Wiikwemkoong outdoor education class builds, launches 30 ft. canoe

The Wikwemikong High School outdoor education class stands behind the first part of their final exam, with the final component to be a 16-kilometre trip on Georgian Bay. photo by Warren Schlote

PRAIRIE POINT – The intrepid team of North canoe-builders at Wikwemikong High School (WHS) could not have picked a more perfect day than last Friday to celebrate the launch of the first-ever North canoe built at the school, a craft that is quite possibly the largest ever built on Manitoulin Island in living memory.

“This represents a moment of birthing, of coming to life,” said WHS outdoor education teacher Nimkii Lavell who helped to supervise the 30-foot canoe build that reached completion precisely one minute before the end of the final day of class. “It represents all the time they’ve spent on it and all their blood, sweat and tears will be permanently encapsulated in the epoxy.”

Family, friends, elders and education workers had gathered at the boat launch at Prairie Point, the northern tip of Wiikwemkoong, on June 14 for the celebration of the craft’s maiden voyage. The mid-morning sun shone in full glory against the blue sky as the turnout of well-wishers steadily grew. Right around the appointed time of 10:30, a massive red North canoe came into view, drawn on a trailer behind a pickup truck of matching colour. 

The classmates, who had each spent about 46 hours on the build for a grand total of more than 400 hours of labour, filed out of their transport van sporting matching red lifejackets and began to assemble around the voyageur-style canoe. They lifted it off the trailer onto a pair of stands, then everyone present formed a circle for a prayer led by Jeannette Corbiere-Lavell.

Each student received semaa (tobacco) and made an offering to the water while asking for safety on the craft’s maiden voyage.

WHS principal Maureen Peltier expressed her joy at being present for the ceremony.

“This boat is a whole testament of your patience and perseverance. I’m so proud of you,” she said. “Please enjoy the fruits of your labour.”

Everyone in the class obtained a level-three Ontario Recreational Canoeing and Kayaking Association (ORCKA) certification in tandem canoeing and, should they prove themselves worthy on this trip, Mr. Lavell had a badge ready for each of them to certify their abilities.

“When’s the last time any of you wrote a final exam that looked like this?” he asked the whole class with a laugh, later telling The Expositor that all the students earned excellent marks.

Before easing the boat down into the water, the students had an opportunity to share any of their comments on what the project had meant to them.

Mandaago Osawamick expressed his gratitude to Mr. Lavell for the experience.

“This taught me lots about patience when we had to do some stuff all over again. It was tedious at times, but worth it. It was a good experience,” he said.

The class team made full use of the expertise of Mark Gibeault and Rob Mellan of By Path and Paddle for the build, the gentlemen being the proprietors of a company that has handcrafted several North canoes in recent years. Mr. Mellan drove the canoe to the launch site and offered a few words before it hit the water.

“You all should be very proud. This is like a microcosm of life; the harder you work at something, the more worthwhile it will be at the end,” he said. “I’m very proud. You did fantastic jobs and this will provide years of community paddling enjoyment because of what you’ve done.”

All the students loaded their electronics and wallets in a waterproof case for safe, dry keeping and then they assembled around their masterpiece for the moment of truth.

It was all smiles as they hoisted the immense craft and took the first few steps into the cool waters of Georgian Bay, easing the bow down first followed by the stern, never once coming close to striking the pebbles that lined the shore and the lakebed.

The crowd exhaled a collective sigh of relief as the chi-cheemaun held strong under its own buoyancy and the team guided it toward the dock for loading. There was never any doubt of this from the students themselves; no, they knew that after their hundreds of hours of care and dedication the canoe would be right at home in the water, just as the North canoes that plied these waters for centuries.

“Your hard work and positive thinking will be reflected for a long time and it will remind youth that with care, effort and perseverance, you can make something from nothing,” said Mr. Lavell.

The canoe rode high in the water, a trait by design so the weight of an entire class of adolescent paddlers would bring it down to a comfortable amount of freeboard.

Mr. Lavell announced that student Jacqueline Shigwadja would be sitting in the bow, something he described as “appropriate, having a young woman leading the way and showing us direction.”

One by one, the students found their seats and pushed off from the dock. They made for Centre Island, a destination chosen partly to assert Wiikwemkoong’s sovereignty over the land as part of its ongoing claim to that and other islands in the bay. As the canoe grew smaller and smaller on the horizon, the occasional, distant bursts of joyous laughter from Mr. Lavell were the only sounds heard on the wind.

“The trip was fantastic. Weather conditions were perfect and the crew came together very well. We were averaging 10 kilometres per hour which is fairly impressive for our first time paddling together. The care and concern that the students demonstrated for the boat was nice to see and demonstrated a pride for their accomplishment,” said Mr. Lavell.

The students had hopes of paddling to Killarney for fish and chips, but that proved to be too long of a trip. After a portage across Centre Island, they settled in for lunch—although they didn’t make it to Killarney in person, their chase boat made the trip to Herbert Fisheries and brought back hot meals for the group. All told, it was a 16-kilometre paddling voyage.

Mandaago’s mother Lisa Osawamick was there to cheer on her son and his class as they took part in this festive first float.

“I’m extremely proud of the work they’ve done … it was a great opportunity for all of them. I could see (Mandaago’s) pride come through,” she said. “It was empowering to see them out there and I could see that shining through on their faces.”

Mr. Mellan said this was his first time building a canoe with a group of young people and expressed his hope that other communities might see this as an opportunity for themselves. This is the fifth North canoe built by By Path or Paddle.