Crowd gives paddlers emotional send-off

It was a huge send off where friends and family came together to express appreciation and admiration for a team of paddlers who are embarking on a three-month canoe journey to Alaska.

More than 100 people gathered in the Kwantlen Cultural Centre Sunday morning to wish Kwantlen’s own son Brandon Gabriel – as well as his skipper Chris Cooper of Pitt Meadows and other members of the Spirit of the international Coast Canoe Journey team – a safe and prosperous trek.

The journey is being made, in large part, to bring awareness to what Cooper describes as the jewel in Canada’s crown – the pristine and stunningly beautiful British Columbia coastline.

Both Cooper and Gabriel spoke to the sensitive balance that currently exists and what they call the very real and dangerous threat posed by growth and development of tarsands and pipelines.

“The biggest, most pressing issue here is the environment: economic, social, and cultural sustainability,” Gabriel told the crowd.

“Our coast is in trouble and I really feel we needed to do something special to bring attention to our coast,” Cooper said, explaining his motivation for developing this excursion. “It will be a most remarkable journey for all the pullers who are going to be involved in our journey.”

Cooper said there is a core team of four paddlers participating and a variety of other supporters will join in for various legs of the trip. He’s travelled up and down the coast five times in past, and said this journey will be one of the most significant because of its purpose.

“I can’t think of a better way to travel our coast, but by canoe,” he said, sending out thanks to a few dozen sponsors who helped make the trip possible with donations of cash, services and gifts in kind.

The private First Nations gathering started with a feast, was filled with drumming and songs shared by the Kwantlen and visiting First Nations, included presentations of blankets to each of the paddlers, saw hand-painted drums and paddles given as thank-yous to some special contributors, and the ceremony was completed with a traditional First Nations blessing for both the paddlers and their canoe.

Then, in short order, the pullers were loading up the Chief of the River canoe with equipment and embarked on the first leg of their journey from the Kwantlen boat launch to the Bedford Landing waterfront plaza – two minutes down stream – where the team disembarked again, this time to take part in a much briefer public farewell celebration.

“You are all going with us on the journey. It’s a powerful thing we are taking with us,” Gabriel said, laying his hand over his heart. “We are carrying your prayers, your thoughts, your goodwill, your positive spirits.”

The 1,300-km journey will include stops at about a dozen other First Nation’s territories along the way, and will conclude in September at the border to Alaska.

rhooper@mrtimes.com