Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Logboat Under Construction in Amazonian Ecuador

In June, I went searching for logboats along a portion of the drainage of the Rio Napo in el Oriente -- that part of Ecuador that lies to the east of the Andes Mountains. The Napo and all other rivers here drain ultimately into the Amazon.

Kichwa canoe builder
Fernando Vargas-Tapuy, Kichwa farmer and canoe builder, at the base of a chunchu tree. (Click any image to enlarge.)
On my first day in the forest, accompanied by a guide/translator and a driver, I explored the Rio Jatunyaco, a tributary of the Napo. In the dispersed rural community of Ichu Urku, I met Fernando Vargas-Tapuy. Like almost everyone in this area, Fernando is Kichwa (i.e., Quichua). He lives with his wife and toddler daughter on a small farm where they grow cacao, maize, yuca, plantain, and guava, consuming 5-10% of it and selling the surplus in the nearby city of Tena. He also pans for gold in the Rio Yucho Pino (in spite of the "rio" in its name, this tributary of the Jatunyaco is really just a mountain stream), typically collecting 1.0 to 1.5 grams in a day of work. Fernando's farm has no electricity, but he does have mobile phone coverage. 

Fernando told my guide that with the help of an uncle, he was building a dugout canoe nearby, and he was willing to take us there to see it. With Fernando leading, we walked through his farm, across muddy fields, then up a slick, narrow, steep path over a low mountain. Although the sun was overcast, the humidity was oppressive, and the 40- minute walk proved to be the hardest hike I have ever done. At one point, Fernando stopped to cut me a walking stick with his machete. This helped a great deal, especially when crossing and recrossing the rocky Rio Yucho Pino several times. 

dugout canoe construction in Ecuador's Amazon
Fernando at the canoe building site, high on the side of a steep hill.
High on the mountain we came to the canoe building site. The canoe was being carved where the trunk had been felled, on a fairly steep slope. At first sight, it looked abandoned, for it was full of sodden wood chips and partially covered in fungus. In fact, it was being actively worked, but the environment is so moist, and fungus grows so rapidly there, that a pause of just a few days suffices to give rise to a substantial crop. 

The canoe had been under construction since April and, working with his uncle, Fernando expected to finish it in June. It would not be moved, however, until the flow in the Rio Yucho Pino went down. Too steep to paddle, the Yucho Pino represents an impediment, not a canoe corridor, until it dries out. 

When it does, Fernando will call for a minga -- a Kichwa tradition in which the people of a community work together in a system of shared obligations. Approximately a dozen men will help carry the boat down the mountain and to the river, a process that will take about two days. Fernando will provide food and or drink to his helpers, but no payment. What is expected is Fernando's participation the next time a neighbor calls a minga.

Fernando plans to use the canoe to transport his produce to Tena and to bring his daughter to school when she is old enough. He says he will paddle it himself and not fit it with an outboard engine. With more than three people aboard or a heavy cargo, more than one paddler would be required. Based on observations of other canoeists nearby, I believe the canoe will also be poled as often as it is paddled, although I did not discuss this with Fernando. 

dugout canoe construction in Ecuador's Amazon
The canoe measures 7.50 meters LOA and 61cm beam. It is roughly 36 cm from the exterior bottom to the top of the gunwale and 25cm deep on the interior, but according to the builder, the bottom will be hollowed another 5cm or so, for a final interior depth of about 30cm and a bottom thickness of about 6cm. The sides are 27mm thick at the sheer. 
dugout canoe, Ecuador, detail
Fungus growth is apparent on the exterior. Rough exterior shaping was done with a chainsaw, tool marks of which are visible.
stump from canoe tree, Ecuador
Fernando called the tree from which the trunk was cut a chunchu, the wood of which he says is hard and durable.  He expects the canoe's lifespan to be four years. The stump was deeply lobed, not at all round. Its extreme measurements at the cut were 142cm x 86cm. (A blue pen was placed on the trunk for scale.)

Chunchu tree, Ecuador's Amazon
A chunchu tree on Fernando's farm -- not nearly as large in girth as the tree he and his uncle cut on the mountain for the canoe.
leaves of Chunchu tree
Leaves and branches of a chunchu.
dugout canoe building in el Oriente, Ecuador
After initial shaping with a chainsaw, the canoe is slab-sided with angular ends. The forefoot will be cut back later for an easier entry, and the square chines will be relieved for a round bottom. Fernando took a few swipes with his machete near the top of the bow to show that the red-colored wood was sound beneath the covering of fungus. 
dugout canoe in el Oriente, Ecuador
Another view of the rough-cut bow.
dugout canoe stern in el Oriente, Ecuador
A seat for the paddler is carved into the stern just forward of the aft platform. This feature is typical of the canoes on the upper Napo drainage.
dugout canoe stern and builder in el Oriente, Ecuador
A more complete view of the stern.
dugout canoe detail, el Oriente, Ecuador
From the cross-hatch marks in the bottom interior, it appears that gross material removal was performed with a chainsaw, although I did not confirm this with the builder. Later shaping was done with an axe and two-handed and one-hand adzes, marks of which are clearly visible on the sides.
dugout canoe transom, el Oriente, Ecuador
The end of the trunk split when the tree was felled. A cleat was nailed across the transom to prevent the split from spreading further. A large percentage of the dugouts I saw in this area were split at the stern, with heavy wire more typically used to prevent further splitting.