Early morning, mid-October, I wake to the scent of coffee on Raincoast’s research and education vessel, Achiever. Captain Drew Graham was already awake, doing engine checks and sipping coffee made in a french press, undoubtedly for a while now. The morning sky was awash with hues of wild-rose and shimmering gold light that pierced through the windows and portholes of the 68-ft steel sailboat while we waited for the youth from W̱SÁNEĆ to show up for another expedition of their Salish Sea Emerging Stewards (SSES) program.
Launched in 2016, SSES aims to train and empower local Indigenous youth as future leaders. These trips focus on bringing the youth to places they may have never been (on their own traditional territory) and introducing them to conservation, natural history experiences, sailing, and the marine world.
A unique part of this program is the use of two-eyed seeing, which merges Indigenous knowledge with contemporary science—a term coined by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall back in 2018.
For this trip, the team consists of Captain Drew, First Mate Nathaniel (Nate) Glickman, and Education Coordinator Asta Mail. The team works together like a well-oiled machine. The dynamic between them feels like old friends. They exchange stories and jokes and work in sync to keep this program running smoothly. I’ve learned that the people at the forefront of conservation are the people who love to be out on the land, and I can sense that each person carries a deep reverence for the natural world.
The program is typically a five-day immersion exploring islands throughout the Salish Sea, but because of COVID-19, they had to pivot to single-day sails. As Captain Drew goes through the motions of unmooring the boat from the dock and heading out to sea, co-coordinators Nate and Asta brief the students. Even though they are education coordinators, they remind the students that everyone is there to learn from the land and each other.
“The foundation of everything we do is to help protect the coast of BC and the lives of people who have been dependent on the coast,” Nate says. “You’re the ones who are inheriting this place, and we hope we’ll inspire you to take our jobs from us one day.”
When the youth first board, they seemed quite shy and reserved. We all sit together in the quiet as reflections bend and weave across the vast landscape of the Salish Sea, making way toward SISȻENEM (Halibut Island). Earlier this year, The W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council representing Tsartlip, Tseycum, and Tsawout First Nations and The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC) purchased this 9.67-acre island, transferring the title back to W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council—truly embodying the land back movement. This transfer was a pivotal moment in reconciliation, showing that groups of people can do this important (and necessary) work without the government’s aid.
PEPAḴIYE, Ashley Cooper, tells me that the SENĆOŦEN name for Halibut Island cannot be easily translated into English, but each syllable conveys a sense of what the place means to W̱SÁNEĆ people. SISḴ meaning “to enjoy the sun,” ȻEN is a feeling of inner peace, and E.M. symbolizes a place where things happen. “Roughly SISȻENEM means sitting out for the pleasure of the weather,” she says.
You can expect to see many indigenous plants such as Indian celery, great camas, chocolate lilies, and more in the spring and summer seasons, but this fall, we came across yarrow, gumweed, seablush, and various forms of lichen. This island is profoundly important ecologically, but it also carries cultural significance for the W̱SÁNEĆ People. The dream is to create an eco-cultural restoration plan to protect this land for future generations.
Landing on the north side of the island, our zodiac reaches the sun-baked shores, which are currently inhabited by dozens of salt-soaked seals and seabirds basking in the warmth of the midday sun. Once on land, the group forms a circle to take a moment of silence and ground themselves. Experiencing this place, it’s easy to feel inspired by the ephemeral beauty of Garry oak, arbutus, Douglas-fir woodlands, and surrounding marine life.
The more we explored the island, the more we witnessed the curiosity and personalities of the youth come alive. I was hesitant to ask them to share their experience with me as I didn’t want to interrupt the magic of being in the moment or take them out of their wonderment. It was an honour to bear witness, and I imagined it to be similar to the times that I was brought out onto the land in my youth, an experience that forever changed me.
Their curiosity was especially piqued when we came across the bucolic trailer of the island’s last owner. They lingered with their eyes pressed against the windows, eagerly searching for clues to help them learn about the man who once inhabited this land. On the kitchen table, you could see packages of great camas and chocolate lily seeds, which we later found out the owner sold as a means of implementing his living expenses.
We continued wandering until we saw a small sheltered cove with eroding sandstone and basal conglomerate sea cliffs that hugged the wave-lashed shoreline, creating a trail just wide enough to maneuver around. The incandescent sun reflects off the indigo blue water beside it and within that water an ecosystem of rockweed, three-ribbon kelp, bull kelp, tiny crabs and fried egg jellyfish. Some of the youth picked up the bull kelp to examine it, while others discovered the decomposing body of a bird. You connect with the earth in a different way here. The cycles of life are more evident, less grim.
