Paddle Into the Past

Posted on November 28, 2013


(TOFINO, B.C.) – There’s something magical about paddling the waterways surrounding Tofino in a 1,000-year-old red cedar log that has been transformed into a dugout canoe.

Paddling in a traditional canoe with a Native cultural guide at T’ashii Paddle School is a remarkable experience available to Tofino visitors.

It’s more than a scenic paddling trip through some of the most spectacular landscape in Canada. The journey also offers a rich exploration into the ancient Aboriginal culture of the Nuu-chah-nulth People, who have inhabited the region for thousands of years.

We arrive at Jamie’s Dock in Tofino on a foggy summer morning to embark on a four-hour journey through the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park with our guide Tsimka Martin, whose father Joe Martin is a renowned local canoe carver.

Canoe-GuideNuu-chah-nulth guided trip in an authentic dug out cedar canoe. Photo from

The Martin family has built more than 50 dugout canoes, including those at T’ashii Paddle School, and the family is credited with keeping the ancient art form of canoe carving alive in the region.

Stepping into our 10.5-metre long canoe, Martin says a canoe this size was traditionally used by the Nuu-chah-nulth People for whale hunting expeditions. She also points out that our hand-carved traditional paddles, made of yew wood, could be sharpened to double as a weapon at sea.

We take our seats in the wooden vessel and Martin teaches us the proper paddling techniques before we set out on our journey. It’s important to paddle in synchronized form to gain the most momentum on the water, she says. Some of us are novice paddlers and others have been paddling for years, but we easily get the hang of it and soon find a meditative rhythm.

Canoe-Nice-CloudsTraditional Dug Out Canoe in Tla-o-qui-aht waters. Photo from

A light morning fog hangs over Clayoquot Sound as our canoes glides through the emerald-green water. We’re heading to Meares Island, one of the many islands off the coast of Tofino. The island is home to the main village of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations and boasts some of the most spectacular old-growth rainforest in British Columbia.

We paddle at a leisurely pace, breathing in the warm, salty air and stopping regularly to take in the sights as the fog burns off under the sun’s warm rays. Eagles soar high above the mountains, bright orange and purple starfish cling to rocks just beneath the water’s surface, and forests of tangled bull kelp sway with the current.

Martin imparts knowledge about her culture during the one-hour paddle to Meares Island, located about 10 kilometres from Tofino.

For thousands of years the main mode of transport for the Nuu-chah-nulth People was to paddle a dugout canoe. They relied on canoes for everything from hunting, fishing and harvesting natural materials, to socializing with coastal neighbours as far north as Alaska and south into Washington.

Resurrecting the ancient art form of carving and paddling has reconnected the Nuu-chah-nulth People to a culture that was almost wiped out by the Canadian Government during forced assimilation last century, Martin says.

IMG_2186A 2,000-year-old red cedar tree on Big Tree Trail dwarfs cultural guide Tsimka Martin. Photo by Tarina White

One of the strongest signs that her culture is rebounding is the revival of the traditional tribal canoe journey among coastal nations in Alaska, B.C. and Washington. The journeys stretch hundreds of kilometres and can take up to a month.

Traditional songs are a sung during the long, arduous journeys to keep morale high, says Martin, who entertains us with a rhythmic melody that asks for safe passage on the water.

We land at Meares Island and embark on a half-hour trek along a boardwalk that leads deep into the old-growth rainforest, aptly named Big Tree Trail.

The oldest giant red cedar on the trail is estimated to be 2,000 years old. Ten people with their arms spread wide can join hands and wrap around its base. We also find a 1,000-year-old red cedar that has been hollowed out with rot and is split open at the base. Nine people can easily fitting inside its base and peer to the top of the 65-metre tall tree.


Cultural guide Tsimka Martin teaches tourists about the traditional native medicines that are sourced from rainforest plants. Photo by Tarina White

Some trees have been partially stripped of bark and Martin explains it is harvested in the spring to make clothing and mats.

We rest in the forest for a picnic lunch before trekking back to the canoe and paddling a shorter 30-minute route back to Tofino.

T’ashii means a trail or path, and we have certainly enjoyed an unforgettable journey.

Click here if you are interested in learning about more Aboriginal Outdoor Adventures.