Local couple takes part in 10-day canoe journey to Olympic Peninsula

Published on Wed, Sep 25, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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As they have for the last four years, a local couple took a canoe trip this summer that was a departure from the ordinary.

Blaine’s Ron Snyder and Cathy Taggett helped a team paddle a hand-carved Native American canoe from South Lake Union to the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula over 10 days in late July and early August. The paddling team, called the G’ana’k’w family, was one of dozens of groups comprised mostly of Native Americans who journeyed by canoe to the Quinault tribal land for a celebration of native traditions.

The journey was sometimes arduous, sometimes harrowing but overall joyful and rewarding, Snyder and Taggett said. Hosting
 tribes along the way provided food and lodging for each stage of the journey, and every stop was an opportunity to share in the customs and traditions of tribal nations.

About two dozen members of the G’ana’k’w family took turns paddling  – or pulling, as it’s technically called – the 21-foot canoe. Four to seven people pulled at a time, but the rest of the family members weren’t slacking.

“If you’re not in the canoe, you still have work to do,” Snyder said. “You’re the ground crew, so you’re helping to launch and land or preparing meals and taking care of safety arrangements. So you’re always engaged – you’re always working.”

Members of the coast guard followed along the entire journey in powerboats, and fishers from local tribes also provided safety boats. Everyone on the water wore a lifejacket at all times. Those precautions came in handy, as 18 canoes capsized at some point along the journey, and a nearby safety boat came to the rescue each time.

The G’ana’k’w family’s canoe was one of those that capsized leaving the shore near Dungeness Spit. Snyder watched from the shore as the canoe disappeared into the fog.

As the canoe cleared the spit, it was hit by strong currents. The skipper turned the boat west to head back towards calm water, but was caught broadside by waves and tipped over just as a safety boat arrived.

“Everybody was in the cold water, but we had practiced capsizing and getting the boat upright from the water, so they were 
ready for it,” Snyder said. The canoe was righted and the pullers were out of the water within five minutes, ready to continue on their way.

Whether through canoe carving or other youth outreach, Snyder and Taggett have been involved in the annual canoe journey since 1990. They first participated as pullers in the journey in 2010, joining their close friends Saaduuts and Jan Peele.

Saaduuts is a master carver from the Haida tribe, and his wife Jan is with the Tlingit tribe and is the chair of elections on the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. The Peeles are the heads of the G’ana’k’w family, which was named in honor of their late son. The group is made up of friends and family of the Peeles.

This year, Jan traveled with Snyder and Taggett in a camper van to organize the ground crew along the way. Saaduuts was one of a few designated skippers on the crew. Snyder helped pull for a few sections in Puget Sound – up to 15 miles a day.

As the canoes headed west along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the water got rougher. Tribal elders began calling daily meetings with the skippers from each canoe, representatives from the coast guard and the local tribal fishermen who knew the regional currents best. 

The coast guard would give a report on the weather and water conditions and, based on the coast guard report and the advice of local fishermen, the tribal elders would make a decision as to whether canoes should go out on the water or be trailered to the next destination.

“The elders stopped short of prohibiting anyone from going out, but once they made their call, no one ever went against it,” 
Snyder said. From about Port Angeles on, the decision to trailer the boats due to rough weather was made about a quarter of the time.

After 10 days of paddling, the canoes arrived at the Quinault lands, a pristine section of coastline devoid of modern building or roads. Women dressed in traditional clothing welcomed the canoes by dancing in the surf, and groups of people rushed out to stabilize landing canoes as weary pullers got out. Canoes, some of which were 40 feet long, were then carried up the beach.

“If not for the people on the beach who were wearing modern clothing, the scene could have been pre-1800,” Snyder said. 

“From morning until evening, the dancers never stopped welcoming the boats. They were incredible, and the whole atmosphere was very special,” Taggett said.

After being close friends of the Haida and Tlinget for 16 years, Snyder and Taggett will be ceremonially adopted by those 
tribes on Sunday, September 29. Taggett will be adopted by Jan Peele as her Tlinget sister, and Snyder will be adopted by Saaduuts Peele as his Haida brother. 

They will be given native names by their adopters during the ceremony, after which they will be formally recognized as members of those respective tribes.