The Survival of the Redwood Canoe

  • Steve Dunsky, Public Affairs & Communication, Pacific Southwest Region, December 13, 2021

This photograph shows a Yurok Redwood log canoe floating on a river with the paddles visible.Along the Klamath River near the northern coast of California, the Forest Service is working with the Yurok Tribe to preserve the rich tradition of carving redwood canoes.

For the Yurok, the redwood canoe is more than a vessel for transportation. Canoes are considered spiritual beings, integral to their Creation stories and to their World Renewal Ceremony. Losing the materials and knowledge for making redwood canoes would be catastrophic for their culture.

But continuing the tradition is a challenge because suitable wood is hard to find. The Yurok do not cut down coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). Instead, they search for downed logs with a tight grain and a trunk free of cavities and burn scars. Because the Yurok reservation land is a narrow strip on either side of the Klamath, these logs can only be found on the surrounding national forest and national park lands.

The 2008 Farm Bill provided an opening for the Forest Service to help. Using the Cultural and Heritage Cooperation Authority-Forest Products for Traditional and Cultural Purposes, the Six Rivers National Forest worked with the tribe to locate and remove several logs. The process required extensive environmental analysis and the signature of the Chief of the Forest Service.

“The Yurok getting high-quality logs was critical to the survival of that specialized knowledge and practice of canoe carving in their community,” said Frank Lake, a research ecologist with the Forest Service. With family of Yurok and Karuk ancestry, Lake applies traditional knowledge to forest management on public, private, and tribal lands.

“The ability of the Yurok Tribe to get the logs from the Forest Service is a form of justice, in that the agency is recognizing the needs and providing assistance for tribal, forest-dependent cultural practices,” said Lake.

In 2018, the Yurok’s watershed restoration team carefully extracted logs from the Redwood Experimental Forest.

This photograph shows young people carving a Yurok Redwood Log Canoe with hand tools.This research area near the mouth of the Klamath River was purchased by the Forest Service from a lumber company in the 1930s. Today, it is a place where the agency is conducting research with the Yurok and others on climate change, forest restoration, and traditional uses.

Once the logs are obtained, it takes several months, using fire and steel adzes to make two 18-foot “dugout” canoes from an eight-foot diameter log. A river canoe can weigh 500 pounds, while the ocean-going canoes of the past could weigh close to half a ton. According to Josh Norris of Yurok Country, there are only 10 operational canoes now in existence, making them among the rarest boats in the world. 

Norris runs a program that offers two-hour river tour using these canoes. The experience offers insight to the visitors and revenue to the tribe. He says that visitation has been high, even during the pandemic.

Across Highway 101 from the Yurok Country visitor center, visitors may also see Doug Severns carving a canoe. Severns, who learned his craft from master carver George Wilson, is passing on his knowledge to future generations. In a recent video made by the Tribe, Severns passionately describes his commitment to the craft of canoe building, “the real value is when you share it.”

Through the gift of logs from public land and the teaching of traditional skills, the survival of the redwood canoe offers hope for cultural practices, forest restoration and world renewal.

Yurok redwood log canoe is on a river and occupied by four people.


Redwood canoe Video Credit Josh Norris/Yurok Country
From Pacific Southwest Region on Vimeo.

Frank Lake awarded

This photograph shows scientist Frank Lake wearing a yellow Nomex shirt and hard hat in a forestThis month, Lake received the 2021 Pacific Southwest Research Station Honor Award for “Science Delivery”. The award recognizes the contributions his numerous publications and active outreach are making to science, conservation, and restoration.

Lake's research crosses multiple disciplines, covering topics such as wildland fire effects, ecological restoration, climate change, and ethno-ecology. His investigation of indigenous and tribal agroforestry practices in the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion has helped to build collaborations around land management solutions that support healthy forests and tribal communities.

Lake presents his work at scientific conferences, through webinars, and at conferences with land managers. His frequent media appearances have given greater exposure to agroforestry and traditional ecological knowledge. He is also helping to develop the next generation of scientists and managers by serving as a mentor and graduate committee member for students working on tribal food security, wildland fire, and forest management.