Coverage of the annual gathering of canoe cultures
On The Water | Point Julia to SuquamishJuly 22nd, 2011 at Fri, 22nd, 2011 at 12:03 pm by Tad Sooter
Route: Point Julia (Port Gamble S’Klallam) to Suquamish
Distance: 24 nautical miles (aprox.)
Time: 9 hours (including breaks)
Port Gamble Bay was calm and gray Thursday morning as canoes began pulling away from Point Julia.
More than 20 canoes landed on the beach over the previous two days. At 6 a.m. they still lined the driftwood above the sand shoulder to shoulder. Many pullers and skippers arrived at the beach that morning yawning from a long night of protocol ceremonies at the House of Knowledge.
The Port Gamble S’Klallam family circled on the beach and held hands for an opening prayer and skipper Laura Price picked a 10-person crew from among about 20 pullers to fill the dugout Kloomachin. Reserves were chosen to load in a support boat to change in on the water. Another group of relief pullers would drive to Point No Point to meet the canoe at mid-morning.
Thursday would be an odd journey in ways. We would spend about nine hours transiting a canoe nearly 30 statute miles from Point Julia to Suquamish around the north end of the Kitsap Peninsula. By land these towns are separated by 10 miles, a 15-minute car ride. But paddling the shoreline on a quiet day gives you a very different view of Kitsap.
View Paddle to Swinomish in a larger map
The canoes left the beach one at a time. It was low tide, and families helped each other carry the heavier dugouts the 100 feet or so to the water line. Canoe crews paddled strongly out of the bay, past the pilings of the old Port Gamble mill and north into Hood Canal. They’d be fighting a gentle flood tide to Foulweather Bluff.
The water was still calm as we subbed in a few pullers off the support boat off Twin Spits in Hansville. But as we pulled toward Foulweather Bluff, Price recognized a few tribal dive boats motoring back toward Little Boston. A cell phone call confirmed that rough weather near Kingston had forced divers to be pulled for the morning. A strong wind was blowing from the south and it was likely we’d have to pull the canoes out in Eglon. It was hard to imagine, gazing across the glassy water off Hansville. Even a standup paddleboarder was a hundred yards offshore, watching canoes pass.
The ‘B’ word
A canoe is not a boat. Yes, they are both vessels that float on the water, but the first rule a participant or observer of the Canoe Journey learns is to not call a canoe the “B word.” Punishment for using that four-letter word is usually a dip in the ocean, a ritual I’ve seen longtime pullers and unknowing tourists subjected to alike. A rush of stinging-cold water is an excellent memory aid.
The clean, deep water off Point No Point is especially cold, and that’s where Andre Ward decided to atone for a few “B word” transgressions when the canoes pulled onto the beach for a break Thursday. As the crew munched peanut butter sandwiches, Ward stripped off his shirt and ran headfirst into the sea – twice.
“Rookie mistake,” he said. He was in good company. A few minutes later, skipper Charlie Trevathan dropped the “B word” for the first time in 10 years of journeys. A few days before, skipper Dennis Jones had his first slip up during practice and took a plunge off Point Julia.
Point No Point to Jefferson Head
We pulled past Point No Point through a gauntlet of wading anglers and idling fishing boats. The fishermen kept casting, even as loaded tribal canoes skimmed within a line’s length of their rods. Salmon season is serious business.
It was clear as we pointed south toward Eglon the weather would not be a problem. The sound was flat calm for as far as we could see, save for lumbering freighter wakes and chop from fishing boats. The wind had apparently calmed, though sweeping rain clouds were moving fast over Whidbey Island.
From here on we watched an endless march of green shoreline pass to our right. Every so often a young puller would ask, “How far is it.” The answer from the skipper was invariably the same: “Around the next point.” We would creep around that point to find another headland in waiting, hazy in the distance.
There were distractions. Talk, laughter and occasional splashing helped pass the time. Seals bobbed by and little cutthroat splashed near the canoe.
“What would you do if one landed in the boat?” Jones’ son Robert asked before catching himself.
We pulled on past Eglon and rounded Apple Tree Point to bring Kingston into view. A ferry was loading at the terminal and Jones ordered a “power pull” across the mouth of the cove. Paddlers dug deep and fast for 60 strokes, speeding the Kloomachin out of the ferry lane.
Backs tightened, fingers wore raw and small talk dwindled as Jefferson Beach and Jefferson Head passed at a crawl. At length, the welcome sight of a smoking fire at Suquamish’s Doe-Keg-Wats estuary came into view. Canoes landed on the shallow beach en masse and were greeted by Suquamish Elder Ed Carriere. Port-a-potties and warm hot dogs were welcome luxuries. A few pullers were already stretched out asleep as we straggled ashore.
Doe-Keg-Wats to Suquamish
After a crew and skipper change, the final pull to Suquamish passed quickly. There were no more points to round. Suquamish was in our sights at the mouth of Agate Pass.
There were, however, plenty of boat wakes, and navigating even a small wake can be a hairy experience in the round-bottomed Kloomachin.
“Dig deep, don’t stop pulling,” Price would remind the crew as the rolling canoe elicited squeals from young pullers. “Think of your paddle as your handle and pull harder.”
Canoes bobbed in rows along the beach at Suquamish as we arrived. Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman waded between them passing a pink microphone between skippers like a relay baton. A skipper or representative from each canoe gave a brief speech asking for permission to land and were greeted ashore by a line of Suquamish drummers and singers. Then each canoe was lifted on to the shoulders of a dozen or more volunteers and carried up the steep ramp to a lawn at the House of Awakened Culture.
We unloaded our gear with rubbery arms and helped hoist the Kloomachin up to the field of resting canoes. Families would rest here for Thursday and Friday night, and be ready to paddle across Puget Sound to Tulalip on Saturday.
Some Port Gamble S’Klallam pullers stayed for dinner and protocol. Others headed home to showers and soft beds, grateful for a 15-minute drive.
Reporter Tad Sooter is traveling on the Journey for a second year with the Port Gamble S’Klallam Canoe Family.