Langley man changed by Spirit of the Coast canoe trek

Fort Langley’s Brandon Gabriel is down 20 extra pounds, lost two cellphones, destroyed two air mattresses, had his pillow stolen and was forced to improvise with a lifejacket, had to forgo his paddle gloves to a determined dog named Buddy in Bute, had to replace his tent halfway through the journey, and thankfully abandoned his cross trainers in Williams Lake – ­on the drive back home­ – after his friend and driver declared his runners a bio-hazard.

But worldly possession weren’t all that the Kwantlen First Nation artist lost on the 76-day paddling journey between Fort Langley and Alaska.

In addition to losing his uncle during the Spirit of the Coast Canoe Journey, the 35-year-old painter lost any illusions that the B.C. coastline can be saved unless some serious action is taken by government immediately to preserve what’s left of this natural resource. (See just a few of his photos from the journey HERE.)

He shared these sentiments when he and just a few of the paddlers who took a turn in the canoe sat down with the Langley Advance to reflect on the journey.

“It was an important eye-opener,” Gabriel said, sharing some good and bad that he encountered.

To describe the trip as “life-altering” just doesn’t cut it, Gabriel said.

This was his 14th canoe journey with Spirit of the Coast skipper and friend Chris Cooper. The longest trek Gabriel had ever undertaken, in past, was 179 kilometres. This one topped out at more than 1,200 km.

“I don’t think I was prepared for what I would see and what I would experience,” he told the Advance.

He noted, for instance, the physically arduous challenges of getting up early every morning, packing up the gear, traversing back down to the water in sometime difficult terrain, then paddling for a full day, only to stop at the next destination and do it all over again, day after day.

There were several long rest breaks arranged throughout the trip, but many of those breaks were not as restful as one would expect. The team often kept busy and even worked through those stops. At one location, as an example, they took an eight day “break” but spent almost all of that “down time” building a cabin in Burnett Bay, in which other voyageurs could seek refuge.

Trek had an emotional toll, too

In addition to the draw this expedition took on Gabriel physically, he explained that it was an incredibly emotional journey for himself and other members of the crew, as well.

There was a lot of time – while paddling the vast open waters – for reflection, soul searching, and inner examination, Gabriel said.

 He admitted a few times that he thought of calling it quits and heading home, especially given some of the obstacles – such as harsh weather.

There were a few scary moments, too.

While surrounded by all the wonders of nature on the trip, seeing incredible wildlife like ravens, whales, porpoises, dolphins, otters, grizzly, black bears, and eagles, Gabriel admitted to being a little shaken by a late-night visit from a pack of wolves.

“We heard the howls surrounding us in our little camp on this little island,” he recounted, noting that encounter came in Cockle Bay about three weeks out from the end.

He still vividly remembers huddling together in their camp and waited for morning, figuring there were about half a dozen wolves circling them through the night.

“They were just letting us know they were in the neighbourhood,” he half chuckled, admitting he was a little disturbed by the proximity of those visitors.

Another difficult time hit 145 kilometres from the finish line, when the team became “very sick” and was incapacitated for four days.

“We had a cold that swept through the camp,” Gabriel said,

While they spent about 80 per cent of their nights camping out in tents, in this case they were able to hold up in the gym in Hartley Bay to recoup.

That was demoralizing, and definitely dampened Gabriel’s positive attitude. But, he quickly clarified, everyone was able to rally again and complete the last leg of the “meaningful journey” with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

“If I’d left the journey, I would have had a big hole in my heart,” Gabriel said. “I didn’t want to have that lingering… for me, it was important for me to finish the journey… I think we did a great job.”

Not what he expected

In the beginning, Gabriel said he though the sole purpose of this trip journey for him was to gain a better understanding ­– and consequently share with the world –­ about the relationship existing between humans and the environment that makes up the B.C. coastline.

He wanted to see and relate how the human footprint impacts the environment, and raise awareness that people need to tread thoughtfully to preserve what he described as an irreplaceable resource.

While that continues to be one of his primary goals,  Gabriel said his biggest personal lesson from this expedition come from the realization that human greed, consumption, and fighting has already had a devastating impact on the coastline.

“It was definitely, for me, a lot of extremes. Extreme happiness, extreme grief to see some of the damage that has been brought by humanity,” he said. “How can you not be emotional when you go through that kind of experience.”

This journey changed him as a human and as an artist.

From the perspective of an artist, he sought to catch the beauty of his natural surroundings.

While there wasn’t much time for the painter and writer in him to focus on his art – only painting a drum and a few paddles during the entire journey – he did manage to test his artistic talents with a camera. He returned with more than 6,000 photographs and countless pages of writing in a private travel log.

“You have to be there to appreciate the scope of it,” Gabriel said of the scenery, describing it a powerful experience like nothing he could have prepared himself for.

Still trying to reinsert himself back into his life, Gabriel hasn’t developed a comprehensive plan yet of how he will use his artistic talents to convey that experience.

But he’s already talking about writing a book and sharing what he can with others.

“I think there’s enough information there for us to write a book on it, at least,” he said. “It’s been an epic journey and it would be a shame to see the stories of this journey fall by the wayside.”

