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Penn Cove Water Festival celebrates 20th year

Native Americans of all ages will participate in canoe races that will be a highlight of Saturday’s Penn Cove Water Festival that takes place in Coupeville. This year marks the event’s 20th anniversary. - File photo
Native Americans of all ages will participate in canoe races that will be a highlight of Saturday’s Penn Cove Water Festival that takes place in Coupeville. This year marks the event’s 20th anniversary.
— image credit: File photo

A milestone will be set with this weekend’s celebration of Whidbey Island’s Native American heritage.

The Penn Cove Water Festival is marking its 20th consecutive year Saturday, May 14, with activities taking place throughout the Coupeville waterfront.

The festival features canoe races with competitive Native American tribes that travel to Coupeville from around the Puget Sound region. The races take place in Penn Cove between the Coupeville Wharf and Captain Coupe Park.

The current incarnation of the Penn Cove Water Festival began in 1992 and was based on celebrations that started nearly a century ago.

“We sort of revived the old Coupeville water festivals of the ‘20s and ‘30s,” said Susan Berta, president of the Penn Cove Water Festival Association. The original water festival continued until World War II. The last attempt to revive the festival took place in the 1970s.

The renewal effort succeeded in 1992 when a dozen tribes arrived in town, which Berta described as “amazing considering we didn’t have a clue about what we were doing.”

She complimented the canoe captains who provided great advice and support during the festival.

The first Water Festival started several traditions that continue to this day. Festival organizers still give participants bread and help with travel costs. In fact, organizers need help baking bread for the participants.

Over the years, there have been challenges to  overcome. For example, organizers continually have to solve how to combine the festival events in downtown with the canoe races staging at Coupe Park, which provides the boat launch needed for the canoes. One year, the racers staged from the beach around the wharf, but that proved to be a disaster because of the low tide, Berta said. The best solution so far is to offer a free shuttle to transport festival-goers between the two locations.

Currently 11 canoe clubs are scheduled to participate Saturday, but Berta said a few others are sure to show.

A full slate of performers is scheduled on the stage located at the corner of Front and Alexander streets. The Shifty Sailors will kick off the festival at 11 a.m. They will be followed by violinist at storyteller Swil Kanim, native flutist Peter Ali and actress and comic Elaine Miles, who is best known as Marilyn in Northern Exposure. The Tsimshian Haayuuk Dancers finish up the day with a performance starting at 4:30 p.m.

Storyteller Lou LaBombard and People for Puget Sound representative Mike Sato will speak at the Island County Museum during the festival.

In addition, there will be a plethora of children’s activities and environmental displays, and the always-popular Native Spirit Art Show.

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