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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

DON EDWARDS S.F. BAY NWR: Native American Tule Boat Creates Waves at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Region 8, November 13, 2012
Intern Joseph Kahrnoff and Environmental Education Center Director Genie Moore collect fresh tule leaves from Artesian Slough.
Intern Joseph Kahrnoff and Environmental Education Center Director Genie Moore collect fresh tule leaves from Artesian Slough. - Photo Credit: n/a
USFWS staff and volunteers pose with their finished Ohlone canoe. The boat is currently on display at the Refuge's new
USFWS staff and volunteers pose with their finished Ohlone canoe. The boat is currently on display at the Refuge's new "Story of a Changing Bay" educational exhibit. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Michael D'Agostino, Environmental Education Intern, Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge

On November 13, 2012 staff and volunteers at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge completed construction of an authentic, life-sized tule boat.

This ongoing project came to harvest following weeks of hard work and planning. The organic canoe is the final handicraft being added to the auditorium at the refuge’s Environmental Education Center. Here, it will serve as a centerpiece for “The Story of a Changing Bay,” a newly renovated educational exhibit now open to the public.

Tule (Scirpus californicus) is a tall, reed-like plant that lives in fresh and brackish water marshes. It can grow from three to seven feet in length. California Indians living in the San Francisco Bay Area prior to European settlement, such as the Ohlone, used the tule’s long, tubular and triangular leaves to make buoyant canoes. These boats were employed for fishing, transportation and trade with other native tribes.

Environmental Education Center Director Genie Moore began developing this exhibit over three and a half years ago, collaborating with numerous local volunteers, artists and cultural/historical experts. “The Ohlone people were a peaceful people that lived off the land and valued generosity and family,” notes Moore. “It was vital to the project to highlight this part of San Francisco Bay's history since they were the first people to live in this area.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff and volunteers initiated the tule boat project late September 2012 by gathering a truckload of tule reeds.

The plants were cut down with knives at low tide from the refuge's Artesian Slough, bundled, and left to dry by an outdoor pavilion for about two months. Interns were responsible for monitoring and turning the drying tule several times per week, ensuring that the plants did not accumulate mildew or other damage.

Once dried, the tule leaves were finally ready to be tied together into a canoe. Staff and volunteers worked an eight-hour day meticulously building the boat. The effort would not have been possible without the leadership of Ohlone descent Linda Yamane.

“I had my first experience making a tule boat with a group of people in 1988,” Yamane recalls. “In 2002, I decided to make one on my own, and I've made or supervised the making of about fifteen of them since then. They're amazing to paddle on the water and make me feel connected to my Ohlone ancestors of the past.”

The canoe now plays an integral role in the refuge’s new exhibit. “There's a tremendous amount of labor involved in building a boat,” notes Yamane. "Everyone involved had a long, hard day of work with many hands lifting, wrapping, shaping, pulling and tugging to make this boat a reality. After that much work, it was a great reward to see it take shape.”

“The Story of a Changing Bay” exhibit chronicles the geological, biological and cultural history of the South San Francisco Bay. Visitors learn about the historic and artistic traditions of the native Ohlone peoples; the progressive degree of urban development and habitat loss following European settlement; and today’s ongoing wetland restoration and endangered species monitoring efforts carried out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
 

Contact Info: Michael D'Agostino, 408-262-5513 ext. 103, Michael_DAgostino@fws.gov