The Bluebird was acquired by Kirk Wipper and transported from British Columbia back to Ontario on the roof of his pick-up truck. It is the largest canoe in the collection at 53 feet 8 inches in length. The canoes origins trace back to a rich history of Coast Salish dugout canoe racing on the United States’ and Canada’s Western Coasts. This particular canoe would have been raced by an eleven person crew and even at its length, would have been required to make sharp turns during a race. Until recently the Bluebird was thought to be carved by Elder and Master Carver Hwunumetse’ (Simon Charlie, 1920-2005) from Duncan, British Columbia. It is now known that the canoe was actually made by Chester Thomas.
Canoes like the Bluebird would usually be carved from Western Red Cedar, the tree of choice for many carvers, but this canoe was made from Spruce. A tree selected for canoe carving was chosen not only for its size, but also its strength. A tree’s wood is usually lighter on its south side, requiring it to be split in an East-West direction to avoid a list in the finished canoe. The tree was usually selected by the carver himself, his assistants and a spiritual leader. Once fallen the tree’s top section, with lateral branches, is removed as well as the bark. After being split the tree is carved into a v-shape using an adz (or more modern tools depending on when the canoe was made). Once this general canoe shape is achieved the canoe would be left over the winter allowing the wood to cure and mature.
The following spring carving continues when the canoe is turned over and hollowed out. To ensure equal thickness of the canoe hull the master carver would use his years of experience and eye to judge the distance. He may also use 1-3 fingers as the desired width and use a guide along the entire canoe. Next the canoe would be stretched. Ocean-faring canoes were partially filled with water and boiled over hot rocks. Mats were placed over the canoe and the canoe steamed, allowing the sides to be stretched outward, increasing the canoes beam. This steaming created an elegant shape and clean lines. Finally, the canoe is smoothed with dogfish skin or hemlock boughs before painted.
Coast Salish Canoe races began in the late 1800s as a tourist spectacle. During these earliest races Nuu-chah-nulth style war/whaling canoes were used as the predecessor to the sleeker faster Coast Salish racing vessel. In 1884 the Canadian Government outlawed potlatches and ceremonies of great religious and political importance. It was during this ban when canoe races began to gain popularity with dances, feast and ceremonies being added to the traditional race. Soon canoe races were used as a way to strengthen community awareness and connections and also as a way to increase public relations with non-First Nations peoples. By the late 1930s these canoeing events had grown to attract thousands of visitors and become a major summer attraction along British Columbia’s coast. These initial races have grown into modern summer festivals which honor and affirm the strength and traditions of the Coast Salish people.
Every race is important, and those racing know they are part of a wonderful tradition. Some crews are members of sports or aquatic clubs while others are teams put together to represent individual tribes or a specific reserve, while still others are family owned an raced. No matter who the paddlers are racing for, they understand that their position in the canoe is a great honour. The following is a quote illustrating the experience of the race:
” Racers train hard and long for the races, which are often grueling five kilometre courses. However, as the canoe glides smoothly and swiftly through the water their efforts are rewarded. It’s a great thing you can feel when everybody is one. … The timing is down, the sliding is down and it’s peaceful. All you hear is those paddles going into the water. It becomes part of you.” – Stan Green, Chilliwack B.C
Each racing canoe is given a name, and these names carry great traditions with them as well. Some names come from specific tribes or reserves and are passed down through generations of canoes and racers. Others are named by the master carver, sometimes commemorating the number of canoes they have carved, eg. No.5, Canoe 6, #7, etc. Others still are named after birds and animals or to represent a specific characteristic of the canoe, eg. ‘dancing canoe’. A winning canoe’s name was traditionally passed down upon retirement, giving its winning strength and power to the successor.