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Brought together by the Hōkūle‘a in Ḵéex̱ʼ (Kake) Alaska

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

We'd like to begin this post by acknowledging the recent losses to the Ḵéex̱ʼ (Kake) community, that happened just days before we and the Hōkūle‘a arrived. It's a very real reminder that the ocean is a dangerous place. We're deeply grateful for the kindness and welcoming of the community in this time of mourning.

As with many of our stories, this story full of coincidence and blind luck. So, let's dive into it.

In Metlekatla AK, our host Johon told us about a traditional Polynesian canoe circumnavigating the Pacific Rim and Polynesian Islands, using traditional navigation techniques. They'd started their journey in Yakutat AK (our final destination) and were making their way south, to Metlakatla for July 4th, for which Johon was making grand preparations. Nathan, Jordan, and I started following along their live tracker excitedly, hoping we'd get a chance to see the Hōkūle‘a on the water.

Hōkūle‘a in Kake AK

After some adventuring around the Stikine and LeConte glacier, we came to Kake, AK to meet up with our new friends Greta and John. We were a couple days late, as we'd originally planned on getting there on June 20th, alas weather and adventures can't always be predicted and we landed in Kake on June 23rd after a long 30NM-ish paddle. Greta and John drove down to pick us up to take us back to the Sagebrush shop where we'd be staying for a few days. They also came with some exciting news, the Hōkūle‘a had arrived just hours before and there was a Potlatch to celebrate. We hurried into town to shower and change, picked up our sailor friend Masa, who we'd arranged to meet in Kake, from the dock, and made our way to the community hall for the potlach.

Maša & Jordan met for the first time in Kake, hours before leaving on a sailing trip together.

About the Hawaiian canoe; the Hōkūle‘a, built in the 1970s to replicate a traditional Polynesian Canoe, as a demonstration to show how these peoples have been sailing and navigating in the Pacific for thousands of years. In the process, they're reinvigorating the traditional navigational wayfinding practices. You can read more about the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Hōkūle‘a, and their voyages on their website. It's a truly inspiring initiative. At the time of the arrival, I honestly didn't know much about it, but after speaking with them and doing my own reading, I was totally awestruck. One book recommendation is The Wayfinders by Wade Davis (likely available at your local library) whose first chapter tells some of the Polynesian Voyaging Society's story.

Nathan soaring with the uncle who taught us a little about Tlingit dance

As we shuffled into the community centre, we were promptly greeted by a man named Tim, dressed in full Tlingit regalia. We shared our stories and he welcomed us with open arms, and invited us to eat. We happily obliged.

This potlatch was the first one in the community since COVID. At 500 or so people, Kake is also the smallest community we've visited on this trip as well. So when I say the community built this event together, I really mean that it felt like everyone had put their piece in. Many individuals harvested & cooked, bringing dishes to share in their personal cookware to complement the dishes cooked by the hosts. There was moose stew, deer ribs, seal grease, salmon & halibut prepared in more ways than I can name, and even Herring Roe on Hemlock. All of it fished and hunted by the community.

After the dinner and welcoming speaches, the evening ended early, with invitations to a morning viewing of the Hōkūle‘a, lunch at Seal Cove, and an evening of cultural sharing at the Community Centre the following day.

After a night spent cuddling Greta's dog, Carbon, on Harmony, I headed back to John's for breakfast before we headed down to the Hōkūle‘a for the tour.

Seeing the Hōkūle‘a up close was very cool. The fact that it's all held together with lashing, over 8 km of rope, is mind boggling. We also learned about the traditional crab claw sails, life aboard the boat, and the duties of each crew member.

Most interesting, was the opportunity to speak with the crew, both on the boat and at lunch in Seal Cove. I enjoyed getting to hear the personal stories of what motivated them to take part in this journey, and what causes they care about was awesome. Rex felt very strongly about using traditional methods and knowledge, like voyaging, as key avenues for improving mental health -- particularly in men. Connecting to one's culture and developing shared experiences in the natural world, he said, is the key to breaking down barriers in communication that harm mental health. I've had similar discussions withJohon from Metlakatla AK, Waasekom and Mike from Metlakatla BC, Pam from Bella Bella, and others up the coast. Other crew members were focused on cultural and knowledge restoration, learning the skills of their ancestors in order to continue to pass them down through the generations.

