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Joe Martin, Carver

by Dan Lewis

Joe Martin grew up in the village of Opitsaht on Meares Island, directly across from the town of Tofino on Vancouver Island. He now lives at Echachist and is a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, which is a tribe of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations. The name Clayoquot is an anglicization of the word Tla-o-qui-aht, which means 'people who are different than they used to be'.

His father, the late Chief Robert Martin, was a canoe carver who passed his skills and knowledge on to his son. "We spent a lot of time fishing for salmon in a dugout canoe, out near Wilf Rock, when I was a young boy," says Joe. They would go out in a variety of conditions-for up to eighteen hours a day. If the winds became too strong, they would go to shore and sleep. Any fish they had caught were covered with kelp to keep them fresh. In the evening, the winds would ease, and the seas would smooth out, allowing them to head back home.

In winter, they would check his father's traplines on weekends, or whenever Joe was not in school. He had no choice in the matter-Joe would often sit in the canoe and stare back, wishing he could be on the beach, playing with his friends. "In retrospect , I'm glad to have learned about the ocean's many moods, to have learned respect for the ocean", he recalls.

For Joe, respect means knowing your limits. "Learn to read your environment-clouds forming on the mountains, rings around the sun or moon. My dad could tell if the open sea was rough by listening to the waves break on the beach at Opitsat".

Since 1982, Joe has carved more than 20 canoes. They are made from huge red cedar logs, ranging in length from 14 to over 30 feet long. Some are sold, others are given away as gifts. Many are in use up and down the coast.

Joe and his brothers Carl and Bill all learned to carve canoes. "We weren't taught-we learned by trial and error" Joe says. "One time I decided to try something a different way. My father just laughed-he said it was a waste of good wood. In the end, he was right!" Joe uses a chainsaw to speed the process. "I use the same principles as the old days-cut grooves, then split the wood away". Many people inspired Joe, especially the elders. "The late Ben Andrews from Hesquiat showed me a real easy way to carve the bow and stern pieces. I still use his technique today".

Joe has done some amazing voyages by canoe. He recalls, "In 1981 we paddled from Tofino up to Nootka Sound, around Nootka Island, and back. Eleven people departed, but only five or six returned-people bailed out along the way. We shot a seal and ate it, also a deer. We also caught salmon, barnacles and mussels, and an octopus. We had to launch through huge surf one day. The 27' canoe nearly got airborne while punching out!"

In 1997 Joe took part in the Tribal Journeys paddle to Victoria for the opening of the North American Aboriginal Games. The group then crossed to Port Angeles, paddled out to Neah Bay at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula to visit relatives (the Makah are a tribe of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth nations). From there they paddled offshore, heading straight back to Tofino. "We decided to sleep out in the canoe one night, instead of heading in to shore. There were bodies everywhere, trying to find somewhere comfortable to sleep."

In the 1980's, when Joe was working as a logger, he saw several shaped canoes abandoned in the forest. "One time, a guy on my crew was a long way up the hill above me. He called down to me to climb up and help him. When I finally arrived, he surprised me by saying, 'Look at that old canoe over there'. It was about 35' long, nearly completed. The wood was still solid. Trees had grown on it, and been cut down by loggers. I counted the rings on those trees, they were around a hundred and twenty years old. We were over a mile from the ocean, and way up the mountain."

"The canoe has always played a central role to coastal First Nations-it was our car; the sea was our highway. It gave us access to our ha-houlth-ee (territories), and helped us protect our ha-houlth-ee. It also allowed us to visit relatives all the way from Kyuquot to Neah Bay."

The carving and use of canoes didn't die out-it just slept for a while. "As a child, I was accustomed to seeing canoes on the beach at Opitsat," Joe recalls. Today, the revival of dugout canoes parallels the revival of a people's identities. "The reservation system has dis-connected people-the reserve boundaries are not our boundaries. Paddling dugout canoes really reconnects people back to the land. Abusers have sobered up and changed their lives-young and old."

As for the future, Joe hopes to see the canoes used as a source of income, to take visitors paddling. "It is an excellent way to understand our culture, our ties to the land here, and our relationship to different people all up and down the coast' Joe says. "And it is definitely the most environmentally friendly way to get around."

Joe will be offering guided canoe tours in Clayoquot Sound this summer. If you'd like more information about buying a cedar dugout canoe, or joining Joe on a guided tour, you can email him: