It’s 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 17. The sun is high and the heat is warming the shore of the Harrison River. Juvenile salmon nip at the toes of two sisters as they drag their boats – a ‘clipper’ for Hasanah James, 15, and a more traditional, two-seater canoe for Tashauna James, 12 – out into the water. They leave later that day for the Cowichan Valley, starting their journey to the 2018 BC Summer Games.
The sun is practically pulsing, but the over 30-degree heat is nothing to the sisters, who spend almost every day between March and September out on the water.
It was three summer’s ago when Hasanah and Tashauna got into boats for the first time near Kilby, and their grandmother, Kathy James, wasn’t sure she could convince them to come back to dry land.
“When they got on the canoe they were kind of nervous at first because they didn’t know what to do,” she recalled. “But within minutes you could see their shoulders just relax. It was an automatic connection, right away. and they’ve been that way since.”
The sisters had always loved water, swimming in their backyard pool and spending time at the lakes and rivers in the area, but canoes and kayaks provided a tranquility and connection they had never experienced before.
“We went out and we both came back with smiles on our faces,” recalled Hasanah.
The Agassiz-raised, Wetsu’wet’en girls were hooked.
|Hasanah James takes the clipper for a spin on Harrison Lake Tuesday morning. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)|
For the last three spring-summer seasons, the James sisters have spent spring and summer afternoons paddling – either just the two of them, or with the local Golden Eagles Canoe Club –Ts’esqel– run by coach Chrystal McCallum Williams and her husband Johnny.
The Ts’esqel group’s large bus can be spotted around Agassiz, Sts’ailes and Scowlitz during the summer months, picking up kids of all ages and from different communities to paddle together – on kayaks, clippers and canoes, including 11-seater war canoes.
James said the club has been amazing for the girls.
“I love seeing them in this type of sport. It’s healthy for them, it’s team-building,” she said. “Our canoe club is like one huge family…it gives them brothers and sisters.
Especially when they’re being raised by grandparents –they’re not around younger families as much, because of course with our age we’re around older people.”
The canoe club starts training in March with war canoes, training in single, double, four-man, six-man and 11-man canoes, along with clippers and kayaks.
When the James sisters were younger their passion was Pow Wow dancing, said their grandmother. But paddling took over after that fateful day in 2016. Even the sisterly quarrels stop – for the most part – when they get out on the river, she added with a chuckle.
“When you watch them you can see that they’re just at peace with the water. They’re a part of it. They become one with it. The canoe, themselves and the water are just one. They’re not three individual pieces, they’re all inter-connected.”
The sisters are gearing up for the weekend’s BC Summer Games, an exciting venture for the young Agassiz girls that will see them joining 2,373 young B.C. athletes competing for medals and personal bests across 18 different sports, ranging from equestrian sports and synchronized swimming to baseball and rugby – and everything in between, including, of course, canoe and kayak racing. Thousands of visitors and spectators will descend on the Cowichan Valley to cheer on the B.C. youth.
The sisters earned their entry through a qualifying event on Cultus Lake earlier in the summer. After the Summer Games, the young athletes will have a chance to qualify for the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), where they would compete against canoers and kayakers from across Canada and the U.S.
Hasanah said she handles competition by keeping the focus on herself, her boat and the water.
“When you get out there you just focus on what’s out there and you don’t usually listen to what’s going on on land,” she explained. “That can be distracting and you can miss the horn.”
Tashauna said she’s both excited and nervous for the BC Games, mainly because she doesn’t know what to expect.
“My goal is to do my best and not [give] up. To finish every race I am in.”
|Tashauna (left) and Hasanah pose during a morning practice on the Harrison River. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)|
As for grandma and grandpa, the games are a big step in giving the girls some independence. They can’t go with them to the Cowichan Valley, which makes James just a little bit nervous.
“It’s kind of disappointing that we can’t go and watch them, but at the same time this is a time for them to grow as well,” she said, watching as Hasanah dips her paddle into the water and propels her boat from shore. “It’s time for them to be able to grow and experience other things… we don’t have to be there all the time.”
Both girls listed their Si’sele (grandma) as their role model in bios written for the BC Summer Games website.
Root for Hasanah and Tashauna over the weekend and stay tuned for updates on the games.