Sunday, July 08, 2007

Paddling the Salish Sea

Salish Sea is the aboriginal name for the inland waters from Puget Sound to Johnstone Strait, a great inland waterway that includes Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Since the retreat of the glaciers approximately 10,000 years ago native people have used the waters of the Salish Sea as the regional transportation network. I spend much of my time on the rivers that drain into the Salish Sea but every once in a while it's good to get out and explore the marine waters where all these rivers come together. Paddling is a means of reconnecting with our historical, cultural, and spiritual relationship to the waters that have nourished the body and soul of the people who called this place home for centuries. The Salish people mastered the art of efficient travel on the great inland sea through ocean-going canoes that were used for centuries.

Looking down on the Salish Sea (NASA image).

Actually getting out in one of these canoes can be a challenge as they are not easy to rent or borrow and you need to get a crew together who wants to paddle one. Two years ago my friend Omar sent an email to a group of us that went something like this:

I have been doing some thinking and have the start of a vision that I would like your help shaping. I have often pondered what it would be like to go on a group trip with everyone in one craft, working as a team. It should allow good opportunity for discussions, problem solving, and teamwork. I think I have found the craft for this trip--a Northern Dancer Canoe designed for groups of 5-10 paddlers in the tradition of a native dugout canoe. The canoe does not come with paddles, as each tribal member has a personal paddle that does not get rented. In the spirit of the trip, we will each make our own cedar northwest coast paddle.

The "pullers" (paddlers) on the 2007 trip.

With the seed planted, Omar began to organize the trip. After calling Clipper Canoes, makers of the Northern Dancer, Omar tracked down different tribes who had purchased the boat over the past few years. Several of us went out to the Olympic Peninsula where we met with Benny from the Squaxin Island Tribe. Benny took us out one morning and shared his paddling knowledge--we were hooked and we immediately set about the task of finding wood for our paddles. Through the spring of 2005 we searched the beaches on different trips for yellow or red cedar and soon everyone had ripped a board from a piece of driftwood. Ed took a course from noted carver Ray Arcand and after a few more trips to museums and conversations with experts we were on our way.

I missed the first trip in June 2005 as I was off in Alaska doing field work but I had started my paddle and in 2007 everyone decided it was time to do another trip. Actually getting a boat to use had been tricky. While a few tribes offer guided trips it's another matter to get one of the boats for your own journey. After many phone calls and long discussions, Omar tracked down
Aaron Reith with Takaya Adventures. Aaron helped us make special arrangements for a canoe in 2005 and after moving to Tseycum Canoe Tours, Aaron once again helped us get boats for our trip out of Sidney in 2007. As we launched he made a point of saying that we had special permission to take the boats out on our own and we felt honored to have the respect of the tribe and the privilege to experience this way of traveling the inland sea.

We prepare to head out from the beach adjacent to the ferry terminal as one of the tribal members comes to send us on our way with a song.

Out on the water. Ed guides one of our canoes.

Our second canoe guided by Web.

On our journey we shared knowledge of carving techniques and soon after setting camp a couple guys found a nice cedar log that was quickly split into boards.

Ed eyes up one of the cedar boards determining what sort of paddle might emerge. The board itself guides the carving process as you scan the grain.

Web goes to work a new paddle after a group consultation. The next series of photos show the development of the paddle over the course of the weekend.

The paddle starts to take on a basic shape with a hatchet that we use to rough out the basic form.
A draw knife can then be used to start shaping the paddle.

More work with the draw knife as you can start to recognize the clear form of the paddle.

More detailed blade shaping with a crooked knife.

As some worked on paddles others took the scraps to work on spoons, spatulas, and a gaff hook handle. Others just read or relaxed.

A break from the carving--hanging out for a meal together.

Mark carving as the sun sets.

Lyle guides a group out around the island at sunset.

It was a great trip and a real joy to work together as team to experience the Salish Sea as it was traveled for centuries. I'm sure we will all be back out on the water sometime soon and a big thanks to the people of the Tseycum First Nation for sharing their boat with us for the weekend and making our trip possible.