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A new home

A hand-carved, freshly restored Takelma canoe passed on to Ashlanders Dan and Jennifer Wahpepah is parked in the Ashland High School library, but the plan is for it to make one more trek slightly west - about 200 feet or so - to a more prominent display location.

Dan Wahpepah, who is Indigenous, and his wife, Jennifer, an Ashland High School teacher, donated the canoe to the Ashland School District so it could be shared with the community. Ideally, the canoe’s final stop will be, according to a recent Ashland School District Facebook post, in a “publicly accessible outdoor location.” The district will soon be raising money to pay for a stand that will hold the canoe and a plaque.

“We’re hoping some students will do some drawings on what it should look like so the students can have input,” Dan Wahpepah said, “and to have some pride in what they’ve accomplished in putting this canoe up as a land commemoration to all the Native peoples who were forced-marched out of here in the 1850s.”

Wahpepah, who belongs to a guest tribe (that is, one not Indigenous to this region), said the tentative plan is to have the canoe mounted in front of the district office on the 800 block of Siskiyou Boulevard, near the high school.

“We would have a canoe mounting ceremony,” he said. “So we’ll mount the canoe onto two posts and the posts would have ribbons of steel and it would be tilting down and forward to allow people to look at the carving and yet be out of people’s reach for vandalism and for water to drain out as well.”

Grey Eagle, one of the men who carved the canoe about 30 years ago, gifted it to Wahpepah last year "under no conditions." The thought, says Wahpepah, was that he would use his connections with the school to find a public home, but it was far from display-ready when it arrived at Ashland High School.

The canoe was stored behind one of the shop classes at AHS for months before Jay Preskenis, who was the school’s assistant principal at the time and is now the principal at Oak Grove Elementary in Medford, decided Ashland High needed to get started on the special restoration project soon or the canoe could get lost in the shuffle.

Preskenis, who describes his woodworking skills only in irreverent terms, sought out the help of his much more talented craftsman son, Brayden Preskenis, and together they got to work starting last May.

“He’s pretty talented,” Jay Preskenis said of his son. “I can cut 2-by-4s and swing a hammer a little bit, but when I knew it was going to take some skill I mentioned it to him and he was excited.”

Most of the work was done after the father and son both clocked off from their day jobs every evening and required about two months of work before it was completed in mid-July.

The boat, which is about 18 feet long and 2.5-feet wide, was in pretty rough shape when it arrived at the school, Preskenis said, with some boards even starting to break free. They power-washed it and sanded it down as best they could, but when it came time to paint they encountered a problem. Preskenis was able to pry off a small board from a storage compartment under the stern seat to use as a sample from which to color match, but the company he found that specialized in such things couldn’t pull it off — not exactly, at least. It needed to be a precise match, so Preskenis took the sample to Miller Paint in Medford, whose technicians kept the sample for a couple days while they worked on it.

When Preskenis returned, Miller Paint had made the three shades to order: Evolution Takelma Canoe Red, Acrinamel semi-gloss black and Sansin ENS Optima clear gloss. The Takelma Canoe Red covered most of the boat and needed to be just right, so the Preskenises dabbed a small section and waited for it to dry to see if it was right.

“You couldn’t tell where we had painted,” Preskenis said. “That was awesome.”

What was also awesome, he added, was the fact that the powers that be at Miller Paint, once they had learned of the project, decided to donate the paint and the labor.

The Preskenises then got to work painting, filling in blemishes with epoxy, sanding, then painting again to bring the canoe back to its original glory. When they were finished, it was time to move it through the parking lot in front of Mountain Avenue Gym up to the library. For that, Preskenis recruited a group of about 12 people to carry it up the winding concrete steps and into the space where it would sit until it was time to be moved once again.

They carried it on their shoulders carefully up the stairs, and when the task was completed, Dan Wahpepah played a drum and led a ceremony.

“It was enormously humbling,” Preskenis said. “I was honestly really afraid to take on this project because I didn’t want to create any kind of blemish that wasn’t already in the canoe or do anything that would have marred the original beauty. So I was both cautious and nervous and really humbled to be granted the opportunity to do this.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Jennifer and Dan Wahpepah donated a hand-carved Takelma canoe to the Ashland School District. It is on display at the Ashland High School library. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune