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A row back in time | Kitsap Week

INDIANOLA — At first glance, Duane Pasco’s latest handiwork looks like another of his Northwest Native-style canoes — an unassuming, red cedar boat — but is, in fact, a boat from another famous seafaring place.

Pasco and Spencer West recently finished crafting a 21-foot replica of a 1,000-year-old Viking ship.

“Some have dramatic bows,” he said, standing on a beach in Indianola, watching West row the boat out into Port Madison Bay. “This one is practical and beautiful at the same time. Every fjord had its own take” on the design.

Pasco, 80, is an Alaska-born artist who creates Northwest Coast Native-style art; his wife, Betty, is a noted Suquamish weaver. Pasco has assisted Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish Tribal members in building canoes since the first Canoe Journey in 1989 (the Paddle to Seattle).

He visited Norway in 1976, bringing back with him the plan for a 21-foot Viking ship. He has completed many projects in the last 35 years and said he decided to finally craft the boat now, or he felt he might never do it.

So, on a recent Saturday, I met Pasco, West, West’s father Paul and West’s colleague Shane Knode. It was a cold, crisp day at Camp Indianola, but the sun was out, with Mount Rainier looming directly in front of us.

After unloading the boat from West’s truck, carefully treading over the frost-covered logs, the men set her down on the rocky beach. Pasco said the boat is a faering, which means “four oars” in Norwegian. Pasco and West began tying the oars to the boat with rope; the oars are 11 feet long. Pasco straightened up and looked at me.

“You want a ride?”

I let the guys go for a quick ride first; the first oars Pasco made were too heavy, made of Douglas fir, and they were trying out the lighter oars made of red cedar. Pasco sat at the front, controlling the rudder, while West and Knode rowed.

From a distance, the four oars being rowed in unison looked like dragonfly wings, cutting through the water with barely a splash. Because it was their first time out with the new oars, though, occasionally the wings collided.

When the crew returned, they look satisfied — and ready to get back out on the water. I hopped in the back and we began gliding away. I asked Pasco about his plans for the boat: Will you just take out friends and family for rides? Yes, “Except for the raids we make on other villages,” Pasco said with a straight face.

Pasco and West worked on the boat for the last two years, between West’s work at his timber construction business and Pasco’s other projects; he isn’t sure how much the boat cost them to make, but wants to make more and wouldn’t mind selling them.

Pasco said he’d been interested in boats, ships and canoes since he was a child. He attended school in Seattle, and he remembered  drawing the lines of ships in the harbors when he sailed between Seattle and Alaska.

He and West share the same passion about being on the water — every boat ride is a thrill, at the same time a comfort.

“It’s in your blood, I think,” Pasco said of seafaring folk.

West said his great-grandmother is Norwegian, so building the boat is kind of full circle for him.

“Going through that process gave me a lot of respect for how talented people were so long ago,” West said. “It was quite a challenging thing for us to make [the boat].”

Pasco spent the 1960s and ’70s studying Northwest Native art and canoe crafting in Washington and British Columbia. In 1976, he read an issue of National Geographic that featured a Norwegian man who was making traditional Viking boats. Pasco decided to write him a letter — a friend of Pasco’s knew the Icelandic consul, who knew the Norwegian consul, who tracked down the Norwegian man’s address — and ask him for advice on how to build a Viking ship.

After Pasco sent the letter, he realized it was a “stupid” idea. “It would be like me being asked how to build a canoe in a letter,” he said. Pasco told his wife he wanted to go to Norway the next weekend.

At the end of his weeklong trip, Pasco visited the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. He was looking for a model or plan for a small Norwegian boat, with no luck. In the museum gift shop, he came across a blueprint for a ship that had been excavated in the early 1900s.

It was traditional for high-ranking Norsemen to be buried with their ships, horses and other important artifacts. The ship was buried for 1,000 years before being discovered.

When Pasco returned to the U.S., there was a letter from the Norwegian man. As Pasco thought, the man said there was too much to explain in a letter, but offered to sell him one of the Viking boats for $800. Pasco was appreciative, but knew it would be expensive to ship it to the U.S.

Pasco’s boat was crafted with a mix of modern techniques and some of the traditional Native skills Pasco learned. He and West even met with a man who’d apprenticed as a traditional boatmaker in Norway. Jay Smith of Anacortes hosted a workshop, and Pasco said they picked up some tips and learned details they otherwise would have missed. (Another person whom Pasco works with, Randi Purser, had to return to her regular job during the project.)

Pasco and West carved the planks from a cedar log and steamed the wood so the resin inside would bend — similar to the Northwest Coast Native style. They then fastened them together with copper rivets. Pasco said the project has been an adventure, both of them learning how to create a boat this way.

West, who grew up in Indianola and owns West Timbercraft, met Pasco a few years ago after attending one of his lectures and told him he was interested in learning how to carve a canoe. Pasco was beginning a 26-foot canoe, teaching Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish youth how to carve, and invited West to help.

“He was nice enough to let me hang around,” West said. “He’s an amazing guy. He knows a ton of stuff about working with wood in a ton of different ways.”

Pasco said West downplayed his skills at first and was impressed with his carving, and asked West to help him build the Viking boat.

“It’s a really pleasing-looking boat,” West said. “It’s the type of boat my ancestors used, so it really made sense [to me] to make that kind of boat.”

The boat isn’t yet complete; Pasco and West still have to add the sail.

“History is really important to me,” Pasco said. “Where we come from, all of us, whether Indian or Norwegian or whatever we are, the cultures evolve from one thing into another, and a lot of technology gets left behind.

“Who knows what could happen, we could go back to that,” Pasco theorized of using carved boats instead of motor boats. “It’s nice to know where we come from.”

Learn more about Norwegian boats at Sons of Norway
The Poulsbo Sons of Norway Lodge hosts a lecture on the “Norwegian Mayflower,” about the first organized group of Norwegian immigrants who sailed to America in 1825 in a 54-foot sloop, “Restauration.”

The lecture is Feb. 12, 7-8 p.m., at the Sons of Norway Lodge, 18891 Front St., Poulsbo. The event is open to the public.

(Editor's note: This version corrects an earlier version. Spencer West is not Duane Pasco's apprentice, as reported earlier, but works alongside him on projects. Pasco said the ship's plan he picked up in Norway was not for a 100-foot boat that he then scaled down; the plan was for a 21-foot boat. Randi Purser's name and gender were incorrect in the original story. Purser teaches the Lushootseed Language class at Chief Kitsap Academy. The Herald apologizes for the errors.)

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