When you take a trip with Alaska Canoe Experience in Ketchikan, it’s more than a pleasant jaunt on the water. It’s part of a spiritual journey that reflects hundreds of years of the history of Alaska’s First Peoples.
Marvin Oliver, founder of Alaska Canoe Experience who is of Quinault and Isleta-Pueblo descent and is also an emeritus professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington-Seattle, has designed and carved 36-ft. canoes that bring you as close to First People’s culture as to the water itself.
"It all started with my father, Emmitt Oliver,” said Oliver, who lives in Seattle but who summers in Ketchikan. "He was 102 when he passed away (in 2016) but he was very healthy and strong and determined. He was always attracted to the water. When I was young we’d go fishing and he would share our music and the culture on the water.”
"He knew what a canoe meant and its value to the families and the tribes. A canoe is not just a vessel. It’s more than that. It’s not just the carving of the canoes. The point of carving the canoes is to bring extended families together. It brings a spiritual connection between the people, the water, the salmon and the culture that they don’t get to express in any other way.”
Oliver said his father got the idea for creating a canoe fleet when he attended the Washington State Centennial in 1989. He said he asked state officials if they had any programming for indigenous peoples. They told him if he could come up with a good idea, they’d fund it.
"He came up with the idea of revitalizing canoes,” Oliver said. Emmitt Oliver traveled to Washington, D.C. and found that natives could use cedar trees for cultural enrichment at a cost of $20 per thousand board feet. So he pursued his dream.
"They said to him, ‘how the hell are you going to move all those logs?’” Marvin Oliver said. "So the National Guard moved the logs to each of the tribes that wanted them. Eight or nine tribes got into the act, and at the end they had all of these beautiful carved canoes.”
It started out with 13 canoes, but eventually 104 canoes were built by the different tribes.
Emmitt Oliver was also founder of the "Paddle to Seattle,” a 170-mile trip from LaPush, Washington to Puget Sound in which representatives from 15 tribes traveled in carved canoes to celebrate Washington State’s centennial.
Meanwhile, Marvin Oliver carries on the traditions of his father by offering canoe trips that take visitors on a memorable spiritual journey up Creek Street, or to the totem poles of Saxman Village.
He said visitors to Ketchikan have many options when touring the area, including helicopters and duck rides, "but here they have an opportunity to ride with natives and hear about their culture and the language of the water.
"It’s a beautiful cultural experience you won’t find anywhere else. This is the only city, village or town in the area where you have the opportunity to experience this in a canoe on salt water.
Those who want to take a canoe trip can go to the dock on Creek Street in Ketchikan where they are greeted by a skipper "who shows you how to get in a canoe without killing yourself.” Paddlers are from the Tshimshian, Tlingit and Haida tribes. Visitors must sign a waiver saying they are healthy enough for their trip, Oliver said, and they must also give permission for their photograph to be taken.
During the journey, you’ll hear a great deal about First Peoples’ music and culture, and you’re also likely to see eagles, puffins, salmon jumping and, as you get closer to the ocean, you may occasionally see orcas or gray whales.
"It’s a very picturesque trip,” he said. "It’s all wilderness, man.”