DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Seeing the place anew

THE DAY BEGAN with a deep breath before a stand of tall trees. At the entrance to Chetzemoka Park, Port Townsend’s 6.5-acre swath of loveliness, we started our time-shifting trip.

Husband Phil and I, pedaling rented electric bicycles on a recent Sunday, headed to the park as our first stop on the cicmehan trail. Traversing the city, the route illuminates the life of S’Klallam chief cicmehan — aka Chetzemoka — and uses his all-lowercase Klallam name to honor his tribe’s language.

First I had to learn to pronounce it: cheech-meh-HAWN.

A member of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s Native Connections Action Group, the trail’s first advocate, helped: Think “Cheech and Chong,” she said, referring to the vintage comedy duo.

We laughed; I got it.

On our big day out, Phil and I had the bikes for four hours, so we figured we’d follow the trail map and cover most of the sites.

The interpretive signs are easy to spot with their russet panels and salmon silhouettes atop each one.

At the park, I felt a shift in my mindset, like a camera aperture opening up. Facing water, mountains and sky, I could imagine this place in cicmehan’s time.

Then I looked up Blaine Street to see a penny-farthing, that high-wheeled bicycle popular in the 1870s, coming toward us. Gabriel Chrisman, dressed in Victorian clothes, was the rider.

A moment later his wife Sarah, also in 19th-century garb and on a relatively modern bike, joined him. Turns out she writes historical fiction set in a town called Chetzemoka on ThisVictorianLife.com.

After marveling at the people you can meet any given Sunday in Port Townsend, Phil and I headed north.

On the tip of land where the Point Wilson lighthouse stands, a trail panel indicates the site of seasonal Chimacum and S’Klallam camps and a clamming beach.

Riding toward a grove of evergreens, I looked up and over my shoulder to see a bald eagle perched on a wide bough, snowy feathers on its head blowing in the breeze.

Phil and I stopped, stood still, gazed up.

With a whoosh of feathers, the eagle lifted off to fly a horizontal arc above the bluff. Dark brown wings spread wide against a deep blue sky, and I held my breath in the perfect quiet.

And so the day unfolded, an exploration of qatáy, the village where cicmehan and his people lived. One after another, the trail panels stoked our imaginations of life in their time. All along, we encountered the birds and the deer that have shared this place with us for centuries.

Instead of trying to see as many sites as possible, we spent more time at fewer places.

Each stop has mind-expanding information.

At the post office, we looked up to see the faces of cicmehan, wives See-hem’itza and Chill-lil and brother Klow-ston sculpted into the columns on the front of the building.

We beheld North Beach County Park, where the chief dissuaded tribal members from waging war in the so-called “Indian Scare.”

At the Port Townsend Golf Course, a statue of the chief stood tall near the parking lot.

Trail maps are found at the Port Townsend Library, Northwest Maritime Center, Visitor Information Center and shops around town, while small wayfinding markers are embedded in sidewalks near each site.

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe has helped fund the whole project while a flock of local businesses and residents add their support.

Me, I’m grateful to them all — and to cicmehan himself — for giving me a rich, new, old way of seeing this wondrous place.

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Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Sept. 4.

Reach her at [email protected]