Penn Cove Water Festival launches Friday

Featured is a 2007 canoe race during the Penn Cove Water Festival, off the Coupeville shore. - File photo
Featured is a 2007 canoe race during the Penn Cove Water Festival, off the Coupeville shore.
— image credit: File photo

When May tides are considered their best, local Northwest tribes paddle to Penn Cove for a Saturday packed with canoe races, tribal dancing, storytelling and singing.

This year, organizers expanded the Penn Cove Water Festival from a one-day to a three-day event, from May 15 to 17.

Festival chair Susan Berta expects about 3,000 people to watch as 12 tribes compete in single to 11-person canoe races, including the large family “journey” canoes.

Race announcer Jim Hillaire, 74, of the Lummi tribe, said he plans to bring a fiberglass replica of an ocean-going canoe from his home on Lummi Island.

“All the canoes are pretty colorful and about 48 to 50 feet long,” Hillaire said.

At about age 7, many children from Northwest tribes begin training for the canoe race season, which also includes events in northern Vancouver Island and Bellingham.

“Our kids start competing quite young. As soon as they’re big enough to control a canoe, they’re encouraged to do so,” Hillaire said.

Each year, a small crowd lines the Coupeville Wharf as the canoes paddle to shore for what is known as protocol. Hillaire described the ritual as “acknowledging the people of the land, and asking permission to come ashore.”

The Northwest tribes also participate in a welcoming ceremony, which Hillaire simply said, “You just have to witness it.”

“The area years ago was our territory, so we reaffirm the elders are the spirits of the land,” he said.

According to the festival Web site, it is believed that the Northwest Native American population was between 10,000 and 20,000 before contact with settlers, and that there was likely at least one boat for every 10 people.

The gathering of boat fleets for fish runs and for defense during warfare led to competitive racing.

The first water festival began in 1930, organized by a Coupeville businessman who hoped to draw more tourists to Whidbey.

Friday night, Rural Recollections will host a talk and potluck at the Coupeville Recreation Hall to share stories of the first festivals. The speakers will include tribal leaders and family members whose descendants crafted the early canoes.

This Saturday is the downtown festival with about 80 booths for food and arts and crafts. Booths will include beaded shawls, South American textiles, drums and tlingit art work.

A food area will be set up on Front and NW Grace Street, offering such meals as barbecued salmon and kettle corn.

Organizer Cheryl Bradkin said bread plays a major role at the event.

“In the early water festivals, the Indians would come great distances and camp around Coupeville. Local people would bake bread for them as gifts,” Bradkin said. “So we accept loaves of bread from the public, package them and give them as gifts to Native families.”

The canoe races will run from about 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

New this year is Sunday’s “History of Natives on Penn Cove” by storyteller Lou LaBombard aboard the Deception Pass Tour catamaran. LaBombard will point out burial and living sites, Native American adaptions to Whidbey Island (food, shelter, canoes) and the Puget area tribal groups in pre-contact time.

Hillaire said his favorite part of the event are these exchanges of history with community members and the various tribes.

“I enjoy coming together and sharing the history of the gathering and sharing with the younger people how long our people have been doing this sort of thing,” Hillaire said. “It’s a good education for our youth.”

For more information, including a schedule of entertainers, visit and

Schedule of events

Friday, May 15

6:30-8:30 p.m. Stories of first festivals of the 1930’s at the Coupeville Recreation Hall.

6 p.m. Lou LaBombard, storyteller, professor of Anthropology and member of the Seneca Nation, will share riveting stories at the Fort Ebey amphitheater.

Saturday, May 16, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Canoe racing in Penn Cove with a shuttle to the boat launch from Front Street.

Native music, singing and dancing on stage in front of the museum.

Children’s activities tent by the Recreation Hall, including face painting, boat building and Native American art.

Educational displays in the Recreational Hall.

Noon-12:30 p.m. Storytelling in the museum.

Native and Northwest food and arts and crafts booths on Alexander and Front streets.

Sunday, May 17, from 10 to 11:30 a.m.

History of Natives on Penn Cove by Lou LaBombard aboard the Deception Pass Tour catamaran. Tickets are $35 and are limited to 35 people. Tickets can be purchased at, Miriam’s Espresso and the Harbor Store in Coupeville.

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