‘Stuck in my heart forever’: Ditidaht Community School splashes into their annual Paddle Days  | Ha-Shilth-Sa Newspaper

‘Stuck in my heart forever’: Ditidaht Community School splashes into their annual Paddle Days 

Nitinaht Lake, BC

By 8 a.m. Gus Bay, located on Nitinaht Lake, was filled with students, Ditidaht community members, and guests as another year of Paddle Days commenced. Students of all ages took to the water in canoes, as laughter and cheers could be heard throughout the bay, where a series of 100 metre and 400 metre races unfolded.

The day began in a circle with a prayer chant. The students of host Ditidaht Community School (DCS), then welcomed their guests to Ditidaht territory with a paddle dance.

Students from DCS, Stz’uminus Community School in Ladysmith and École des Grands-cèdres in Port Alberni eagerly swarmed a pile of lifejackets and lined up in two rows: one for beginners and the other for experienced paddlers.

With two to three people per canoe, often with mixed experience levels, the vessels lined up at the start line race after race. When the horn sounded, the paddlers were swift and fierce, as students and community members paddled hard, many with smiles drawn on their faces.

For Damon Lindley, a Grade 2 student at DCS, this was his second time participating in Paddle Days. He raced seven times on the first of the two-day event. When asked what his favorite part about the races were, he responded, “where you win.”

Arliss Samuel, a Grade 7 student at DCS, participated in two or three races that morning but shared that she would like to try all of the races on the second day of the event. When asked about her experience with Paddle Days, Samuel, who has participated in many of the events since she was young, shared that she tipped in a recent year.

“We were almost first, but then we tipped,” she said. “It was fun.”

But when Samuel was asked what she looks forward to most with Paddle Days, she said friendship and learning.

“When I'm not shy, sometimes, I like to make friends,” said Samuel. “And learn more things.”

She recalls times in the past where she exchanged contact information with students from visiting schools to keep in touch.

She noted that DCS had recently played a basketball game against one of the schools in attendance, École des Grands-cèdres.

Though she had not yet developed new friendships at this Paddle Days, she hoped that on the second day she could not only participate in all the races, but “try to make more friends.”

Samuel also loves it when graduates of DCS return. 

“I love it when they actually come back to help us learn,” said Samuel.

“Remembering that they're not even actually here with us now,” said Samuel of the graduated students, “but then they still come back and visit every now and then to help.”

“I love it,” she said.

Among one of DCS graduates attending Paddle Days was Dylan Marchand, who completed his schooling in 2020 and has been back to every Paddle Days since.

“I come back every year just because [it brings] such nostalgic memories to help these kids,” said Marchand. “When I look at these kids, I see myself learning and pursuing the love of [canoeing] more and more, even throughout these years.”

“Even after I graduated… I love it,” he added. “It’s stuck in my heart forever.”

Marchand’s journey as a competitive athlete in canoe racing began when he joined the canoe club in his youth. He’s participated in every Paddle Days since 2012.

“Any athlete would understand once you start a sport you love, it's stuck to you, you can't stop doing it,” he said.

Marchand took his skills as a canoe racer to the North American Indigenous Games in Toronto during his time at DCS.

But even as a graduate of the community school, he carries his love for paddling with him as a calming activity, taking a kayak to Port Alberni’s Harbour Quay or bring a paddle board to Tofino.

“I love to see the students are really taking part in this big event that we host every year,” said Marchand. “It warms my heart.”

“I just see a lot of myself in these kids,” said Marchand. “It just brings joy to me.”

Marchand notes that Paddle Days is a great opportunity for students to be around people and make new friends. 

After the races finished off with an electric 400 metres and two tipped canoes, Paddle Days made its way back to DCS to enjoy a delicious lunch provided by the school.

As lunch finished, DCS students shared songs and dances with their guests.

“I think [Paddle Days is] an opportunity for the students and staff and community to come together to host something that is an opportunity for those new friendships, an opportunity to get on the water and compete in a sport that they practice,” said DCS Principal Emily MacLennan, noting that it's also an opportunity to share “who they are and where they’re from with guests.”

After paddlers were awarded their first, second, and third-place medals for each race, guests were invited to participate in cedar weaving, Paddle Days t-shirt designs, art activities, a hiking group, or a tough mudder obstacle course, shared MacLennan with Ha-Shilth-Sa.

When the day began, MacLennan encouraged students to paddle with someone new throughout the day. She told Ha-Shilth-Sa that sometimes the students need extra encouragement to befriend guests. 

“By having them race with different people, we can hopefully help start those connections,” said MacLennan of canoe racing.

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