Off Beat: Coral passes scrutiny in Fort Vancouver video

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Kanaka Village video

Lots of movies use stunt doubles. A video about Fort Vancouver's Hawaiian workers in the 1800s features a unique stand-in: It's a piece of stunt coral.

The coral plays a big role in the "Kanaka Village" segment of the Fort Vancouver app, a mobile storytelling application for Apple and Android devices.

The app has been available for a month at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Wednesday's Independence Day events figure to draw a big crowd, and people will be able to try the app if they head for the two replica houses just west of the stockade.

Actually, the coral inspired the story, said Brett Oppegaard, assistant professor at WSU Vancouver.

A lot of coral was sent here more than 170 years ago. After ships unloaded their cargos in Hawaii, coral was loaded as ballast for the return trip. Most of it was crushed and turned into mortar, used in brickwork at the Hudson's Bay Company trading center.

But that one intact piece of coral survived. It was found in 1969, near what now is the reconstructed Kanaka Village.

"Someone must have saved it from being crushed," Oppegaard said.

Doug Wilson, National Park Service archeologist, explains its significance early in the video:

"We occasionally find little tiny pieces of coral. Most of it was ground up into mortar to make chimneys inside the fort. … This is a complete, big piece," Wilson said. "This might have meant home to the Hawaiian Islanders. This might have represented where they came from."

Cheap replacement

As that scene plays out, Wilson is holding the actual artifact in his gloved hand. But for the rest of the video, the coral shown on the screen is a stunt double.

Oppegaard said he went to an aquarium supply store in Portland with a photograph of the coral artifact. The clerk sorted through a bucket of coral and came up with a couple of close matches.

"I bought them for a couple of bucks," Oppegaard said.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.