The waters between California’s Channel Islands and the coast are treacherous and complicated to navigate. So, when the Chumash Native Americans would cross that 20-mile stretch of water, they’d do so in heavy wooden “canoe tomols” made from thick planks of wood.
These boats were sacred to the Chumash, who used them for fishing and trading, and sustaining their own lives and livelihoods. The tomols were functional works of art. People have been making plank canoes like them for close to 3,000 years. Modern canoes take cues from the same design.
But over centuries, after California was colonized, the craft of building these vessels was lost to history. Until one man, a descendant of those people, and Native American activist Alan Salazar picked it back up and started to rekindle the flame. In 1997, he built the first modern canoe tomol in history — and made the epic journey across that channel for the first time.
This Patagonia short profiles Salazar, who’s been recreating the Tomol Route between Ventura and Santa Cruz Island for 26 years. He hand-builds the tomols and paddles himself using the same techniques his ancestors did hundreds of years prior. Then, every year, he and his team load up and hop aboard, prepared to make the 20-mile journey west.
“The very first crossing, my Chumash DNA was asleep,” Salazar says. “Getting on the water in the open ocean in a 24-foot canoe tomol, that DNA kicked in.”