Frontlines

A man, a tree and an ocean to cross

Robert Stall March 5 1979
Frontlines

A man, a tree and an ocean to cross

Robert Stall March 5 1979

A man, a tree and an ocean to cross

Frontlines

Robert Stall

Geordie Tocher, British Columbia’s briny perfect folk hero, has been rattling around B.C. and Alberta these days as if he were in a landlocked epilogue to his own movie. Into church halls, little theatres and school gymnasiums he takes his two cans of 16-millimetre film which tell the epic story of his high-seas odyssey last summer when he did what no other man had done for 1,400 years. Never mind that Tocher doesn’t know how to thread the film onto a projector, or that his jokes aren’t as good as his story, he’s still the man who whittled a 3'/2-ton, 40-foot canoe out of a B.C. Douglas fir and sailed it across the Pacific Ocean. With two companions he forged through unruly seas to Hawaii, literally logging 4,500 miles from Vancouver to Waikiki Beach in order to show that Canadian Indians could have been the original Hawaiians. The voyage touched off an anthropological controversy stretching all the way to the South Pacific, as well as a wave of folk-hero fascination in Tocher back home. Now he’s trying to support himself by showing groups his film which powerfully conveys, at $2.50 to $3.50 a head (kids and senior citizens, $1), the story of himself and a couple of trees and their significance in an ocean of time and space.

In God’s Country, B.C., where folk feel blessed that their trees stand tallest and their ocean rolls farthest, Tocher’s a natural. Six feet tall, 225 pounds, a tarn always capping his long hair and a lumberjack shirt on boulder shoulders, he looks like a cross between a Scottish hippie and a B.C. logger, the latter of which he has been for more than 20 of his 51 years. Since the age of 13 he has topped at least 50,000 trees— more, he figures, than anyone else in the province. He has also been a wood sculptor, house builder, air pilot, sky diver, deep-sea diver and general adventurer. He ran tours from Vancouver to Panama in an old bus, shot the Hell’s

Gate rapids in a dinghy, conducted rubber-raft tours of the Fraser Canyon and sold clothing in the Yukon. (“I always tried to work like the dickens for a few weeks, then take off and run a river or climb a mountain.”) In between and over the years he cleared hundreds of acres of land, fathered two daughters, built a dozen log houses, the world’s two largest waterwheels and two double-hulled Haida Indian war canoes. The canoes made him a hero and cost him five of the last 10 years and all his money. Now he’s trying to pay the bills by showing his movie.

Tocher would never use the word “hero” and, when asked to explain why he sailed the Pacific in a log, almost blushes when he says, “Adventure, I guess.” He’s no big-mouth hustler/daredevil but a guy whose strongest words are “dickens,” “gosh” and “gee whiz,” delivered in a voice

softer and meeker than Meeker. His movie was shot without narration, because of the cost, so Tocher stands in darkened halls explaining the action like a cousin showing home movies of Hawaii. The film, shot partly by himself and partly by cameramen friends, was edited with polish. The 90-minute result is a knockout journey through emotional flurries that cause crowds to clamor around with questions long after the last scene. Still not known is whether B.C. Indians did settle Hawaii or whether trees have feelings. And nobody asks big, tough Tocher about the yellow rubber ducky atop one of the masts. (It is one of 50 in his rubber duck collection at home. “Some of them go quack-quack-quack across the floor when you wind them up,” he confesses later.)

Last year’s voyage was his second try in his second canoe, both of which were named Orenda, an Iroquois word for a spiritual power derived from being tuned to the elements. The first tree was cedar, the wood the ancient Haidas usually used in their boats. (The Haidas were master boatbuilders around 500 AD. Some anthropologists, including the Kon-Tiki adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, say that around this time the cross-Pacific sailings took place.)

