'Healing canoe' begins historic journey down Yukon River

'What we’re trying to do is take it to the next step, as to what it was designed for — is take it out on the water, out on the land,' said William Carlick, a Kwanlin Dün elder who came up with the idea of paddling to the Moosehide Gathering.

Dugout canoe launched from Whitehorse, headed for the Moosehide Gathering near Dawson City

It was a rainy morning as the paddlers pushed off from Whitehorse on Wednesday. They'll paddle more than 700 kilometres to reach Dawson City. The massive 'healing canoe' was carved in 2009 by a group of young carvers, mentored by Tlingit master carver Wayne Price of Alaska. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

It's been a decorative fixture at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse for several years, but now the large dugout "healing canoe" is being put to use — as a sturdy and functional watercraft.

The vessel launched from Whitehorse on Wednesday morning, to begin a 700-kilometre journey down the Yukon River toward next week's Moosehide Gathering near Dawson City. 

"Basically, what we're trying to do is take it to the next step, as to what it was designed for — is take it out on the water, out on the land," said William Carlick, a Kwanlin Dün elder who first came up with the idea.

The vessel was moved to the Yukon River on Monday. For the past several years, it has been a decorative fixture at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

He says it may be the first dugout canoe to make the journey since before the Klondike gold rush, over a century ago.

​"This spring we were in a ceremony, we were told that a lot of our ancestors out on the land are missing us, because we spend too much time in the cities," Carlick said.

"What we'll be doing is singing and drumming, and we'll be waking up all the spirits along the river. Because I'm sure a lot of them have never heard a drum, or singing, for some time."

'A visit to our internal self'

The vessel was carved almost a decade ago, mostly by young people, working at a remote campsite above Lake Laberge. It was designed by Wayne Price, a Tlingit master carver from Haines, Alaska, who also mentored the carvers.

Tim Ackerman, also from Haines, was there to help the carvers make the boat, and he's returned to Yukon this month to help paddle it down the river.

"I watched it transform from a log to what is now the canoe," he said. "It's really nice to be invited to come up and watch it do this journey."

Tim Ackerman (left) and William Carlick will be among the paddlers. 'The healing that we're looking for is not only for the individuals that are taking part in it, it’s going to be for the communities that live all along the river,' Carlick said. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

According to Carlick, the initial vision was always to create a "healing canoe."

"Everything [the young carvers] did around it was embedded into this canoe — their thinking, their prayers, their thoughts of their loved ones."

Putting the boat on the water, to carry people deeper into their ancestral lands, is a continuation of that search for healing, Carlick says.

The First Nation put out a call for any volunteers who wanted to be part of the trip, and also invited some elders along to tell stories.  

"For most of us ... it's going to be a visit to our internal self — to reminisce, and to look at our family members that we've lost recently, and how we come to terms with it in a good way," Carlick said.

"The only way we're going to get to Dawson, obviously, is we've got to all paddle together. So, as a team, we're all working together. So that's the same premise that we need to work, on a greater community level."

The nine paddlers pushed off from the bank of the Yukon River, behind the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, on Wednesday morning. Others are travelling with them in support boats.

Paddlers were eager to hit the water on Wednesday morning, despite the weather. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

With files from Sandi Coleman and Leonard Linklater