This story originally appeared in the summer 2013 “Home Issue” of Coast Mountain Culture.
The atmosphere is ebullient and nervous. Floating on their knees, seven grade 12 Heiltsuk high-school students from Bella Bella dip their paddles in the clear, green water, summoning the courage to stand on their paddleboards. Courtney Reid rises gingerly, wobbling momentarily before finding her balance and paddling away as though she was born to do so. Inspired, Gene Larsen stands and abruptly tips, joining the fire-red lion’s-mane jellyfish that float languidly below. Before long, everyone is up and finding their feet, exploring the rocky coves of Calvert Island in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.This weekend is the culmination of six months of after-school work building standup paddleboards as part of a woodshop class. With hulled construction crafted from locally sourced red cedar and finished with hand-painted designs, the boards are utilitarian pieces of art, and this project is reinvigorating students to get out on the water. Accessible only by boat or airplane, and with only six kilometres of local roads, Bella Bella has limited opportunities for youth. “If you don’t play basketball, there isn’t much to do,” student Gene Larsen insists. Blake Carpenter, whose board displays four vivid grizzly-bear paw prints, adds, “This board means that I can have the freedom to go out on the waters whenever I choose. No rules, no restrictions.”While it was an ambitious project for teacher Chris Williamson, the students have gained more than just woodworking skills, they have grown in confidence, which is evident in their reluctance to come in for lunch. For now, it seems the freedom to explore is all the sustenence they need.—Anthony Bonello