FLOAT ON, FLYING EAGLE
The Flying Eagle canoe is hard to miss.
The 24-foot, hand-carved cedar dugout canoe, weighing 850 pounds and ornately decorated with the head of an eagle, a turtle, outline of the world and beaver face, stands in stark juxtaposition to the fiberglass canoes and kayaks floating alongside it on Oregon waterways.
During a canoe ride down the Willamette River earlier this summer, many watercraft enthusiasts called out as the Flying Eagle floated by.
"That's amazing!" "How much does that thing weigh?" "Who made that?" "Do you mind if I take a video?"
Willow Bill Goulard, a Nevada resident, travels with the Flying Eagle every summer. On a late June afternoon, as he sits at the rear of the canoe and paddles hard to steer the vessel, he warmly responds to such calls with brief snippets of the canoe's history.
In 2006, a group of dugout canoe aficionados, including John Ruskey, a well-known canoe carver, came to Columbia County and requested the help of hundreds of school-aged youth to help transform the cedar log into the canoe it is today.
Ruskey and Matt Clark were two of the men behind a movement to create hand-carved canoes between 2002 and 2006. It was part of the effort to reenact the expedition of Lewis and Clark by paddling along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers 200 years after the famous explorers did. One canoe, the Mato Chante, had already been created when the idea for the Flying Eagle came about.
Between oar strokes, Willow recounted how St. Helens resident Diane Dillard helped secure a 170-year-old Western red cedar log to be used for the project. Before carving the canoe, the log is tossed into the water to test its buoyancy, he explained. How the log floats determines which side should be up, Willow said, and the shape of the canoe will reveal itself once the bark is peeled back. Volunteers spent 10 days carving the canoe before it took its first trip in the water.
"It becomes a canoe when it has a journey, when it has a story and is able to share with many others," Willow said.
After it was completed, the canoe was taken to Missouri to be paddled nearly 4,000 miles alongside Mato Chante. The canoes and their crews spent months on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers before the Flying Eagle made its way back to St. Helens.
Since then, the Flying Eagle canoe has seen many journeys with a variety of paddlers throughout Oregon. Every summer, Willow takes the canoe to Beacon Rock State Park in the Columbia River Gorge and puts it in the water. He paddles the canoe west, along the Columbia and Willamette rivers, taking the opportunity to invite people to paddle with him. Some travel with him for days or weeks, while others join for just a few hours.
While Willow usually has an agenda to keep — with scheduled stops at various locations along the rivers on certain days — the very nature of paddling a canoe often results in schedule deviations. That sense of uncertainty never dissuades Willow from inviting anyone he meets to ride in the canoe, to experience the Flying Eagle firsthand, to learn more about its history.
On a summer afternoon in June, Willow took a crew of three people who had never been on the canoe before to paddle from Lake Oswego to the Willamette Falls, a roughly five-mile journey up the Willamette River.
I was part of that crew, and I have never previously paddled. Also on board was St. Helens kindergarten teacher Patrick Birkle, who signed up for the ride at a fundraising event, and Steve Beckmann, a farmer from Seattle who met Willow by happenstance and drove down just for the occasion.
If you ask Willow, that's how the canoe should be
"When I go down the river, when I'm asked, 'Whose canoe is this?' I say, 'It's yours," Willow said. "It was meant for everybody. It was meant for you to share. It was meant for you to get inside it and paddle on the water."
St. Helens ownership
Earlier this year, the city of St. Helens attained ownership of the canoe after the nonprofit St. Helens Community Foundation dissolved, which had been the insurance sponsor for the Flying Eagle. After some back and forth between the city's attorney, the city added the canoe to its insurance policy and developed liability waivers for its use, City Administrator John Walsh explained.
During winter months the canoe is often kept in storage in St. Helens. For many years, City Council member Keith Locke has been caring for the canoe when it's not in use, helping apply new varnish, repairing cracks in the wood, and monitoring the canoe's overall integrity. He's also taken many trips with the canoe and was involved in its creation.
Earlier this year, Locke announced he would be moving out of the area in January, which has raised questions about the canoe's long-term fate.
"There's been a lot of talk about finding a place for it and to showcase, or whatnot," Locke said. "With all this waterfront development (in St. Helens), I think it'll find a place where it'll fit in."
In 2011, a fundraiser was held to build a fiberglass display case for the canoe at The Klondike Restaurant and Bar — the imminent closure of which was announced earlier this week — but the effort never panned out. Willow hopes residents will recognize the canoe as an important part of the community's history and will figure out a way to properly display it.
Over the summer, some discussions have started with the St. Helens Arts and Cultural Commission about passing on care of the canoe as a piece of community-created art.
"The good thing is that the arts council has taken interest in it in this year, and maybe they can be caretakers," Locke said. "It's is a great piece of art and it has a great legacy to it."
No final decisions have been made, and with the Flying Eagle recently completing another 200-mile summer
trip and returning to St. Helens, its future remains uncertain.
Willow said he is planning to visit the St. Helens City Council next week to help ensure it has one in St. Helens.
Do you know the Flying Eagle?