Pulling for Lost Treasures

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on Jul. 16th, 2008
Subject: Tribal Journey, tribal canoe race

As skipper of a tribal canoe, Mike Evans guides his crew to discover gifts carried on the waves.

First Place, Minorities, 2008,
Society of Professional Journalists, Western Washington Chapter

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A different world. Mike Evans considers open water a different world.

“Those rules in the water world, we don’t know,” he says, leaning against a 34-ft. canoe. “We’re guests out there.” And underscoring his point, a roll of thunder: the sound rumbles, deep as a kettledrum, in the distance.

Evans, 54, gazes into the gray sky, not with worry, but respect. He’s faced storms before. “Once lightning strikes,” he says, “we turn around.”

He speaks these words while preparing for two journeys: one long, one short. The long journey will commence soon enough, on Mon., July 21. That’s when Evans will skipper his canoe, the Blue Heron, in the 2008 Tribal Journey, a seafaring odyssey where Natives from numerous tribes honor the importance of the canoe.

Up to 100 canoes, setting off from points in Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and Canada are expected to converge on Duncan, British Columbia, home to the Cowichan people, beginning July 28. Hundreds, maybe thousands, will gather for song, storytelling, and the start of the 2008 Indigenous Games. The Blue Heron will depart from Neah Bay, on the Olympic Peninsula — “Where the land ends and the sea begins,” Evans says — and spend the next eight days, until July 29, getting to Duncan, a canoe voyage of some 110 miles.

But before pushing off for that weeklong journey, another voyage, the shorter, sits right before him: an afternoon practice. Evans expects some 30 or so people to participate in the trip to British Columbia and, while he awaits crewmembers this afternoon, thunder reverberates through the air.

Five, 10, 20 minutes pass, and only two crewmembers make it to the Don Armeni boat launch on Alki. Evans decides it’s time to leave. He throws his forest green pickup into reverse; hitched to its bumper is a boat trailer bearing the Blue Heron.

Evans built the canoe, in 2003, with his father, using wood strips — hemlock, spruce, fir — nailing them together, gluing up the holes and cracks. Then they sealed it with a coat of fiberglass. On top of that, epoxy. After that, paint. On the outside, a black gloss. Inside, a sky blue so bright, it makes the eyes vibrate. The Blue Heron, all 800 lbs. of it, eases onto the waves.

Evans hands 15-year-old Ashley Shelafoe an oar before sending her to the bow, starboard side. Behind her, on the next cross plank, he sits Lynn Adams, a self-proclaimed 60-year-old athlete, port. His truck and trailer secured long ago, Evans, seated aft, commands Adams to push off from the pier. The canoe banks, turns 180 degrees, and heads out to open water, oars slicing the water.

No one on the canoe calls it paddling. Everyone says “pulling.” The crew pulls out into Puget Sound.

“When the mountains were young,” Evans says, “the Duwamish were here. When the ancient forest was just seeds, the Duwamish were here. And as long as the river runs from those mountains to the forest, the Duwamish will be here.”

Evans claims Snohomish ancestry. The Snohomish and Duwamish, they shared adjacent areas. The tribes took their identities not from parents, but from where they lived. Everybody, he says, was interrelated.

He leads a song, the crew responding. They keep time with their oars, the Blue Heron navigating the northern crest of Alki, then heading further out into the Sound.

Both Shelafoe and Adams have pulled in the Tribal Journey before. Shelafoe got involved through her grandmother. Adams found herself on the canoe when, as part of a fundraiser last year, she won three days and two nights aboard the Blue Heron. After that, she was hooked. “I’ll be going every year until I can’t raise a paddle,” she says.

A handheld GPS device monitors the canoe’s speed. “Three knots,” Evans says. Shelafoe and Adams yell, “Wooooo!” as the Blue Heron glides south.

Then, in the sky: “Lightning,” Adams says. “Eleven o’clock.”

“Cloud to ground?” Evans asks.


Seconds pass. Evans keeps count. Then the roll of thunder. He places the strike 20 miles away, near Renton. No need to panic.

The gray sky turns a little darker. The water, seeming as thick as liquid mercury, slaps the Blue Heron’s sides. Everyone pulls on.

Evans sees something — is it a dark fin? — at two o’clock. “A killer whale?” he wonders, then pauses. “If it is a killer whale.” He gives instructions to the pullers and the canoe changes course.

As the canoe draws within 15 ft., the fin never submerges. “Wood,” he says. “A log.” Just to be sure, the crew paddles past it. He’s right.

Then it happens again. Another fork of lightning, off to the west. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand… the thunder takes its time. “That’s 30 miles away,” says Evans, “the other side of Bainbridge.” No one stops pulling.

For a moment, the entire crew takes a break, all paddles up, the Blue Heron riding the waves, everyone enjoying the water.

Until off to the west: a third bolt of lightning, this one so huge, it’s as if a giant crack has marred the sky and blinding light from another world shines through. One one thousand, two one thousand — the thunder, low, angry.

“Well, that’s about two miles away,” Evans says, voice calm. “Let’s start heading to shore.”

The shore sits about three quarters of a mile away. The crew pulls faster. No one speaks, except for Evans.

He talks of treasures, the lost treasures that can be found on a canoe journey. The stamina to keep pulling, even when you’re sure you can’t. The family members you didn’t know you had that you discover when you come ashore.The songs that arise from somewhere: the water, perhaps, or a canoe you can’t see in the fog, or maybe the ancestors. Sometimes the songs stay with you and sometimes they’re lost.

He keeps everyone buoyant, focused on the treasures. The crew is his responsibility. Their lives, their training, their wellbeing: It’s all on him. In the last 10 years, he’s captained eight crews in Tribal Journeys. Everyone returned safe. He leads another song and the crew joins in.

Against the clouds, he spies a silhouette. A Great Blue Heron. Its broad wings almost flap in time to the oars. All eyes look upward. Evans calls out to the bird, the spirit of the canoe. It flies off in the direction of the boat launch. He cries out once more, oars slicing the water.

The pace slackens. The clouds, they remain. But the lightning, the thunder? They’re gone. They left right after the Great Blue Heron passed by.

The crew pulls, singing, then quiets, sitting. Everyone listens to the water.

The Blue Heron can hold up 15 pullers. All day can be spent on the water during the Tribal Journey, getting from one destination to the next. A sailboat will follow along, the vessel heading to land and its crew setting up and breaking down tents for the pullers, to give them time to rest. All told, 30 people will be involved. But today, there are only three.

Calling to his practice crew, Evans directs the canoe to the landing. It slips in easy and gentle. Once the crew disembarks, Adams ties the Blue Heron to a post.

Evans begins a song. Singing along, Adams and Shelafoe begin to dance, arms raising, one at a time, to the sky. Their bodies sway back and forth. As they dance, rain falls, a drop here, one there. By the time Evans backs the trailer into the water and the Blue Heron is tied on, rain peppers the waves.

He’s just brought his crew back from a different world, everyone safe, carrying their treasures.

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