PORT ANGELES — Gerald “Woody” Woodside showed up Saturday at the Lower Elwha Tribal Center as a stranger.
Four hours later, he departed as an honored friend.
He left behind the 21-foot-long, cedar-and-fiberglass Native-style canoe he’d made by hand and given to the youth of the Lower Elwha tribe.
Woodside called the gift simply “a good thing to do.”
No one at the meeting of Tribal Journey skippers planning this summers paddle event knew he was coming — or even who he was — before the Port Gamble man pulled into the tribal center lot with the canoe atop his truck.
Fourteen men lifted it from the vehicle and bore it into the center’s gym, where they circled the basketball court before setting the craft down on tumbling mats assembled at midcourt.
Lower Elwha Klallam elder Johnson Charles blessed the canoe. Then singers from several tribes took turns chanting Native songs to celebrate the gift and to thank Woodside.
The canoe’s interior is built of cedar strips. Its outside is shiny black fiberglass with bright orange trim.
“It’s much lighter” than a canoe carved from a western red cedar trunk, Woodside explained, adding that he has built kayaks and canoes since 1970. His day job is with the Navy submarine base in Bangor.
He’d spent 50 hours making this craft.
“I kind of surprised them with it,” the laconic Woodside said,
The members of the 20 tribes who’d assembled for a Tribal Journey briefing weren’t at a loss for how to say thanks, however. Their singing and dancing lasted an hour.
“This is a vessel that takes us to different places,” said Ray Fryberg, a Tulalip tribes member, “different places in the land, different places in our lives.”
“How many people can the canoe hold?” asked Michael Evans, skipper of the Snohomish tribe’s canoe, the Blue Heron.
“An infinite number, but only four or five at a time. So fill it full of people again and again. Fill it full of young people.”
Woodside seemed mildly embarrassed by the gratitude and its length.
“If we’d had 50 more tribes here, we’d be here a lot longer,” Francis Charles, Lower Elwha tribal chairwoman, told him.
“These songs are their traditions — traditions they uphold so they endure.”
When the separate singers had finished, the whole group joined in singing the “Journey Song” that they all knew.
“You’re going to be in our hearts for the rest of your life and our lives,” Charles told Woodside, “for what you have done here today.”
Woodside said he’d been dismayed by Port Angeles city and civic leaders’ blaming the Lower Elwha for stopping construction on a waterfront graving yard.
“There’s been some really ugly stuff around here,” he said, frowning. “It’s really surprised me.”
As he prepared to leave, yet another Lower Elwha member thanked Woodside for “your gesture,” but an onlooker said the canoe was much more than a gesture.
Woodside allowed himself a small smile.“I’d like to think it was,” he said.