Canoe Journey may yield important information about our sea
July 29, 2008 · Updated 8:29 PM
Some of the oldest technology on the sea is being paired with some of the newest technology to provide a more complete picture of the health of the region's waters.
Thirteen Coast Salish canoes arrived at Roche Harbor today as part of the 2008 Canoe Journey; the ultimate destination is the territory of the Cowichan First Nation near Duncan, B.C. A free community welcome dinner is scheduled tonight at 7; the canoes depart Saturday morning.
Connected to five canoes are underwater probes that collect water-quality data every 10 seconds. The data is transmitted to a data logger, and the latitude and longitude is automatically recorded via global positioning system, or GPS.
Dr. Eric Grossman, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the probes are collecting information regarding temperature, salinity, pH levels, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. At journey's end, the data will be processed and mapped, and researchers will look for patterns and trends.
Grossman said the information could help identify local impacts of climate change, development, and changes in the levels and types of nutrients and pollutants washing into our sea. Such information could be empowering; 90-95 percent of the eelgrass in Westcott Bay is gone. And some scientists, like those at the Center for Whale Research, believe pollution could be a reason for the decline in the Southern resident orca population.
This is the first year of the project, and what the information may reveal and how it may be used is subject to speculation at this point. But all hands involved believe the project is a valuable step in helping to restore the health of the region's marine waters.
"There's no easy fix," said Eric Day, Swinomish canoe captain. "But hopefully we can do something to turn things around."
The project is funded by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, U.S. Geological Survey, Northwest Straits Commission, and the Potlatch Fund. Probes are connected to canoes belonging to the Homalco and Stolo First Nations in British Columbia, the Makah Indian Nation at Neah Bay, the Squaxin Island Tribe in south Puget Sound, and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community near La Conner.
The Canoe Journey revives the tradition of canoe travel on Coast Salish and First Nations ancestral waters. Participating canoe families start in their home territories and make stops along the way along their route to the final destination.
At Roche Harbor are canoes from Chinook/Grande Ronde, Lummi, Nooksack, Steilacoom, Suquamish, Swinomish and Tulalip. Many of the canoe pullers have ancestral ties to the San Juans. The Canoe Journey last stopped at Roche Harbor in 2004.
The Canoe Journey is a cultural connection like no other: With the cedar, which for millennia has provided material for art, canoes, clothing, fishing nets and houses; with the water, the marine highway for coastal peoples since time immemorial; and with extended families across the Northwest Coast.
It’s also an intense athletic event; some canoes travel for hundreds of miles to get to the final destination, and each puller has to be mentally, physically and spiritually disciplined.
At each stop along the Canoe Journey, the public can watch the colorful, soulful arrival of the canoes: Colorful, because each canoe and paddle is an elaborately carved work of art; and soulful, because many of the canoe families keep time to songs, which often come to them on the water.
On the shore, in keeping with tradition, canoe families ask permission — often in their own languages — to enter and leave each territory.
Lummi Cultural Director James "Smitty" Hillaire said the Canoe Journey not only connects young Native people with an important part of their culture, it also helps build bridges of understanding between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. That understanding led to a formal acknowledgment of the Coast Salish people as the "First Peoples of this Land and These Waters" last year, in a public ceremony in Bellingham's Boulevard Park. A proclamation was signed by the region's elected public officials.
"Until two years ago, I had never heard anyone talk of acknowledgment, and I'm 74 years old," he said. He added, "We all have to live together." Of the people at Roche Harbor, he said, "These are our friends."
His wife Lootie's grandfather and great-grandfather were born at Roche Harbor, and her dad was a cousin of Pearl Little, who lived on the Lummi village site at Lonesome Cove until her death in 1983. She remembers visiting there.
The Hillaires said that although the Lummi people — whose point of origin is not far from Roche Harbor — no longer own the San Juans, the islands are still within their usual and accustomed territory and the Lummi Nation retains a lot of responsibility here, among them fisheries, resource management and site protection.
Washington State Ferries issued an advisory asking that customers traveling to the San Juan Islands between Wednesday and Saturday plan ahead for extra congestion. WSF expected 500 participating canoe family members, 60 vehicles and 22 trailers traveling to Shaw Island on Wednesday and San Juan Island today.
Local welcoming sponsors include Friends of the San Juans, Bison Gallery, Kitchen Garden, Marine Resources Committee, Northwest Straits Commission, Portals of Welcome Committee, Port of Friday Harbor, Roche Harbor Resort and Marina, San Juan Initiative, San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau and Scenic Byways Committee, Shaw Store, Soroptimist International of Friday Harbor, The Whale Museum, and U.W. Friday Harbor Labs.