Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Cherry Point by Kayak. Mid-February 2013

Cherry Point by Kayak.  Mid-February 2013.
By Matt Schwartz, Baykeeper Intern
There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
Wendell Berry, Given

Cherry Point must be tired.  Since the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliot[1] called for the Lummi Nation to relinquish much of its homeland, the years have been hectic.  It seems that even the Strait of Georgia and the Puget Sound are pulling her in two.  Cherry Point, known to the Lummi people by its ancestral name Xwe'Chi'eXen, has a contentious history of proposed oil drilling, clean water regulations, herring fishery openings, herring fishery closures, refinery construction and court cases.   
We are a small crew of North sound Baykeeper kayakers today and the expedition begins in a cautious state of mind.  Georgia Strait can be quick to anger and often funnels heavy wind and waves straight towards Cherry Point.  As we set out from Birch Bay State Park, however, the paddle gods and goddesses must be howling somewhere else- moody Georgia Strait is behaving nicely.  The water is glassy calm and the sun is making appearances. We paddle for a few hours spotting surf scoters, Brant ducks, Saturna and Orcas Islands and a tanker appearing to be offloading crude oil at the BP refinery pier.  A sign says "Do not approach within 100 yards of a tanker at dock. Security Zone Regulations.”   So we keep our distance, but still manage to scope out the gigantic boom they have in place in case of a spill.  Eventually, we pick out an inviting cobbled beach and land our kayaks in between two black bear-sized boulders.  We walk along the beach and thousands of shades of cobblestones jostle underfoot.  Dark greys, pearl whites, speckled scarlet and gold, jet black striped with orange, sandy brown splotched with purple.  If a rock could show off, these cobbles are sure trying their hardest.  As the incoming tide rinses over them the colors come to life.  We stop for lunch and a quiet moment.  I try to picture the last several hundred generations of Lummi ancestors gathering plants and berries, collecting shellfish and reefnet fishing in this very spot.  I try to imagine paddling a monstrous cedar dugout canoe.  Yup, this place is cool.     

Two questions beg some attention.

What’s so sweet about this Cherry?

Try to picture it.  A steep intertidal gradient- this means that the shore quickly drops off into deep water.   This deep water is nutrient rich.  Currents churn and sweep this water up towards the surface in a process called upwelling.  These nutrients become dinner for plankton, the little guys of the food chain.  Towering above sections of the beach are tall bluffs, which over time, either gently erode or abruptly calve off[2], feeding the beaches with sand and gravel that forage fish like to spawn in.  Fine sediment washes in from the Fraser River helping to fertilize the underwater vegetation.  Variable wave action hammering and caressing the beaches and moderate tides also contribute to a rich soup of mixed algae, kelps and eelgrass.  The forage fish love that stuff.  They can lay eggs in it, hide amongst it and find plenty of delicious plankton to eat.  The salmon sure like that.  And the Salish Coast People sure liked how they like that.  Seasonal waterfowl, marine seabirds, land mammals, and thousands of marine invertebrates round out this dizzying food web.  These gastronomical relationships have supported a broad ‘homeland’ in which the Lummi people subsisted and traded for thousands of years.  The Lummi had established villages of multi‐family cedar‐plank longhouses but would migrate seasonally up, down and across the north Puget Sound, from the Fraser River in British Colombia down to Seattle, including much of the San Juan Islands.  Cherry Point connected land to sea as an entryway from inland routes to the islands in the original homeland territory of the Lummi people.  

Who wants a slice of Cherry Point?

 Today, an insoluble mix of interests mangles the greater Cherry point area.  These include private residences, the Lummi Reservation, an aquatic reserve run by WDNR[3], Washington’s largest oil refinery (owned by BP), a major aluminum smelter (Alcoa) and a second oil refinery (Conoco Philips).  
Big business wants Cherry Point.  That steep intertidal gradient means that large vessels can come close to shore without the need to dredge out shipping channels or berthing areas.  Major water-dependent industries have already located on the shores and a hotly contested proposal for a major coal terminal is on the table.

The Lummi Nation wants Cherry Point… left alone.  “These adverse impacts potentially affect our past, present, and future generations by way of steady encroachment on any and all waterways and uplands of our ancestral homelands like Xwe'Chi'eXen” , states the Lummi Nation Awareness Project[4]Inherent, Inherited and Treaty rights protect sacred burial sites, traditional medicine and other plant gathering, underwater traditional cultural property and archaeology and fishing rights for the Lummi.  Salmon is historically the most important food source for the Lummi, the ‘People of the Sea’.  Because salmon migration is cyclic, their lives and migrations revolved around the fish.  Knowing that fish on spawning runs would rise toward the surface as they neared underwater reefs, the Lummi figured out a brilliantly successful technique for catching a lot of fish, called ‘reef netting’.  Reef nets are designed to simulate a natural reef or an obstacle that the salmon must swim across.   The fish are funneled towards the surface as they swim up the ‘reef’, and are netted.  “The Lummi are salmon people; salmon is culture, and culture is salmon,” says Merle Jefferson, director of the Lummi Natural Resources Department.[5]

The Washington Department of Natural Resources has a management plan in place for the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.  Included is the understanding that “the aquatic environment of Cherry Point provides essential habitat and irreplaceable biological and ecological functions; is a portion of Treaty-protected Usual and Accustomed grounds and stations of local Native American Indians, and are used by the Indians for commercial, ceremonial, and subsistence purposes.”[6]
Cherry Point has a deep cultural, historic, and spiritual significance to the Lummi people who have a longstanding history of opposing development of the property.  It’s worth consideration that Cherry Point is located within the usual and accustomed areas of several federally recognized tribes, including the Lummi, Nooksack, Swinomish, Suquamish and Tulalip Tribes as well.  Xwe’chi’eXen was also the first site in Washington State to be listed on the Washington Heritage Register and is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. 

All this being said, I want Cherry Point too.  It has been a glorious day of paddling and aside from the oil tanker and a few beach walkers combing the shore it has been a quiet and peaceful day.  It would be hard to picture a bustling coal port here on this land.  It would be hard to for these waters to absorb hundreds of super-sized ‘Panamax’[7] ships rolling in and out every year, in addition to all of the vessel traffic present from the industry already here.  My kayak is 17’ and weighs 300 lbs on a good day so I’ve got nothing on a 950 foot Panamax.  As the light starts to dim we slowly paddle home, trying to stretch the day out as long as we can.  I feel a heavy sigh come on and feel Cherry Point’s tired eyes on my back, shaking her head, “oh, you silly humans”.

November 2010. Cherry Point Environmental Aquatic Reserve Management Plan.  WA State Department of Natural Resources.
Stark, Ann. February 2008. Lummi Nation Atlas. Lummi Natural Resources Department.
Background Information on the Lummi Nation. National Museum of the American Indian Education Office.
1974. Document: Boldt Decision. Center for Colombia River History.

[1] Consistent with the Federal Indian Law and Policy of the day, the Lummi and other Coastal Salish peoples were commonly relegated to reservations and promised cash, schools and health care in exchange for fishing, harvesting and hunting rights.  The signatories of the treaty long protested the government’s failure to uphold their end of the bargain and respect fishing rights.  The issue made it to the Supreme Court in the landmark Native American civil rights case: United States v. Washington.
[2] Erosion is a natural process but without vegetation on a hillside or a bluff there is not a lot to keep soil in place.  We see a lot of staircases built from the private residences descending the bluffs and in these cases where the construction cleared out vegetation, the bluff is clearly melting away.  From our kayaks we can see that many of the staircases along the shore have fallen and smashed below, been abandoned or are dangling by a thread as the bluff that once supported them has given way. 
[3] Washington Department of Natural Resources
[5] P.1 NMAI. Background Information on the Lummi Nation
[6] p.4-5 WDNR. Cherry Point Environmental Aquatic Reserve Management Plan
[7] The proposed coal terminal wharf would be able to accommodate vessels too large to transit the Panama Canal (known as Cape-sized ships) and Panamax ships with capacities up to 250,000 dry weight tons.  Cherry Point’s shoreline already receives 850 annual transits and the proposed terminal would hundreds more.  


  1. Nice informative article! Thanks. Paddle on.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Nice, informative, participatory journal.

    Best writing yet from a Baykeeper!