Tribal Journey's ~ Journey to Tulalip, WA ~ a few years ago
I was paddling with the host community in the Spirit of the Elwha Canoe at Port Angeles, Wa. Spirit of the Elwha was a beautiful, handmade cedar ocean going canoe, made the skipper, Wenanua (Alfred Charles Jr). We were trying to exit the mouth of the Lower Elwha River. Everyone had just arrived from Neah Bay and some canoes had journeyed from the West Coast of Vancouver Island. They paddled clear across the open ocean to Elwha, which is apparently only about 35 miles. We had gale winds that day and our canoe was fully loaded with paddlers, most were all from Lower Elwha - some rookies, some experienced with Tribal Journey's. This was my first Tribal Journey and my first time in an ocean going canoe although I had about 12 years experience paddling race canoes. As the host community, protocol required that the Elwha welcome the canoes to land on shore as this was the overnight landing place. In a couple days, we would all continue on towards Suquamish and then the final destination, Tulalip, WA.
Well, we were trying to time our exit of the river just right, between waves. As I learned that day, apparently the big rolling waves normally come in sets of about seven and then there is generally a slight lull in between sets. Trusting that, we should have been able to exit the river safely. However, because of the gale winds the waves were irregular and because we were situated at the mouth of the Elwha, the waves were huge. We had several failed attempts already and there was easily about 20+ canoes out in the bay waiting for protocol. We had to get them all into shore safely as quickly as possible.
All of a sudden our skipper hollered "Go!" and we all hit the water paddling as hard as we could trying to exit the river when all of a sudden one rather spectacular wave lifted the enormous canoe straight up into the air. All I could see was the bow of the canoe surrounded by blue sky. Suddenly, white water crashed over the bow and over our heads and that’s when everyone started screaming.
When I looked at our skipper (who was seated at the bow) to see his response, he was totally calm. His face stoic against a backdrop of white foam, raging salt water, cedar and brilliant blue sky. In that split second I thought about my own Stó:lō coach back home at Cultus Lake. He always reminded us the importance of staying calm on the canoe. We are never allowed to freak out during a war canoe race no matter what goes down and things can get pretty crazy on the water. So, I kept my silence as well. When we came back down we were up to our shoulders in ocean foam. A couple kickers and braces were broken, hats, sandals and water bottles were floating about. A couple of the paddlers from the bow of the canoe were even sitting on the lap of their fellow paddler behind them.
The previous joviality of the crew had disintegrated. Everyone was shaking and freaking out and we had to exit the canoe. Picture a brilliantly sunny day with gale winds on the ocean. We were all drenched and the salty ocean water was already trying to crystallize on our skin. Moments later the first brave soul jumped off the canoe into the water, then another immediately after. Everyone, myself included, expected to see him disappear into deep water and then swim to shore. But he landed abruptly, barely up to his knees in white water. Ahhhh.... Despite the initial panic we all laughed at the random hilarity of the moment.
After that, it was decided that all the visiting nations had to come in for protocol on shore as we couldn't exit the river safely. The waves were just too intense. Alot of canoes tipped that day. Thank goodness no one was hurt. Everyone was thankful for the quick action of all the support boats. Wow what an amazing and beautiful journey.