WAHL, Ryan

Author Tags: Maritime

For three generations the Wahls, a talented Norweigian Canadian family, explored the rigours of boat building in B.C., making more than one thousand fishing vessels, hand crafted from Western red cedar, yellow cedar, fir and oak in their Dodge Cove boatshed near Prince Rupert.

Conceived as a modest family history project back in 2003, Ryan Wahl’s Legacy in Wood (Harbour 2008, 2013) has been refitted as an uplifting tribute to a gifted and innovative family. Handsomely illustrated, it also doubles as an oral history of a cornerstone of the B.C. fishing industry.
Theirs is a story of Viking spirit and West Coast ingenuity.

When Oystein “Ed” Wahl, as a Norweigian immigrant in his twenties, came to North America with $25 in his pocket to join his brother, he was essentially trading one rugged coastline for another.

After logging and fishing on the Olympic Peninsula, and later Alaska, Ed Wahl returned to Norway in 1920, married 16-year-old Hildur Olsen, and they settled at Quathiaski Cove on Quadra Island.

Three years later he loaded up his 27-foot gillnetter, Viking, and moved his growing family to Port Essington on the Skeena River. There, according to Ryan Wahl, his great-grandfather “made history by becoming the first fisherman to use a gas-powered boat on the river.”

Wahl’s forebears were not only expert navigators, they were technically advanced shipbuilders as well, so as the north coast fleet moved from sails to motorized gillnetters on the river, Ed Wahl started building his own boats. Self-taught, he didn’t rely on plans or blueprints, but worked from models. Ed calculated the shape of each plank needed and cut the board without pulling out a measuring tape. Over the years he proceeded to build a fleet of boats constructed by eye.

Wahl would often fish the new craft through summer, consider improvements that could be made, then sell the vessel and start building another one. “His goal was not only to build a boat that would perform well but also give it lines that were just as flowing as the medium it floated on,” Ryan Wahl writes.

Ed Wahl moved the family to Dodge Cove near Prince Rupert in 1928, joining a small community of Norwegian fishermen who’d settled in the area. His brother followed. They were a self-sufficient bunch, building their homes, hunting and fishing, scrounging driftwood.

The only time the Wahls had to venture into Prince Rupert, “was to buy groceries and give birth!” Six sons worked in the shop, learning the trade from stem to stern: cutting planks, sanding, shaping planks in the steam box or hammering dry cotton into seams. When Ed’s wife Hildur died at age 34, his only option was to pull his sons Henry and Iver out of school.
Iver Wahl was Ryan Wahl’s chief informant about the rise and fall of the family business. “I was nine years old when I started school but had to quit when I was 15,” Iver Wahl says, “…I helped with the house and took care of my younger brothers until Dad got a housekeeper.”

Ryan Wahl also interviewed carpenters, welders and tradesmen who stayed with the family business for decades. They paint a picture of an employer who despised unions, but did his best to keep good people. The story touches briefly on Japanese boat builders, like the Sakamoto family who supplied gillnetters to the canneries until the Second World War. Everything changed when they were interned, but some of their key design concepts were incorporated into Wahl vessels.

By 1943 the boat yard was producing a boat a week, and Ed was weaving in more changes. “His straight lines became curved, his sharp corners became rounded and the Wahl boats that finally emerged in the late 1950s had all the eye-pleasing characteristics that would make them so recognizable along the entire B.C. coast.” Light, strong, and to many observers, simply beautiful.

The company expanded in the 1950s, opening another boat shop in Prince Rupert. Ed retired in the 60s, and his sons carried on, building and rebuilding vessels that worked the entire coast. Eventually fiberglass nudged wooden craft aside, and Ryan helped build the last Wahl boat in 1989, his uncle’s vessel, Legacy. You can still see the Wahl handiwork on the coast, classic wooden vessels that are mostly tied up, hoping the salmon might return.

Ed Wahl was raised in Prince Rupert and the nearby community of Dodge Cove. He lives in Nanaimo.

2008 978-1-55017-433-5 $32.95
2013 978-1-55017-598-1 $24.95

--review by Mark Forsythe

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Legacy in Wood: The Wahl Family Boat Builders by Ryan Wahl

Photo on right of Ed Wahl

[BCBW 2008] "Maritime"