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A canoe journey by land
This is the final installment in a series of stories from the 2010 tribal journey to Makah. For more photos and a day-by-day account of the journey, see the Tribal Journeys Journal blog.
The canoe crews shivered and dug their paddles deep. They had fought their way around Point Wilson on July 15 only to be met by a line of gray waves slapping against the rocks.
The day started foggy but hardly daunting. But as canoes pulled away from the Port Townsend beach and cleared the point, the view became menacing. A fierce wind and tide were pushing the waves tall and the bell of a marker buoy clamored offshore.
Within minutes a canoe from Elwha capsized, spilling its crew into cold water. An Elwha support boat swooped in to retrieve the paddlers but most of the 30 canoes scattered along the coast hadn’t seen the canoe go over. In a S’Klallam support boat motoring offshore, the VHF radio crackled. The canoes were being called back. These were the same waters where, in 2006, the yearly journey suffered its only drowning death. The Coast Guard wasn’t taking chances.
“The worst case scenario happened this morning,” Port Gamble S’Klallam skipper Dennis Jones told the crew in camp that night. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose anyone from our Tribal Journeys family.”
The weather was peaceful when we departed Little Boston the day before. The Port Gamble S’Klallam Canoe Family pulled out of Hood Canal and north through Port Townsend with the sun beating on our necks. Most members of the canoe family were looking cheerfully forward to four more days of pulling up the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Neah Bay, the site of the Makah Reservation and the gathering point for the 2010 Tribal Journeys. When one puller tumbled off a canoe during a crew change early in the day, he was kidded about it for the rest of the afternoon.
There was no joking when pullers went overboard off Point Wilson the next morning, amid the waves and sucking tide of the strait. After being ordered to the beach, most families loaded their canoes onto trailers and towed them to the next stop in Jamestown.
At a dawn skippers’ meeting on July 16 the forecast was looking no better and nearly all the families voted to trailer canoes again. The scene would repeat itself. In all, the canoes crews pulled just two full days out of the five they had planned to.
Losing canoe time on a canoe journey altered the experience, shifting the emphasis to camp life and nightly protocol ceremonies. Keeping the canoe family, especially the children, focused without the daily regimen of paddling was challenging. Some lessons can only be taught in a canoe.
“The pulling is the physical, pushing yourself to the maximum,” Port Gamble’s Kari DeCoteau said. “The only way to learn is to stretch yourself and stretching yourself doesn’t feel good. A lot of people don’t know what that feels like.”
The canoes would have launched on more mornings, perhaps, had the families not been haunted by the scenes off Point Wilson.
I was on one of Port Gamble S’Klallam’s two support boats when the canoes left Port Townsend. We watched the canoes leave the beach and battle around the point only to be turned around again. After the canoes returned safely to the beach the support turned west for Sequim with a handful of us onboard for the ride.
The wind was stronger when we rounded the point a second time and the sailboat slashed through swells that rose 10 feet and blotted out the lighthouse onshore. Far behind, we could see the white support boat for the mixed Port Gamble and Suquamish canoe family Tana Stobs — pronounced “Stobes” — pounding through the waves. We didn’t know it was pulling a canoe.
Tana Stobs had decided to unload its fiberglass canoe and tow it by boat to Jamestown after the Coast Guard forced canoes to land. The canoe took on water as it was towed around Point Wilson, and began to drag on the support boat. In a tense moment, the decision was made to cut Tana Stobs loose.
When word reached shore that Tana Stobs had been abandoned the family was devastated. Tana Stobs is not just a canoe. It is an homage.
“Tana” is a nickname for Santana Ives, a 1989 graduate of North Kitsap High School who died in a car crash at age 18. Ives was a popular, charismatic boy, family members say. His memorial was one of the largest they can recall. Relatives later formed the Tana Stobs canoe family to carry the memory of Ives on Tribal Journeys.
The heartbreak was fresh when Tana Stobs was lost off Point Wilson on July 15, and canoe family members were in tears on shore. A small crew went looking for the canoe on a Jamestown S’Klallam boat in the early afternoon, when the waves were subsiding. They found Tana Stobs upside down, but still floating, not far from where it was cut loose.
