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Metlakatlas - Travelling Respectfully & with Permission

Updated: Jun 16

Before we left on our trip, we emailed all the First Nations we could, requesting permission to travel through their territories. The Nations we contacted are very busy working within their own communities, so not everyone replied. One reply we did receive, however, was from Metlakatla, BC -- a First Nations community just north of Prince Rupert BC. They welcomed us to come through their territory and even invited us to stop and spend the night.

An incredible sunset from Metlakatla, BC

After leaving Prince Rupert, we paddled straight there. It's a short paddle, 6 NM or so. Jordan, Nathan, and I landed on the beach in front of the town and, in our usual fashion, went looking for the person we'd gotten a response from. At the bus stop, we met a group of people who welcomed us warmly and appreciated that we'd asked permission to visit. One of the people, Waasekom, was immediately excited by our journey and wanted to come check out our kayaks. We walked down to the beach and chatted. Waasekom - son of Josephine Mandamin, the Water Walker - has done some incredible canoe journeys that are inspirational for us, to say the least. Of all the people to meet in Metlakatla BC, what are the chances. Waasekom, as it turns out, knew Mike --the Elder we were looking for -- and had Mike drive down to the beach to meet us. Mike invited us to stay at the Cabin he'd been building for the Metlakatla community, which we very much appreciated. After chatting a bit longer, Jordan, Nathan, and I paddled over to the cabin while Waasekom and Mike finished up some work, with a plan for them to meet us afterwards.

Waasekom gifted us seaweed he'd harvested and dried from Metlakatla BC as a nutritious snack for our travels.

We got to the cabin, which was beautiful, set up our sleeping pads and went to find some fresh water. Though freshly filled from Rupert, the fresh flowing water from nature is much, much, tastier, so we ran 30L of that liquid gold through our filter.

When Mike and Waasekom arrived, we whipped up some hot chocolate and sat on the deck to share stories and learn about the history of the area.

Metlakatla BC has been a village site since time immemorial, but a significant shift in its history happened during the Smallpox Epidemic of 1862, when European colonists reintroduced and forced the spread of Smallpox through indigenous communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. As a result of this, some of the Tsimshian from Metlakatla BC left to start a new village. By 1891, the Tsimshian successfully lobbied the US government to turn Annette Island AK to an 'Indian Reservation.' And so Metlakatla AK was born. There's much more nuance and detail to this history, and the best way to learn it all is to come speak with the people here. Despite being separated by colonial borders and a history of tensions due to the Anglican church, these two communities are inextricably linked.

Some big grizzly prints at one of our camp sites

Mike insisted we visit Metlakatla AK, and told us to get in touch with his cousin Johon. After a long night of sharing and an exchange of some gifts, the sun was setting and Mike and Waasekom had to head back to town. We were left with Johon's cell #, and a yet another change to our ever evolving plan.

There were two important lessons from the evening. First, we learned about the light green shrubbery on the small islands that signifies burial sites, so we're respectfully staying away from landing spots that could be burial sites. Secondly, we learned about how to properly land a boat. To signify to the spirits of the ancestors that we are coming in peace, we were taught to approach the beach backwards with our paddles raised. It's a little tricky to do, especially when nature is calling, but these are important traditions to honour.

We texted Johon, who warmly invited us to visit Metlakatla AK. It's important to note here that you do need to request permission to visit, and it requires approval from the Tribal Council. While our request was a little unorthodox, Johon informed us of all this and handled it on our behalf. Incredible.

It felt absolutely surreal to leave Lax Kw'alaams, the north most BC town on our trip.

We paddled on to Lax Kw'alaams, another Tsimshian town where we were warmly welcomed, and the last community we'd pass through before crossing the Canada/US border. We got incredibly lucky with great weather to cross Dixon Entrance.

Our Dixon Entrance crossing was also a special moment, we had perfect weather.

Thanks to Nathan's curiosity, we stopped on a tiny island in the area. We stuck to the beach and well trodden paths as we walked. There were a couple standing poles and house posts, and an enormous house pit that was so big it could easily mistaken as a geological feature. The place gave off a very powerful energy, though we didn't know why just yet.

A pair of house poles we saw at a village site, in front of an enormous house pit.

The paddle in to Metlakatla AK was full of orcas, humpback whales - including one that was feeding all night by our campsite, - and porpoises. So. Much. Wildlife.

When we landed in Metlakatla AK, we landed at the beach by the community dock as asked and approached backwards, paddles up. After moving our boats, we walked around a little while waiting for Johon. As it turns out, everyone in town knew we were coming. We were quickly invited to join Elders in the Elder Centre for lunch, and gifted king crab salad which had been made with locally harvested crab. We sat down to eat with the elders, many of whom had vast knowledge of the coast we'd travelled and were headed towards. It was particularly interesting for me to hear about the nature near the Stikine River Delta, a place with abundant wildlife and unforgiving currents that is on our list of places to see. Johon joined us in the elder centre, and after our lunch drove us to his house where we showered and put in some laundry. Which felt oh so good.

