For centuries, the only way to travel from island to island was by hand built canoes called Vaka. It seems that every time man makes advancement in technology an old tradition dies. However, in Rarotoga, there is still one family who produces hand made canoes carved from trees just like their forefathers.
Jassen Olsen, of Pacific Beach, traveled with his wife Julie this past winter to the Cook Island on vacation. During his trip there, he came across Auntie and Uncle Tavioni, master Polynesian fabricators of wooden canoes. “We make canoes just like our grandparents did” said Auntie.
Olsen, an outdoor enthusiast who has kayaked all over the world, asked if he could be shown this tradition and would they help him build his own canoe. After some family discussion they agreed. Olsen has been in Rarotonga ever since.
The six-week process included selecting the right tree. “You just don’t cut any tree down you need to be able to see the finished product in your mind’s eye even before you cut the tree. Some trees just don’t have what it takes to become a Vakas and those trees should be left alone. I’ve learned that as much as it’s a skill to use the tools to make a Vaka, it’s also an art,” Olsen said.
Olsen’s Vaka will leave Rarogtonga on April 20. It will be displayed at the 25th annual San Diego Pacific Islander Festival Sept. 21-22. “I’m excited to show Pacific Beach the old world crafts of this Vaka with other paddler enthusiast,” Olsen said.
“I would encourage anyone if they are looking for a truly culturally enriched experience and to consider traveling to the Cook Islands. Never have I experienced such hospitable people who are eager to share their culture and knowledge of their crafts.”