Wayne Price’s 28-foot dugout, named Jibba, sits in his front yard – surrounded by the tents of people who will be accompanying him on his journey to Celebration in Juneau this year on Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Haines, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

The front yard of Wayne Price Ḵaajis.yoodzi.áx̱k’s home is covered in tents and massive canoes. And, it’s humming with activity as people load water and supplies and work out the complicated logistics that come with dozens of people paddling 90-miles in wooden canoes to Juneau. 

“There are going to be five,” Price said Thursday afternoon. “Four of them, I built.”

Price, a master carver who was born in Juneau, grew up in Haines.  He sat on his front porch, watching the activity, and shouted encouragement to a group moving their boat. 

“Put your ship in a place of honor! Somewhere in the front,” he said, gesturing toward the front yard of his Fort Seward home – his perch overlooks the water they’ll be putting the boats in early Friday morning.  

He lists the boats off easily including the Da Ku – a 30-foot dugout from Haines Junction, the Jibba – his own 28-foot dugout, the Chilkoot Indian Association’s 30-foot strip canoe, Seahorse. 

The paddlers leaving from the Haines waterfront join those from communities like Wrangell, Kasaan, Metlakatla and Petersburg as they make their way to Juneau and the biennial Celebration – a massive gathering of Southeast Alaska Native Tribes. Its unofficial start is the canoe landing ceremonies.  

The theme for this year’s event is “Together We Live in Balance,” and the festival’s featured dance group is the Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Dakhká Khwáan Dancers (People of the Inland).

Another inland group is headed to Celebration this year, one from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. That group includes Roberta Wally, who said it will be her first time. 

“I know there’s a few others as well, four or five of us that haven’t been to Celebration before,” she said. “I am so excited.” 

Wally said Price invited her group to travel with him after he led a project building their canoe. 

“They brought a cedar tree from Prince of Wales Island, hauled it all the way to Carcross and from there we ended up building and carving the dugout canoe for [Carcross/Tagish First Nation],” she said. 

Wally said they’ve paddled from Atlin, British Columbia to Carcross, Yukon and then back the following year. This will be the first time that the 9-person, 30-plus foot canoe, is used in coastal waters. 

“This will be our first time traveling on the ocean,” Wally said. “It’s a whole other ballgame.” 

She said they have a lot of support from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and a number of support boats that will be following along on the journey. 

The group plans to leave at 8 a.m. on Friday, first traveling to Sullivan Island, then to Echo Cove in Berner’s Bay, then Shelter Island and finally to Auke Bay. 

“I am stoked,” Wally said. “It has been over 150 years since anyone from the first nation or inland Tlingít has made this journey. Over 150 years.” 

For Wally, paddling together is a way to reconnect interior and coastal communities. 

“It’s about working together because we have had a relationship with the coast in the past along the Grease Trail,” she said. 

The Grease Trail was a network of trade routes that saw coastal Tlingít and others trading hooligan oil, seaweed and other sea-side commodities for food and goods from the interior. 

“I think it’s re-establishing that relationship and remembering that relationship,” Wally said. 

Wally said the canoe journey itself is taxing, particularly because the large dugout take a lot of work to maneuver. 

“The wind makes it a little bit difficult to turn,” she said. “It can hold us in one spot.”

She said a lot of what the group focuses on is encouraging their young paddlers. 

“We also practice traditional songs and when you’re practicing a song and you’re singing it as you’re paddling, it keeps your mind off all the hard work,” she said. “When you’re singing, it gives you the gas to keep going.”

Price invited everyone in the Chilkat Valley to come for a ceremony at 7 a.m. at the waterfront and to see the flotilla off at 8 a.m. 

“Come down and join us. Enjoy the resurgence,” he said. “How long has it been since we’ve seen five traditional dugout canoes altogether going down the bay at the same time?”

Wrangell Sentinel reporter Becca Clark contributed to this story.

Correction: A previous version of this story contained a misspelled version of one of Wayne Price’s Tlingít names. It is Ká jeis yutsi.aak.