The Forgotten Art of Moosehide Canoes
Article and Photography by Ashwin Freyne
There are tools and gear everywhere in the wall tent that Doug Smarch works in. Some are modern pieces of equipment like hand planers, some are traditional tools that I have never seen before and others look like they were specifically built for this project. As I approached the “workshop”, Smarch is pulling two, long spruce planks from a steaming plastic pipe, explaining that this is home-made wood steamer he invented for boat building.
Doug Smarch is one of only a handful of people that know how to build traditional moosehide boats, which were once the main mode of transportation over the lakes and rivers around Teslin. Spruce boughs are steamed and fastened into a frame, and moose hides are stretched over the shape to create a waterproof vessel. Over the course of the Adaka Festival, Smarch constructed a skin boat, as festival visitors watch and ask questions in a project called Dzísk’u dáxh dùk tín, Tlingit for “With Skin from the Moose”.
Watching Smarch work is a not only a testament to craftsmanship and attention to detail, but also to an ability to learn on the fly and for creative problem solving. Despite his obvious skill, this project is still relatively new to him – he only began building these boats three years ago. One of the more interesting inventions he pointed out was a long black, plastic pipe from which he pulled out spruce planks earlier. He has attached the hose of a wall-paper steamer to fit the piping, to create a makeshift, but efficient wood steamer, that allows the wood to become supple enough to be worked. It is one of several examples in his workshop of mixing traditional and modern techniques to create the craft. He spoke excitedly about the use of self tapping screws in the design, something they had not used in the past, as well as how helpful waterproofing glue has been. “One of our sayings is ‘i gu.aa yáx̱ x’wán’ it means to do your best.” says Smarch, “So, wouldn’t you try to receive the best that the world has to give.”
One of the greatest challenges that Smarch has faced in building these boats is the extended disconnect between the boats and the people. Although he grew up in Teslin, a member of the Kookhitann (Raven) Clan, he had never been in a moose hide boat until he built one of his own. Smarch’s father, who was a boat builder himself, recalled in his childhood travelling lakes and rivers in moose hide boats but, by the time Smarch Jr was growing up, these boats had disappeared from the water. Still, it is clear he still feels that strong connection to the craft. When speaking about working with his work partner John Peters Jr, Smarch touches on this connection. “Our dads are boat builders,” he says “there’s just a just an understanding of watercraft between us”.
That being said, the challenge of creating one of the Yukon’s first moose skin boats in the 21st century was a daunting one. “It was pretty challenging because we […] were sensitive about tradition. We had no knowledge of them, very little, I could only imagine building one.” says Smarch, looking back on the first skin boat he built only two years ago. “My Dad was supposed to help you build one and he explained it and […] it’s almost by just faith and trust, we did it.” Ultimately, the other difficulty was simply admitting how new he was to the process, “You know, we were very exposed to the public; people would ask us how many did we build and and it was tough to say well,[this is] just the first one.”
The learning process and effort of recreating these traditional vessels has clearly been worth it. Festival goers examined the work, commenting on the unique design and the methods used in creating, and Smarch is a gracious craftsman, happy to answer all the questions brought up. When asked how it felt to launch the first skin boat into the river for the first time, and he answered quickly. “It was just amazing. When we did paddle it, I told John Jr., I said: ‘you want to know what, John?’ I said, ‘this is historical because our people never had a government, our people never knew of this modern world. We didn’t even have our status numbers, you know.’ I said, ‘you know John when we get in these boats for that little moment we’re going to be free of all that you know, so that was that was really significant for us’.”
As Smarch continues to improve in his building of these boats, what is next? In the Northwest Territories, skin boats have been seeing a resurgence as well, and some epic river trips down the Nahanni and Liard river have already been accomplished. Smarch has similar plans here in the Yukon. A river quest is something on his mind, but he does mention potential difficulties passing through Five Finger Rapids. However, what he is most interested in comes back to the traditional nature of this project. “I’d like to do a hunting trip with one of them where we actually see a moose and you stalk it with this boat.” said Smarch.
Finally, I asked how is it that Smarch ended up back in Teslin after so many years abroad. Smarch has studied in Sante Fe, Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as worked and researched in Peru, India and Kenya – in fact he left the Yukon for almost 20 years. There was a pause after I ask him, and then he began to speak. “I realized, sure, I could go out into the world and become really successful, but then I would get this gift of this success but I wouldn’t know my family. I wouldn’t know my people and I had to come back for that. I had to come back to make sure my relationship with my own people was strong”.