“People were distraught on the beach,” said Patrick Ives, who was part of the recovery crew. “When we came pulling in with the canoe, they lit up. It was a rollercoaster.”
We were still pushing west in the support boats as the Tana Stobs drama unfolded. On the second support boat, a small fishing vessel, Rory McLeod and Dennis Jones saw a piece of wood tossing in the waves. They pulled alongside and realized it was a paddle. Nearby was a seat support from a canoe, carved in the shape of a fish. They found more floating canoe pieces and grew worried.
“It was eerie,” Jones said later. “I thought, ‘are we picking up pieces of a disaster?’”
The paddle and pieces belonged to the Elwha canoe that had flipped over in the strait. The crew was uninjured in the capsizing but the canoe was too damaged to carry on. The pullers decided to carry on in another vessel. That night at the protocol in Jamestown, the support boat crew returned the paddle to its owner and a cleansing ceremony was performed.
On the morning of July 16, after the decision was made to not pull, the Tana Stobs family gathered around their reclaimed canoe on the beach for a blessing. Women from the family walked counterclockwise around the canoe, brushing it with cedar boughs, while the men held its sides in support. The ceremony was meant to clear away the fear and negative energy from the day before.
The canoe had come back to them because it knew they were worthy, said Jamestown S’Klallam elder Elaine Grinnell, who led the prayer. They should protect the canoe like they would a child in their family.
The moments of healing were real but the journey had still changed.
We spent much of the next three days waiting. The skippers named their strongest crews to be ready to pull if the weather cleared. We went to bed early and were called awake at 4 or 5 a.m. and stood in the shivering cold to find out whether we paddled or not. On the mornings of July 16 and July 18 we were sent back to our tents.
The waiting wore on pullers and skippers. Port Gamble’s crew included pullers as young as 12. For some it was the first chance to paddle in a Journey. Many grew restless in camp. On a few mornings the wind howled through camp but by afternoon the water would be calm. Fickle weather added to the frustration but skippers were determined not to give in to temptation and endanger crews.
“It was a different year,” said Charlie Trevathan, who skippers a Port Gamble family canoe. “I wish we could have pulled more, but you have to keep safety in mind.”
The journey progressed in vans and in camp. We spent a night in a field on the Jamestown S’Klallam reservation and another two camped near a beach on the Lower Elwha S’Klallam reservation. Children played pickup games of badminton and baseball on the grass. Some nights there were formal protocol ceremonies where visiting tribes shared their songs and dances as gifts of gratitude to their hosts.
When there wasn’t protocol, teens gathered for impromptu jam sessions in camp, playing drums and singing traditional songs among the tents.
At a circle meeting on our last night in Elwha, skipper Laura Price reminded the family Tribal Journeys aren’t all about canoes, they’re about the experiences along the way.
“It’s about how to be a family and how to work as a team,” Price said. “On a team, everyone has their place.”
THE FINAL PULL
We trailered canoes from Elwha to the town of Sekiu near Clallam Bay on July 18. There was no camping, so the family moved farther west to Neah Bay, the site of the landing scheduled for July 19. A massive white tent was already erected for protocol ceremonies and the town was crawling with Journeys visitors.
On the morning of the 19th, pullers emerged from tents at dawn and, finally, we weren’t sent back to our sleeping bags. An hour later we paddled out of Sekiu and the water was peaceful. Our canoes rolled over long swells along a coastline dotted with pillars of rock. Pullers sang as they paddled, their voices rising and falling with the waves. The journey felt right again.
In Neah Bay we joined 85 other canoes in a colorful, boisterous flotilla and waited hours for our turn to land. Beside us were Tana Stobs, Suquamish and the three S’Klallam bands. Down the line, flags flew for tribes from northern British Columbia to Oregon. They had traveled a long way and now they looked eagerly to shore.
THE JOURNEY’S END
On the beach in Elwha, Patrick Ives told me he has taken a life lesson from every journey he has been on, but it always takes a few days before you know what you have learned.
Maybe this year his lesson will be about appreciating the things and people you care about, before they are swept away in the tide. About families pulling together through the end.
The journey isn’t over for everyone. Protocol ceremonies will continue through Saturday in Neah Bay. Drumming and singing will last long into the night.
One by one, the canoes will be trailered away and families will drive home to let the lessons of the journey sink in.