Dark clouds made good on their promise of rain when the first few canoes began to approach Point Julia as the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe hosted the annual Canoe Journey Thursday.
As each canoe approached the shores of Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal land, one paddler would stand up and request permission to come ashore for food, shelter and festivities.
Nearly every arrival to the shore noted the revelry of years past and how they looked forward to once again sharing a meal and enjoying the company of those already ashore. Some even noted that they could already smell the seafood cooking.
Farther up the shore, closely watching a massive fire built atop a bed of smooth, round stones was Delbert Charles. Beside Charles were several bins filled with Dungeness crab, a cooler brimming with oysters and numerous mesh sacks and buckets filled with clams — all of which, Charles said, had been caught just days earlier. With an impressively calm demeanor Charles was handling the mammoth task of feeding the many cold and hungry travelers along their journey.
Charles estimated that between the two hot stone beds being used to cook the food, some 900 pounds of seafood would soon be served up for all of those in attendance.
“I cleaned everything, I cleaned all the crab. They come in alive and we break them down and soak them in saltwater so they absorb more moisture so when we cook them, it doesn’t dry them out,” Charles said. “It gives them more flavor too.”
The shoreline chef also explained that before cooking the seafood, a large fire is constructed atop a bed of rocks, picked meticulously for the specific task of cooking the seafood. Once the rocks have been sufficiently heated, the coals are removed from the stones and the seafood is then placed on top of the hot stones and finally covered with wet newspaper. After about 45 minutes steaming under the newspaper, dinner would be ready.
Charles said he learned this particular method of cooking large volumes of seafood from his grandmother, who in turn learned it from her parents as well. In carrying the tradition Charles said he was teaching his son, Adam Charles, to cook in the same way he was taught.
“He’s learning most of this because he wants to take over,” Charles said. “I’m 59 years old.”
When asked what the most important thing was to remember when cooking hundreds of pounds of seafood with a hot stone bed, Charles pointed to the care and attention he must pay to the food beforehand.
“Learning how to take care of it,” he said. “There’s a lot to do with this, you’ve got to hang it, you’ve got to rinse it, you’ve got to take care of it, wash it and make sure there’s nothing on this product before it goes onto the heat.”
Beside Charles’ fire, Valentino Hice had seized an opportunity to warm up after he and his fellow paddlers were caught in an afternoon rain. For Hice, a member of Neah Bay’s Makah Tribe, the Paddle to Lummi would be his first time participating in the annual canoe journey. Despite the rain and paddling for the previous five days, Hice said he was “loving it.”
“We left last Saturday from Neah Bay,” he explained. “It’s tough, really tough.”
Hice said he had already decided to participate in next year’s canoe journey. A few of his good friends were responsible for convincing him to take part in this year’s paddle, Hice explained, adding that somewhere between Neah Bay and Point Julia, his good friends had become his family.
The challenges paddlers face on the canoe journey go well beyond just physical exhaustion as well, he said.
“Being able to handle all of it, it’s more of a workout than you realize; supporting each other, keeping each other as one and then helping each other pull the canoes up to shore.”
When asked if he had ever experienced anything similar to the challenges and camaraderie he found in the canoe journey, Hice didn’t hesitate.