canoe quest

🕔Sep 07, 2005

This summer, the eagles and orcas of B.C.’s coast will share the scenery with fleets of canoes packed with First Nations youth. Thanks to two unique programs, these youth are once again paddling the highways of their ancestors.

“The trip was all just awesome,” said 18-year-old Brandi Gawa from Kispiox, who joined a 2003 journey down the Skeena River from Kispiox to Prince Rupert. “It was pretty much all mystical. The scenery was beautiful, the eagles, everything.”

Two years later, Gawa is planning to join 17 others for Rediscovery’s latest Canoe Quest. This August, the Kispiox group—all of whom have never been to the coast by canoe—will travel with at least three other boats from Prince Rupert to Bella Bella in Xwsiiyeen (which means “river of mist” in Gitxsan), and Nunsulsailus.

Between their six- to eight-hour-long days of paddling, the group will make stops at Hartley Bay, Kitkatla, Klemtu, and Bella Coola. Gawa’s canoe will be joined by boats from Prince Rupert, Kincolith and Burns Lake.

“We’ll gather to learn each other’s songs and dances,” said Canoe Quest’s northwestern B.C. co-ordinator Doreen Angus. “Traditionally, different groups would share songs, dances and stories while travelling.”

The Pulling Together Society, based in the Lower Mainland, is also organizing canoe trips for First Nations youth this summer. Last year, at least 40 people—three quarters of them from B.C.—paddled down the Fraser River from Hope to Gibson. This year, the Society is hosting a journey from Harrison Lake to Fort Langley.

The society was formed in 1993 by retired RCMP Staff Sergeant Ed Hill and eco-tourism operator and canoe enthusiast Chris Cooper, who lends out seven of his canoes to the society and helps train the participants.

“I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than experiencing First Nations in their canoes on the coast,” said Cooper.

Before European contact, almost every group of First Nations in North America used canoes or kayaks in their daily life. In Ontario, centuries-old pictographs depict images of canoes in rock paintings. Here in B.C., cedar dugout canoes plied the rough waters of the coast from Haida Gwaii to the Lower Mainland, stopping en route to share songs of welcome, make war or hunt. Groups often met to race one another in contests of strength and endurance, a tradition that continues to the present.

From tree selection and canoe construction to the final journey, every element of canoeing was imbibed with spiritual significance. According to a fall 2003 article in Journal of the West by Will Jarvis, every canoe builder among the Coast Salish was helped by a guardian spirit who led the builder to the perfect tree and helped create a masterpiece.

“In a sense, the canoe was always a sacred vessel,” wrote Jarvis. “[It had] spiritual qualities from the outset and…was transformed into a form of wood that embodied a specific canoe spirit.”

The traditions suffered after the 1920s, due to the loss of Native lands and industrial harvesting of old-growth western red cedar. However, in the last decade or so B.C. has seen a revival in the canoe culture—a revival that didn’t spread to the North until five or six years ago, according to Angus.

“The elders were just thrilled the youth had the opportunity [to paddle],” said Angus. “They recalled that for their youth it was a matter of course—it was part of their daily lives.”

Canoe Quest came about in 1995 as a means to help bring together adults and youth, as well as solve problems faced by the people in Kispiox.

“[School] staff noticed a problem with the students,” said Angus. “They were disrespectful of the teachers, which made it hard for them to work.”

The staff sponsored a series of meetings to identify strengths and weaknesses in the community. One goal was to give youth access to an experience that would connect them to the land rather than the television screen.

“Constantly playing video games doesn’t really expand minds,” said Angus. “The best way to learn something is through experiencing it.”

To this end, the community built a drop-in activity centre and began facilitating the Rediscovery program, which eventually extended from a summer camp to a three-day rafting trip and, eventually, Canoe Quest.

Gawa heard about the canoe trip while working as a junior counsellor at the Rediscovery camp. Though only 16 at the time, she was committed to participating.

“I was too young, but they made an exception for me because they see me as mature,” she said. “My family didn’t want me to go—they were scared of the river. I’m not really scared. I’ve never had a bad experience with the river or with water. I knew I’d be safe.”

A wrestler used to travelling long distances to compete, Gawa still found the training difficult.

“You go to bed late and you’re up at six and paddling right after breakfast. Mentally it’s hard to keep going.”

Despite the difficult training, Gawa feels the trip offers something beyond television and video games.

“We had lots of good laughs in the canoe,” she said. “You get close to all the people.”

The Pulling Together Society began along the same lines. In the 1980s, Cooper worked for the Attorney General’s office, taking young offenders on canoe journeys as part of the Outward Bound program.

“Lots of the youth were Native youth,” said Cooper. “I really enjoyed working with them. They’re quite easy-going and very interested in whatever I was teaching. They really liked being outdoors…I wondered why they were there.”

Now, almost two decades later, Cooper is once again joining youth on canoe journeys.

As well as organizing Pulling Together’s big event, he is planning a trip down the coast in August from Prince Rupert to Fury Island, south of Bella Bella. Cooper intends to stop at the communities along the way and invite youth to join his crew for day paddles.

“If we’re passing through their territory, I like to contact them and let them know we’re coming,” he said.

Gawa, thinking back to 2003, is just as eagerly awaiting this year’s journey.

“It puts us back in our natural land and resources. It’s so powerful.”

The 2005 Canoe Quest begins with a three-day youth summit in Prince Rupert, where participants will gather to discuss culture, tradition, conservation, language, and eco-tourism. For more information on Rediscovery, visit