In a remote corner of northern Canada, Joe Goudie is at work on his very last boat for sale.
The Inuit community in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador once used wood and canvas canoes to navigate the rivers of Labrador.
Goudie, 72, is Inuit, but grew up as that tradition was drawing to a close.
Today, he’s the last person building wooden canoes in this corner of Canada.
“The one thing you need to remember — not just [about] building canoes, but working with wood — the wood is going to want to assume its natural shape,” Goudie says at his workshop. A canoe hangs suspended from the ceiling. “If you force it, it’s not going to work right. So you can’t force it.”
He stretches white canvas and fastens it over a wooden frame. The job takes a long time and three pounds of brass tacks, but it’s one of the last steps before the canoe is shellacked and painted.
The builder says he can practically craft these boats in his sleep. “I even dream about it, I think,” he says.
Goudie comes from a long line of Inuit trappers. They would leave a base camp several miles upriver from Happy Valley-Goose Bay — where Goudie still lives today — and travel hundreds of miles into the interior to tend their trap lines. His brother started making the trip at the age of 9.
“When they were leaving in the morning, the men would take out their 12-gauge shotguns and fire several rounds,” Goudie says. “Sort of the trapper’s goodbye, I guess — ‘We’ll see you when you get back.'”
The trappers came back each winter with vivid stories. “They’d come over to the house and get a yarn going with a cup of tea and probably a pipe,” he says. “And I’d sit by the side and listen to the stories, listen to their conversation.”
A Changing Economy, A Dying Trade
By the time Goudie was old enough to participate, no one was really joining the trips. Happy Valley-Goose Bay was changing and reorienting itself around a new military air base.
But those stories from his childhood stuck with him. So, as an adult, Goudie went to Maine to learn to make traditional canoes. His brother helped him to adapt some of the basic models.
Goudie still leads trips hundreds of miles down the Churchill River as a guide.
“The height of the land is 800 feet above you,” Goudie says. “You go ashore to have lunch, and maybe you’re looking at a tree where there’s still smoke marks on it from some trapper or other who boiled a kettle there sometime during the day.”
Goudie has made the trip 22 times, but he says regretfully that this canoe will be the last one he builds for sale. Years of inhaling cedar dust have started to affect his breathing, and his doctor told him he has to give it up.
Once the canvas is stretched, Goudie will paint it with his own design.
“This particular one is probably going to be probably a royal blue, with the orange shellac on the bottom and gold waterline on it,” he says. “And paintings: caribou swimming in the water, geese landing. It’s kind of a special one, the last one.”
And then that will be it … although there’s the canoe he wants to build for himself, and he still has dreams for a couple of others. But for now, in his workshop, Goudie swings a hammer and taps the very last tack into the frame.