A family that pulls together

North Kitsap Herald and Kingston Community News reporter Tad Sooter will travel with the Port Gamble S'Klallam Canoe Family on the 2010 Journey to Makah beginning July 14. Follow along on the Tribal Journeys Journal blog.

PORT GAMBLE BAY — A crew of S’Klallam pullers paddled their canoe long into the evening Wednesday, still warm even in the fading light.

Canoe practice hasn’t always been this sweet.

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Canoe Family has practiced pulling since February in preparation for the 2010 Tribal Journeys canoe trip, which begins next week.

The crews have practiced in downpours of rain and pounding hail. One day they practiced in snow.

“It’s not just about building muscles,” said canoe skipper Laura Price, a key organizer in the S’Klallam Canoe Family. “It’s relationships with the other people. It’s finding out who I can depend on.”

Preparation will be put to the test when S’Klallam canoes depart Port Gamble on Wednesday. Crews will pull for five days to the Makah reservation, alongside canoes from neighboring Suquamish and more than 20 other tribes. The canoes land in Neah Bay July 19, beginning a week of ceremony and celebration.

In 21 years, the canoe gathering has helped reignite traditional customs and unite Northwest tribes from Oregon to British Columbia. Last summer the Journey drew nearly 100 canoes to Suquamish.

The realization of the cultural experience requires months of preparation, fundraising and practice by canoe families.

The S’Klallam’s twice-weekly practices are no abstract exercise. Teamwork and experience can save lives on the water.

The Makah reservation is tucked into Neah Bay, at the far northwest point of the Olympic Peninsula. To reach Makah, S’Klallam pullers will spend five days navigating the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a channel known for sudden storms and surging tides.

Druing the 2006 Journey to Muckleshoot, a canoe from the Vancouver Island Mowachaht-Muchalaht tribe flipped over in rough water near the Dungeness Spit, while traveling across the Strait. None of the pullers were wearing life jackets and well-known chief Jerry Jack drowned.

The loss sent a tremor through the canoe families and hit hard for the S’Klallam tribes. The canoe rolled in an area the Elwha, Jamestown and Port Gamble S’Klallam bands consider their territory. The S’Klallam see it as their responsibility to guide canoes safely to Makah.

“It was scary, but it was a reality check for all of us, that we need to take every precaution for safety,” Price said.

S’Klallam pullers will all wear lifejackets during the Journey, and canoes are being equipped with beacons that make them visible on radar. Two support boats will allow pullers to rest without landing and will be available to tow canoes if conditions become too dangerous.

Teamwork provides the greatest security on the water.

Canoes are most stable when all the pullers are dipping paddles in unison and pulling hard. There are usually six to 12 pullers in each canoe, two on each seat. Pullers on a seat rest at the same time and switch sides of the canoe in unison.

The synchronization can only be perfected by spending hours on the water. Canoe family members of all ages have sacrificed evenings and weekend mornings in preparation.

“I don’t mind, it’s part of my culture,” said Norman Ingraham, 13. “I think it’s pretty cool the tribes come together like our ancestors did.”

S’Klallam ancestors who plied the Salish Sea didn’t have to confront the litany of logistics modern canoe families face.

The canoe family — essentially a tribal canoe club — must raise most of the money for the Journey, holding car washes and selling handmade Christmas ornaments.

While the canoes work their way up the Strait, support vans onshore will be busy shuttling supplies from camp to camp. The ground crews pack provisions and gear for 50 people and set up tents and cooking shelters at each station.

The crews don’t always get recognition, but the canoes couldn’t travel without them, said Ryan Dovre, who has worked on ground crews for three years.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.

For the S’Klallam, the Journey experience will begin Tuesday afternoon, as canoes arrive in Port Gamble for a clambake and a night of rest.

The landing is open to the public, and shuttles will be available to the beach.

“We like to share our wealth, and our wealth is our culture,” Price said.

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