By Jennifer Whitaker
Two Belizean canoe builders with a special connection to a Canadian canoe builder were commissioned to build a racing canoe for His Royal Highness Prince Harry. As part of his tour of Central America in March, the Prince visited the small, British Commonwealth country in celebration of his grandmother’s Diamond Jubilee.
The Jubilee Canoe was officially launched by His Royal Highness on March 3rd just in time for la Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge – a popular, multi-day canoe race in the country. The Prince, in turn, gifted the canoe to a local high school and the chosen ‘Commonwealth’ team proudly raced the gorgeously crafted woodstrip canoe to the finish line – a distance of 170 miles , placing 6th in their category.
The boat was crafted by Belizean canoe builders Efren Ku and Omar Ku, employees of the Woodwork and Canoe Shop at Chaa Creek Lodge. The Woodwork and Canoe Shop, located on the grounds of Chaa Creek in western Belize, is a facility tightly connected to Ted Moores and Joan Barrett of Bear Mountain Boats in Peterborough, Ontario.
For over a decade, Barrett and Moores have traveled many times to Belize to teach boat building and woodworking to local people. The opening of the shop at Chaa Creek Lodge was partly inspired by the work they have done there, and is a place for those they have taught to continue to practice their skills while earning a living.
Moores and Barrett made their first trip to Belize in 1999 to help build a racing canoe for staff at Chaa Creek to paddle in the newly established canoe race. Fourteen years later, the Bear Mountain-designed boats built in Belize win the top categories every year.. At the race’s elite level, the Bear Mountain design is the foremost boat chosen by all racers.
On learning the news about the commissioning of Prince Harry’s canoe, Moores commented in an email to his protégées, “I am impressed that the British High Commission has asked you to build the young prince a canoe – Belize, like Canada, depended on the canoe to make early colonization possible. Who would have guessed when we built that first canoe in 1999 in a workshop fashioned of bush poles and blue plastic tarps that you would one day be building for a possible future king?”
There is another connection between the royal racing canoe and Bear Mountain – one that began 160 years ago when the first royal canoe, a French-polished butternut dugout, was gifted to Queen Victoria. Shortly after, the tradition soon began to focus itself squarely on Peterborough-area boat builders. For their wedding in 1947, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip received a cedar-rib canoe built by the Peterborough Canoe Company. Then in 1977, Prince Andrew received a Walter Walker-built cedar strip canoe when he attended nearby Lakefield College School. Finally, in 1981, Ted and Joan at Bear Mountain were commissioned by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to build a cedar strip canoe as his personal wedding gift to Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
All three of Peterborough’s royal canoes are now loan from the Royal Family as part of a permanent exhibit at the Canadian Canoe Museum.
Back in Belize, the “Commonwealth Team” and their royal canoe have recovered from their four-day race along the Belize River. Certainly next year, the Jubilee Canoe will again join the many other Bear Mountain-designed boats in la Ruta Maya, continuing yet another tradition.
The Belize Connection:
Since that first trip to build one canoe Bear Mountain has sponsored two talented woodworkers from Belize, Marcos Ortega and Efren Ku, to come to Canada to learn more about boat building and woodworking. Efren Ku now leads the creative team of woodworkers at Chaa Creek Lodge, producing outdoor furniture, items for the gift shop and fixtures such as custom vanities using boat building inspired techniques, epoxy resin and local hardwoods. The extra income earned from building canoes allows his daughters to attend secondary school.
In partnership with the British High Commission in Belize, along with several tourist outfitters and environmental organizations in the country, a plan is afoot to encourage more young people in Belize to learn to paddle through a mentoring program with Canadian partners. If you are interested, contact [email protected]