Memories of sailing with the Salmon People

Raincoast’s education program guided youth and educators from the Tsawwassen Nation throughout their traditional territory.

As we stared out over the shimmering water of the Salish Sea, we all stood in awe of the beauty of our shared home. 

We were standing atop Monarch Head on Saturna Island, looking out over a sharp, daunting cliff side towards the San Juan islands, just over the US border. From where we were standing, you would never guess that we were looking at a different country. 

We talked about the traditional foods of the season, and the way Coast Salish people would travel long distances in cedar canoes to gather resources, visit family and attend ceremonies.  For Tsawwassen people, this time of year  is characterized by the falling leaves. It is a time to gather eulachon oil, duck down, clams and many other seafoods. It was a good time to hunt deer in preparation for the coming winter. 

Listening to this conversation, I felt such immense gratitude to be able to witness the passing of this knowledge as a part of this fall’s Salish Sea Emerging Stewards program.  This was made possible by the ongoing efforts of the Tsawwassen Nation to reconnect their youth with the vast knowledge system they hold, and their connection to ancestry and place.

Partnering with First Nations

Raincoast recently began a partnership with Tsawwassen Nation to support Environmental Stewardship programming for youth. The program was developed and led by Youth Centre Coordinator Jennifer Connors, and provided local youth with opportunities to learn about stewardship, environmental restoration and career development. 

As a supplemental learning opportunity to the summer stewardship program, Raincoast offered the group an opportunity to continue their learning through a week-long sail education program on board Raincoast’s research and education vessel, SV Achiever.

Six brave students took the ferry from Tsawwassen to join us aboard Achiever at the Port Sidney Marina, on a warm Monday morning in early October. The sun was shining, but you could feel the seasonal changes and smell the turning of the fall leaves in the air. 

The group was accompanied on this adventure by their Community Youth Counsellor, Dr. Jennifer Mervyn, Psychologist and Professor of Counselling at Trinity Western University and a passionate advocate for trauma informed care and education for Indigenous youth. 

Jen had already formed a close connection with each of the youth in the group, and brought a loving, supportive and encouraging energy with her on the trip. Her enthusiasm and excitement towards the experience was contagious. Her presence and depth of knowledge about connecting with young people affected by generational trauma was incredibly powerful, and was instrumental in the overall success of this journey.

Paul Biamonte, Tsawwassen’s Youth Worker and  Recreation Coordinator for children and youth, also accompanied the group. Paul focuses on facilitating Adventure Therapy with young people, and painstakingly ensured that the whole group came prepared with all they needed to get out and experience nature. Paul is a warm, approachable and even tempered person. He impressed our crew with how in tune he was with the needs, interests and concerns of this wonderful group of young people.

This year’s Fall 2021 Salish Sea Emerging Stewards program was generously sponsored by a grant from the Pacific Salmon Foundation. The purpose of this journey was to better understand Salmon. Our intent was to deepen our understanding of salmon and their interconnectedness to both people and place. 

This was my first opportunity to lead an SSES Program Trip. I joined Raincoast in April of 2021, and though we had crewed together in the summer, this was the first time that our Captain, Drew Graham, our First Mate, Nate Glickman, and I would be facilitating this program as a team. We were excited and nervous. Being on a boat for 5 days at a time with people can be tricky, especially when relationships are just being built, and learning is to be done. 

Before I left, I made sure to take the time to write out my positive intentions for our work together, and to really consider what I wanted the impact of this trip to be. I decided to gather as much understanding of Tsawwassen culture as I could, and prepare to learn as much as the participants in this program. 

In preparation for the expedition, I spoke with Victoria Skosswunson Williams and Coral Baird, members and language ambassadors of Tsawwassen Nation. They  kindly provided me with a deeper understanding of Tsawwassen’s connection with salmon. They taught me that Tsawwassen people were traditionally referred to as The Salmon People, because salmon provided and sustained the community. 

