A generation ago, very few of my people were able to purchase any luxuries to make their trip on the land easier. Equipment such as toboggans, sleds, snow-shoes, canoes and paddles were tools that required a great deal of work and money to acquire. Freighter canoes were purchased at great cost by trappers and hunters who were barely able to make ends meet to support their families. Therefore, the owners treated these canoes with great care. Individuals were able to keep and maintain old wooden framed canoes for years. Wooden parts that wore away were rebuilt with a lot of skill. Fabric from discarded clothing or other material was sewn onto the canvas hulls to repair torn holes. This resulted in a novel art form as you could view the different repair jobs on the canoes as they sat bottom up on the shore of the river. There were all kinds of patches in bright colours and patterns.
Another great skill that was prominent among many individuals in the past was the art of paddle making. The person fashioning the paddle first had to select the right type of wood. It started with a log being split by hand to carefully preserve as much of the main piece of wood used for the paddle. The wood carver would then have to use a very sharp axe to hew the split log in the shape of a paddle. This required much knowledge in knowing how and where to swing an axe to go with the grain or against the grain of the wood.
One master paddle maker stands out in my memory. He lived near our home, just across a muddy, wet yard from our house. He could not hear and was also not able to speak. His name was Frederick Carpenter but we knew him as Bah-neh-n-tii-nick in the Cree language. Frederick lived with his sister who also had the same condition. I have many memories of watching him from our front steps as he cut a bright new pair of wooden paddles for someone in the community. He always worked near the front steps of his house, beside a log pile. After years of working with wood to supply his stove and to provide the community with paddles, a large mound of wood chips and strips developed.
The paddles he produced were sought after by many people in town who traveled the waterways in our area. These paddles had to be strong enough to use for poling in shallow waters, light enough to paddle a canoe and long enough to use in deep water for pushing or dipping for river levels. Frederick could offer paddles capable of meeting all these requirements and he was also able to customize his orders and create paddles for smaller 18-foot canoes or the larger 24-foot freighters.
As an experiment one year, my friends and I tried to fashion our own paddles. As teenagers we had observed Frederick and other Elders skillfully and with what looked like great ease create these incredible paddles. My friends and I quickly found out how much work was involved as we spent an entire day cutting a split log into shape. Our hard work resulted in poorly constructed paddles with thin handles and a flimsy shaft. We took our creations out for a boat ride to test them out. Our poorly made paddles broke while trying to use them to launch our canoe into the water. This gave us an appreciation of the skills needed to produce a good paddle.
Frederick no longer lives across the way from my home. As a matter of fact our old homestead was moved to another location. He now resides in a new development which is dedicated to senior housing. Although he is much older now he continues to use his skills to make paddles. He creates tall strong paddles. They are built so precisely that they almost look as if they were constructed with modern saws and planers. As a young boy I never really thought much about where our boat paddles came from. I had always assumed they were purchased from the local store. Even though I had seen Frederick cut new paddles every year I did not know enough to appreciate just how much of an artist he was. It wasn’t until later that I realized that these well crafted pieces of wood were the work of a skilled master. It is my hope that he and other paddle makers have the opportunity to pass these skills down to the younger generation. You never know when you might get stuck up the river without a paddle.