Blue Heron Canoe Family visits the San Juans

While locals and tourists may be complaining about ferry waits, the Blue Heron Canoe Family is visiting the islands by carrying out a 10-hour canoe journey.

Last week, the canoe family visited the islands — tracing ancient pathways that their ancestors used. Members said they were excited to participate, as they had missed out on last year’s journeys due to COVID. The greater number of participants required a second canoe — the Willapa. The family stayed at the San Juan County Fairgrounds, holding a ceremony at the end of the day before leaving in the early morning Thursday.

Mike Evans, the father of the Blue Heron Canoe Family, said of the ceremony, “It’s not a performance, it’s not entertainment, it’s sharing.” Evans said they shared song and dance with those who attended, although they hope to get more attendees next time. He said he has hope for the future that it will become a bigger event on San Juan Island.

Julian Wall has been a member of the Blue Heron Canoe Family since joining the LEAF school program at Edmonds Community College. Although she is not Indigenous, she has felt very welcome in the canoe family.

“It is international intertribal and accepting of everyone,” Wall said. “Very welcoming place and has open arms to anybody and everybody and you are welcome to the family and it really is a family. It is a beauty to behold.”

Wall, much to her surprise, has actually been connected to the Blue Heron Canoe Family for longer than she has remembered.

The first Blue Heron Canoe paddle was from La Push to Seattle in 1989.

“I also happened to be in La Push in 1989,” Wall said with a laugh. “My mom said I was out there sitting on the beach watching the canoes go out. I was four and don’t remember it, but I didn’t find this out until I was 30!”

Wall said that this foreshadowing moment now remains one of her favorite stories to tell to the canoe family at gatherings.

Since joining, she said she has enjoyed being able to respect and be involved in Native culture.

“Being in the Pacific Northwest, I think everyone has a connection to Native and tribal land,” she said.

Mike Evans also stressed this point, as he said there is a lot of Native history in the San Juan Islands.

“The Native population was everywhere,” he said. “They were the caretakers of the land before it became what it is today.”

The Natives of the islands were primarily the Salish peoples, said Evans.

One of the remnants of the Native island population that Evans and his canoe family enjoyed seeing were the camas flowers. The camas has a root-like daffodil bulb but it is much smaller. Waiting for the plant to flower is important to correctly identify it, said Evans.

“We took a field at Friday Harbor Labs,” said Evans. “You can see the results of burning around the camas flowers.”

Evans said that this burning was done by Native populations in order to keep a prairie environment, which was suitable for the camas flowers.

“Most of the pioneers that came just saw land with no trees on it. They didn’t understand that it was a cultivated environment,” Evans said.

While the Blue Heron Canoe group has strong ties to Lopez, where locals have greeted them with generous amounts of food, they wish to continue to strengthen their ties on San Juan Island.

After paddling for 10 hours and 30 miles in the smoke-filled air, they had to switch routes and end up in La Conner rather than Lummi.

While it is a long and sometimes unpredictable trek, Evans said that they will continue to visit the islands, continuing to say, “We can’t wait to revisit our new families on the island.”