Tsawwassen people traditionally regarded salmon as gifted beings, one infused with the power to provide interconnectedness between both land and sea. Salmon provide their gift of life to so many other living creatures throughout their life cycle, and without their presence on the coast, the web of life here would be permanently disrupted.

Victoria and Coral spoke to me about traditional fishing techniques, like fish weirs and the net weights made of stone and ‘Y’ shaped twigs wrapped in cedar, along with the fishing web twine made of stinging nettle fibre. They taught me about the gratitude paid to the first fish catch of the season, and how the bones of their first salmon catch were always carefully returned to the sea. This ceremony is called “the first fish ceremony”. They instilled in me an appreciation for the interconnectedness of life on the coast, and gave me much to ask more about when I got on board Achiever the following week.

Exciting Adventures

Our first day on board was spent getting acquainted with Achiever. On the second day of programming, after a rainy morning of exploring the intertidal zones and learning about the midden on Russell Island, we all returned to Achiever to raise the sails. We were ready to experience what it was like to feel a 20-tonne steel sailing vessel fly over the waves, powered only by the wind. 

Our exciting new experience was quickly interrupted, however, by a pod of Transient Killer Whales, swimming off of Salt Spring Island’s Southey point. 

We rushed to take the sails down, and managed to spend almost an hour and a half, cruising about 1,000 metres away from the pod, admiring their serene migration along the coast. Many of the students had never experienced killer whales in this way, and after the initial waves of excitement, a profound silence fell over the vessel. The only sounds were the wind and the whales coming up for air.

We were the only boat around the whales for at least 45 minutes, at which time three whale watching vessels began following the pod. The mood quickly changed as the other vessels pulled close, and our serene moment faded into a teachable one. 

We talked about the effects of whale watching on killer whales and discussed how shipping and vessel traffic noise has led to a disruption in their migratory and hunting behaviors. We also discussed the protective measures that had recently been put in place in the Gulf Islands, such as the Chinook recreational and commercial fishery closures and the creation of a seasonal exclusion zone to protect the areas where Southern Resident killer whales were most commonly observed. 

This conversation was shortly interrupted by another incredible wildlife interaction. Captain Drew Graham observed the spouts of two Humpback whales across the channel, headed along the coast of Pender Island. We watched them swim peacefully together, and spent another hour watching their grey, mottled backs rise and fall at the surface, with the occasional tail flukes visible as the whales dove deep into the water. 

Later that day, after we had left the Humpbacks to their feeding, Achiever pulled into Winter Cove (X̱IX̱YES) on Saturna Island, and set down the anchor. It was early fall, but at 5pm, the sun was already beginning to slip down over the horizon in preparation for the cool night ahead. 

We had whale watching almost all afternoon, but we all needed a bit of a break to stretch our legs before dinner time.

The group piled into Acheiver’s zodiac, ready for more adventure. As I prepared to board, I looked out over the group. Each one of us had chosen to take part in this trip for our own reasons, but this shared experience had taken us all out of our day to day existence, and into a more natural state of presence. 

It felt like the weight of our responsibilities, expectations, and day to day habits had been left by the wayside in the pursuit of real, tangible moments of direct experience. We were all beginning to bond, and it was touching to see how open and trusting the youth were of us, as their guides.

We walked along a shoreline woven of sandstone, shale and shell midden. We passed through a Douglas-fir upland, open meadows and a salt marsh, on our way out to a spot overlooking a narrow, rushing water channel facing the Georgia Strait. This spot is known in Hul̓q̓umín̓um̓ as Sxyxwyus, a word roughly translated to mean ‘narrow”. The tidal current running through this small stretch of water between two land masses during a tidal shift is swift and dangerous, or  xwum’ (meaning swift in Hul̓q̓umín̓um̓ language, the language spoken by Tsawwassen people). 

We watched otters and seals bob in the rushing waters as the tide changed. The group fanned out, climbing trees, taking portraits and enjoying the swirl of colors in the sky around us as the sun set below the clouds. 

