The challenge of the Canoe Journey | Paddle to Quinault

Pulling in unison, a Port Gamble S’Klallam canoe family heads into the Pacific Ocean surf during training in Quinault June 30. This year’s Canoe Journey will proceed down the Olympic Peninsula coast, ending in Taholah, Quinault Nation.                   - Laura Price / Contributed
Pulling in unison, a Port Gamble S’Klallam canoe family heads into the Pacific Ocean surf during training in Quinault June 30. This year’s Canoe Journey will proceed down the Olympic Peninsula coast, ending in Taholah, Quinault Nation.
— image credit: Laura Price / Contributed

LITTLE BOSTON — When pulling in a Northwest tribal canoe, the key is balance: each puller’s stroke must be made in unison, the pullers must support and trust each other.

So what happens when the ocean literally turns you sideways, taking control of your movements? You paddle on anyway.

This year’s Canoe Journey ends in Taholah on the Quinault Nation reservation, on the Pacific Coast of the Olympic Peninsula. For many, this will be the first time pulling in the challenging open ocean, unlike the relative calm of the protected inland waters of Puget Sound.

The canoe families of Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam are ready. Pullers, skippers and support crew have been preparing for this different journey by practicing for months, including training sessions in Taholah.

“When [the canoe] hits the waves, it really flies,” said Laura Price, a skipper with Port Gamble S’Klallam. “It was really fun, it felt really empowering.”

Quinault hosted two training sessions in May and June to get pullers used to pulling efficiently in ocean waters.

“There’s nothing like fear to motivate you really hard,” Price said. The first time her canoe family went out, they went out far, around the rocks that jut out far from shore.

“People have to be prepared for that, power-pulling around the rocks [with] the wind and waves,” she said. “It’s exhilarating. After we did it, we felt so strong.”

Nigel Lawrence, skipper with the Suquamish youth canoe family, said he remembers the 2002 journey to Taholah, and feels the surf was easier 11 years ago. The 2002 journey ended inside the Quinault River; this year, the landing is right on the beach.

Suquamish canoe families, of which there are six so far, have been preparing for the long days and change in water. This journey is one of the longest for Puget Sound tribes, and canoe families expect to pull for six to seven hours a day.

Lawrence said they pulled around Bainbridge Island twice and since March have practiced three days a week. Lawrence also attended one of the trainings in Quinault this year.

“We learned what we have to do when pulling into shore [while] surf is crashing,” he said. One thing they learned was how the wind affected communication. Lawrence said he has been talking with his pullers about how to recognize what is needed of them.

The backseat pullers, closest to the skipper, will need to help the skippers turn sometimes, Price said she learned.

“With the currents and waves, it is very powerful,” Price said. “Sometimes, the skipper needs assistance from the seat in front of them. Around rocks, it’s pretty intense, [and] I need to rely on the person sitting in front of me to help turn the canoe.”

The ocean is less predictable, and Quinault has requested that all canoes travel at the same speed, for safety, so no one gets lost. The Journey will make five stops after Neah Bay, when canoes leave the Strait of Juan de Fuca and enter the Pacific Ocean. There will be stops at Ozette, La Push, Hoh, Queets, and Taholah.

The landing will also lead to a different protocol. Traditionally, visiting tribes and families would be escorted in to the landing area by the hosting tribe. The visitors introduce themselves and ask to come ashore, often in their language and with song.

This year at Taholah, the crashing surf on the beach would make that very difficult, and possibly dangerous. Price said the canoes will land bow first and unload, then be turned around and landed. Standing on the beach, visitors will continue protocol.

“It’s probably how [our ancestors] did it a long time ago,” Price said. “You don’t want your guests getting [hurt].”

Jazmine Lawrence, puller with the Suquamish youth canoe, went to the training and said it was very intense. She saw canoes turn 90 degrees in the water. “The waves control you,” she said.

But Jazmine, 16, isn’t scared. “I know nothing will happen to me.” The daughter of Nigel, she has been on every Canoe Journey since she’s been born.

Another Suquamish youth puller, Shaylene Jefferson, 16, said she is a little nervous. She’s been participating in the Journey for five years, and said her favorite parts of are meeting new people and being on the water.

“The best thing you can do on the Journey is sitting in the protocol tent, listening to elders,” she said.

Friday, the public can watch canoes land in Suquamish Village beginning at 2 p.m. A salmon dinner and clam bake will follow at 6 p.m. An evening of traditional songs, dances and gifting begins at 7 p.m. in the House of Awakened Culture.

Canoes depart Suquamish Saturday at 5:30 a.m. and arrive at Point Julia between noon and 3 p.m. that day. Visiting canoes will be greeted by S’Klallam canoes on the water and welcomed on the beach by dignitaries — and a clam bake, for which Port Gamble S’Klallam is famous. Dinner and an evening of cultural sharing will follow in Little Boston. Canoes depart Point Julia Sunday.

Quinault will host from Aug. 1-7.


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