Recently, the Pemberton Museum uploaded this footage of Lil’wat Charlie Mack steaming a cedar canoe. (A copy of the video was donated to the Museum by Wellness Almanac contributor, Lil’wat Cultural Technician Johnny Jones.)
The footage was shot in 1975 by anthropologists Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy, whose book, The Lil’wat World of Charlie Mack, we reviewed earlier this year.
The canoe is believed to be the last piece created by the revered canoe builder and cultural leader Tslasqet and is on long-term loan from the Canadian Museum of Civilization to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre.
We reached out to Dorothy Kennedy and asked her to share the story behind the video.
Here is her first contribution to The Wellness Almanac.
Anthropologist Dorothy Kennedy Recalls the Filming of Charlie Mack’s Lil’wat Canoe
“The salmon heads are waiting,” Charlie Mack Seymour had written to us in his letter of 18 September 1975. From our discussions with him we knew that dried salmon heads were an essential ingredient for seasoning the canoe that we had arranged for him to carve for the now-called Canadian Museum of Civilization. We also knew that Charlie was among the best of the remaining Lil’wat canoe makers in Mount Currie and that documenting this final step in the process would cause that fact to be remembered. Charlie said that the sleekness of his canoe’s design, its scale and symmetry, the resilience of the hull, how it cut through the rapids, would all be determined by this final act.
With such an auspicious occasion to document, we phoned our photographer friend, Vickie Jensen in Vancouver and asked her to join us in Mount Currie to film what Charlie Mack called “boiling the canoe.” Randy Bouchard and I arrived at Charlie’s cabin the night before, expecting to chat, but Charlie busied himself pulling together the materials he would be using for the boiling: wood for the day’s fire to heat the rocks; hubcaps that passing vehicles had lost on the road to Duffey Lake, re-serviced as pans to hold the hot rocks below the canoe; a shovel to carry the hot rocks from the fire to the canoe; a bucket for the river water to put in the pans and inside the canoe; trimmed branches from the riverbank to stretch out the gunnels as the steamed wood became pliable; and a tarp and large sheet of plywood to hold the steam within the vessel. And the salmon heads were waiting.
We awoke early the next morning to a grey sky. Charlie was pensive, absorbed in the consequences of his work and the menacing, uncontrollable weather. It started to rain. One of Charlie’s favourite expressions in describing Mount Currie weather was “It rained to beat the band” — drawing out the “r-a-i-n-e-d” — and that morning we understood how tonal rain could be. Vickie Jensen and her Grandma pulled up during a brief interlude. Collectively we weighed the merits of proceeding, with one of the factors being the one-day rental of the 35mm movie camera, a serious consideration given that we had no funding for the film project. Charlie was eager to complete the canoe and send it off to Ottawa.
Despite the threatening rain, Charlie had earlier started heating the rocks in the fire and now dropped the hot stones into the water that lay in the belly of the canoe. Bursts of steam exploded and Charlie quickly covered the canoe with the plywood sheet. Throughout the day, we helped replace the hot rocks as they cooled, transferring them back and forth between the fire and the canoe. Every hour or so, Charlie took his tape measure from his pocket and measured the space between the gunnels. Amidst it all, when the rain let up, Vickie filmed and I shot some stills, using my old Mamiyaflex camera. Charlie said later in the afternoon that we would then leave the canoe overnight. With film to spare, we visited the fish camp at Lillooet Lake and then drove up the Duffey Lake Road to the top of the first big hill where Vickie filmed the soon-to-be-logged stands of majestic old-growth cedar.
Weeks later, when Vickie received the film back from the processors, we found that the inevitable had occurred despite the preventative measures she had taken and all the talent she had brought to the task. Rain had seeped into the casing, causing the camera to malfunction and most of the film to be ruined. What we have today is what we made available to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre several years ago. For the purposes of the SLCC’s display, they edited out Randy and me from the film footage. The fuller version of the film that Johnny Jones gave to the Pemberton Museum, who posted it online, is a copy that the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria kindly duplicated for us. While the RBCM put their name on the copy, they had nothing to do with the film’s creation, the surviving legacy of a memorable time that Vickie Jensen, Randy Bouchard and I spent with Charlie Mack, a master canoe-maker, on a rainy day at Mount Currie in October 1975.
Perhaps with this information, the canoe film will have more meaning to those who view it. Charlie’s canoe can be seen at the SLCC where it is on long-term loan, which seems like an ideal arrangement and one that would have delighted our old friend.
by Dorothy Kennedy, D.Phil.
Anthropologist, Bouchard and Kennedy Research Consultants, Victoria