Canoe Journey Journal

Coverage of the annual gathering of canoe cultures

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On The Water | Suquamish to Tulalip

July 24th, 2011 at Sun, 24th, 2011 at 5:48 pm by Tad Sooter


Route: Suquamish to Tulalip
Distance: 26 nautical miles (aprox.)
Time: 11 hours (including breaks)

The hard work began Saturday morning before paddles ever touched water.

More than 30 canoes were spread out on a lawn in front of the House of Awakened Culture in Suquamish, and each needed to be carried down the steep ramp to the water. Even with eight people lining each side of the canoe, hefting a cedar canoe is still hard labor. Its weight is grinding and the shifting load threatens to drive you to your knees. And though heavy, dugouts are fragile. A hard drop can shatter a hull.

Imagine hoisting a five gallon bucket of water onto your shoulder, hobbling down a long boat ramp, across 100 feet of barnacle-studded rocks and into knee deep water, and you have an idea of what it’s like to launch a dugout.

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At 6 a.m., in the orange glow of the sunrise, canoe families brought their vessels to the shore, asked parting permission from Suquamish Chair Leonard Forsman, and paddled north out of Agate Pass one by one. Our route Saturday would take us across Puget Sound, from the Kitsap Peninsula, past the south tip of Whidbey Island to Tulalip, near Marysville. We would cross two ferry lanes and a lot of wide open water.

The Port Gamble S’Klallam’s canoe Kloomachin left Suquamish with a crew of 10 pullers, and about eight more piled onto a support boat. Canoes scattered over several miles worked their way up the coastline past Point Jefferson. The day was calm but the water was choppy. Hundreds of fishing boats on the Sound created a confusion of wakes and skippers had to be vigilant to not be caught off guard. From the support boat we watched one towering wake lift the bow of Kloomachin out of the water. The crew pulled deep in unison to keep the canoe level.

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We changed crews in the middle of the sound and pushed on to Edmonds. The sun was high and the day was growing hot as we eased ashore at Marina Beach Park for a break.

Pulling north again, we joined a string of canoes scooting across the ferry lane as the Puyallup loaded at the dock. For the remainder of the journey we battled an opposing tide and a steady north wind.  Even with regular crew changes it was a slow go. It took two and a half hours to pull even with the south tip of Whidbey Island. With a long haul still ahead we eased Kloomachin into shallow water, searching for a place to land for lunch. A couple standing on a log-strewn private beach waved us ashore and we gratefully accepted their invitation.

On shore, over a bag lunch, we met our benefactress, Sonja Main, whose family has owned the shorefront property for 80 years. The railroad track ran just above the driftwood line and we noticed old timbers protruding from the beach sand. The family patriarch, Arvid Franzen had been a shipbreaker, Main explained. More than 26 ships were towed to this beach, stripped and burned. The iron was piled and carried away by freight trains. We were eating lunch in the midst of a maritime graveyard.

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Past Mukilteo the expanse of Possession Sound spread before us. The middle of a long pull seems the hardest, when your muscles are aching but your destination is still far in the distance. Working against the tide, skipper Laura Price tried to keep spirits up and paddles from lagging. Pullers sang traditional songs in Klallam, pushing words out through dry throats. The young pullers played “I spy,” but it was always a short game. “I spy something blue.” “The sky.” “I spy something green.” “The trees.” “I spy something blue.” ” The water.” There was little else to spy. Sky, sea, endless shoreline were our world.

As we neared Everett, nearly all the canoes around us were being towed by support boats. Towing isn’t uncommon on the Journey. Some smaller families don’t have enough pullers for reserve crews. Sometimes rough weather forces canoes to leash up. On Saturday afternoon the constant breeze and dragging tide slowed progress to a crawl. At length, Price and skipper Dennis Jones decided to tow. It was 4:30 p.m., and at our pace we were still several hours from Tulalip.

Jones and about six pullers stayed in the canoe. We clipped a long line to Kloomachin’s stern, tied it to the support boat and motored on. A few in the crew were disappointed to not paddle the full distance. But the Journey isn’t a race, Price reminded them, it’s about honoring tradition and getting there safely.

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In Tulalip Bay we unleashed Kloomachin and paddled to the landing. The invitingly low bank was lined with spectators and a small crowd from Port Gamble S’Klallam cheered as we reached the beach. There was so much water sloshing in the bottom of the canoe it had to be bailed before a line of volunteers could shoulder it.

Just beyond the shoreline, the ground crew had set up our tents in a baseball field and there would be cold drinks waiting in coolers. The family would have a day to rest before the final pull to Swinomish on Monday. It had been 11 hours since we left Suquamish, a long, tiring day that made landing all the sweeter.

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Nizhoni Price carries her mother’s skipper paddle to the camp in Tulalip.

This is my last dispatch from the 2011 Canoe Journey. I’m back in the office and at work on the August edition of the Kingston Community News. Herald editor Richard Walker will pick up coverage at the landing in Swinomish. Once again I’m deeply grateful to the Port Gamble S’Klallam Canoe family for inviting me to share their journey. — Tad Sooter

Tad Sooter is the editor of the Kingston Community News and covers the north end of the Kitsap Peninsula for the North Kitsap Herald. Follow him on facebook and reach him by e-mail or at (360) 779-4464.

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