Politics & Government

Ancient canoes, modern science meld to track water quality

Canoes line the beach at the Lummi Stommish grounds in July 2007.
Canoes line the beach at the Lummi Stommish grounds in July 2007. Danny Gawlowski / Bellingham Herald / MCT

WASHINGTON — For centuries, the cedar canoes of the Coast Salish Indians have plied the inland waters of Washington state and British Columbia, carrying trading goods, raiding parties and families headed to summer potlatch celebrations.

For several weeks this summer, some of the 100 canoes headed to Vancouver Island for an annual gathering also will be trailing sophisticated water-monitoring equipment provided by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Every 10 seconds, the $20,000 probes will test the water's temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen levels, pH and turbidity. Sophisticated global-positioning systems will track where each sample was taken, and the results will be posted daily on the Web.

It's a marriage of 21st-century technology and an ancient way of life. The idea is to get a snapshot of the health of the waters known for generations as the Salish Sea. For the Salish people, it's about restoring their nearly sacred waters.

"It's about who we are," said Eric Day, a member of the Swinomish Tribe near LaConner, Wash. "These are our highways. We still have people making a living on the water. There are reports of dead zones out there. Fish runs are declining. We need to know what is going on and how to fix it."

Day is the captain of a Swinomish canoe family, and his vessel will be one of those equipped with monitoring probes as they make their way north through the San Juan Islands to Duncan, British Columbia. The nine people aboard his "Spirit of the Salmon" canoe, ranging in age from 11 to nearly 50, will paddle six to 12 hours a day on their weeklong journey.

Day's canoe typifies the melding of the ancient with the modern. With the image of a salmon painted on its bow, the canoe is made of cedar, as canoes have been in the Northwest for centuries. But instead of being hollowed from the trunk of a tree, its cedar was sawed into strips, which are held together with fiberglass and nails.

Day said it didn't really matter what his canoe was made of.

"We are honoring the way our people used to travel," he said.

There are 28 tribes of Coast Salish in Washington state, ranging from the Squaxin, Nisqually and Puyallup in the southern part of Puget Sound to the Swinomish, Tulalip and Lummi in the north. The Salish also include 48 tribes in British Columbia.

They share a common culture, a language with common roots and similar traditions. Where their waters now are called Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia, in ancestral times they were known as the Salish Sea.

The canoe journeys had all but disappeared for many of the tribes until 1989. That's when a major court decision restored the fishing rights of many of the tribes in western Washington and kick-started a return of the tradition.

Many see the melding of the canoe journeys with the USGS monitoring equipment as a way to turn a cultural revival into "cultural survival."

"As they see it, their lives depend on the survival of these natural resources," said Charlie O'Hara, a Swinomish spokesman.

Nearly every tribe will have at least one canoe involved in this year's journey, which gets under way beginning Monday. The canoes will travel along six traditional Salish routes to this year's potlatch on Vancouver Island, some of them traveling nearly 150 miles north from southern Puget Sound or south from the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Four to six canoes will trail the water-sampling equipment.

"This is a unique opportunity to collect some very valuable data," said Eric Grossman, a USGS research geologist based in Santa Barbara, Calif., who's long studied the estuaries of Puget Sound and is an adviser to the Salish project.

Water quality throughout Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia has deteriorated significantly in recent years and threatens near-shore and marine habitats, Grossman said.

Slow-moving canoes are an excellent way to monitor waters near the shore, which are often too shallow for other research vessels. And they don't interfere with water sampling the way powerboats might by leaking fuel or stirring up sediment.

Grossman said the idea for the Coastal Salish project had been kicked around for several years, but jelled when probes became smaller and more sophisticated. The water-sampling equipment is in foot-and-a-half-long cylinders that weigh about 5 pounds.

The probes are so light that the paddlers won't feel any drag, said Sarah Aiken, a water-resource specialist with the Swinomish who's coordinating the project.

"They'll put it in in the morning and pull it out at night," she said.

Data gathered this year will provide a baseline for comparison with that gathered in subsequent years. The information will provide a broad look at waters that ordinarily aren't sampled.

"Other agencies come out once a month, once a quarter or once a year and take their samples in only a few places," Aiken said. "This will help us fill in a lot of gaps."

Day agreed that coupling the water sampling with the canoe journey was a natural fit.

"Every time I've gone out, I sit there and think there was something else we needed to do," he said. "We are honoring the ways of our people and trying to do something about a problem that threatens our way of life."

Go here to see readings from the Coast Salish project .

More McClatchy stories about the environment.