Gathering Strength: A canoe journey
In early August, 2011, eight ocean canoes plus support and safety vessels carried over 200 First Nations youth and their mentors approximately 460 kilometres down BC’s north coast.
Starting at Kincolith (Gingolx) at the mouth of the Nass River, the seventh annual Gathering Strength Canoe Journey culminated at Hartley Bay (Gitga’atla) at the mouth of Douglas Channel south of Kitimat. Over the nine-day trip, pullers from their tweens to mid-twenties camped on beaches and floors of community centres at small First Nations communities. At each village, they were welcomed with a feast and, in return, entertained the hosts with traditional dance and song.
This journey’s main objective is to empower First Nations youth. Paul Mercer, Journey founder and skipper of one of the Nisga’a canoes, notes that these kids must pull together in tough waters and live together in less-than-comfortable conditions. As a result, they will gain confidence in their abilities and perspective on their roots so that when they leave home for the city, they know they can succeed and bring their knowledge home to benefit their communities.
Gerald Robinson, also a Nisga’a skipper and co-founder, is passionate about the journey. For many—especially those that come from Vancouver—this will be their first introduction to coastal aboriginal cultures and communities. All will experience the ways their great-grandparents travelled these waters and lived on the land—in the hope that they can successfully integrate those ideals with their modern lives. Elders play an important role as well, enthusiastically supporting the Journey. This journey represents hope—especially for children affected by dysfunctional families and drug and alcohol abuse.
Additionally, aboriginal youth and RCMP and Department of Fisheries and Oceans enforcement officers benefit from working together as equals in a positive, non-adversarial environment.
Stimulants and electronic distractions are not allowed. Participants must be drug- and alcohol-free for 30 days prior. No texts, Facebook, or phone calls. Without distractions, participants can more clearly consider the question: what do you want?
First Nations youth navigate modern culture like any teen, but also move within an aboriginal culture that in many ways is fundamentally different. Traditionally, the emphasis is less on the individual and more on one’s place within the community. In a canoe, no one pulls alone. Culturally, environmentally, and economically, we are stronger when we pull together.
As a media observer, I was privileged to participate as a puller in one of the Nisga’a canoes. Following is a sample of the notes I took during those amazing nine days in August 2011.
The Journey Kinkolith (Gingolx): This morning, in New Aiyansh, I met up with the Nisga’a kids and crew I’ll be canoeing with for the next nine days. We boarded the bus for Gingolx, the start of our adventure. The kids in their faux-hawks, spikes, ponytails and baseball hats talk about the Journey, about music. We snacked on dried salmon and I almost learned a few Nisga’a words. We pass lava beds and hot springs to arrive at the mouth of the mighty Nass.
At the government dock, we transferred our packs onto our service boat. We launched our two canoes and were joined by six others: from Gingolx, Hartley Bay, and the Vancouver Ts’amix-an urban Nisga’a outreach program. The RCMP and DFO have canoes with youth from Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla.
The canoes are huge—up to 35 feet long and weighing hundreds of pounds, each seating up to 16. Lori Mercer, our bowman, set the tempo and Paul Mercer, our skipper, steered. We’re still tippy and uncoordinated; this will take practice! Thankfully, this was a short excursion. Around the point, the canoes waited offshore as the Elders were formally asked for permission to land. All were welcomed ashore and paraded to the community hall for a traditional feast (Nisga’a stew, delicious), dances in full regalia, live bands and a warm send off for our journey.
To repay our hosts’ hospitality, we performed as well. Drummers danced in first, then pullers, according to clan: eagle, raven, wolf, and killer whale. Non-clan members—the butterfly clan (folks like me) and out-of-territory pullers brought up the rear. We performed traditional coastal First Nations songs; those of us who didn’t know them will absorb them by osmosis. Gulp.
It’s dark out and damp, too late to set up camp, so tonight we’ve bunked down in the church, dorm style, for an easy getaway in the morning (4 am wake-up call). Someone is selling crab. No sleep whatsoever. Shouldn’t have had coffee. Lots of young farts and snoring.
Somerville Island Our first full day on the ocean. We paddled 19 km before the wind, chop and tide made it necessary for us to be towed across open water to Somerville Island. We pitched our tents high on the edge of the beach, but the tide came up so far we ended up moving into the bush.
After supper and the evening sharing circle, I crawled into my sleeping bag and took four Advil. I hope I can move tomorrow.
Bernie Island/Lax Kw’alaams A perfectly hot, blue-sky day. Seabirds sliced between the canoes and kelp tugged at our paddles. We’re told to release our fears and anger into the water. I pulled for my sister, recently diagnosed with lung cancer. A wave high-fived me and the seawater tasted like tears.
