Canoe Steaming

Carl and Joe Martin steam a canoe near Tofino. Click to play video.

The Northwest Coast is rightly famous for the superb dugout canoes made by First Nations, a craft which continues to the present day.  It takes weeks or months to carve  a canoe from a single log of red cedar – imagine then the tension inherent in having a big part of the success or failure “boil down” to a single event the steaming process.  The video above shows master carvers Joe and Carl Martin of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation steaming a canoe at a beach near Tofino, on western Vancouver Island.

Steaming softens the cedar and makes it more flexible, allowing the insertion of carefully-measured, carefully-planned wooden spacers which spread the middle of the canoe into a graceful curve, increasing its buoyancy, resistance to capsizing, and introducing subtle yet beautiful lines, as seen in this enormous example mis-labelled (I think) as Salish.  After the canoe cools and dries, the wood returns to its natural properties. The process means the canoe can in principle be wider than the single piece of cedar from which it is carved.

You can click here to see a slide show of the steaming of a Haida canoe carved by the team of Jaalen Edenshaw and his father Guujaw. In the old times, a canoe might be roughed out in the bush then hauled to the beach for finishing.  Sometimes flaws in the wood or other interruptions mean a canoe was never finished.  Such half-finished vessels are a known, but uncommon archaeological site in the woods of coastal British Columbia.

The carving of such canoes is increasingly common.  Nowadays, the canoe log is likely to be hauled to a carving shed.  Sadly, a major constraint  on canoe construction is the difficulty in obtaining prime, straight, clear, old-growth cedar logs.

Partially finished Haida canoe in forest. Photo by Martin Lalune.

8 responses to “Canoe Steaming

  1. Just saw this old posting. The ‘enormous canoe’ is the 70′ monster made by the Ditidaht. I believe it did only a single trip to Victoria and back before being abandoned; it was too unweildy in ocean conditions to be managed by paddle. We tried to find its remains, as it had been pulled up into the woods and we knew roughly where from the Bouchard’s interviews with elders and our own chats. The bow section sat in a lighthouse keeper’s cottage for years and then allegedly was sold to a German museum. It would be interesting to check out that story!


    • Thanks Morley. Yeah, I can imagine it being a handful at sea – it would need a ton (literally) of ballast I would think. Captain Voss must have put a keel on the Tillikum, no?

      You’d be hard pressed to find a tree to make one of those out of, these days.


  2. For anyone interested, Joe Martin (Tla-o-qui-aht from Echachis) and co will
    be steaming another canoe this Friday (Sept. 24, 2010) at Chesterman beach in Tofino, BC. This is one of the activities of the carving festival see:


    • Thanks a lot, jur Bekker. This looks like a great event. Once upon a time I worked with Joe Martin and have followed his amazing work from a distance now that I can do so without having to leave NWC Archaeology World Headquarters. I’d love to head up there myself and WTF maybe I will.


  3. Canoe blanks on shore of Kennedy Lake.
    The earlier photo of the mossy Haida canoe post reminds me of several canoe blanks in the bush near the shore of Kennedy Lake. When I first saw them (196-7?) there were three. Two were in the bush, probably where they were felled. One had a 6-8″ hemlock growing out of it. The third one was sticking straight out of the bush at the high end of a gravelly beach. A couple of years later, the highwater had floated that blank and deposited it parallel with the lakeshore at the upper part of the beach.
    The next time I went there all that remained of the log were lines of sawdust where someone had bucked the log into short lengths for campfire wood.
    The location of these CMT’s is within Clayoquot Arm Provincial Park. Part of the area the Tla-o-qui-aht FN plan to turn into a tribal park….


  4. Hi Jur Bekker,

    It’s funny you mention the bucking up of the canoe. Morley would know more, but I remember finding on Meares Island numerous Culturally Modified Trees (of the logged variety: planked logs lying on the forest floor) which had been cut up by “shake rats” – a niche forestry job of gathering “shake bolts” for making shingles and shakes. Anyway, the cool thing was, some of these CMTs were dated by the nurse trees growing on them and if I recall correctly, cedar logs that had been lying on the forest floor for close to 100 years were nonetheless still in good enough condition to warrant their wood being usable.

    That told me that (a) we’ve logged the ^&*%$ out of the cedar and (b) cedar is a heckuva wood.


  5. Pingback: Haida Canoe Unfinished « burnt embers

  6. Hi, I’m a pigment specialist researching canoes that had the interior walls painted with a local blue clay pigment. (I’m interested in any artifacts with this pigment.) I have some evidence it was common practice to paint the interior of canoes blue with a red ochre line just below the gunnel and the exterior painted black or the charred exterior sealed with various substance.
    I’d love to hear from anyone who has any information about pigments, particularly the blue and green, used here on the NW Coast.
    Melonie Ancheta
    Native Paint Revealed


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