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Cra Cra – A Carib Canoe Links Past and Present

Christopher Columbus sent his men ashore on November 14,
1493 to explore and find water. Instead, they encountered a canoe full of
Caribs armed with bows and arrows in the Salt River on the island
called Santa Cruz — now known as St. Croix, U.S.
Virgin Islands. Each side suffered a fatality
during this first documented resistance by natives to European explorers in the
New World.

The Caribs were early settlers who migrated by canoe up from
South America’s Orinoco
River. European invaders,
famine, and disease gradually decimated their population but some
Caribs survived — today about 3,000 of their
descendants live in eight villages on the east coast of Dominica.
There, people farm and fish, and a few still make canoes. In 1995,
Etien Charles built GLI GLI for
Tortola artist Aragorn Dick-Read and Dominica Carib
artist Jacob Frederik and later crafted a
Carib canoe that is now part of the collection at the
Smithsonian National
Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.

Bryan and
Jill Updyke, owners of a St.Croix
kayak excursion, sales and rental business, saw a documentary film about the
canoe GLI GLI and were intrigued as operators of
kayak tours emphasizing the history of the Salt River.
After meeting Dick-Read, Updyke arranged to have a Carib canoe built and shipped to St.
Croix.

“They were real nice,” says Bryan Updyke
of Etien Charles and the other boat builders. “I sent them some money in advance
and they were surprised.”

A year
passed as Charles and his helpers created a 25-foot dugout canoe using 100
year-old gommier wood from a huge tree, then made a
two-day trip crossing three rivers to a village where the canoe was trucked to
a shipping company, transported to St. Thomas, and finally shipped to St.
Croix’s Gallows Bay. The result is the CRA CRA,
named for the Ringed Kingfisher, a large bird found on
Dominica.

“I
was amazed when we got the canoe — it was so similar to the rendering by
the National Park Service,” says Updyke,
referring to a painting of the Carib conflict with Columbus. “Etien
Charles knew it would be used to represent the
Caribs and they wanted it to be authentic.”

Updyke soaked the canoe with gallons of boiled linseed oil
until it wouldn’t take any more and painted it red, blue, black and
white, using translucent stains. He outfitted CRA CRA
with paddles, a spear, a bow, and bailers made of calabash gourds, all items
used by the original St. Croix Caribs, then unveiled
it in a blessing ceremony last November.
Canoes, of course, are built for the water and the Updykes
took the CRA CRA to the Salt River National
Historical Park
and Ecological Preserve for its maiden voyage.

“It
turned on a dime…we were cruising!” says Jill Updyke,
who found the boat easy to handle. She says that four people can ride in the
canoe and eventually paying guests will paddle it for an authentic historic
immersion.

“Imagine a visitor or a student seeing undisturbed mangroves for
the first time in a handmade dugout canoe crafted by the descendants of the
very same people Columbus
encountered,” she says.

The Updykes say there are only a few Carib
canoe builders left in Dominica,
and that Etien Charles seems reluctant to ever build
another large dugout like the CRA CRA.

“The old growth trees are getting fewer and he’s not getting
any younger,” says Jill Updyke. “The Caribs ask
that we take good care of the CRA CRA.”

For information:
Virgin Kayak, St. Croix: 340-778-0071

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