They appear as tiny flecks way out in the gray waters of Puget Sound. Hand-carved paddles pull them closer and closer to shore, moving in unison.
And finally, the first canoes touch rocky beach. They’re each close to 40 feet long. Most are dark colors with bright carvings and designs painted across their bows.
As the last of the canoes arrive, a black one with a turquoise fish painted on the bow touches shore. Out steps Eric Grossman. He’s a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and he’s carrying a yellow, water-proof box. Black cables connect it to what’s called a Water Quality Sond, which looks kind of like a long, black poster tube.
Grossman explains that the Sond was attached to the bottom of the canoe, sending data to a little computer and GPS unit inside the yellow box.
“And the computer merges the GPS with all the water quality measurements every 10 seconds,” Grossman says, “so we have a fixed position of the different measurements being made.”
This device, and four others like it, were attached to canoes coming from all different parts of the Salish Sea — coastal waters that stretch from Washington’s Puget Sound to the straits of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
The equipment recorded data on temperature, pH, salinity, turbidity – even how much oxygen is dissolved in the water. Grossman says canoes are perfect for science.
“The canoes that you see travel the nearshore waters of the Salish Sea in areas that are most impacted by land-based runoff and land use activities,” he says. “And it’s these shallow nearshore areas that a lot of the life that we depend on grow in and use for their success.”
The massive amounts of data will be used as baseline information to better explain how things like temperature and acidity may be changing as the planet warms. Grossman says with this information scientists can hone in on factors that could be contributing to things like dead zones, or algal blooms. One year Grossman says the canoe journey participants paddled through an algal bloom for two days.
“It probably extended 15-20 kilometers and the canoes took a break and they went on shore and noticed the whole beach covered in dead fish,” he says. “That’s the power of the tribal journey and the kind of science we’re doing is that the people are observing in the water and on the beaches what’s going on and then they can link it to the science.”
Ben Parker is a young member of the Squaxin Island Tribe who worked with Grossman to collect the water quality data. He’s 23, with broad shoulders and has been on canoe journeys for four years in a row, but his fellow paddlers still give him funny looks.
“They ask me why in the hell I’m dragging a bucket under the back of the canoe,” he says referring to the data-gathering equipment.
Parker says melding science with the traditional canoe journey is valuable.
“I think there are certain ways that we’ve always seen how the planet and how the land here works,” he says. “It offers a new perspective, which is good because there’s lots of ways we can look how to tackle these kinds of problems dealing with pollution and that kind of thing.”
As we walk up from the rocky shore sounds of singing meet our ears. A blessing has just begun and hundreds gather to give thanks for a safe journey and the bounty that awaits them. Steam rises from a huge pile of shellfish, baking over a nearby fire pit. People of all ages gather round, digging through the clams and oysters.
Nearby, Alan Fraser, of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, sits in the grass eating shellfish with his two granddaughters. He’s been participating in canoe journeys for 17 years and he says they are a way of reviving cultural pride and combating substance abuse among Native Americans today.
Tribes that participated in the water-quality study
Squaxin Island Tribe
Swinomish Indian Tribal Community
Squamish First Nation
Sliammon First Nation
Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribe
There’s plenty of room for science too, but Fraser says scientists approach the world differently than Indians do.
“The scientists sometimes, they only see this little narrow point of view and it kind of limits their doors of perception,” he explains. ” But it’s significant because like everything we deal with, you have to measure it and quantify and define it and describe it.”
Then he turns and points out at the waters of Puget Sound.
“The real teacher is that water,” Fraser says. “Why? Because nature, that’s where our culture and our teachings come from, is the nature. If you hurt something, you’re really hurting yourself. We’re connected to everything.”
The canoes finish their journey about 80 miles north of Seattle on the Swinomish reservation, where everyone spends the week celebrating with traditional dance, song, and lots and lots of delicious seafood - harvested straight from these waters.
Text, audio and photography by Ashley Ahearn. Video by Katie Campbell.