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Paddling Alongside the Chinook


As Told By Ryan Downs, S.S. Legacy

Our colleague Ryan Downs, a crew member aboard the 88-guest S.S. Legacy who’s currently working in the office planning historical programs for the vessel’s upcoming journeys, recently returned from a five day canoe trip with the Chinook Tribe on the Columbia River. Here’s his tale.

Ryan Downs

Ryan Downs and Itsuxt canoe

This was the second annual Chinook Tribal Canoe Journey. Ryan was invited by Ray Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Tribal Council. Ryan met Ray while he was working on the sailing ship Lady Washington, a replica of the first American ship to come to the west coast. The crew on board would have to stop before entering the Columbia River and ask the Chinook—and Ray—for permission to enter the River.


Canoe trip route along Columbia River--east to west from Washougal to Chinook Point/Fort Columbia

Four canoes and about 31 people made the journey along the length of the lower Columbia River from Washougal to Chinook Point/Fort Columbia, Washington. The largest canoe held 18 paddlers. Supporters drove trucks along the route loaded with tents, food and supplies; paddlers slept in tents and homes of tribe members along the way.

Ryan and Beautannen crew

The Beau Tanner crew

Ryan returned to the office very sore so we know he put in some serious effort paddling in the canoes. The first canoe he joined was named Beau Tanner; then he joined Ray’s canoe named Itsuxt—Chinook word for black bear. Chinook regard canoes like a member of the family. Your canoe is your horse/house/barn/car—all wrapped into one. A canoe from the Snohomish tribe, with Chairman and skipper Mike Evans, also joined the trip.

Along the way, a typical day started with breakfast at 7:00 a.m. and canoes in the water at 8:00 a.m. Paddlers took care to sit in the canoe just right placing a hip along the side to balance the boat correctly. The skipper sat in the back of the canoe with one longer paddle to steer the canoe. The first day was the longest—12 hours of paddling covered 40 miles. (Now we know why Ryan is sore!) That night, they stayed in Ridgefield, Washington, in a giant traditional Chinook Plankhouse built next to the ruins of an ancient Chinook village currently under archaeological exploration.


Cathlapotle Plankhouse in Ridgfield, Washington

At Fort Clatsop near Astoria—Lewis and Clark’s fort near the mouth of the Columbia River—the National Park Service hosted the group and held a reception and lunch for them when they arrived. They slept in the fort in bunk beds built out of logs.

Canoe arrival

Itsuxt arriving at Fort Clatsop

At the end of the trip, they left Fort Clatsop, paddled across the mouth of the Columbia River on a dead calm day, rode the outgoing tide, crossed the mouth at slack water, and went up river with the current to Illwaco then on to Chinook Point. This is near the Astoria bridge with Fort Columbia there, and Middle Village, the most important Chinook Village at the time of Lewis and Clark’s visit. The canoes landed and all enjoyed the First Salmon of the Year ceremony, a gathering of all five tribes of the Chinook nation. The Snohomish tribe attended as guests. This once-a-year big event involves lots of music, dancing, gift giving, feasting, and of course, the cooking and eating of salmon.

Salmon ceremony

Salmon ceremony at Chinook Point

Ryan says he paddled 130 miles during his time on the trip. The rest paddled about 145—the entire length of the lower Columbia. And you can read more about the trip in this article in Tulalip News.

Note: The Chinook lost their nation status in the 50’s after a government census concluded they were extinct, but neglected to inform them. They found this out 10 years ago. They are now working to regain their nation status. Congressman Brian Baird was in Ryan’s canoe the first day. The congressman is an advocate for the Chinook and is working to help them regain their nation status.

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