Water Fest returns, fetes volunteers

Canoe races are back this year at a special Penn Cove Water Festival.

Canoe races are back this year at a special Penn Cove Water Festival dedicated to two late volunteers.

The water festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 13 on Alexander Street and Front Street in downtown Coupeville. The festival will feature live entertainment steeped in indigenous culture and maritime heritage and, for the first time in three years, Native American canoe races.

“We’re very excited to see the canoes back on the water,” festival President Gary Piazzon said.

This year’s performers will be Lou LaBombard, who will share Native American stories and humor; Whidbey’s beloved sea shanty group, the Shifty Sailors; Native flutist Peter Ali; musician and storyteller Rona Yellow Robe; and the Tsimshian Haayuuk Dancers, a Seattle-based group of Tsimshian Tribe members who will share traditional dances.

The Lummi House of Tears Carvers’ totem pole honoring the orca Tokitae will also be on display. On May 12, the day before the festival, a blessing ceremony for the totem pole will take place at 5 p.m. behind the Haller House at Coveland and Main Street, and LaBombard will be telling stories at the Pacific Rim Institute at 7 p.m.

This year’s festival is dedicated to two longtime volunteers who passed away since the last full scale water festival. Jim Hillaire and Jim Freeman were the race announcers for around 30 years before their respective deaths in 2021 and 2022, Piazzon said, adding that this year’s festival will be a vastly different experience without these two men.

The canoe races can be viewed from the Coupeville Wharf, Front Street or the boat launch at Capt. Coupe Park.

Native American canoe races first took place in Coupeville in 1930, though the first official Penn Cove Water Festival occurred in 1992.

“It’s a great event for the sharing of cultures and the uplifting of the people of the canoe,” Piazzon said.

A full schedule of events can be found online at penncovewaterfestival.com. Anyone interested in volunteering at the festival can sign up on the same website.