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Native canoe journey has a Freeland pair alongside

Susie Richards (center) and Chris Burt (third from left) stand on the deck of the Indigo with crew members of the Raven Dancer Canoe Family. - Photo courtesy of Susie Richards
Susie Richards (center) and Chris Burt (third from left) stand on the deck of the Indigo with crew members of the Raven Dancer Canoe Family.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Susie Richards

A 65-foot steel coastal cruiser skippered by a pair of educators from Freeland helped a group of young people from Victoria, British Columbia, complete their paddle into the past this week.

Susie Richards and Chris Burt, who run the local nonprofit Service, Education and Adventure (SEA), donated their boat, the M.V. Indigo, to be the escort for the Raven Dancer Canoe Family in this year’s Tribal Journeys 2009.

The “family” included 22 young people of many tribes associated with the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, which helps people from rural areas acclimate to an urban environment.

They were joining Native American groups from throughout coastal Canada and the Puget Sound region in traveling many directions and distances in authentic canoes across the water to Suquamish, on the Olympic Peninsula, for a week of feasting, storytelling and heritage appreciation.

Canoe crews, each with an escort vessel, also came from Alaska, and from as far away as Hawaii, a nod to the indigenous people of those islands.

More than 15,000 people were expected for the event at Suquamish, which wraps up today.

The Victoria group needed an escort for its 90-mile journey in a 50-foot wooden replica canoe, and Richards and Burt jumped at the chance.

“It was a tremendous cultural experience,” Richard said. “It was wonderful.”

The Indigo and the Raven Dancer canoe, with eight to 10 paddlers at a time, set off on Wednesday, July 29, with about 30 other canoes and their escort vessels across open water from Beecher Bay in Victoria to Port Angeles.

After two days at Port Angeles, they headed down the east coastline, with overnight stops in Jamestown, Port Townsend and Port Gamble, arriving in Suquamish this past Monday.

“It was a multi-dimensional journey, across the sea as well as across history and spirituality,” Burt said. “It meshed well with our own goals to be good stewards of the water environment.”

Burt, a South Whidbey educator for 17 years, served as captain on the trip, with Richards, another long-time island educator, as crew. Also aboard were the members of the “family” not paddling the canoe, and a photographer from the Discovery and History television channels.

The Indigo is owned by Scott Ashworth of Oak Harbor, who donates it for marine education programs in the area and who covered expenses for the trip, Richards said.

Burt said the wind and sea were mostly calm, thanks to the recent mild weather, and that the journey was filled with memorable moments, including a pause off Dungeness Spit for a period of silence to honor a canoe tribal chief who died during a similar journey a couple of years ago.

And the trip along the shoreline traced historic routes and visited present and former native American villages.

“It helped me to see these waters in a new way,” Burt said.

There were some adventurous moments, too.

While stopped for the period of silence off Dungeness Spit, the canoes, with four to six inches of freeboard, had to remain stable in rolling waves of four to six feet.

Another time, the wind blew the Raven Dancer canoe and its tired crew onto the beach. The paddlers walked the canoe around the point, and pushed it back out to sea while the Indigo stood by in deeper water, unable to assist.

Later, canoe and escort boat were separated by a fog bank, but eventually reunited. The Indigo, with its electronic equipment, also served as guide while navigating the heavily traveled shipping lanes.

The Indigo had lots of visitors, too. At one point, five canoes and another escort boat were tethered alongside.

“Word got around pretty fast that we had bathrooms onboard,” Richards said.

SEA offers one-day through five-day boating and camping excursions to various parts of Puget Sound for groups of teachers and students. Included are science and nautical instruction, with special emphasis on safety and protecting the environment.

The nonprofit organization recently received, in partnership with Edmonds Community College, a $100,000 grant form the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to provide marine-training trips for teachers.

“That should keep us going through the next year,” Richards said.

Learn more about SEA at www.serviceeducationadventure.org. Or contact Richards at 360-929-2606 or sea@whidbey.com.

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