Tribal members and descendants from the Chumash nation will set out on their annual journey across the Santa Barbara Channel on Saturday. This will be the ninth crossing to Santa Cruz Island in 150 years and the second year in a row that two tomols will make the journey together.
The pre-dawn launch is scheduled for 3 a.m. from the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. The 21-mile trip, which retraces an ancient Chumash trading route, can take up to 13 hours depending on the ocean currents, wind and fog conditions.
“I’m really hoping it’s a flat paddle this year,” said Reggie Pagaling, a tomol captain and tribal elder of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. “Last year was not an easy trip because of a storm outside the channel. This year, there’s a hurricane that’s causing a lot of activity out there, but once the weather gets hot this weekend, I’m hoping that it will push out the rough waters to southern seas and make the channel waters much more calm.”
Pagaling, who has been making this voyage since 2001 and is one of the many organizers of the event, said paddlers in the annual crossing need to have upper-body strength, but it’s also important for members of the crew to prepare their knees for the voyage.
“The senior paddlers say, ‘When you’re watching TV, put a pillow on the floor and sit on your knees,’” Pagaling said. “You need to get your quadriceps and legs in shape. There have been plenty of paddlers in the past who didn’t have flexibility in their thighs, so we had to reach over and pick them up out of the tomol. When you’re in there, you’re straddling on your knees the whole time.”
This year, the paddlers in the annual Chumash Tomol Crossing will enter the water with heavy hearts, honoring the memories of loved ones the tribe has lost in the past year.
“As we keep this tradition alive, it’s a constant that we carry the prayers of all the Chumash bands with us during the crossing, but this year, we also plan to reflect on the passing of my uncle Manuel Armenta and Victoria A. ‘Molly’ Lopez, the mother of senior tomol captain Marcus Lopez Sr.,” Pagaling said. “And Tom Lopez, a fellow paddler and tribal elder, has asked that we dedicate this year’s paddle to my wife, Claudia Cable-Pagaling, who is battling cancer. So, we will be praying for them while a lot of people will gather at the island to pray for our safety.”
Manuel Armenta, the father of Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta, died at age 82 on Aug. 24. Molly Lopez passed away July 27 at age 91.
The Chumash paddlers anticipate landing on Santa Cruz Island’s Prisoners Harbor, where more than 100 family and friends will excitedly await their arrival. The landing site, Limuw, was once a thriving Chumash village and is now part of the Channel Islands National Park.
This year’s crossing will feature the tomols named Muptami of Kalawashaq, which means “memories of Santa Ynez” in Barbareno, and ‘Elye’wun of Syxtun, which means “swordfish of Santa Barbara” in Samala. Crews ranging from tribal elders to young adults will power the two tomols, with six paddlers in one and four in the other. The tomol captains include Marcus Lopez Sr., Steve Villa, Marcus V.O. Lopez, Ray Ward and Pagaling.
The traditional Chumash tomols, which were hand-hewn plank canoes, were historically 8 to 30 feet long. The sturdy vessel was very important to the Chumash way of life. Built from redwood or pine trees, the tomols were used for fishing and trading, as well as traveling between the Channel Islands. The last Chumash tomols used for fishing were made around 1850. Today, the tomol is one of the oldest living examples of an ocean-going watercraft in North America. The early Spanish explorers made note of seeing these fast-moving vessels as they entered the Santa Barbara Channel.
In 1913, an elderly Chumash man named Fernando Librado, who had grown up witnessing tomol building, made a tomol for anthropologist John P. Harrington. The anthropologist took meticulous notes and over the years his notes were used as a blueprint for modern day tomols.
That blueprint was recently used to design and build Muptami. At 30 feet, the tomol measures 6 feet longer than ‘Elye’wun. The tomol building project, which began in 2009, was a combined volunteer effort by tribal members from the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, including parents, grandparents and grandchildren as well as other Chumash bands and their families. Volunteer builders and woodworkers also donated their time and talent.
Dedicated supporters of the annual Chumash Tomol Crossing include the Barbareno Chumash Council, the Chumash Maritime Association, Channel Islands National Park and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For information on transportation to Santa Cruz Island’s Scorpion Bay, click here or call Island Packers at 805.642.1393.
— Mike Traphagen is a public relations specialist for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.