As many as 20,000 people expected for arrival of tribal canoes

Out of the woods, a temporary city has begun to take shape on the Nisqually reservation near Yelm.

Crews are building nearly a dozen white tents — some as large as 50 by 125 feet — on a nearly 40-acre site where the weeklong Canoe Journey 2016 Paddle to Nisqually “protocol” celebration will take place. Tribal officials estimate the event, a week after the Canoe Journey’s landing ceremony in Olympia, will attract as many as 10,000 people to the reservation. Many are expected to camp out and stay in the area for the duration of the culturally rich event.

“It’s coming together around here,” Nisqually tribal chairman Farron McCloud said Tuesday as the tribe’s 13-and-a-half-foot-tall hand-carved welcome figure was hoisted into place at the entrance of the protocol site. “I’m loving it.”

The welcome figure recently underwent a makeover with fresh paint to prepare for the flood of guests.

At least 120 canoes hailing from tribes from Alaska, Canada and around the Northwest are expected to land at the tip of the Port of Olympia peninsula on Saturday as part of the 2016 Paddle to Nisqually Canoe Journey. Some of the dugout wooden canoes have been making their way along the traditional “saltwater highway” for nearly two weeks, with daily stops hosted by coastal tribes, including the Quinault, the Nooksack and the Suquamish.

Canoe families arrive in Washington state during Paddle to Nisqually journey

People from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tribe of New York and Heiltsuk tribe of British Columbia arrive at Birch Bay State Park, their first U.S. stop during the Paddle to Nisqually Canoe Journey, on Tuesday, July 19, in Birch Bay, Wash.

Evan Abell The Bellingham Herald

The centuries-old tradition of Northwest tribes all but disappeared until it was revived in 1989 with the Paddle to Seattle, which was part of the state’s Centennial celebration.

It’s now an annual tradition that promotes sobriety (it’s strictly a drug- and alcohol-free event) as well as spirituality and community, organizers say.

“We’re just trying to rebuild our ancestral ways,” said Maury Sanchez, a member of the Nisqually canoe family.

The Canoe Journey is helping keep Northwest tribal languages, songs and stories alive, according to Nisqually tribal council secretary Sheila McCloud. Ancient songs and dances have been returned, and younger tribal members are learning tribal languages as they participate in the event.

Because local tribes are so closely related, the canoe journey atmosphere can resemble a family reunion.

“This is a big part of our history,” Sheila McCloud said. “This is how we lived, and this is part of our culture.”

The tribe has been preparing for the event for more than a year. It partnered with the Port of Olympia and the city of Olympia for the landing ceremony on Saturday, which organizers say is expected to draw 18,000 to 20,000 participants and spectators.

Many of the landing logistics — including some road and boat ramp closures in the area — will be similar to those the port and city used in 2012, when the Squaxin Island Tribe hosted the Canoe Journey, according to Jennie Foglia-Jones, a spokeswoman for the port.

“We’re kind of just using that model because it worked well in 2012,” she said.

Here’s what you need to know about the landing event:

Times: The landing ceremony, in which canoe families ask for permission to come ashore, often in their native language, is expected to take several hours. The event opens at 10 a.m. and the canoes are expected to begin arriving about 1 p.m. In 2012, the landing ceremony was finished by about 7 p.m., Foglia-Jones said. This year, volunteers are scheduled to stay at the event until 9 p.m.

Parking and free shuttle: The public can find parking in designated downtown parking lots or on the street. Access to Marine Drive will be restricted beginning at the Marine Drive-Jefferson Street intersection and the Market Street-Franklin Street intersection, where a free shuttle service will begin at 10 a.m. The DASH bus will run its regular route with stops at the Olympia Farmers Market.

Seating: The port is setting up bleachers that will hold about 3,000 people. The seating is not shaded, and priority should be given to tribal members, Foglia-Jones said.

“If you want to bring your own chairs, that’s a great idea,” she said.

Launch ramp-moorage closures: The Swantown launch ramp will be closed on Saturday. The nearest launch ramp is Boston Harbor Marina. Swantown and Port Plaza guest moorage will be reserved for support boats from Friday through Aug. 8.

Boat launch ramp parking: The Swantown boat launch ramp parking lot will remain closed through Tuesday (Aug. 2).

Water viewing: There is no water viewing of the landing ceremony.

Limited access: Access will be monitored by local law enforcement from 8 a.m. until the event is over on Saturday. Access will be denied to those without a valid Swantown Marina Parking Pass.

Vendors: Food and merchant vendors will be available at the site, and the Anthony’s Hearthfire Grill will remain open, with reservations recommended.

Green event: Attendees are encouraged to bring their own water bottles. “We are going to have water refilling stations,” Foglia-Jones said.

Expect sun: The National Weather Service’s forecast for Olympia on Saturday calls for partly sunny with a high in the upper 70s. There isn’t going to be a shaded area for viewing that’s available to the general public. “Bring hats and sunscreen and stuff to keep yourself comfortable,” Foglia-Jones said.

Cultural meaning: Although there will be vendors and tribal songs and dances, it’s important to remember that the landing event is a cultural ceremony, not a festival, Foglia-Jones said.

There may be times when cameras and video devices aren’t allowed, organizers said.

“It really is the tribe’s event and it’s a very cultural and spiritual event and they’re kind enough to allow people to come witness it,” Foglia-Jones added.

Follow along: According to a map posted on the canoe journey Facebook page, the canoes are scheduled to arrive at Muckleshoot on Wednesday and Puyallup on Thursday. After a one-night Puget Sound Marina stopover, they are scheduled to arrive at the Port of Olympia at about 1 p.m. Saturday. Many of the events are scheduled to be livestreamed by the tribe. There are still numerous opportunities to volunteer and get involved with the preparations. To learn more about the Canoe Journey and its related events, go to www.paddletonisqually.com.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton