Drama, tension as canoe steamed in Skidegate

  • Oct. 26, 2007 5:00 a.m.

By Charlotte Tarver–After months of waiting, tension was in the air as 125 people gathered at the edge of the beach in front of the Haida Heritage Centre Oct 25. They were there to watch the traditional steaming of a 29 foot Haida cedar canoe carved by Garner Moody of Skidegate. At times, thick clouds of billowing steam enshrouded the canoe and people standing nearby, lending a surrealistic effect to the scene.Since July, Skidegate master carvers Garner Moody, Bill Bellis and Guujaaw and their assistants have worked steadily on carving three traditional Haida cedar canoes at the Centre. The next step, prior to launching, was to steam the canoes and Garner’s was the first. Steaming a canoe evokes powerful, emotional memories of times past. It reminds people of the importance of the cedar canoe in Haida history, culture and society. Steaming is one of the most delicate points in canoe making. Not many canoes have been steamed on the islands in the past 50 years. “I came to watch because I haven’t seen this since I was 8 years old.I can’t remember how big the canoe was but I remember the hot rocks being dropped into the canoe and the steam,” said Skidegate elder, Bea Harley. “My grandfather used to tell me lots of stories about carving and steaming canoes.”To do the steaming, the bottom of the canoe is filled with water, lined with green cedar or hemlock branches, and finally, sizzling hot rocks heated in a giant fire are dropped in. The water quickly turns to steam. The canoe is covered with thick blankets to keep the steam in. It takes about an hour for the steam to soften the cedar wood and causes it to expand outward to widen the canoe.Sometimes steaming causes the wood to crack when it expands, as it did on Garner Moody’s canoe Thursday. But even though cracks are disappointing, they can be fixed. What the builder looks for is the shape and balance of the expansion and if the canoe maintained its integrity. After inspecting the crack in the bottom, the three carvers turned to the waiting crowd. “Don’t worry, it’s fixable,” said Guujaaw. The other canoes are expected to be steamed in the next three or four weeks.