A series of sharply contrasting days on the water carried us to our final landing Sunday in Bella Bella.
We took advantage of a break in the weather on the night of July 10 and towed our Nookayet canoe across Queen Charlotte Strait. The weather was only marginally calmer. Our support boat, the Curlew, plunged through 6-foot seas as Vancouver Island receded from view.
After a sleepless night, we reached the calm embrace of Open Bight, a bay on the B.C. mainland.
Salmon was barbecuing over fires on the sandy shore, where the Wuikinuxv community welcomed the canoes at a formal landing.
It was still early in the day when we’d finished eating and mingling, so we kept paddling. A few hours of pulling brought us to Fury Cove, a serene inlet ringed by white shell beaches. We lit a fire and watched the sun fall over the straits.
The following day, July 12, was my 28th birthday. I don’t have any pictures from this day because I volunteered to paddle in the short-handed Quinault canoe, and the Quinault, I quickly learned, do not take photo breaks. They don’t take any breaks really. My arms were rubbery by that evening as we reached McLoughlin Bay, where canoes rallied before the final landing in Bella Bella.
Every Tribal Journeys final landing is emotional. They signal the triumphant end to trying days on the water, and the beginning of a cultural celebration on shore. The landing in Bella Bella on Sunday marked a milestone in an even longer, more meaningful journey.
Canoe families were first challenged to travel to Bella Bella in 1993, at time when many northwest tribes were in danger of losing ancestral traditions. That long journey helped ignite a cultural revival in the two decades that followed.
Tribes that hadn’t carved canoes in a century before traveling to Bella Bella have made dozens since. People who’d clung to a few traditional songs and dances 21 years ago now know many. Children who weren’t yet born in 1993 have grown up with paddles in their hands.
The transformation was celebrated Sunday as 30 canoes from 20 nations joined together off the Bella Bella waterfront to be welcomed to land.
“You have changed the world,” one canoe skipper called to our Heiltsuk hosts.
With the blessing of the Heiltsuk, the canoe pullers came ashore and filed up through the village in a long procession. Protocol — the sharing of songs, dances and stories — began that evening on a grassy field in the middle of town. The cultural festival will continue through the week.
We loaded the Nookayet canoe onto Curlew Monday for the long trip home to Port Gamble. Many canoe family members stayed in Bella Bella to take part in the celebration. Others, myself included, have drifted home. I only hope it won’t be 21 years before we go back again.