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Prehistoric canoe on Weedon Island Preserve takes years to debut

ST. PETERSBURG — Chris Hunt spends a lot of weekends with a canoe.

Not paddling or exploring, but nursing it back to health.

His passion is a 1,000-year-old relic submerged in an oily yellow mixture in a tank at the Weedon Island Preserve.

The 40-foot-long canoe, discovered in 2001 and unearthed by archeologists in 2011, is undergoing lengthy preparation for public display.

On most weekends, Hunt refills the tank with diluted wax, preventing the waterlogged wood from shrinking and twisting. Over the next several months, he will add more wax until holes in the deteriorated pine are filled.

Only then will the prehistoric canoe be ready for exposure without losing shape.

"We don't want to bombard the canoe right away," Hunt said, lovingly. "We have to be very careful."

Hunt, a graduate student in archaeology at the University of South Florida, is part of a team of volunteers and professionals tending to the canoe, the longest one ever found in Florida and the only one found in saltwater.

The canoe now is cut into pieces to fit into the tank.

If all goes well, it will be reassembled sometime next year and put on display at the cultural center on the island, said Robert Austin, vice president and principal investigator with Southeastern Archeological Research.

"This is exciting," Austin said. "It's also a long, long process."

Preservation of the canoe already has cost about $30,000 in funds from island advocacy groups, he said.

Thought to be crafted by the prehistoric Manasota people who lived on Weedon Island before the Spanish explorers decimated the culture, the canoe is a rare saltwater find, Austin said.

Ocean tides don't suspend old relics as effectively as still, stagnant freshwater, he said.

But there it was, edging from the sand in plain view when Harry Koran was walking the shore in January 2001.

A longtime butcher at Winn-Dixie in Largo, Koran loves to look for buried rocks and pottery in the sand. He had been rowing a boat to the preserve regularly for years, he said.

"It's a dream come true," said Koran, now 60. "I've always wanted to find something significant like that."

He called Weedon's cultural center.

"He called and he called," said Phyllis Kolianos, former manager of the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center. "He was trying to convince me of what he had found, but we have a lot of people thinking they found artifacts."

Pictures and videos of the canoe's outline in the sand helped, Kolianos said. The investigation and excavation began in 2007 and took years.

Kolianos and other Florida archeologists can't wait, she said, to see the reaction of island visitors.

But not everyone approves.

Willie Johns, a member of the Seminole tribe and the outreach coordinator of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum in Clewiston, said he wishes the canoe weren't being ogled.

"My stand is, enough is enough," said Johns, who considers himself related to the Manasota people, predecessors of the Seminoles on the island. "You know about us. You know who we are. Why do you have to keep digging up my ancestors?"

Alison Barnwell can be reached at (727) 893-8804 or abarnwell@tampabay.com. On Twitter: @alison_barnwell.

Prehistoric canoe on Weedon Island Preserve takes years to debut 09/02/13 [Last modified: Monday, September 2, 2013 11:48pm]
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