Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

This post is for Josh Barstow

Six miles past Neah Bay, at the literal edge of the Western world, where evergreen-blanketed Washington crumbles in steep rock cliffs to the frothy Pacific Ocean, there is a whole lot going on. Throngs of fat, furry, boisterous sea lions clamor over each other seeking patches of sun on a large rock island. Slinky little otters play in enormous sea caves as the surprisingly blue-green sea swirls in and out, carrying yellow and red autumn leaves over mossy rocks. Congregations of Cormorants speckle the border between land and water, and stately Red Cedar trees crowd right up to the last possible footholds. The wind, having swept the sea all the way from Japan, sounds and smells like distance.

Cape Flattery view

Cape Flattery view

Tatoosh Island- the very edge

Tatoosh Island- the very edge

This magnificent, teeming land is home to the Makah Nation of Native Americans. A couple days ago, we dropped Snorri (our dinghy), rowed in to town, and walked down to the Makah Cultural Research Museum for a hushed tour of ancient artifacts from this place we knew nothing about. The Makah traditionally lived a maritime existence as whalers, seal-hunters, and tide-flat gatherers. Their tools were made primarily from the plentiful Western Red Cedar tree, and woven strips from this tree formed watertight canoe mats, carrying baskets, and clothing. A mudslide 500 years ago impeccably preserved an entire village in Ozette, which added a plethroa of archeological evidence to the oral history passed down by their people. (Like the 1/2-inch ropes they would tie whales’ mouths shut with so the huge animals didn’t sink when they died!) We were allowed to run our fingers over the enormous single-log whaling and sealing canoes polished and burned on the outside to a silky black skin. We entered the shadowy replica of a longhouse and imagined what it would have been like to sleep on skins with rain tapping on the cedar roof. I watched a woman demonstrate the intricate cedar-weaving patterns of the Makah. And then she offered to go for a hike with us the next day out to Cape Flattery.

I’m continuously surprised at the openness of people from small towns. Theresa, the weaver, said if we wanted to hike out there, her sons could give us a ride out the 9 miles to the Cape–and if not, maybe she’d want to take a walk out there with us. Turns out her sons weren’t around and she had to go in to Port Angeles in the morning (the opposite direction), but she called me first and offered to drive us out there if we could hitch or bus back. Having been cooped up on the boat at anchor, we didn’t care if we had to walk all the way back, we were definitely going.

She pushed aside the soaking baskets of Cedar strips and ornate woven hats that filled her backseat to make room for the three of us. As we wound out the road to Cape Flattery, the thick bunch of woven items she had hanging from her rearview mirror–a visor, a lighter case on a cord, coin purses, and necklaces–swung past her braceleted arm as she gestured to us about her family. All of them were weavers, she said; her grandmothers on both sides taught her the art, and she made sure her kids knew how to do it too. And being a weaver means acquiring your own materials.

There are only two to three weeks in the springtime that the Cedar trees are just right for gathering weaving materials. As the sap starts to run, the Makah weavers go out in the woods to strip all the Cedar they’ll use to weave throughout the year, stopping only to sleep and eat. While it’s true that you can strip up to a third of the tree and it will still regenerate, Theresa held up her hand with thumb and pinky out, saying her grandmother said only that much is respectful and safe.

Coming from the rather slow and dingy little “Rez” town of Neah Bay, it was both rejuvenating and somehow sad to see the natural grandeur on the Cape Flattery trail. Having just been at the Makah Museum, my imagination was alight with thoughts of the strong and adept whalers and seal-hunters traversing this enormous coast, and weavers dressed in cedar capes and skirts padding through the quiet trees in search of their materials. Though many of the Makah’s traditional maritime practices have largely been erased by modern regulations and technologies, and traditional weavers are now few in number, the tribe still rightfully sits on the beautiful tip of the Western world. And sure enough, if you look closely along the Cape Flattery trail, there are 8-inch-wide strips pulled from the bark of certain Cedar trees.

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6 Comments»

  Lin wrote @

wow. it’s like the edge of the world–in a beautiful way.

also, otters???? i’m jealous.

  kathy cleary wrote @

That was a great word picture Meghan..thanks for sharing..love, mom

  Bonnie wrote @

Fantastic description of the area and sights. Thanks

  Sara wrote @

Meghan,

Since I don’t see a comment from Josh, I will make sure that he checks it out. You nailed him perfectly . . . we both wish we could be there, boredom and all.

Sara

  Josh wrote @

What a gift to get to experience a small taste of what the NW was and still is. Maybe when you are done with the trip we could go back and meet your friend Theresa? It would be great to learn how to make those baskets and strip a cedar tree.
Great post, I could smell the scent of cedar and rotting salmon(which I actually think is a good smell) as I read along.

  janice wrote @

waiting for your next awesome blog. Meghan, your Dad is awesome about keeping us up-to-date. love, j


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