Canoes start 150-mile journey to Native Celebration in Juneau

A canoe with 16 paddlers from Wrangell and at least four more canoes from other communities were scheduled to push off Wednesday morning toward Juneau, roughly a 150-mile journey to Celebration, the biennial Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultural festival.

The paddlers are scheduled to arrive in downtown Juneau at 11:30 a.m. June 4. Celebration will run June 5-8.

The Wrangell canoe planned to leave from the Reliance Float.

The theme for this year's event is "Together We Live in Balance," and the festival's featured dance group is the Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Dakhká Khwáan Dancers (People of the Inland).

In recent years, more than 2,000 Southeast Alaska Native dancers have participated in each Celebration, according to the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Two dance groups from Wrangell will perform this year.

Since 2008, people have been paddling from their home communities throughout Southeast to attend the event, marking the unofficial start of Celebration with traditional canoe landing ceremonies.

This will be the first time in 10 years that a Wrangell crew will make the journey, and the first time Kasaan has planned a canoe journey in modern history, said Eric Hamar, who is organizing the canoes out of the Prince of Wales Island community of Kasaan.

Over the past week, canoes and paddlers from other communities made their way to Wrangell in anticipation of the start of the journey.

Anchorage pullers arrived in Wrangell with two canoes May 23, and departed for Juneau on May 25 to allow time for subsistence hunting and fishing along the way. They will join the rest of the canoes departing from Wrangell near Read Island, north of Petersburg, said Ken Hoyt, one of the organizers of Wrangell's canoe family.

The Kasaan crew arrived in town May 25 after paddling from Coffman Cove in three cedar dugout canoes after weather forced them to alter their original departure.

Wrangell pullers are paddling a 39-foot canoe provided by SEARHC that arrived in town from Sitka on May 21, along with paddles, dry bags and other gear.

A diverse group of paddlers are working together to make their way to Juneau - Native and non-Native, with various levels of experience in canoes and on water. But the journey is structured in a way that allows anyone to join - a support boat will accompany the canoe and provide navigation and a ride in case of rough weather or if anyone needs rest.

Though the journey will last a week, Wrangell paddlers and community members have been preparing for months.

Paddlers have been meeting a couple times a week to practice and get in shape for the upcoming journey, learning paddling techniques and how to keep their strokes in sync.

Equipment like tents, sleeping bags and rain gear was collected and borrowed from around town to help keep paddlers relatively dry and comfortable in all types of Southeast weather.

Community members also rallied together to contribute and cook traditional foods and help with the potluck hosted for paddlers at the Nolan Center on May 28.

Parks and Recreation opened the doors at the community center to provide a place for paddlers from other communities to sleep and shower.

A GoFundMe raised over $1,400 for the journey from Wrangell to cover things like food and fuel for the support boat.

Even though the entire community can't join pullers in the canoe, the journey would be impossible without the help of friends, family and community members, said Hoyt.


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