Coastal tribes follow historical route in canoes
By Jack Kintner
The 19 native paddlers in a hallowed-out cedar canoe of traditional design called Tana Stobs eagerly sought refuge on the rocky beach on the south side of Birch Point after paddling through six foot waves from Tsawwassen, B.C., last Sunday, July 23.
They carefully lifted their canoe ashore over the softball-size cobble and placed it alongside a half dozen others to wait for the rest of the 16 canoes in their party to catch up with them before heading together into Birch Bay.
Members of the Lummi Nation and the Nooksack tribe greeted them at the Vancouver Tree in Birch Bay State Park and hosted an evening of drumming, story telling and singing before the tired paddlers straggled off to bed.
The group is part of the InterTribal Canoe Journey, an annual summer experience patterned on ancient ways of traveling that was revived in 1989 by Emmett Oliver of the Quinault tribe for the Washington State centennial. Families from coastal tribes travel by canoe on one of four routes to an annual week-long gathering rotated among various Puget Sound tribes.
Oliver’s original route begins on the Quinault reservation and circles the Olympic Peninsula. A second begins near Port Alberni and travels through Barkeley Sound to the west side of Vancouver Island and then to Neah Bay and east. A third begins at Campbell River and follows the east side of Vancouver Island, crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Victoria to the mouth of the Elwah River before heading east. The fourth route, the one being followed by Lawrence’s canoe, begins in Sechelt, B.C. and follows the mainland coast south. This is the group that stops more or less annually in Birch Bay.
The canoes take a long time and a lot of skill to build, but these annual trips have become so popular that some of the bands have resorted to $10,000 Kevlar-reinforced 31-foot fiberglass replicas of traditional cedar dugouts made in Abbottsford by Clipper Canoes. The Tana Stobs hull is one, at 450 pounds much lighter and a little faster than a traditional cedar dugout except in a choppy sea, where its lack of weight means less momentum and therefore slower going.
“It’s not exactly traditional Indian construction,” laughed paddler Bryna Lawrence, “but the idea is to get people out on the water. These trips can change a life. And besides, the plug that the factory mold was made from is native-built and accurate.”
The canoes have a haunting presence on the water, moving along silently at eight to ten mph, paddles flashing in unison that from the front look like flapping wings.
“They’re really stable and seaworthy, perfectly safe for families and little kids, even though each is slightly different and reflects the assumptions of its builder,” Lawrence said.
The gleaming white 31-foot Tana Stobs has a native graphic of an eagle on each side drawn by Al Charles of the Lower Elwah band of the S’Klallam Tribe. During this last rest stop it sat next to a sleek cedar dugout canoe painted black that came from Squamish, on Howe Sound north of Vancouver. Paddler Shelly Paul described the image on its bow as a Sea-Wolf, drawn by Vancouver native artists Jerry Jones and Cedric Billy.
The headpiece is a symbolic deer head, and while underway Paul hangs a small talisman of eagle feathers and other objects from the bow like an ensign. The longer the canoe the faster it can be paddled, and at over 45 feet Paul’s canoe is faster – and quieter – than most recreational sailboats.
They’ll have 70 or more canoes plus their support vehicles, friends, families and others following along by the time they reach Lawrence’s home town of Suquamish, near Bainbridge Island, for a two day break on July 29 and 30. On the 31st they’ll paddle through the Ballard locks and land at Magnuson Park on Lake Washington’s Sand Point, trailering to the host Muckleshoot Tribe’s reservation near Puyallup. Next year the Lummi Nation will be the host.
For more information, go to www.muckleshoot.nsn.us/canoe-journey/index.htm.