Tribal Canoe Journey to Bella Bella

Qatuwas 2014: Paddle to Bella Bella

This July I had the pleasure of joining the Learn and Serve Environmental Anthropology Field School (LEAF School) as a guest instructor on a service learning program. We joined the Blue Heron Canoe Family on their canoe expedition from the Puget Sound in northern Washington all the way to Bella Bella on the central coast of British Columbia. The LEAF School is a program of Edmonds Community College run by Dr. Thomas Murphy. I joined the journey about midway up the eastern coast of Vancouver Island.

Each year, indigenous nations from up and down the Northwest Coast of the United States and Canada, as well as first nations with canoeing traditions from the interior of the region and beyond (this year’s journey included several Maori people from New Zealand as well as a number of Hawaiians!) travel by canoe, often from their traditional territories to a common destination. Begun in 1989, this is a powerful celebration of the canoeing tradition. This years destination was the Heiltsuk Nation, whose primary village is the town of Bella Bella (Waglisla in Heiltsuk).

_MG_9551 Members of the Blue Heron Canoe family and students of the LEAF school paddle the canoe along the shores of an island on the central coast of British Columbia.


_10B1225 Along the route to Bella Bella, canoe families were often hosted for dinner and celebration by the nation whose traditional territory they passed. Here, members of about 20 canoes and their support boats came ashore and were hosted by the Wuikinuxv First Nation in a bay called Open Bight on the mainland coast of British Columbia.
_10B1245 Meals often included traditional foods such as salmon and many other foods from the sea.
_10B1218 Salmon cooking over an open fire in a traditional methods using split cedar to secure the fish.
_10B1751 Before coming ashore, a ceremonial landing often took place. The most elaborate landing protocol at the end when all 42 of this years canoes landed in Bella Bella. Each canoe presented its self and asked for permission to land and share songs and dances with the hosts. The request was responded to with a heartfelt welcome.
_MG_9978 Skipper and canoe-builder Michael Evans presents Blue Heron Canoe of the Snohomish people, at the landing ceremony in Bella Bella.
_10B9711 In the evenings, after landing in a new host nation’s territory and enjoying a meal provided by the hosts, each tribe would share songs and dances with the hosts. This evening, in the territory of the Namgis, was hosted in their beautiful long house in Alert Bay, British Columbia.

_10B9737_10B9798_10B9834_10B2010_10B1954A canoe is more than a simple boat

Canoes are treated with a great deal of respect as they function not just as a vehicle to move people but as a vessel of culture. The journey is an opportunity for each tribe to celebrate and rejuvenate its unique cultural relationship to the land, sea, and human neighbors.

_10B0623_10B0691_10B0311_10B0280_10B0258Cultural uses of plants and animals

Besides participating in canoeing and cultural activities, students in the class learned about traditional uses of plants and animals along the route.

 Dr. Murphy explains the identity of a crab found in the intertidal zone close to Fort Rupert, British Columbia.
_10B0819 Exploring a remote beach in Cape Scott Provincial Park on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

An amazing journey through a landscape rich in natural and cultural beauty

With years of exploring the Pacific Northwest, I can honestly say this journey was one of the most amazing opportunities I have had to deepen my appreciation and understanding of the people and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, an opportunity I feel very grateful for.



  1. Joanne Repman

    Spectacular photos, David! Will we be able to purchase prints of any of these? Will you be producing a photo book? (Kymmy Hoyle is our son’s girlfriend)

    Thank you for sharing these. Amazing!

    Joanne Repman

  2. Jim Lengenfelder

    Thanks for sharing your pictures and the adventure with us.
    Emily has been writing a summary of the experience and will share with you when complete.

    We will treasure the images you have created.
    It was an honor having you aboard “String Games.”

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Monthly Archives

Recent posts

Recent comments