What he learned on the water

“I think my priorities have changed in terms of what I can do to help the physical environment around me, and the overall health and well being of my community,” he added.

In addition to Gabriel’s planned efforts to relate what he saw and learned about the environment and people, he hopes to share with First Nation youth and elders in the region some of the magic – that he feels has been lost through the centuries – that emanates from canoeing.

Canoeing is a powerful way to unite people from all different cultures and to teach not only about the First Nation traditions (past and present) but to engage people and get them more active and accountable for how they treat both the land and sea, he said.

In fact, Gabriel will be talking to his elders, and asking if Kwantlen can host a tribal canoe journey in a few years time – much like the Qatuwas festival the Spirit of the Coast team attended in Bella Bella in July.

It was all about the people

Words can’t capture Gabriel’s gratitude for the kindness and support the team received along the route – especially from the First Nation communities, he said.

People who they met along the way were “fantastic” very open, giving, and supportive of Gabriel, the Spirit team, and the purpose of their voyage, he elaborated.

The team visited 14 First Nation communities along their route, and met up with many more they never expected to see at the canoe festival, where Gabriel was invited to speak of their canoe journey and the purpose behind it.

He told the almost exclusively aboriginal crowd of the four key building blocks of this journey, elaborating on education, awareness, environment, and culture.

“At that point, we felt that we’d really accomplished our goal to raise awareness in the native and non-native communities,” said Gabriel, who also managed to visit with many distant relatives he would never have otherwise met.

But it wasn’t just the people they came across at stops on the journey that impacted on Gabriel.

It was the people who were there to send him off on this journey and those who travelled with him.

There were a total of 26 paddlers from around the globe who joined for different legs of the journey. But it was only Gabriel and videographer and sailboat captain Don Jonasson (who manned the support vehicle), who made the entire journey.

The impact all these people had on Gabriel hit him during final days of the trip, as they traversed the very isolated territory and the team shrank to five – Gabriel, Jonasson, Cornwall, England paddler Brian Sheen, Jonasson’s grandson Steven of Chelan, Wash., and interim skipper Eric Grummisch, a retired Vancouver police inspector from the Cariboo.

Gabriel reflected on all the paddlers. But he also thought of all the people who were there at the beginning, when the Kwantlen sent the Spirit of the Coast off on June 1.

A few hundred people were on hand at the send off, each guest gifted a cedar bough symbolic of their wish for a safe journey. Each of those boughs was wrapped into a blanket that made the complete journey with them.

That blanket was unwrapped in Prince Rupert, and Gabriel and Jonasson released those same boughs and a few tears into the water.

“Words cannot convey the experience, but the tears everyone was shedding are indicative of how powerful it was,” Gabriel said.

“I was in tears,” he said, willing to admit his pride in accomplishing an “amazing feat.”

Back home on terra ferma

Sacrificing his day-to-day comforts of life, Gabriel said the lack of Internet and phone access in many remote areas along the Coast caused him some separation anxiety – especially given his typical strong social media presence.

As a self-proclaimed urban dweller, he missed the comfort of his bed, and the ability to walk to the corner store for a snack.

The hardest part, he said was the lengthy of time between calls home to family, noting a VHF marine radio is often the only form of communication used by people they encounter in the northerly section of the journey.

It was no surprise that the first stop for Gabriel, upon arriving home in Fort Langley Saturday, was at his mother’s home.

“The first thing I did was went and gave my mom a huge hug,” he said, noting the second stop was his sister’s place to see his 10-month-old nephew Emmett an equally giant hug.

“I was really glad to be back home with my family,” he said. But added “I am grateful for this experience and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

A special Kwantlen First Nations homecoming is in the works, but it’s unclear yet when that will happen.

“They sent me off and will symbolically welcome me and the crew back as a way of bringing closure to such a huge, moving journey,” Gabriel said. “Honestly, I think they’re just glad that I made it home safe.”

Stepping back onto terra ferma, in fact, was short lived for Gabriel. He came ashore in Prince Rupert Aug. 13, arrived home Aug. 16, and was back on the water Aug. 17.

“I stepped off one boat, and onto another,” Gabriel said, explaining how he was almost immediately invited to join members from his Kwantlen family on the fishing boats.

A week before he left, Brandon moved into a new apartment in Fort Langley, stocking it with nothing more than a bed and a few clothing.

Most of those clothes ended up going with him on the journey, and have since been worn to threads.

But coming home to that new and almost empty home is like starting with what he calls a blank canvas for a new and very different life.

There will, he admitted, be a significant period of adjustment for him – needing to re-acclimatize to life at home and the notoriety his expedition has brought him.

“I can’t walk through town without people approaching me and saying thanks for what you did,” which Gabriel said has been incredibly rewarding and uplifting in itself.

Even an elder from his community approached him, thanking Gabriel for undertaking such an important journey, expressing gratitude not only on behalf of the Kwantlen nation but the Fort Langley and Langley communities.

But he is adjusting and realizing he gained so much more than he lost during this journey.

“This has been an odyssey,” he said. Now, Gabriel has to decide how that’s going to shape his life moving forward.

• Stay tuned to the Langley Advance for more about the trip and what’s to come from the adventure

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