But we’re tough! We made Bernie Island in less than four hours instead of the projected six. The beach here is gorgeous (but aren’t they all!). After setting up camp, we canoed across the strait to Lax Kw’alaams for our second community feast.
Metlakatla A 4:30am hamstring cramp woke me two hours early. I had wrapped my sleeping bag with my foil emergency blanket, which crinkled when I moved. It kept me warm but a bit soggy—like a foil-and-napkin-wrapped hotdog at a high-school cafeteria.
We pulled 43 km today—nearly eight hours on the water with only one pit stop. I’m tired and sore, but so is everyone. No one complains—about the weather, the waves, their aching backs or blistered hands. We’re all in the same boat.
The power was out here today and no one could cook, so tonight we feasted on Chinese take-out from Prince Rupert. We’ve bunked down on the gym floor but cleared a space for the kids to play basketball. Damn, they’re good!
Prince Rupert/Port Edward We landed at the public beach to chat with public and media, followed by a luncheon feast at the Provincial Museum long house. Another performance under our belt; we’ll be pros by the time we’re done! Tonight we’re camped on the docks at Port Ed.
Kitkatla A 4 am wake-up for the run to Kitkatla, the longest, hardest pull of the journey. We were towed the first three hours because the tide was too strong to pull against. When we finally got into the water we had to push through a high chop with wind. We did 900 power pulls (canoeing’s overdrive stroke) to get through the rough seas and strong current on the final stretch and stopped at a little island well ahead of the crowd. We had paddled all day without stopping; the girls really, REALLY needed to pee.
Tonight, our efforts are rewarded with a fabulous seafood feast: crab, salmon, halibut, clam fritters, deep-fried seaweed, and many dishes I never even got to. I was so stuffed and tired I literally couldn’t see straight. And I had sea legs: the land felt like it was moving under my feet. Then a three-hour performance, two hours of oratory, then more singing, then cleaning up. It’s midnight and now the lights are about to go out.
These coastal communities may be geographically isolated and cash-poor but they are culturally connected and food-rich: Fish, shellfish, crab, sea lion, seaweed, berries… Food is a social currency, traded among families, friends and communities.
Kumealon Inlet Tonight, we camped beside deserted skidders and outbuildings at Kumealon Bay. In the drizzle, tent villages organized themselves like little suburbs with a common gathering area—our town square. We share a potluck dinner under our communal tarp.
Klewnuggit log jump Rain. My clothes are saturated. I tried drying my jeans by wearing them next to the sweat-lodge fire. It worked but it was so hot, my legs may never grow hair again. My jacket is laid atop my tent so it can drain before I put it on again… at 5 am. In the rain. So I can paddle… in the rain…so I can camp again… in the rain.
I’m lying here in my tent, wrapped (like a baked potato this time) in my foil-wrapped sleeping bag and nursing a blister on my lip from scalding-hot cups of boiled coffee. I listen to water splashing as it runnels off the tarp. Music’s still playing, the lodge still sweating…but I’m going to sleep, utterly content.
Hartley Bay After this morning’s excitement involving capsized canoes and tide-stranded runabouts, we got underway, six hours behind schedule. Once at sea, our canoes kept pace for an hour with a huge humpback whale feeding in Grenville Channel. It was blowing and sounding and breaching—dancing the jive with twirls, back-flops and tail-slaps. We travelled together until we turned to port, toward Hartley Bay, a change of plans.
The unexpected delay, plus the fact that everyone’s gear was too wet to camp in the rain again, meant that instead of camping our last night at Union Bay, we would push ahead and arrive in Hartley Bay a day early (can you imagine 200 guests showing up for dinner a day early?). Here, we can dry our clothes and sleeping bags and relax until the emotional wind-up feast tomorrow.
Tonight, in the shower, I washed away 9 days of sand, bark, mud, bilge, spiders, black-fly bits and sweat. I inspected the damage: fist-sized bruises on my legs, smaller ones on my arms. My thumbs are scrubbed raw. My bad knee and good leg are paining me equally. And my head is bursting with all that I’ve seen: I expected to be enthralled by the physical beauty (hey, I’ve seen photos; I knew it would be extraordinary) but it was the people that have left the greatest impression. The joy and gumption and generosity of the kids touched me in ways I did not expect. By way of this journey, the organizers and elders have sent these youth on a voyage of self-discovery, enabling them to connect with the richness of their cultural inheritance and their place in this landscape.
It surely was the best trip ever.
View entrance at our final performance at Hartley Bay.