A map of Alaska with the Southeast region highlighted.
Organization: City and Borough of Wrangell - James and Elsie Nolan Center
City: Wrangell
Region: Southeast
Program Area: Community Development \ Local government
Grants Received:
2008: $21,500
2003: $1,250,000

Willie's new canoe a melding of the ages


Mission Statement
Nolan Museum and Civic Center

To promote and protect Wrangell's significance in history and to provide a glimpse into
the lives of the people who created this community and
who sustain it.
After moving to Wrangell, a Southeast Alaska island, many years ago, I quickly learned there are several certainties: rain, fog and the daily sightings of a bicyclist named Willie. A youthful Native man in his 70's, Willie is a familiar figure, making his rounds of the Wrangell community on an old bicycle that, like its rider, shows the wear of many winter rides. It wasn't long before I learned of this slight dark man's involvement in many historic Wrangell ventures.
Willie loved to tell about the days he helped build the
first ferries that now sail between the island ports. He
could describe the interior of the ships and exact calibration, techniques and tools that were used to design and build them. We would often talk while sitting on the edge of an old weather beaten wooden canoe that had been sitting by the Chamber of Commerce office for years. The adz marks indicated it had been carved the "old way". I would run my fingers along the cracks in the graying yellow cedar as Willie talked about his youth, the mill, and the day the town caught on fire. One day Willie told me he had a project he really wanted me to see. I told him I was busy, but would take a look someday soon.

A photo of a woman showing 2 people a map of Alaska.Spacer Image

It was a while before I talked with Willie again, but working at the newspaper and the local radio station brought me in touch with the Native Tlingit community daily. I learned about the mysterious and colorful totem poles and how many had been taken down due to rot and safety issues. I visited the Chief Shakes Native clan house with its ornate corner posts and fish oil lights, and grew to appreciate the fragile cedar baskets, button robes and traditional woven bark hats preserved at the city's museum and civic center. I became particularly fascinated with a traditional red and black canoe on display on the museum grounds. The afternoon sun highlighted the meticulous strokes made by a diligent and patient carver years ago as he dug away the pieces of a monumental log believing it capable of sailing the nearby Zimovia Straits.

I was surprised then, to learn that Willie was one of the carvers of that colorful boat. It was in fact the same old canoe on which we had spent many an hour talking. I had assumed it had been destroyed or simply used for firewood. Willie, however, had been quietly restoring it, sanding, puttying those growing cracks and carefully painting on it the traditional Tlingit colors of black, blue and red. Another surprise followed. I learned that Willie's new project that I had earlier dismissed, was that of a new and bigger canoe for Wrangell.

An exterior photo of the Nolan Museum and Civic Center. Spacer ImageHumbled, I went to see it. A blue tarp attached to the back wall of one of the Front Street buildings flapped noisily in the bitter wind and rain. Beneath
it sat the curved ribs and beginnings of a 24-foot canoe. With no room under the tarp for spectators,
I stood in the rain watching Willie dart from one end of the emerging canoe to the other, pulling string along to check the leveling and position of the bow, all the while excitedly explaining the complex construction steps. While the wind sang its own chantey, and the rain drummed rhythmically on the tarp, a transition and step in Wrangell's cultural history was quietly taking place. Willie's new canoe was a melding of the ages.

Willie is not alone in his drive to both create and preserve his Native culture. Young and old fingers are weaving new baskets from the bark of the ancient Tongass cedar and spruce trees. Button blankets symbolizing the different clans are being sewn and exhibited, and young Natives are again hearing and learning the Tlingit language. Ancient totems have found refuge within the walls of the new museum, and the city is considering commissioning carvers for a new totem.

The next time Willie pedals by calling "Want to see my new project?" I hope he has a passenger seat ready on the back of that bike!



Sharon Deemer has degrees in music, art, and gifted and talent education and has spent most of her career teaching. She has also worked as a staff writer for the Wrangell Sentinel and is currently a news writer and newscaster for KSTK, the local public radio station. She spends her free time working on her first children's book.