It was a very emotional afternoon along the Fraser River for six special paddlers who were greeted with drumming, songs and cheers outside Lelem Arts and Cultural Cafe in Fort Langley during the official Spirit of the Coast sendoff on Sunday.
Led by professional wilderness guide Chris Cooper, the Spirit of the Coast crew — made up of paddlers from South Africa, England, Scotland, the United States, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia — will travel by canoe for 90 days along the coastline of British Columbia up to Alaska, to bring awareness to the ecology and culture of the land.
The group started their 1,300 km canoe trek from Fort Langley in picturesque summer weather, with full bellies from a Kwantlen First Nations feast, and full hearts from a morning ceremonial blessing.
Brandon Gabriel, Kwantlen First Nations artist and co-organizer of the event, admits he had no sleep the night prior to the launch. Not only was he up until 3 a.m. painting paddles as gifts to community sponsors, but he was also wide awake with excitement and nerves.
“Paddling in the canoe is my rest,” he said with a laugh, as he disembarked at the Fort Langley Canoe Club dock at the start of the public celebration.
The group had paddled over a short distance from the Kwantlen First Nations reserve, where that morning a private ceremony was held with 200 family and friends in the longhouse to bless the canoe and send well wishes to the paddlers prior to departure.
The morning ceremony was very moving, according to Brenda Fernie, a member of the Kwantlen First Nations Business Group.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “There was actually an eagle that was overtop in the trees looking over as we blessed the canoe — it was very spiritual.”
Another eagle soared above Kwantlen drummers and dancers as they performed outside the Lelem Cafe in the afternoon public ceremony as well.
Though the journey will be a mental and physical challenge for the paddlers, they all feel the importance of their message far exceeds the danger of the trip.
“This is a serious journey,” said Cooper, who has canoed to Alaska five times before. “This journey is very, very much about awareness of our coastline, about education, about culture, about environment.
“I’ve spent a lifetime paddling canoes of all sorts all over the world and I really feel strongly that we need to do something for our coast. It’s the jewel of Canada, there’s no doubt about it. We have a treasure chest here. We need to take care of it, we need to leave it for our grandchildren and great grandchildren and many others.”
In addition to the environment and ecology of the coastline, Gabriel also wants to bring attention to the local communities and First Nations on the coast.
“Our communities are integral to the well being of the precious coastline and despite these big government and big corporate plans for our future along our coast, [there are] voices of opposition, voices of discontent and voices that have an alternative view of these corporate sponsored initiatives that are taking place,” he said.
To follow the journey of the paddlers, visit www.spiritdancercanoejourneys.ca/spiritofthecoast.html.
Donations can be made on crowdfunding site Indeygogo at www.indiegogo.com/projects/spirit-of-the-coast-canoe-journey-fundraiser.