follow that canoe/dog

Two admirable men…

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(Charles) Nainoa Thompson, John (Quniaq) Baker.

One is Native Hawaiian (from Oahu), one Native Alaskan (Inupiat) (from Kotzebue) .

Both places are bits of land, bounded by sea. Oahu is a tropical island, Kotzebue is nearly an island, a blob of land on a skinny penninsula, north of the arctic circle.

Native language names bracketed by names from English speaking colonizers.

Both do epic journeys over water, on double hulled vehicles, driven by a Force of Nature, harnessed. Both need to navigate wild terrain, not always friendly to humans. Both have cultures that have, over millennia, found that water connects them, and that if you are wise, you find that wilderness supports you. Both have taken their wisdom and passed it on to new generations, teaching, lifting kids, especially the ones born into situations with far fewer privileges, to new successes.

In one case, the vehicle is a waka…

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…a double hulled sailing “canoe” …because each hull was basically a big sea going canoe carved out of one log.  Hokulea is built with more modern methods, but to ancient design.

In the other case, the vehicle is a dogsled…

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…two runners “sailing” over frozen water.

In one case, the Force of Nature is wind…

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In the other, dogs…

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Wind and dogs are harnessed to the hull with a vast spiderweb of lines.

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Wa’a (waka, vaka) and dogsled are steered by those Forces of Nature. The wa’a does have a hoe uli, or steering oar, but often it simply rides wind and wave. Sleds are flexible, steered mainly by the dogs, and, on some trails, by some wild gymnastics by the musher. (wheeled rigs simply have handlebars).

In both cases, “Eskimos” (not their name for themselves) and Polynesians navigated by natural signs: wind, wave, stars, animals’ movements, shape of land, shape of water. They did not have compasses (or any other metal technology).

In both cases water did not divide islands or villages, it connected them. Travel between islands could be done readily in a big seaworthy, well stocked wa’a. In the arctic summer, rivers connected everyone, in winter, snow became a highway, not a barrier. For interior villages, this “land ship” was critical to survival: if you didn’t have good dogs, you were in trouble.

Whether travelling across the ocean, or the arctic winter, you provisioned your “ship” well, but you could also find food out there, on the trail, if you knew where to look.

And you learned the skills to build the wa’a or sled, to harness the Force of Nature, and to work with it to journey… from your elders and ancestors by watching, listening and working with them.

Both kinds of journeys have obstacles, dangers, beauties. But with wisdom, and a team (crew, dogs, ground support, the whole village), you can make the Journey.


Both these men are soft spoken, humble… because real wisdom is not obnoxiously loud. It is quiet, and changes the world.


Nainoa Thompson and the Hokulea:

Hokulea’s voyages can be followed on her website and facebook. She carries all of us on her voyages.

This is a great book:

Hokulea has just left Rapa Nui and is heading west to Tahiti…


John Baker and the Iditarod:

“I had 4,000 people in my sled.  I was carrying a community of people that supported me.”

Baker won the Iditarod in 2011 and set a massive new speed record for the race.

“15 years of running the Iditarod, 15 years of dealing with the disappointment.  It would have been easy to quit; but to finish, you have to keep trying.”

He and his team are presently at Huslia AK, on mile 478 of the Iditarod, resting, soon ready for the next leg of the Journey.




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