Johon and carver Clifton getting their 8 year old canoe prepared for a brand new paint job.

That afternoon, Johon drove us out to Sand Dollar Beach and Yellow Hill and dropped us off for a hike. Johon has a lot of knowledge and loves to share. He was excited to hear we'd visited that tiny island from the day before. It turns out it is a traditional neutral shared territory between the Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit peoples to conduct business. These are powerful nations which have been around for thousands of years, which explains the energy we felt there. We also learned about Johon, a passionate community member who works tirelessly to strengthen communities through traditional methods like paddle making and canoeing.

The rock on Yellow Hill is full of iron, and the only similar rock is found in New Zealand. The rich iron deposits in the area mean you often cannot trust your compass!

We were hungry that evening after our walk, and were very excited to learn that local divers, fishers, harvesters, and chefs Hannah and Shaunna had prepared us dinner. King salmon, Hannah's special pickled octopus, salmon spread, sea asparagus and rice. It was so. So. So. Good. A memorable meal for sure. Jordan and Johon went off to play baseball while Nathan and I stayed to make desert and hang out.

Hannah's secret pickled octopus recipe is so, so good.

We learned a lot about Hannah and Shaunna. They have truly exceptional lives, with a huge amount of knowledge about how to harvest food and the lands and oceans around them. Shaunna is even a commercial diver who has starred in Bering Sea Gold. Lives so exceptional that Discovery Channel makes shows about them. Everyone is both very proud of their culture and history but humble about the knowledge and skill that they have learned through it. Shaunna, Hannah, Nathan, and I went for a cruise around town and got to see some beautiful views. By the time we were back, Jordan and Johon had built a great fire to hang out and chat beside for the rest of the evening.

Metlakatla AK on he left, on a sunset cruise. Shaunna told us the story of Devil's rock that night. We were lucky enough to have her father, who taught her the story, tell it to us too. He was excited to hear that his daughter had remembered and shared the story.

After a late night and some much needed sleep, Nathan, Jordan, and I walked to the local coffee shop -- a drive through -- for breakfast and a coffee. We sat and chatted and made a new friend, who is getting married this coming week and is having Hannah cater her wedding. Congratulations!!! She suggested we go chat with the kids at the Boys and Girls Club Metlakatla. That sounded like fun, so we went down and hung out with the staff and the kids for a few hours. Some of the kids were kayakers, and one even had some tips for us on kayak fishing! I've been missing kids on this trip, so to spend time with these ones, just chatting and playing games, was a real treat. The club seems like a really great place for kids from the community to hang out and it made me wish I had something similar growing up!

While we were at the BGC, we got a text from Johon, "Dinner at 5pm." I had a sense something special was in store. We stopped at the grocery store to pick up some sparkling waters to share and ran into Harvesting Hannah, who was doing some last minute shopping for dinner... The sense strengthened.

A beautiful plate of food, full of delicacies and special treats

Johon had invited his whole family for dinner. Sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews, and father. And Hannah had prepared an absolute feast of a shrimp boil, deer stew, sushi, crab, pickled oyster, and - very excitingly - abalone. Abalone harvesting is illegal for everyone on the BC coast, but is legal for the First Nations in Alaska. It's been a delicacy to eat and treasured for its shell for generations. It was incredible to get to try this food, prepared with love for us. We've eaten really well on this trip... But to share a home cooked meal in a house full of family, where much of the food had been harvested from the land by the exceptionally talented people in the room. It was an incredibly special night.

It was really special to experience a Long House being used as part of daily life here in Metlakatla AK

After dinner we made our way down to the long house to watch one of the dance group rehearsals. Having been to a potlatch and a celebration, it was really special to see the effort the community puts in to practice their culture in more modest but ongoing ways. Despite the lack of fanfare, you could feel the sound of the drums and singing vibrating the long house and everyone was moving with both purpose and comfort. It was especially fun to watch the kids, from babies who could barely walk to teens goading their parents to loosen up and enjoy the dancing. To see the young people smiling and enjoying in this practice really was very special. Especially touching was that the group sang a special song to welcome us as guests to their community and taught us the dance so we could participate and sang the farewell song to us at the end of their practice. It was a real honour to be welcomed into the community in this way.

And from there we made our way back to Johon's, and then one last cruise up to the lookout to enjoy another sunset. We helped shuffle around a few big boats on trailers, and packed in for bed. Tired but so fulfilled after a full day in town.

The kids really warmed up to Jordan, one gifting him a portrait!

The warm welcome we've received up and down the coast, from the Namgis in Alert Bay to the Heiltsuk in Bella Bella to the Kitsoo in Klemtu to the Tsimshian in Metlakatla BC & AK has been absolutely incredible. Getting to sit down and spend time with the kids and the families in Metlakatla, share stories and learn, has been absolutely incredible. We're sad to be leaving, but are walking away with knowledge and memories to last a lifetime.

Nights with family around the fire, talking about secret octopus harvesting holes and abalone filled coves. At one moment, Johon & I realized that this same moment and these same conversations had been shared by peoples' and travellers in the area for thousands of years.

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