At that moment, I felt as if this work was truly meaningful and valuable, for the crew as much as the youth participating. Nature was our true teacher, and her lessons provided us with awe and curiosity.

Each evening on the expedition, we gathered together after dinner with a cup of hot chocolate and some cookies. We’d talk about all of the epic experiences we’d had that day, and also some of the more difficult experiences we’d had as well. We called this process “Glums and Glows”, and it served as a good way to remember and process all the new experiences we were having. 

One particular glum from the trip really stood out for me. On the third day of our journey, after we had set off from Winter Cove, we transited around the island and into the Strait. We passed by the Belle Chain Islets, where seals, sea lions and sea birds often haul out to enjoy themselves in the warmth of the fall sun. 

One of the participants noticed through her binoculars that one of the sea lions had a length of fishing line tightly wound around it’s throat. She quickly announced it to the crew, and pretty soon everyone could see the situation. Nathaniel Glickman, Achiever’s First Mate and educator, was quick to respond by calling the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Marine Mammal Response program. They responded to our call, and promised us that a member of their crew would be on site to tranquilize and remove the fishing equipment shortly. 

The event seemed to have a profound impact on the group. Learning about plastic pollution felt all the more real when they saw the damage it caused directly. I was blown away by the depth of the group’s response to the event, and the way it humbled all of us into realizing our own contribution to the world’s pollution problems. It provided a sense of urgency for our future stewardship actions, and humbled us to the realizations of human’s impact on the natural world. 

One of the glows of that day for me, however, was seeing a program participant step up into the role of leader and teacher on board. Sadie Baird, who had participated in last year’s Stewardship summer program and continued on to work through this year’s summer program, had been offered an outside position helping to conduct bird surveys around the lower mainland for a government research organization. We asked her to describe the work she did, and lead us through the process of running a sea bird survey using the research tower installed on the vessel. 

She made an excellent teacher as she excitedly taught us about the process of collecting data and analyzing it for patterns. Achiever cut long, zig zagged pathways through the southern end of the Georgia Strait while Sadie and her team counted individuals and species, and crossed birds off of her bird viewing list.

Sadie’s enthusiasm was so fervent that it made me far more observant and aware of the bird life around us. I have to admit that birds aren’t necessarily my passion, but I learned so much about them just by listening along with the rest of the group, and I now feel far more excited and confident about identifying the birds I see while on the water.

Grateful for days on board

Our days on board were filled with great meals, fantastic conversations, interesting music (thanks to the student DJs), as well as lots of games and activities. The crew was honored to be present as the youth practiced drumming and singing, smudging, and cedar weaving. 

When the group left on the fifth day, I returned home to my family feeling profoundly uplifted by the whole experience. I like to think of myself as a teacher, but on these journeys, I feel much more like a student. Between the depths of the scientific knowledge that Raincoast has amassed through their years of conservation efforts, and the traditional ways of knowing and storytelling that I had absorbed during the trip, I truly felt as if I was seeing the Gulf Islands with new eyes. 

I truly believe that experiential education and implementing the Two-Eyed Seeing approach to learning is an effective way to connect young people to place, and to the natural systems that support us all. I hope that there are many future opportunities to bring youth from the Tsawwassen Nation out on the water, so that they can carry these experiences forward and on into their own lives.

I am so grateful to my amazing colleagues for conducting and supporting this wonderful trip, and to the leaders and participants from the Tsawwassen First Nation who chose to join us.

Huy ch q’u and thank you to you all. May we gather again to listen and learn from one another.

We are so excited to share our annual report – Tracking Raincoast Into 2023 – with you! Tracking gives you highlights from the year, our science, flagship projects, as well as a peek at what’s in store for the coming year.

Dive into Tracking and learn more about our work safeguarding coastal carnivores in the Southern Great Bear Rainforest tenure. We are currently raising funds to stop commercial trophy hunting in more than a quarter of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. Now is a good time to sign up and stay connected to our community of researchers and change-makers.