The tomol(wood planked canoe) is considered one of the oldest existing examples of ocean-faring watercraft in North America.
For the fifth time since 2001 Elye’wun paddled under the cover of darkness, its redwood hull slicing through an ink-black Pacific Ocean. It was the start of an open water crossing from Ventura, California to the Channel Islands, 22 miles offshore in the cold Pacific Ocean. It was an ambitious adventure for any open boat and it was a crossing steeped in tradition and culture.
As the sun crept out of the eastern horizon, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands glowed in soft hues of pink and orange. Small waves lapped over the bow of my kayak and the swordfish inlay of Elye’wun. The new dawn inspired a small pod of common dolphins as well. They briefly joined the Chumash as these voracious marine mammals breached a pitching whitecap before diving underneath the tomol. The Chumash consider them pelagic siblings as stewards of the sea.
Once a maritime culture, the Chumash Indians are revitalizing their rich, seafaring ways. Elye’wun (pronounced “El-E-ah-woon”), is the only functional Chumash tomol (or plank canoe) in North America, and means “swordfish” in the Chumash dialect. Limuw, now known as Santa Cruz Island, is the largest isle in the Channel Islands National park, and the largest of all eight islands off the California coast. It was once home to the largest Chumash village, Swaxil, 200 souls strong, at what is now called Scorpion Anchorage.
“It’s our ancestral calling,” said Chumash elder Marcus Lopez, one of the captains of Elye’wun. “Our crossing is meant to create bridges for different communities, both internally and externally.”
Elye’wun (pronounced “El-E-ah-woon”), is the only functional Chumash tomol (or plank canoe) in North America, and means “swordfish” in the Chumash dialect.
The Chumash once occupied a region stretching along the coast from San Luis Obispo to Malibu, including the four northern Channel Islands – their ancestral homeland. Eleven villages were once situated on Santa Cruz, eight on Santa Rosa, and two on San Miguel. Historically, they were one of the largest tribes on North America.
The tomol is considered one of the oldest existing examples of ocean-faring watercraft in North America. Once reaping the abundant natural resources provided by the ocean and coastal mountains, the tomol linked islanders with their 150 mainland villages that ranged from the coast and into the backcountry. Before 2001, the last Chumash tomols used for fishing were constructed in the 1850s.
“Eventually we want to paddle greater distances,” continued Lopez. “We also want to do two or three crossings a year.”
Historically, tomols ranged from eight to 30 feet long, constructed from redwood trees found adrift in the ocean or strewn across the beach. Each was made of a single piece of wood for the floor with three or four rows of sturdy planks for sidings. Milkweed, yucca, dogbane or sinew from mule deer was used as cordage binding the tomol together. Yop, a glue consisting of a mixture of natural resources – pine pitch and asphaltum from bubbling oil seeps – was used to seal planks together. “It’s our Super Glue,” joked Lopez. Boat builders were traditionally in the upper echelon of Chumash society.
Only two miles from Santa Cruz, I paddled ahead of the tomol. Cavern Point loomed on the immediate horizon, it’s sheer, volcanic cliff face and protruding crags eventually descended into Scorpion Anchorage, the last canyon at the southeast end of the islet. The tiny beach was crowded. A throng of Chumash Indians and well-wishers awaited the tomol paddlers on the cobbled shore. Women sang ancient songs that carried with the warm canyon breeze. When the Chumash paddlers finished their arduous journey across the channel other Chumash helped them carry Elye’wun ashore.
“We’re part of the revitalization,” said Chumash paddler Ray Ward, shortly after the 10-hour slog . “We really don’t want to disappear.”
Read more about the tomol and the Chumash people who make them.