We were about to nudge our dugout canoes into the Klamath River when Sammy Gensaw spoke up. “These are the rarest vessels in the world,” said the guide for the Yurok tribe’s fledgling canoe tour business.
“There are only about 10 in existence, and these two are the only ones open to the public.”
I ran one hand along the boat, a single solid piece of redwood carved according to millennia of tribal custom.
Then we shoved off into the river.
We were in California’s Del Norte County, 65 kilometers south of the Oregon border and about eight upstream from the spectacular estuary where the river meets the Pacific at a sand bar under jagged cliffs.
As we paddled upriver, then down, we kept an eye out for bees at Terwer Creek. Near Snake Rock, we looked in vain for the family of otters that sometimes shows up. We spotted a crane in flight, then an egret and a kingfisher, and just a handful of other boaters.
We drifted beneath the US 101 bridge, which is guarded by two golden bear sculptures at each end.
The lower Klamath River and the redwoods are at the heart of Yurok culture. The tribe’s reservation follows the river and extends 1.6 kilometers from each bank, just broad enough to accommodate dozens of tiny, remote villages and the modest town of Klamath along the 101.
The west end of the reservation is surrounded by Redwood National and State Parks.
I wanted quality time on the water and under tall trees, but I also wanted to learn more about a people who were navigating this river thousands of years before the first Gold Rush prospectors reached California.
Gensaw and guide Zechariah Gabel were seated at either end of a vessel made in 1967 by master carver Dewey George.
I rode in the second, completed last year by wood carver David Severns, with Sammy’s brother, Jon Luke.
For now, that’s the fleet – two canoes. The first tours, delayed a year by the pandemic, were free in May for tribal members, followed by paying customers in early June. The tours cost US$125 (HK$975) per person for a two-hour trip, which can be booked online.
It was a startlingly smooth journey, the canoe more stable than any kayak or canoe I’d ever tried.
As our canoes nosed farther downstream, Gensaw recounted how newcomers in the 19th and 20th centuries grabbed land, transmitted diseases, started logging, opened fish canneries and built dams.
The Yurok population, the old-growth redwood forest and salmon fishery were all reduced to fractions of what they had been. The Yurok language, however, is recovering from near extinction, sustainability is on more people’s minds, and four dams are scheduled for removal by 2024.
After years of struggle, the Yurok are hoping their river is on the brink of happier days. Their culture too.
“We’re sure the river’s going to be healthier,” said Josh Norris, who manages the canoe tour operation.
So why, after such a painful history, are the Yurok bringing strangers aboard their prized canoes? “This tourist thing is perpetuating our culture,” said Severns.
Severns is part of the tribe, but not part of the tour.
By making, paddling and teaching from these canoes, he said, the Yurok have a chance to simultaneously strengthen their culture and economy.
In his lot in Klamath, he keeps his latest canoe in progress. Thirteen-year-old Chulhs Bates brandished an adze and hopped back and forth on the half-hollowed log. He is one of more than a dozen Yurok youths Severns has recruited to help.
“If I can teach 100 kids,” Severns said, “maybe five of them will want to be canoe builders. And out of the five, one is going to have a chance at a log.”
With some luck, a carver can get two canoes from one log. But getting a big enough log with the right grain is not easy. The tribe acquires them from the National Park Service, US Forest Service and state parks.
When you calculate the cost of buying, transporting, storing and carving a redwood canoe, Sammy Gensaw told me, “These are US$100,000 boats.”
Traditionally, the Yurok have built their canoes up to six meters long, a meter wide and 0.6 meters deep.
Near the nose are carved features known as the heart and lungs. Toward the back are two more raised shapes known as the kidneys, where paddlers rest their feet. The edge encircling the boat is known as the lifeline.
“We consider the redwood one of our protectors, and so we honor it by giving it those necessary body parts,” Norris said.
As we moved through the water, Gensaw talked about the mills and canneries that once lined the Klamath and the tribe’s battles against upstream dams.
“I want to be able to live on this river. I want to be a fisherman. And I need a healthy river for that to happen,” he said.
The Yurok have the largest enrollment of any California tribe, with roughly 6,700 members, most of whom live off the reservation.
Among those in the villages on the reservation, unemployment, poverty and substance abuse have run alarmingly high for years. A series of suicides four years ago prompted new efforts to reinforce tribal culture and promote mental health.
The canoe project aligns with those goals, but it’s also counted as a tribal business venture, alongside a hotel and casino, the Riverside and Redwood RV parks, and Klamath Jet Boat Tours.
Norris knows that, for now, the river tour will likely be a supporting player, not the star, in most itineraries. But eventually, he hopes to offer more canoe options, including overnight trips that highlight connections between the Yurok trail system and waterways.
On our second day in redwood country, under a sky full of dramatic clouds, we made an impulse decision to go on the river again. The canoe team quickly agreed even as rain began to fall.
Just as we got out on the water, the heavens opened.
Within minutes, we were soaked and mud-spattered, yet all three Yurok guides were grinning ear to ear. Men of the river, surrounded by water.
los angeles times (tns)