One Tree, Four Canoes

"Making 4 canoes from one cedar tree, Olympic Loop, Queets, Washington.

Yesterday I posted on canoe steaming.  In the process of preparing that, I ran across an eye-popping photograph, above.  Seriously, I have been working on Northwest Coast Archaeology for over two decades.  I have a pretty good memory.

But I’d never seen this picture before, which shows four dugout canoes being made from a single red cedar felled on the Queets River, Washington State.  Click it for pretty high resolution.  This would presumably be territory of the Queets Tribe, who are now part of the Coast Salish speaking Quinalt Indian Nation.  Imagine the complex and revealing archaeological site left behind: the wood shavings, the planks, the skids, broken tools, coffee cups … years ago I worked on an excavation of a Culturally Modified Tree Site in Clayoquot Sound and we found superbly preserved wooden wedges, woodchips and other evidence of intensive logging and carpentry — evidence which, given the durability of cedar, could easily last for centuries.  Such a contrast to those sites dominated by stone tools: wood was where it was at on the Northwest Coast and yet archaeologically we see much less of it, and think about it less, than we ought to.

I don’t know much more about this picture than the caption.  If you do, then leave a comment!

Makah whaling canoes on the beach at Neah Bay. These are stylistically similar to the ones being made above and to the one being steamed in yesterday's video.

20 responses to “One Tree, Four Canoes

  1. Amazing. I’ve seen some of the CMTs in Clayoquot Arm, and the unfinished canoe on Graham Island… Even after a hundred years, it kind of feels like you’ve interrupted the people at their work.


  2. Eye-popping to be sure. These canoes remind me of one we recorded near Port Eliza (Zeballos). At the end of a very long day about 500 m from the nearest water and more than 1 km from the ocean we were recording a series of stumps and spotted a canoe-shaped log completely obscured by vegetation which turned out to be a nearly finished vessel. When revealed we could see a fair sized hole in the bottom. I thought it was rather small at 7 m in length but these pictured don’t look to be much bigger.


  3. Hi rob,

    I know what you mean, it’s like a lunch break that never ended. I’ve seen three or four unfinished canoes on Meares Island and they are definitely striking features to stumble across.

    Still, I was wondering about this Queets picture: if the practice was to carve the outside hull shape roughly while the blank was bottom up, then wedge the canoe blank off the log and roll it to the side where it could be hollowed then it is possible this picture shows two canoes being made on the left and two of the support pieces on the right which might or might not have been useful for making canoes.

    It’s also interesting that they have apparently crafted and attached the bow piece here in the woods, at the felling site, which one might imagine was a late stage part of the process, well beyond ‘roughing out’. The more distant canoe seems to have already been steamed and spread, as well. It may be that if the river was navigable then rolling a more or less finished canoe out of the woods into the river was a desirable way to get it to the ocean and back home.


  4. Granted my knowlege of these things is approximately zero, but I’d thing it’d be easiest to attach the bow piece rough and smooth it down with the rest of the hull afterwards.

    Also, Queets is on a perfect flat inside a meander. I bet the photographer literally has his back to the water. It seems like an ideal spot for building a canoe and simply paddling it away.


  5. My knowledge is close to zero too, when it comes to building a canoe. In the Waterman document I posted today on Nootka Whaling gear, he describes (p. 15) how the bow piece would be coated with charcoal along the joint, then placed to the canoe, then the charcoal would rub off leaving a stain, which could be used to help guide the adzing process leading to a perfectly flush joint. Page 53 of that manuscript shows a Makah carpenter fitting the bow piece.

    I find it interesting one of the men has a traditional D-adze, and the other a commercial plane: I’ve seen the same mixture of western and traditional woodworking tools used to this day in carving sheds along the coast. And why not – not everything from Europe is an improvement!


  6. Hi M Berkey — I’ve just discovered the spam filter has been eating posts here, so belated thanks for your comment. I’ve heard interesting accounts of Nuu-chah-nulth canoe makers having a practice of downing tools in the woods and not finishing projects if there were to be a death in the family. On the other hand, finding a flaw in the wood could have the same effect!


  7. Aha! I wondered what happened to that note…I might have tried to send the same (or similar) comment again thinking it had disappeared so please ignore it if you see it!


  8. I intercepted and truncated the double. Feel free to comment more, I have a setup now such that I think I can intercept the stream of alleged SPAM and pull real comments out of it so hopefully you don’t get zapped again.


  9. Andrea Hernandez

    Well the Harlow family was an important Queets family who lived above the Queets village, on the Queets river below the white homesteaders. We have two photos which are relatively the same (same men) in our collection here at the Olympic National Park -Cultural Resources Department. We attained the photos from a descendant of one the early homesteaders….


  10. I keep finding threads that I’ve never seen on this blogsite! I see you already commented on the D-adze – is it zoomorphic, maybe a Merganzer bird head??? There seems to be so much shaping of the two ‘backside’ canoe blanks that I’m sure they planned to finish them at some point. I’m surprised at the stern piece being fitted (don’t see the bow insert on either, I’m missing something?) in the bush.

    I note that the stump, being cut with a crosscut saw leaving a step-top, and with springboard notches, would not normally be called a CMT but assumed to be industrial/commercial – or indistinguishable from the commercial. I’ve recorded a couple of CMTs that were initially similarly written off, but in one case I found a canoe-side and a small piece of the bow (they’d had a bad split and planked most of the canoe and the log); and in the other case a lot of chopped and split debris from canoe hollowing was present – not something you’d see at a commercial site. Finding a canoe is always a good buzz!!


  11. Andrea: Hi, and welcome. I’m not 100% sure I follow – do you mean the men in the photo may be members of the Harlow family of the Queets Tribe? I apologize if this is a stupid question – I don’t know the area at all.

    Morley – did you click the picture for full size? It is a large file with tons of detail. I think you’re right, it is the stern pieces fitted, not the bows. Do you think the half-logs to the right will also be made into canoes? I mean, the caption suggests that but I was wondering what you thought.

    Good point about the kind of stump, which would always post-date 1846, but being easily confused with straight-up commercial logging is indeed surprising/potentially dismaying

    Unfortunately, I made this post before I became more concerned with linking into the original site, so I can’t even find where on the web this picture is reproduced, which is a bit embarrassing.

    Edit: here is one version, though not the one I used:


  12. Andrea Hernandez

    Hello-Let me see if I can clarify. The two men in the photo are the Harlow brothers from the Queets area. This information comes directly from members of the Quinault Nation when describing the photo. The Harlow’s lived on the Queets River. As I mentioned before, we have two other photos of almost the same scene. I think the one you have here is from 1932. We also have one with the same two men dated in 1931.


  13. Interesting note for me is that the photographer, a “Dale Northup,” is undoubtedly a relative of my friend Tom Northup of Lake Quinault, Wa., just south of Queets. His family settled in the valley of the Clearwater River, a major tributary of the lower Queets, I think in the early 1900s. I’ll send him a link to the post and see what he comes up with. Dugout canoe use on the Queets River continued until the late 1950s or early 1960s. I remember as a kid seeing them — motorized by then — sweeping upriver. The Quinaults still enjoy canoe races during their summer ceremonies, Chief Taholah Days. It’s also interesting to note that some of the largest remaining specimens of Thuja plicata are in this area.

    Big old red cedar


  14. Chatted with my friend Tom Northup of Lake Qunault, Wa., and the photo was taken by his great uncle Dale Northup. The carvers are Frank and Ben Harlow, well known canoe-makers of the time from the Queets tribe. Tom wasn’t sure where the pic was taken, but probably somewhere near the lower Queets River.


  15. Hello – I believe the Harlow brothers lived on the Queets River just upstream from where the Clearwater Road crosses the Queets. The small stream that flows into the Queets just above the bridge is Harlow Creek. They probably carved the canoes within a few miles from there. These appear to be what were commonly known as “sealing” canoes, usually about 26 ft. long. They had a thick bottom and were very stable. While designed for ocean use, they were commonly used for hauling freight before roads were built in the area. Propulsion was by paddle or long poles used to push the craft up the swift-flowing coastal streams. My grandfather and a great-uncle actually moved a piano up the Queets and Clearwater Rivers using two canoes side-by-side. One of my friends had a similar canoe back in the 1950’s, reportedly carved by Esau Penn of Lapush when he was in his 90’s. With a 25 h.p. long-shaft outboard it made very good speed. The natives and early settlers also used “river” canoes that were shorter, narrower, lighter and VERY tippy. I can remember as a small child being terrified as we descended Skookumchuck Rapids on the Clearwater River, but my father, like most men of his and the preceding generation were expert canoemen. They had to be, since the rivers were extensively used as highways into the 1940’s. Interesting to see the old picture again and follow the discussion of these amazing and beautiful canoes.


    • Hello Greg and Tom,

      Just a belated thank-you for the comments and added information about this interesting picture. I’d like to see a picture of the piano being moved in two canoes — I’d like to think it had two legs in each canoe but I suppose it was on it’s side, more likely….


  16. Pingback: Haida Canoe Unfinished « burnt embers

  17. The family name if the carvers is Harlow.

    Their carving feat is still
    A legend in the northwest tribes.


  18. Does anyone know if that photograph (or something similar) is available for use in a government report? I would like to feature it in a report on forest management to promote resources valued by tribes.


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