On Sidney Island, everyone slowed down. We sit by an intertidal zone, observing and trying to figure out what some slug-like creatures were, suspecting they might be Nudibranchs. These small pools left behind by the receding tide are full of algae and rockweed, little sculpins, sea stars, purple shore crabs, and barnacles. One girl told me how she wanted to be an artist, walked barefoot through the sand and water, then started digging for clams. Their curiosity about the surrounding environment reminds us why this work is so important. It’s hard to love something you don’t know personally. It’s hard to want to protect something if you haven’t experienced it. Society seems to have become pretty disconnected from the natural world, but programs like this offer a chance to reconnect and perhaps even rebuild.
The following day, another group of W̱SÁNEĆ youth boarded the vessel. As we made our way to SXEĆOŦEN (Portland Island), Nate prompted the youth to spend more time on the deck. “Take this time to look for birds, to look for whales, there are all kinds of different wildlife we’ve been seeing daily, and the only way we can do that is to keep our eyes open and be out on deck as much as possible,” he says.
Shortly after, it feels like everyone is on the bow watching two ḰENES (humpback whales) lobtailing in the distance. Lobtailing is the act of a whale lifting its fluke out of the water and then slapping it down repetitively to create a splash and make noise. There have been numerous theories on why whales lobtail, from communicating with one another, scaring prey, defence, play, or foraging. Scientists believe it is a form of non-vocal communication that can be heard underwater for several hundred feet, but also suspect the visual aspects are equally as important.
To create an even more immersive experience, Asta and Captain Drew set up a hydrophone (a portable underwater sound device) to listen to the calls of ḰENES. I watch the eyes of the youth light up and think about how lucky we are to share this moment. I’m keenly aware that by creating a program like this, Raincoast is facilitating new forms of education that are so necessary to rebuilding our relationships with the land. By bringing youth out onto the land, they are creating an embodied experience because, now, they are in a relationship with the thing they are learning about. There is no hierarchy; there is no claim to ownership; there is just the teachings of the land.
On my final day, it rains, but this doesn’t stop Quamichan youth from spending as much time out on the deck as possible. The energy on the boat changes as we pass Mandarte Island (Tseycum First Nation, Bare Island Indian Reserve no. 9). This tiny island that is made up of calcareous sandstone and covered in grassy meadows supports the largest seabird colony in the Strait of Georgia. One youth picks up the copy of Field Guide to Birds and learns that the black birds we see nesting on the sea cliffs are called cormorants.
Moments later, the group leader taps my shoulders in excitement and points to an eagle flying past, and another youth walks up to me to ask questions about the local sharks. Perfect, I think to myself. I have been obsessed with them since I was a kid. I tell him that sharks local to BC are spiny dogfish, salmon sharks, blue sharks, Pacific sleeper sharks, basking sharks, and that every once in a while, a great white shark passes by.
By midday, half of the team moves into the galley to learn knot tying from Asta. Each student watches her with curiosity and eagerness as she walks them through the phases of a figure-eight, letting them try to tie their own. I watch their fingers fumble until a proud smile crosses their face—they’ve just tied their first figure-eight. The rest form a circle around Captain Drew for sailing lessons. When asked how sailing works, Drew walks the youth through the steps before asking them if they’d like to steer Achiever.
Months later, I can still see the girl’s face lit up with joy when I think about her with her hands on the helm. When sitting by the ocean, I remember the youth exploring intertidal zones and playing X’s and O’s with sticks on large rocks. I think of the boy who borrowed my camera to take photographs of plants in the forests of arbutus on SXEĆOŦEN (Portland Island) and find myself wishing I could return. I wonder if they know that they inspired me as much as the land inspired them, that to be out on the land and water in this way is medicine. To this day, the Salish Sea Emerging Stewards program has left an indelible mark on my being, and I suspect the youths as well.
Special thanks to language keeper, PEPAḴIYE, Ashley Cooper, for SENĆOŦEN words and translations.
About Kayla MacInnis
Kayla MacInnis is a Métis storyteller born in the prairies but raised by the sea. Through sharing stories that mix visual arts and the written word, Kayla hopes to inspire people to find different ways to connect with themselves and one another.
Join us aboard Achiever
We are currently accepting applications from Indigenous people (specifically women, two-spirit and femme-identifying) to join us on board Raincoast’s education and research vessel, Achiever for a five-day expedition July 9-13, 2022. This trip has been planned in collaboration with Kayla MacInnis. To learn more and apply, visit our website. To support, Old Crow Coffee Co and Kayla organized a raffle fundraiser to raise funds for this trip. Tickets can be purchased online.
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