Dark Water Journey

Power of memories guides paddler on historic crossing

By Eva Pagaling

Above: Muptami pullers (from left to right: Alan Salazar, Toni Cordero, Teotl Goitia, Tim Ochoa, Gabriel Frausto, Marcus V.O. Lopez) are greeted by dolphins (alolkoy) mid-channel en route to Limuw (Santa Cruz Island). Video: Nick Zachar/NOAA

November 2018

Paddling in Dark Water during the annual Chumash community tomol crossing this year was like paddling into the abyss as we pulled water without the benefit of moonlight. The night sky made the waves between Channel Islands Harbor and Limuw, Santa Cruz Island, appear a shade darker than midnight, and the thick layers of fog floating between us obscured what was left of our vision. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me and the five paddlers behind me had little to no visibility. This forced us to measure the magnitude of the currents as the waves crashed against our tomol and paddles. The sound of those waves is the ocean’s breath, and to keep cadence, we must sync our breath with hers.

tomol paddlers on the ocean at sunrise
Tomol pullers leave the mainland at sunrise to cross the Santa Barbara Channel. They eventually cross through Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to Limuw (Santa Cruz Island). Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

Our tomol comes to life in the dark of night and she helps connect her paddlers to one another. She does this by reminding us of our ability to sense each other’s energy, even in pitch-black waters. As “seat-one” paddler, in order to determine our pace, I must listen to the breathing patterns of my crew. In understanding this, it’s taught me that the power behind each stroke is dependent upon our ability to tune in with each other.

close-up of tomol bow
The tomol named Muptami (Deep Memories) is a traditionally-built redwood plank canoe of indigenous Chumash design. The tomol is central to Chumash heritage. It has a six-person crew, and each canoe has its own unique abalone inlay designs. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA
eva and reggie pagaling
Next generation woman paddler Eva Pagaling stands with her father Reggie Pagaling, tomol captain and elder with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Samala Indians. Reggie was instrumental in the construction of Muptami. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

As a next-generation female paddler, one of the highest honors I’ve received was being asked to paddle Dark Water. I’ve been involved with paddling since I was 10 years old during the first and historic crossing of the tomol ‘Elye’wun (Swordfish) in 2001 and have been part of this tomol family ever since. My tomol family consists of paddlers and the tight-knit community that greets us on Limuw after our voyages. Without my tomol family coming together for the crossings, I would have lost touch with our ways of the ocean and the islands we come from. I am eternally grateful for the tomol community-at-large who loved and reared me from a young age to become a paddler.

tomol paddlers in front of a research vessel
Muptami pullers make their way to Limuw. Ahead of the tomol, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Research Vessel Shearwater sets course, hosts resting paddlers, and helps protect Muptami from vessel traffic. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA
tomol pullers holding their paddles up in a salute
Tomol pullers hold their paddles in a salute as they reach Limuw and the historical Chumash village site of Swaxil (Scorpion Valley). Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

I am also especially grateful for my father, Reggie Pagaling. For many years, I watched my father pour everything he had into the crossings while I was on the support boats. I watched his evolution as a paddler, and as he helped lay the foundation for all future paddlers. I saw him go from a puller, to a navigator, and soon after, a captain. And when his days as a paddler came to an end, he chose to take it a step further and build his own elegant redwood plank canoe, the tomol Muptami (Deep Memories). Muptami’s name holds a great deal of space in my heart because I’ve come to understand what deep memories mean to me after paddling in her this year.

In 2018, during the 20-mile Chumash tomol crossing, three crews of pullers participated in paddling Muptami to Limuw. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

During the crossing, a deep memory that’s shared among paddlers is that each pull of the oar is a prayer. And this year, I prayed for my loved ones, as well as everyone else in this world. I prayed for strength and healing for all people, wherever they may be on their path in life. Historically, we are water people and our medicine for the world can be found in the sacred and life-sustaining power of water.

Next year, I will begin my journey in becoming a navigator, in hopes of bringing new medicine to our people. And once again, I will start a new chapter in our stories.

tomol paddlers gather together
Dark Water paddlers embrace each other ahead of their journey into Santa Barbara Channel in the darkness of the early morning hours. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA
tomol pullers paddling in the dark
Muptami pullers start their 20-mile canoe journey leaving Channel Islands Harbor, California, headed to the island of Limuw in the early morning darkness. Seat one puller is Eva Pagaling. "'As seat-one' paddler," she writes, "in order to determine our pace, I must listen to the breathing patterns of my crew." Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA
crews pull the tomol ashore
Muptami pullers make a successful landing at Limuw aided by other paddlers, friends, and family of the Chumash community. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA
crew members carry the tomol on shore
At the historical Chumash village site of Swaxil (Scorpion Valley, Santa Cruz Island), a circle of appreciation welcomes the arrival of the tomol and pullers, including hundreds of friends and family members. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

Eva Pagaling is a member of the Santa Ynez Band of Samala Chumash Indians. She holds a bachelor's degree in communications from California State University Long Beach, and is a powerlifter and mother to a one-year-old son.