The Hōkūle‘a crew sharing their Ha'a they do in preparation for ocean voyages.

The second night of cultural sharing involved more incredible food, dance and song, and even a presentation from navigator Tua Pittman on traditional Polynesian navigation. The striking thing about this presentation to me was the synthesis and interpretation of many sparse types of data. From the stars to winds to swell to animals, navigators can build a map of where the boat is and where it is going on voyages that span weeks at a time. It's spectacular. Towards the end of the night, we were able to participate in group dances and one of the uncles taught us the meaning of a few of the different dance moves that we'd learned last year in Haida Gwaii, which I really appreciated. It was again inspiring to see the whole Kake community participate in the cultural sharing.

Something I've really enjoyed watching over the last few weeks, starting in Metlakatla and continuing through to Juneau, is watching how the Hōkūle‘a's journey has inspired communities to invest time into preparing for the cultural sharing. This means communities practicing dances and songs, painting canoes, making regalia, harvesting and cooking, and so much more. From the outside looking in, it seems like the Hōkūle‘a is serving two purposes. One for the stated purpose of cultural sharing, but another which is providing additional motivation to invest in culture.

After the second evening of cultural sharing, we were tired from a long day of dancing & eating so we tucked into bed quickly. The following morning I woke up bright and early, threw on a pot of Moja Coffee, and hurried down to the dock to see Hōkūle‘a off. After chatting more with the crew, participating in a farewell prayer, we joined the people of Ḵéex̱ʼ in seeing them off.

Seeing off Hōkūle‘a

We then slowly made our way over to our new friend Eloise's house for brunch with John, Greta, Carson, Miakah, & Chris. We were welcomed with halibut cakes, canned salmon bellies, coffee, and more. It was the perfect opportunity to sit down and learn from some local community leaders about their work with youth, language revitalization, and fishing in Alaska. Up to this point, we've heard a lot of disdain for Alaska fishing regulations. At this brunch we were able to get into the details.

An incredible lunch with food harvested and cooked by our new friends in Kake. An incredible group of young people making a difference in their community.

Many people in Alaska live off of subsistence fishing & hunting licenses, accounting annually for about 40 million pounds of harvest, or 295 lbs per person. These harvests are tightly restricted, with very specific rules around how one can harvest for themselves, and how they can harvest on behalf of others (such as family members, community elders, etc.). These restrictions place a significant beaurocratic burden on individuals. This is adds another challenge in a state facing other immediate food security issues. The commercial fishing industry in Alaska harvests 8 billion pounds per year, 200x more than subsistence consumption. The collapse of Alaska's fisheries is well documented, and has known knock on effects for the rest of the Pacific Northwest. All waters greater than 3 miles off shore, where the fishing happens, is regulated by the federal government, so there is no guarantee that Alaskans will see the money from the fishery, despite the negative impact it has on their subsistence needs.

A beautiful meal cooked by John, using fish he caught himself.

We've also been lucky enough to meet a number of commercial fishers, both inside and outside indigenous communities and the messaging is similar. They need the fisheries to stay open so they can earn a living, but the fisherpeople who've been around for a long time have noted that the fish have become harder to find and the profits have gotten smaller, leading to vessels running with 4 people (instead of the normal 6 to 8) to pocket more money, adding more risk to what is already one of the countries' most dangerous jobs.

It's complicated and convuluted, and there's a lot of strong feelings. Overall though, everyone from subsistence fishers, to elders, to commercial fishers, to marine biologists, the sentiment was the same; an acknowledgement that the fishery is at risk, and that their long term needs are not being met by the current set of rules and regulations. In some way, the Hōkūle‘a's spirit carried on in this discussion -- an opportunity for people to gather, share, and learn.

Our final day in Kake ended with a pleasant semi-surprise. Ken had cracked out a monster day to join us in Kake for the next bit of paddling.

A Little Paddle, Sagebrush, and Ken!

I could go on and on about this weekend, and the people we met. I haven't even told you about the excited going volunteers from the southern US who helped at the potlatch or the conversations we had about the struggles of south eastern Alaska communities and their access to essential services, or how the USFS supports indigenous youth. Just so much.

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