PORT ANGELES, Wash. – This year’s annual Intertribal Canoe Journey ended beneath a dark cloud on July 30. The celebration on the shores of Lake Washington in Seattle, which would normally be about a journey of tradition and culture, was marked by speeches about Chief Jerry Jack who died when his canoe flipped in rough water off Dungeness Spit along the Olympic Peninsula.
On July 26, a strong wind blew off the Pacific Ocean into the strait of Juan de Fuca. Canoe teams had spent the previous night with hosts Makah at Neah Bay, and set out in the morning for Sequim. As canoes approached Port Angeles, the site of last year’s Tribal Journey, many of the canoes had to be towed through the six-foot waves. Only a pair of canoes from the British Columbia nation of Ahousaht was able to paddle in under their own power, as at least one other canoe broke in the rough seas.
At 5:20 p.m., the Makah canoe Hummingbird (made famous during the 1999 gray whale hunt) was rounding Dungeness Spit when a large wave knocked it over. The entire crew of six was thrown into the stormy waters, including 68-year-old Jack from the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation on northern Vancouver Island.
Coast Guard crews from Port Angeles arrived within 20 minutes, airlifting paddlers out of the water to safety. Three members of the crew were taken to a hospital suffering from hypothermia; Jack was pronounced dead at the scene.
As family members gathered in a Port Angeles motel room the next day, grief was everywhere. His two adult daughters and son made arrangements between fits of tears; Jack’s longtime fiancee, Fran Prest, lay across a bed sobbing uncontrollably.
Jack was to marry Prest at the conclusion of the Tribal Journey, aboard the very canoe that threw him to his death.
“My dad loved paddling in the big, oceangoing canoes. It was his life,” said his son, Jerry Jack Jr. “He loved anything to do with our culture, language and traditions, and for him the canoe was central to all that.”
The younger Jack, a police officer with the Quinault Indian Nation in Tahola, Wash., promised to honor his late father by going back to Vancouver Island to take his chiefly seat and continue his father’s work.
After a meeting between the family and members of the Makah canoe team, it was decided they would continue on the journey to Muckleshoot, and Jack’s paddle was placed at the prow of the canoe to finish the journey.
“After many years of going in the Tribal Journey, he said this was going to be his last. I didn’t know it really was going to be his last,” said eldest daughter, Colleen Pendleton. “He died doing what he loved best, so we know he has gone home happy.”
Jack was a hereditary chief of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht (Nuu-chah-nulth) of Gold River, and Namgis (Kwakwakawak’w) of Alert Bay.
He was deeply involved in the resolution of land claims and resource issues, spearheading a legal case that confirmed aboriginal rights within traditional territories, and most recently was involved in keeping Tsu’xiit (Luna, the killer whale) free in Nootka Sound.
After the Hummingbird reached Seattle, Jack’s paddle was given back to his family, who took it along with his remains back to Gold River, British Columbia, for his funeral and burial.