A Journey Home: Canoe Journeys in Southeast Alaska, Part 1

Doug Chilton and The One People Canoe Society

Doug Chilton lives in Juneau, though his family originally comes from Angoon. A decade ago, he was excited when his canoe racing team was invited to race in Quinalt, Washington. But when his team showed up in Washington, he told me, they were surprised to find that there was nobody there. The next day, they were greeted by people arriving by canoe from reservations across Washington and Canada. "What we didn't know at the time is that it wasn't about racing for them, it was about the journey." Doug was taken aback by the way that these journeys were bringing people together as well as reconnecting native people with the tradition of the canoe-journey. Inspired, he came back to southeast Alaska with the goal of building a canoe-movement in his home waters, reconnecting with the journeys that his Tlingit ancestors has undertaken so many years ago. More importantly, he hoped to build a movement that would bring together the native tribe-members of Southeast Alaska in the ways that he had seen in Washington and Canada.

Building the energy within the movement was slow at first, he told me. He managed to get a team of people to paddle from Hoonah to Juneau for Celebration, which is a biennial festival celebrating Haida, Tlingit and Tshimian traditions and culture: the largest gathering of its kind in the state. But while it was hard to garner support while they were preparing for their journey, he told me that they received unexpected enthusiasm once they reached Juneau. People were intrigued. Many had thought it was never going to happen. Once they were able to see Doug and his team overcome the obstacle, though, they were convinced, and they wanted to try it themselves. "Over the years, it's been growing a little bit more and a little bit more, and sometimes it didn't feel like it was growing at all. But we were staying busy."

Since the first Celebration journey, Doug has been giving paddle workshops throughout Southeast Alaska. During the workshops, participants carve paddles from yellow cedar carving blinds, which have been donated by Haa'anni, the economic development division of the Sealaska corporation."We're putting together the group that's going to paddle the canoe," Doug explained to me, "and the idea is to get them started paddling together as a unit… Now during the paddle workshop we are trying to build the excitement and keep the excitement level high." And it's working. Canoe journeys elsewhere in the state have been taking off. Eleven canoes asked permission to land in Juneau at Sandy Beach for Celebration this year: the most canoes since Doug started paddling a decade ago.

Wooch.een: We Work Together

Pictures from the journey from Coffman Cove to Wrangell. Photo Credit: Bonnie Hamar

Having connected with Chilton through his paddling workshops, Stormy Hamar decided to organize a canoe journey from Coffman Cove to the rededication of Chief Shakes House in Wrangell. His first challenge, however, was to find a way to fill the 38 foot fiberglass canoe with people from the community. Many were members of his family. When I visited them in Kasaan, they told me that it was initially difficulth to get people to take time off from their busy lives. They handed out fliers and stopped people on the street. Finally, they were able to recruit fifteen people, some younger and some older, some with Haida heritage and some not. After carving their own paddles from donated boards, practicing paddling as a team for a a few hours, and pulling together last minute details, the day finally came to cast off. Stephanie Hamar, whose father, Stormy, skippered the canoe, told me that they had no idea what to expect. "We didn't know what was going to happen," she remarked, "We half expected to go down in the bay."

Much to their surprise, the team was able to paddle 34 miles the first day and camped a few nights on Vank island. Tim Paul Willis Junior was a pace-setter up at the front with Stephanie. He told me that he was amazed by how well everybody did. "I was surprised that a couple people ever made the journey, " he told me, "It was kind of impressive to see the different personalities of people come out through their actions." Stormy the skipper agreed that people on the team were able to show a different side to themselves. He told me that by the end, the group had become a cohesive unit, though in many ways, they didn't have a choice.

"In the canoe, people have to learn how to work together," he told me, "There's all this kind of simple stuff that you don't really think about. Everybody has to learn how to paddle in the same direction. When you're turning the boat, even when you're docking the boat. We even had to learn how to get in the boat."

By the end, everyone on board was proud of their teamwork. Nahaan, an avid paddle and canoe-builder from Ketchikan, described the sense of unity that a canoe-team builds to me. To him, working together is intrinsic to all aspects of a canoe-journey because it necessarily requires more than one person, both in its construction and in paddling. He related the sensation to the Tlingit word, "Wooch.een," which means, "we work together." "Wooch.een" could also describe the meditative quality of paddling in a team: the methodical movement of the boards in the water, the feeling of being balanced, the purity of intention, and the unifying feeling of participating in a collective activity.

Photo Credit: Bonnie Hamar

Yet the sense of unity extends far beyond the rim of the canoe. Ken Hoyt works for SEARHC, but in his spare time he is a part of a team who is a part of a team building a strip-bark canoe in Wrangell. He told me that everyone involved in organizing the canoe journey has a stake in it and wants to see the team succeed.

"The journeys aren't simply just paddling," he told me, "There's a huge amount of logistics involved, a lot of people involved. You know every canoe might take fifty or a hundred people to get everything together, to get every last logistic taken care of, every bag packed and every little check list checked off."

Not just the people in the canoe are effected, but people witnessing the event are also inspired.

Listen to what Ken Hoyt says about how the different communities support the canoeshere.

"People support the canoers in a big way," he said, "They pray for the canoers, when we roll up to any community or leave any community they roll out the red carpet, or they'll host a potluck and the dance groups show up. It's powerful for the villages and the towns and the cities. Everyone celebrates the canoes in their own way. Like when we go to Juneau, they do that by having thousands of people on the beach. And when we go to Angoon, they do that by having a traditional foods potluck or a dance group. Kake woke up early in the morning to see us off. A lot of people were out on the dock with us. Just trying to help us out, whether it was picking up the canoes and helping us get them in the water, or if people forgot stuff at the house or they brought little last minute gifts for the trip."

Paddling into Wrangell. Photo Credit: Bonnie Hamar

Arriving on the shores after a long journey is often one of the most riveting aspects of the journey. Again, not just for the participants. "There is something deep inside people," said Ken, "When we land on the beach, you can see the look on people's faces. Some people are moved to tears, just overwhelmed by the powerful experience of the landing."

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