For the Love of the Journey
Stormy Hamar, with red suspenders and thick curly hair, greets all visitors to his home in Kasaan with a smile so genuine and a demeanor so joyous, you feel like you’ve been old friends for eternity. Ducking under the canvas tarp, Hamar is eager to share the project he’s been passionately working on to help revive elements of his Haida culture.
His work combines function with artistry, intense research with wild speculation, day-to-day incremental progress on a multi-generational schedule, and a humble woodshop beside a vast coastline. In the center of his canvas tent sits a dugout canoe, Hamar’s lifelong subject.
Home to less than 60 year-round residents and a modest patchwork of gravel road, Kasaan is a tiny isolated Haida village tucked deep into the coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska.
Dugouts were once prevalent across this verdant coast. Tlingit and Haida people would craft the powerful wooden vessels with graceful lines for hunting, commuting, defending territory and long-distance trading.
“I’ve heard stories of canoes that had gone all the way around South America and up to Boston from here,” says Hamar. “It’s also said that Chief Son-I-Hat who had the Whale House in Kasaan had established canoe routes and trade routes that went all the way from Kodiak to San Francisco.”
Hamar’s infatuation with canoe culture began early. As a kid, he and his brother stumbled upon an old dugout canoe that they began using to commute back and forth to school. Since his first encounter with the canoe, Hamar has made countless models ranging from four full-sized canoes to smaller models, and others made not from ancient trees, but from more modest materials.
“It feels ridiculous saying this out loud, but I use the bottom of tea bags and avocado skins. It’s not real artistic but you can manipulate them into small boats, and it helps with a basic understanding of the process,” Hamar says, laughing.
Model after model, trial after trial, Hamar learns through experience because there are no directions. “One of the real challenges I see in these canoes is that the old timers who made these things, and there were thousands of them up and down the coast, they all passed away silently over a hundred years ago and the transfer of knowledge and skill stopped.”
Hamar also relies on historical documents, vintage photographs, and the exchange of knowledge with other artisans on similar canoe-revitalization journeys. He has visited several old dugouts preserved between museum walls, but even those are limited.
Surrounded by a forest of cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees, using an ax-like tool, Hamar adzes rhythmically into the 30-foot old-growth log he purchased from Sealaska, preparing the wood form for steaming.
“Canoe steaming is kind of like a ‘magic trick’,” Hamar explains. He’ll adjust and refine the canoe’s shape using gravity, wet heat, heavy stones and careful hands. The final shape will be achieved while the canoe is covered with a tarp to trap the steam. When the tarp is removed, voila, the magic trick is complete. The shape becomes more conducive to cutting through the Inside Passage and is ready to be braced.
Preparing the canoe for steaming requires extreme care and a deep knowledge and understanding of the unique idiosyncrasies of each tree’s form. And while there are a few dugout canoes left in museums to study, there are no known examples of traditional dugouts preserved before the steaming process. So Hamar must speculate, imagine, and learn incrementally through experience, refining his skills as he goes.
“If something unfortunate happens in the process it’s a good opportunity for me to evaluate the situation and learn for the next one because my plan is to continue making these for the rest of my life and get much better at it so I can help others confidently learn,” says Hamar. “So mistakes are not failures, they are just a part of the process in getting to a better outcome later.”
The journey is slow and studded in obstacles. This old art form requires enormous dedication, but for Hamar, it has become a way of life. And making canoes is just the first step on a continued journey.
In 2013, community members from Kasaan were invited to paddle to the rededication for Chief Shake’s house in Wrangell, dozens of miles away along the coast.
“The only available canoe was an ugly fiberglass one and some folks were unsure about making the journey at all if they couldn’t have a traditional boat,” remembers Hamar. Ultimately, the group opted to give it a chance anyway.
“I’m 52 years old, and it was the only time that I’ve had an experience like that where people were so deeply affected. There’s teamwork, there’s people getting along sharing food and sharing hardship. Whatever all those things are that makes something truly great, that’s what this was,” Hamar recalls. The experience left a lifelong impression.
“That was such a great experience and so it stands to reason it would be a lot better with a real dugout.” For Hamar, this dugout is part of a larger mission of continuing to reconnect the Haida people with the old ways.
“It seems to me that people do better, myself included, when we practice things that our ancestors practiced in the old culture,” Hamar says.
Even if it takes another century before people fully relearn the canoe carving knowledge that passed away with the final generation of masters, Hamar is committed. He’ll keep adzing away, refining his approach, and sculpting canoes to launch into the verdant coastlines of Southeast Alaska.