Sturdy canoes designed for ocean voyages are a specialty of the coastal people of the Pacific Northwest. Each vessel is created using knowledge passed down from master carvers. Apprentices are taught to select trees and shape them into a strong and seaworthy canoe that can survive the rough Pacific waters and the dangers of fishing, whaling, and warfare. Yet the vessel must still display the symbolic designs that are part of the canoe-carving tradition.
Ocean-going canoes must have great stability to take the strong swells or wind-blown waves of the Pacific. The Giant Cedar became the tree of choice for the dugout canoe building technique, providing the necessary weight, strength and size for vessels up to 25 metres in length. Different sections of the coast had different requirements, but from the Haida canoes of the Haida Gwaii archipelago and north as far as Alaska, to the Nuu-chah-nulth vessels of western Vancouver Island, the canoes of the Pacific Northwest are built from a single large tree. The cedar can be shaped and hollowed by burning out the core, or by chopping and shaping it with axes, adzes, and other sharp tools. The hull should be flat and smooth and the sides curved, forming an outward angle that enables paddlers to pull up onto the beach and to cope with the open seas.
The bow is often decorated with carved and painted figures. A separate piece is sometimes attached to the upturned bow of Nuu-chah-nulth canoes and carved to look like a living creature, such as the mythical sea wolf. This feature allows canoes to beach bow forward so that they can back out into rough waters.
These canoes were described in Cook’s journals and in the drawings of many expeditions that reached the northern Pacific. Canoes transported goods and people, escorted the vessels of European explorers, and paddled out to meet trading vessels. They also enabled travel by coastal peoples as they engaged in their own traditions of trade and exploration in the Pacific Northwest.