The Haidas, when they sought the right tree, used only “nature’s highways,” Tocher tells his audience as he introduces the opening scenes of his movie, The Odyssey of the Orenda. And there he is up on the screen, Tocher in 1968 with shorter hair, paddling, paddling, tramping for a year along the coastlines and rivers north of Vancouver, looking for the right cedar. But the lumber mills have taken the best ones along the shores and Tocher finally compromises and hikes up an old loggers’ road. He finds it—seven feet in diameter, 200 feet tall, straight as a Polaris missile pointed at the gods. To one of them in particular, the god Kane of the Kwagulths (Kwakiutls), Tocher gave a special prayer that the tree would not break when he cut it. He pulled the cord on his Pioneer chainsaw and in 10 minutes accomplished what took the Haidas a week. “I did it the Pioneer way,” he jokes to the audience.

The Haida boatbuilding regimen, Tocher says, dictates that the carver must neither comb his hair nor engage in sexual activity from the moment his tree is felled until the boat is completed. (Cue for another joke: “But as everyone knows, a person should comb his hair now and then.”) Then came two years of sawing, chopping, chiseling, carving, often with the rain streaming down his collar. This craft was 50 feet

PORTRAIT

long, 4'/2 feet wide, splendidly worked and tapered . . . and fated

to crack up off California. It was lashed to a half-size replica (made dur-

ing off moments) which served as an outrigger and launched with great hoopla from

West Vancouver. Among the well-wishers at dockside was 71-year-old George Tocher, Geordie’s father, who was once a guide and trapper in northern Alberta and British Columbia. In the ’20s the Indians called him the “Wild Man of the North.” In 1971 George Tocher was dying of cancer and he would not allow anyone to tell Geordie because he didn’t want him to delay the voyage. For good luck he wanted to be the one to push off the Orenda, but when the time came it floated just out of his reach. “I’ve never in my life seen such a look of disappointment on anyone’s face,” said Geordie, who didn’t then know why.

The Orenda was destroyed three weeks later on a reef at Bodega Head, 30 miles north of San Francisco. The Bolex camera was one of the first things saved, then crewmate Dave Moon remorselessly recorded Tocher frantically wading back and forth from the splintered wreck, rescuing in his craziness all kinds of useless items including 20 gallons of B.C. drinking water. Pieces of the broken Orenda were piled like kindling on the beach. Tocher left them there, as the first reel ends. The scene is heartbreaking and so are the quiet words of the carver, talking about it seven years later: “I thought, ‘Gee whiz, can I ever do it again?’ ” His father died the next year.

Broke and dispirited, Tocher spent five years sculpting and working and scraping together cash until, in 1976, his second chance came. The city of West Vancouver gave him an enormous Douglas fir that had been felled in a municipal park. It was almost 300 feet long, nine feet in diameter and 600 to 800 years old. Two more years of carving and it was down to 40 feet by six feet, shorter, wider, more stable and comfortable than the first boat. Last spring the new, improved Orenda was ready. “The boat is a thing of beauty. It is a living organism,” said Gerhard Kiessel, a 56-year-old West Vancouver baker who signed on as Tocher’s navigator less than three weeks before the Orenda’s departure last May. Kiessel, who had sailed more than 30,000 miles, was the only experienced crewman aboard. “It was the ultimate challenge to me. The purity and simplicity of the boat was irresistible. I’d have done anything

to go on that trip,” he said.

The third crew member was Karin Lind, 35, an anthropology instructor at Capilano College who lives with Tocher and went along because, “I was following the man I love.” She had never sailed before. Tocher, except for his 1971 failure, had sailed only inland waters.

By launch time thousands of people around Vancouver harbor hung out the windows of high-rises, cheering and waving the crew on.

So many well-wishers crammed the Bayshore Hotel’s dock that it sank 12 inches and soaked 100 pairs of feet. The Orenda sailed smoothly to Seattle, arriving in two weeks. Trying to duplicate the likeliest route of the Haidas, Tocher’s course followed the natural currents down the U.S. coast to California and only then turned out to the midPacific. From Seattle they sailed 300 miles out from the shoreline and then south. That’s when the troubles began.

