For the first time in decades a traditional river canoe was launched on the Nisqually River.

Reuben Wells Sr. launched the 21-foot-long canoe after a blessing in front of dozens of onlookers. The launch capped 20 years of work on the canoe. “This canoe moves really easy, you just push it along the water and it really moves,” said Wells, who is the chairman of the Nisqually Fish Commission.

“I started working on it 20 years ago, and worked on it a little here and a little there,” Wells said. The unfinished canoe bounced around from place to place until it found a home at the tribe’s Clear Creek Hatchery, where Wells’ son Reuben Jr. works. “I had it pretty much dug out, but there was a little bit of planing and sanding left to do, then we put a new end piece on it,” he said.

It is the fourth canoe Wells has made and the only one of three handmade canoes in existence on the Nisqually River available for use. One belonged to the late Billy Frank Jr. and is on display at the Wa-He-Lut Indian School. The other is an older canoe stored at the tribe’s cultural center.

“The first canoe I carved, I made mistakes on. It was really tippy,” Wells said. “I used it for four years but lost it in high water.”

River, or shovel-nosed, canoes differ significantly from open water or ocean canoes because of their shorter length and flat bottoms. Carved from cedar, they effectively navigate shallow stretches of Puget Sound rivers and are easy to control.

The canoes are light and buoyant enough for a single fisherman to steer with a long pole in one hand, while playing out a drift net with the other. “Once you got to the end of drift, you would lay the pole down and just pull the net in,” Wells said. “But when you laid the net out, you needed to pole with the other hand. It was pretty easy, once you figured it out.”

Wells’ father used to pole a river canoe 10 miles upstream during the day and then drift down the river fishing at night. “They’d haul 100 fish in one of those,” he said. “It was really something else.”