Pulling in the Canoe Journey requires physical, spiritual fitness

Erica Cardiel of Suquamish asks permission for her canoe pullers to come ashore, at Swinomish during the 2011 Journey.        - Richard Walker / 2011
Erica Cardiel of Suquamish asks permission for her canoe pullers to come ashore, at Swinomish during the 2011 Journey.
— image credit: Richard Walker / 2011

When the pullers participating in the journey to Squaxin Island are on the water, they will rely on one another. They will be pullers. More so, they will be sxwq’u’7kwt (sue kwoakthl) — canoe partners.

Each person in the canoe will rely on the others, not only to pull great distances at a time, but also to know their own abilities, to know their strengths.

Understanding what it takes to be a puller in the annual Canoe Journey begins with practice. For the S'Klallam Canoe Family, it's an understanding that begins on the beach of Point Julia.

As a skipper, Laura Price watches to see how individuals pull together. She sees who has the same reach and pace. A baseball coach, for example, places batters in certain spots in the batter's box. Likewise, Price will place rowers in the canoe where she feels they work best.

"I have pairs I will often put together, because I like the way they pull alongside each other," Price said.

But pulling in a canoe is more than placement. It takes strength to pull two hours or more, and mental discipline to keep going.

"You really have to prepare yourself holistically," Price said.

Pulling practice begins months before the journey takes place. This year the journey ends July 29 at the territory of the Squaxin Island Tribe. Up to 100 canoes from indigenous nations from throughout the Pacific Northwest will make the journey, some traveling as far as 680 miles. Canoes visit Port Gamble S'Klallam July 20 and Suquamish July 21-22.

At Point Julia, pullers young and old — experienced and inexperienced — test themselves on the waters of Port Gamble Bay and Hood Canal. Practice now lasts for about an hour-and-a-half, and will increase as time goes on.

Standing in a circle on the beach prior to practice June 13, a group of pullers, many new, discussed what it takes to be a puller. Of the priorities to ensure a successful day on the water: eat right, avoid drugs and alcohol, have a good attitude, get plenty of rest.

Pulling, even on Hood Canal, is far from what the journey will take participants through. Unknowns, especially weather, mean pullers need to be prepared for the worst. There were several instances in the past, Price said, where pullers were in the canoe for six to seven hours, without the support boat. When bad weather is rolling in, the less experienced are replaced with experienced.

"If we have some high currents or winds I need to depend on the pullers and know their ability," Price said. She is responsible for their protection.

This year, if conditions are too extreme, the Coast Guard will ask all pullers to land and drive to the next destination, a safety precaution.

However, being in the canoe that long is an extreme example; typically pullers switch out after about two hours. The goal is to arrive at the next destination within eight hours after casting off.

Pulling on calm water is still quite the task.

Bethany Swift, who became a participant in the canoe family in 1997 at age 12, will be an active skipper this year. She will be responsible — and already is during practice — for the 800-pound canoe. Add the weight of the pullers and Swift will be responsible for about 2,000 pounds.

Physical preparedness is key, but, for skippers, so is keeping up with meetings. Swift said the meetings keep her informed at all times. The mother of two is busy.

"I get sleep when I can," she said.

Swift, who was a S'Klallam princess when she was younger, began her training as skipper in 2005. As ceremonial royalty, she knows what it takes to be active in the community and how to be a leader. Like princesses, the skipper is a role model position. The skipper position, too, is being watched by peers, other skippers, and elders.

Like the other skippers, Swift and Price must watch the pullers carefully. Often times, it will be the nonverbal communication that tells skippers it’s time for someone to rest. Being a skipper means being able to read people.

If someone shows signs of exhaustion and is asked if they can continue, Swift said it's not the puller’s fault. A tired puller, however, does slow the canoe down. Again, participants are working to make it to their destination within eight hours or less.

"If we have too many tired pullers, we're not going to get anywhere," Swift said.

Young pullers can also be a safety issue. Prior to the journey, they will know whether or not they will be allowed to pull. Some may be asked to train for another year before they can participate in the canoe, Price said.

Swift knows what it’s like to be young and unable to pull. When she first started in 1997 her grandfather was afraid for her safety and kept her on the safety boat.

But Swift grew up with the canoe. At the age of 3, the canoe was being carved. Its part of her life. She kept at it and, soon enough, was pulling. It made her grandfather proud.

Pulling is not age restricted. It's by ability, Price said.

"If you can keep up with the adults and pull strong for two hours, you can come," Price said. "But it's not up to me, it’s up to you."

S'Klallam and Suquamish pullers will travel more than 50 miles to their destination.

To attest to the dedication pulling on the journey requires, training for the 2013 journey to Quinault has already begun. The journey will require many to pull in the Pacific Ocean, a vast difference from more inland waterways. Swift said about 80 percent of pullers have never pulled in an ocean.

And while it can attest to strength, pulling means more.

The canoe is sacred. A prayer is done before entering the canoe, which reminds everyone why they are there, Price said.

Likewise, any anger or hostility is asked to be left behind.

"We all have this goal to meet together," Price said. "Working together as a team, we are going to accomplish that goal and make that dream happen."And for Price, personally, she brings more than herself on the journey.

"I have loved ones who are no longer with us who I take with me on the journey," she said. “I travel in memory of people I love."

*      *      *


— "The Power of the Canoe," page A1, June 15 North Kitsap Herald.

— " 'Because of who we are': Gifting is an important part of the annual Canoe Journey, and of Native culture," page A1, June 8 North Kitsap Herald.

— "In Our Opinion: Our series on the Canoe Journey," page A4, June 8 North Kitsap Herald.


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