Not many people take to the open ocean in canoes these days. Rough seas and inconveniently long travel times caused tribes on the West Coast to nearly abandon the labor-intensive mode of transportation years ago. But each year, pullers take to the sea again, traveling hundreds of miles to participate in an event honoring their culture.
A throng of spectators paced the Point Grenville beach expectantly Thursday afternoon, tapping nerviously on drums, chatting and scanning the horizon for the first sign of travelers. The day started off cloudy and cold, but the clouds broke just as the masts of the Lady Washington appeared on the horizon. Not long after, a pod of large, wooden canoes became visible.
As a canoe approached the beach, one of the pullers asked for permission to come ashore. Quinault Tribal Councilman Rich Underwood granted them permission, and drummers, singers and dancers dressed in traditional red and black clothing gave an official welcome.
“We look forward to listening to your songs, creating memories for the youngest to oldest in your canoe,” Underwood said.
As the first group of pullers carried the canoe up the beach, several other canoes pulled into shore, and the steady stream of arrivals lasted well into the afternoon. Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Quinault Indian Nation, said a total of 69 canoes, each holding between 18 and 20 pullers, came ashore. Quinault officials originally predicted 100 canoes would land at Point Grenville.
A harrowing journey
The pullers were all exhausted by the time they reached the beach — most of them started their journeys about a week ago, traveling about 20 miles each day. Frank Douglas Joe and Kieth Harry, both from British Columbia, arrived with the Malahat Nation Wednesday night and were still recovering from their trip.
“The swelling on my hands is just starting to go down,” Harry said.
This was the men’s first-ever canoe journey, and they said they’re proud that they pushed through the hardships and made it to Point Grenville. Joe said being in a canoe on the open ocean was terrifying at first, but he was able to relax and enjoy the experience after a while.
“There were waves, one after another,” Joe said. “Our boat was just slamming the water and I was right in front. You’re in the middle of nowhere, just crossing the ocean.”
The presence of wildlife kept the men on track. Harry said their canoe was accompanied by orcas and eagles for much of the journey.
“It was really exciting, it was really neat to see the killer whales in front of us,” Harry said. “It’s like they were guiding us.”
Although they were exhausted from their journey, one group of pullers decided they hadn’t traveled quite far enough. Larry Hotch of Klukwan, Alaska, traveled with a group of pullers from Alaska and British Columbia in a canoe owned by Chief Frank Nelson of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribe in British Columbia.
Hotch said his canoe started in Suquamish, located near Bainbridge Island, but next year they’ll start in Ketchikan, Alaska.
“We just felt like we could have gone farther,” Hotch said. “And one of our pullers is from Ketchikan, and he wants to start from there.”
A glimpse at the past
The excitement of the event was accompanied by nostalgia. The historic tall ship, the Lady Washington, floated on the horizon as Quinault Indian Nation members and their visitors commemorated their warriors and elders and honored tribal traditions.
“I am so excited for the Quinault people,” said Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp. “It is so important to celebrate our traditions — to keep our heritage alive for future generations. It’s a sunny day for our people.”
The Paddle to Quinault is modeled after the the 1989 Paddle to Seattle, which was organized by Emmett Oliver, a Quinault Indian Nation elder. Oliver, now 99, was among the spectators who welcomed the canoes ashore. He said he’s very pleased that the Paddle to Quinault has been so successful in helping Indian people reconnect with their history, culture and heritage, according to a press release sent out by the nation.
Oliver’s 14-year-old grandson Owen Bard was among the pullers participating in the event.
The Paddle to Quinault continued Thursday evening with a feast for all tribal and non-tribal guests. The celebration will extend through Aug. 6 with singing, dancing and storytelling.
A new totem pole, which was erected at the site July 30, will be unveiled today at noon.
Race canoe presentations will be given Sunday at high tide.