Five of some 100 canoes participating in Tribal Journeys, an annual paddle through the inland waters of British Columbia and Washington, will carry Global Positioning System units and probes that measure the quality of the water, including its temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, total dissolved solids and turbidity.
Aided by scientists from the USGS, the project aims to get a better handle on environmental degradation of the tribes' ancestral waters.
"Over the last 100 years, people have looked at our most sacred site as a dump site," said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, which is coordinating the project.
"You have everything - heavy metals, toxins, farm runoff, nonpoint pollution - and it ends up in the Salish Sea. It's up to this generation and future generations to make everyone aware of the conditions," Cladoosby said in a statement. "We as Coast Salish have decided 'no more,' and we are stepping forward to restore and protect our most precious waters."
The Salish Sea encompasses the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia; the Strait of Juan de Fuca that flows between Washington and British Columbia; and Puget Sound in Washington. Coast Salish is the collective name for a number of tribes and First Nations people of the region.
Coast Salish tribes traditionally paddled the Salish Sea to meet for ceremonies and festivals. The Tribal Journeys Canoe Voyage started in 1989 to revive and celebrate the tradition.
Paddlers land at Swinomish in Washington state. July 26, 2006. (Photo courtesy Swinomish Indian Tribal Community)
This year's Tribal Journeys, billed as the largest yet, begins for its farthest-flung participants on July 8. Tlingket paddlers will come from as far north as the border of Alaska with British Columbia, and Haida paddlers will come from Haida G'wai far to the north, also called the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Paddlers will travel from as far south as Oregon, and all will end their trip at Cowichan Bay on southern Vancouver Island on July 28.
The gathering in Cowichan marks the start of the 2008 North American Indigenous Games, which runs from August 2 to 10 and will involve more than 7,000 athletes competing in 16 sports.
For the U.S. Geological Survey, the journey will be the most important part of the event. Two agency scientists, Eric Grossman and Paul Schuster, are serving as science advisors. Sarah Akin, a scientist with the Swinomish Tribe, is leading the project.
"It was a great honor to be invited by Coast Salish to help identify some of the coastal water quality and habitat problems that are affecting the marine resorces of the Coast Salish ecoregion,” Grossman said in a podcast. He has been studying the effects of urbanization on water quality and habitat in the Puget Sound,
Grossman said the USGS will teach Coast Salish participants how to make the measurements independently. "We'll be empowering them to continue this type of science in the future, if they choose,” he said.
Canoes are considered especially suited to the task because they do not discharge pollutants or otherwise disrupt the water.
The concept of adding science missions to canoe voyages was tested last year in Alaska during the Yukon River Healing Journey, a 1,200 mile paddle down the Yukon. The journey's chief goal was to promote environmental awareness and cultural ties, but participants, under the guidance of USGS hydrologist Paul Schuster, also collected water quality measurements along the way.
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