Canoe races, Native traditions highlight Water Fest

Coupeville gears up for annual gathering

This Saturday’s high noon high tide in Coupeville figures prominently in the Penn Cove Water Festival, an annual one-day celebration of cultural heritage, environmental stewardship, athleticism and arts.

“We always hold the festival in May and we need a higher tide for racers to be able to bring their canoes into the boat launch area,” explained Vicky Reyes, president of the Penn Cove Water Festival Association, the volunteer nonprofit group consisting of members of numerous communities and organizations.

Events run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 20.

The gathering is based on the historical Coupeville Festival that started in 1930 with three 11-person canoes racing at the invitation of local town merchants. Within a few years, 22 tribes and thousands of families and visitors descended upon Coupeville.

“They would put a stadium up near the wharf to watch the races,” said Susan Berta, canoe race coordinator. “I’ve looked at old film footage and it’s just amazing to see how many canoes were 11-person canoes. We’ve struggled to keep this a one-day event and back then, it went for five days.”

Parades, sack races, pie-eating contests, running races and tribal dancing were added to the festivities. A tradition continuing today is the baking of loaves of bread as gifts by local families and restaurants to give to canoe racers and visiting families.

The festival stopped during WWII. In 1991, Sound Water Stewards of Island County (formerly Beachwatchers) envisioned a modern celebration that could both educate and entertain.

“The emphasis is on the cultural history of Pacific Northwest natives as well as arts and crafts and to educate guests on the local environment and how to protect the waters,” Reyes said.

Or as Berta termed it: “We bring people in for the celebration and then educate them when they’re not looking.”

Knowing appropriate terms also helps.

People paddling the canoes are called pullers, not paddlers, Reyes pointed out. She also emphasized that the wooden vessels are called canoes, “not just boats.”

This year, 233 men, women and teenagers have signed up for the canoe races that are separated by age, size of the canoe and number of pullers. Races start and finish at the boat launch on 9th Street and last most of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, dancing, singing, children’s activities, eating and lots of browsing of arts and crafts and educational booths happen on the main streets of Coupeville and inside the Island County Historical Museum.

Free shuttle buses are provided from parking areas and to event locations.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, an opening ceremony kicks off the festivities. On the Main Stage at 4 p.m. Saturday, it concludes with the popular Tshimshian Haayuuk Dancers, who usually encourage the crowd to join in.

Friday at 8 p.m. around a bonfire at Pacific Rim Institute, Lou LaBombard, a professor of anthropology at Skagit Valley College, leads a storytelling session.

Saturday afternoon entertainment in Coupeville includes Peter Ali on flute, Swil Kanim on violin, music and singing by JP Falcon Grady and music and/or storytelling by Rona Yellowrobe, Lois Landgrebe and Lou LaBombard.

The Coupeville Recreation Hall will stage the Native Spirit Art Show, which includes artist demonstrations.

Although the festival only last six hours, it seems to be a year-round project of passion for its active board members and long-time volunteers.

“We really rely on community support and all the volunteers. That’s what’s kept this going,” Berta said. “And we could still use more help.”

To volunteer for Saturday’s events, contact Vicky Reyes at 313-729-3615.

• For more information. go to www.penncovewaterfestival.com

Tshimshian Haayuuk Dancers share Native American dances with the crowd during the Water Festival last year. 2016 Whidbey News-Times file photo

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