the dugout canoe) and that was around 1957 and that was the last time I could remember a dugout. Earlier than that just about every band member in Shelley had a dugout."

The oldtimers were the experts at it, said Robert.

"They used to jump in their little skinny dugouts and make it go far out into the water and they'd balance - just like walking on water," said Robert. "That's the oldtimers. And that's what I remember when I was a young kid."