Islanders row out to the west coast and back

  • Jul. 6, 2009 7:00 p.m.

by Heather Ramsay-“You went to the west coast in a rowboat? Why?” This was the incredulous reaction greeting three hardy souls after they returned from an 18-hour journey to Skidegate Point in a 14-foot rowboat. Billy Yovanovich of Skidegate joined Barb and Charlie Mack of Queen Charlotte for the adventure on June 16. Mr. Mack said the voyage was made to honour Haida elders who used to routinely do the same thing. “Everyone used to row everywhere,” said Mr. Mack. People would row to Copper Bay to fish, and women like Thelma Shannon would row out to get a Christmas tree. Settlers too, would row everywhere, like to Lawn Hill for a dance or to Prince Rupert for beer. Mr. Mack was especially inspired by the late Chief Niis Wes Ernie Wilson’s tales of solo rowing trips to the west coast of the islands. “He used to do it solo in 16 to 18 hours with a little sail that his mother made from a flour sack,” said Mr. Mack. The trio decided to recognize the hard work ethic of bygone days by undertaking the journey on their own. They left at 4:45 am on June 15 with a few more technological toys than Niis Wes would have had, like a GPS, a battery-powered depth sounder and a hand held radio. With each taking equal turns on the oars, by 8:08 am they were at the gorge in the middle of Skidegate Narrows. Mrs. Mack said they’d planned to be there when the tide started roaring and their craft was swept through at a little over 10 kilometres an hour. Niis Wes used to set lines out on the west coast and he’d head back to check them without even bringing a lunch, Mr. Mack said: “He’d just stab a few sea urchins in the narrows.” The rowers said the trip brought the notion of “going slow” to the forefront. “We had lots of time to converse and tell stories,” said Mr. Mack, adding that usually a motor boat makes too much noise to spend much time talking with fellow fishermen. But the trio shared stories told by the elders at the Skidegate, including Mr. Yovanavich’s mother Ada’s tales of cooking on Marble Island during wartime. They even sang Niis Wes’s favourite song, “You are my sunshine” a few times in his honour, along with many other tunes. Of course, the goal of the trip was to catch fish. When they hit 20 miles on the GPS, they started fishing, said Mr. Yovanovich. Not very long after dropping their lines and after calling on Ernie’s spirit to help them, boom, they had a fish on. Mr. Mack pulled up the first spring salmon (they didn’t weigh it, but figured it was about 12 pounds), and then turned around and Mrs. Mack caught her biggest fish ever. It was one metre long and the guesses on the weight vary! After a couple of little turns, they had two more coho and then they had to head for home. Mr. Yovanovich said it was flat and calm on the way back in, and once more they called to Ernie to help them out with a bit of a breeze. The westerly picked up right after that and the rowers made it back to the Mack’s house on the east end of Queen Charlotte by 11 pm. Over the next few days, they shared the fish and the stories with as many as they could, and they hope their adventure inspires others to undertake similar physical challenges. “Elders live to such ripe old ages,” said Mr. Mack. “And they had to work hard.” But today we are all used to cars, motor boats and electronic appliances. His work at the Skidegate Health Centre with Haida Power also aims to get people doing healthy things, as do his attempts with Mrs. Mack to start a non-profit called SKIFFS (Skidegate Inlet Food Fuelwood and Fitness Society). Not only is it important physically, he said, but doing stuff like this is important for the planet. (As well as the pocketbook – Mrs. Mack estimated they would have had to spend $200 in gas to get out to the west coast and back.) One of Mr. Yovanovich’s favourite parts of the trip was watching the people cruise by in their speed boats. “It was funny seeing the double takes people made,” he said. “But this is what the human body is made for.”