The directions are pretty simple: Paddle west until you run out of land, then turn right. The paddling part is what makes it a challenge.
Three canoes representing four Northwest tribes landed Monday at Vancouver in the early stages of a journey to the Olympic Peninsula.
Bill Iyall, chairman of the Cowlitz Tribe, welcomed the visitors and invited them to participate in an evening of traditional dances and songs known as protocol. The group set up camp on the grounds of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, a partner with the Cowlitz Tribe.
The Cowlitz pullers, as the paddlers are called, and their guests are part of an annual multitribe canoe journey. This year's assembly — Paddle to Quinault 2013 — will be hosted by the Quinault Indian Nation on the Olympic Peninsula.
The canoe journey has become a way for tribes to introduce newer generations to old traditions.
"It's really tough for our young people to reconnect with their heritage without being able to practice it," Iyall said Monday afternoon on the north bank of the Columbia River.
"This is a pretty universal language," Iyall said, referring to the canoe culture that was part of so many Northwest tribes.
"We've participated in seven journeys, and this is our third protocol" at Fort Vancouver, he added.
Organizers say they are expecting representatives from 90 American tribes and Canadian First Nations. Their journey will end at Point Grenville along the Washington Coast, near Taholah, in the southwest corner of the Quinault Reservation.
By the time the pullers arrived Monday, friends and family members had set up the overnight accommodations, an encampment on the north side of East Fifth Street, on a grassy lawn opposite the reconstructed Fort Vancouver stockade.
A chorus of singers and drummers welcomed the three canoes as they paddled into view just before 4 p.m., ending a 37-mile trip from North Bonneville. The Cowlitz were in the company of the Snohomish
Tribe's Blue Heron canoe and a canoe with pullers from Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes. Steve Kutz, who leads the Cowlitz canoe, said pullers were looking forward to expanding the flotilla today. They plan to meet canoes from several Oregon tribes at Kelley Point, Ore., where the Willamette flows into the Columbia River.
Kutz said the Cowlitz Tribe's pullers already have some Pacific Ocean experience.
"We practiced two or three weeks ago up at Taholah," Kutz said.