Three children run up to the open window of Shlomish Jim’s truck, parked on a bank overlooking the Mamquam Blind Channel. The afternoon wind whips at the their hair as they hang onto the vehicle’s frame.
“Are you paddling today uncle,” five-year-old Mackenzie Billy asks.
“Yeah, nephew,” Shlomish answers. “Go get your gear.”
They dash around to the box and scramble over the tailgate to pick through lifejackets and paddles.
“My grandpa came and got me one day and said, ‘You’re pulling,’” Sholmish says, as he peers over the sun-kissed waterway. “I’ve been canoeing for 40 years.”
“Pulling” is no joke. A race can be up to eight miles long, taking a crew of eleven 45 minutes to complete. It’s cold, wet and your arms burn like they’ve been injected with thick, hot, tar.
“You’re sucking on wind,” Sholmish says.
In his 20s, Sholmish would be on the water by 10 a.m. ready to paddle a four-mile training course. After the paddle, the team would hit the ground, running an additional five miles.
“It keeps you fit and keeps you strong,” Shlomish says, adding that at 60, he runs two miles a day.
Now Shlomish and his wife Sesaxwalia, whose English name is Aggie Andrew, are passing on their passion to the next generation.
Every day during the summer, the couple can be found on a grassy field on the Stawamus Nation reserve. There, they wait for eager participants to arrive. The duo has done this for 14 years, donating their time to train more than 200 youth who have been a part of the Mount Cha-Ki — also known as Mount Garibaldi — Warriors team.
Like Shlomish, Sesaxwalia had little choice in the matter of learning to paddle. When she was 12 years old, a friend picked her up from home and told her she was going to get into the sport.
“It was awesome,” she recalls, as Shlomish opens a door to a long, wooden building, revealing five canoes inside.
With Crystal Lewis at the stern, the team lifts a baby-blue canoe out of the building. The three younger children that are still playing around Shlomish’s truck abandon their games to join in, with little Mackenzie barely able to balance the canoe on his shoulder. They swiftly carry it down to the water before flipping it and sliding it into the onslaught of relentless, wind-swept waves.
Lewis holds the canoe’s bow, as the younger paddlers climb in. Ten years ago, Lewis was recruited into the sport by Shlomish and Sesaxwalia. Now, the 18-year-old is one of the team’s star pullers. It’s a vigorous sport, she says. You have to be disciplined and learn to work as a team.
“Only the tough survive,” Lewis says, noting canoeing changed her life.
A lot of the crew come from broken homes, she says. The sport built her a new family. It gave her stability and taught Lewis how to become a role model within her community.
“I never thought I would be a super active person,” she says. “But if I can do this, I can do anything.”
The last of the team members climbs into the canoe. Afraid of getting his legs wet in the ice-cold water, Mackenzie sulks on shore amid the sea grass as the canoe pulls away. His sister, eight-year-old Mercedes Billy, drives her paddle into the water with the rest of the regular members. Shlomish’s voice battles with the wind as he shouts instructions to the team.
“Left, left, left. Come on, niece, you’re doing well.”
From the shore, Sesaxwalia watches the mix of generations paddle together. There’s pride in her eyes as the silhouette outlining young working with old moves along the water against the backdrop of the afternoon sun.
“This is our culture and spirituality,” Sexsawalia says.