Stitch by stitch, mooseskin boat on historic journey through the Dehcho

After 16 days, seven moose hides and a lot of hard work, a historic journey planned for the Dehcho has made it over a major hurdle

40-foot canoe slung over the Virginia Falls by helicopter in spectacular fashion

Dehcho elders say it's been more than 100 years since a mooseskin boat has paddled down the Nahanni River. (John Bingham/90th Parallel Productions)

After more than three weeks, seven moosehides and a lot of hard work, a historic journey planned for the Dehcho region has made it over a major hurdle.

It's called the Nahanni River of Forgiveness project and, according to Dehcho elders, it marks the first time in more than 100 years that a mooseskin boat has been paddled down the river.

The 40-foot boat was crafted from young spruce, willow sticks, moosehide and sinew, all by hand, by Indigenous elders, leaders and youth at a camp in Nahanni National Park called Bunny Bar.

Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian is one of the organizers of the project, and said finishing the canoe was "quite an undertaking."

Combining traditional knowledge with modern technology, the boat was slung over the Virginia Falls via helicopter. (John Bingham/90th Parallel Productions)

"Everyone was pulling on the boughs in the front and pulling the hides ... and everyone was pushing the centre of this centre board that lays at the bottom and lo and behold the whole thing snapped right into place," he said.

Just stitching together the moosehides took about four days, Norwegian said, as each stitch touched the next. It took about an hour to complete eight stitches.

"Just stitch by stitch and it slowly came together," he said. "It was an incredible, incredible moment. Every step of the way."

Once it was completed, the boat was slung over the Virginia Falls via helicopter.

"Low and behold [this] massive piece of creation just emerges out of the willows and up into the sky and up against the clouds up against the sun and you just see all these little orbs flying around it and it was just a spectacular shot," said Norwegian.

He said traditionally a boat of this size would have been moved over the falls using a ramp-like construction for boats called a slipway.

"It was an emotional moment for all of us because this is the first time in history that a mooseskin boat of this magnitude would've been slung over the falls," said Norwegian. "It was an immaculate sight, an immaculate moment."

But the journey hasn't been without its bumps.

There were delays because of heavy rain, but Norwegian said they powered through.

"The crew are tougher than nails and they don't care about rain, sleet or snow and they're just right in there carving up the boards and stitching the moosehides," he said.

Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian says completing the boat was 'quite an undertaking.' It is made from moosehides, young spruce, willow and sinew. (John Bingham/90th Parallel Productions)

Now the boat and its crew will be hitting smoother waters and heading toward Nahanni Butte. Norwegian estimated the trip will take about four days.

Then they'll continue down the Liard River and reach their final destination near Fort Simpson.

"We're trying to get things moving but everything is based on safety," said Norwegian. "We just want to make sure that [we] nurture the boat and make sure that it's safe for the people that are paddling in there and, well, we hope that it'll bring us all home."

The Nahanni River of Forgiveness trip is also being made into a feature documentary that will eventually air on CBC Docs.

One of the boat builders Rickey Andrew. Here, he checks on soaking moosehides. (John Bingham/90th Parallel Productions)

With files from John Last and Loren McGinnis