The boat was hammered y by 35-foot waves and galeE force winds and the voyage d turned literally nightmar°ish. Swiping sleep between three-hour watches, Tocher had recurrent dreams that he was back in his bus enroute to Panama, but the bus was stopped and surrounded by long, uncoiling snakes. Lind’s nightmares were worse. She dreamed that death came and sat beside her under the front shelter. His head was a bare skull. Kiessel, the veteran sailor, was fine—“The bigger the waves, the bigger his smiles,” says Lind. Wrestles with the storm were so constant that nobody had time for the camera and there is no film of that leg of the trip. The ordeal continued for three weeks before they decided to land at Santa Cruz, Calif. By then Tocher was suffering from a painful kidney infection caused by severe dehydration. “As crazy as it sounds, I’d forgotten to drink anything. I think I was subconsciously saving water.”

The slow going forced Lind to opt out of the rest of the trip and return to Vancouver to prepare her fall lectures. (Some of them deal with the Orenda’s contribution to anthropological theory.) When Richard Tomkies, a 40-year-old free-lance writer and friend of Tocher, visited the dock in Santa Cruz to do a

story on the voyage, Tocher invited him to Hawaii. He accepted. He, too, had never been at sea before and he later described the four-week trip as “sheer terror interspersed with moments of boredom.”

For Tocher it wasn’t so much fear, but anxiety that weighed on him all the time on the ocean. “I could see the boat breaking up a bit more every day.” Tocher fixed and patched and jerry-rigged on the fly. He made six new rudders during the voyage. “The man is amazing,” Kiessel said. “Send him into the bush with a couple of tin cans and he would come out with a machine-gun. With wood, he is the absolute master. He is a part of his boat.’-’

The greatest fears were back in Vancouver where, because of an inadequate radio on the Orenda, contact could not be made through most of the crossing. “No Word From Geordie . . . OahuBound Canoe Silent . . . Radio Silence Mystifies Orenda Followers,” said the headlines in Vancouver newspapers. Lind worried. “I’d have given anything

to be back out there with them just to know they were all right,” she said. Finally, a Canadian Coast Guard vessel snagged a garbled radio transmission from the Orenda. It was safe at sea and, astonishingly, 16 days ahead of schedule, just a couple of days out of Hawaii. Lind caught a plane immediately and arrived at Waikiki to wait for them.

Aboard the Orenda, Gerhard Kiessel was unhappy. “As we were approaching Hawaii, the others’ faces lit up and mine fell. I didn’t want the voyage to end,” he said. The Bolex was out and filming as the Orenda rounded the Diamond Head promontory near Waikiki. Tocher and Tomkies were deliriously happy. The only problem was that nobody on the beach appeared to be paying any heed to this strangest of boats to arrive in 14 centuries. The Orenda lowered her sails and dallied for two hours, waiting for someone to notice. Soon crowds began to mass.

A few hundred yards from the shore, Karin Lind stood on the deck of a motor

launch. Tocher whooped, dove into the water fully clothed and swam to her. He hauled himself aboard and they leapt into each other’s arms and clung as long and close as in the final scene of Rocky. He suggested she ride in the Orenda for the last few yards of the voyage and, not knowing she could barely swim, helped her into the water. Lind flailed madly and made it, and the Orenda sailed in.

Hawaii’s Maori Indians told the crew that they had always known their ancestors had come from around British Columbia. Maori legends describe their homeland as the place where the sun rises, the trees are without leaves for six months of the year and men can walk on water. The Indians threw a party for the crew a few days later and there, in full ceremonial splendor, they paid lavish tribute to the valor of the intrepid Geordie Tocher who hooked a tree to the wind and guided it across 1,400 years to their birth. The ceremonies were to have taken place when the Orenda arrived, but the chance was missed because, Tocher later discovered, Teo the sentry had slipped off to McDonald’s for breakfast and missed the log boat’s approach,