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The First Races

The first Coupeville Festival with Native American Canoe Races took place in 1930, organized by a Coupeville businessman to draw more tourists to scenic Whidbey Island. Only three 11-man canoes raced then, but in later years up to 22 tribes attended the festivals with most participating in the canoe races. Parades, sack races, pie eating contests, and tribal dancing were added to the festivities. Island residents baked loaves of bread as gifts for the Indian families who traveled to and camped on the Island for the festivals.

black and white of canoes racing


By 1930, however, cars were becoming common, and Whidbey businessmen were touting the island as a wonderful place to visit and tour by car. The scenery and the views had become the commodity of interest, and the Water Festival was a way to expose people from the cities to the offerings of the island. The Native American canoe races provided the main event, and parades, sack races, egg and spoon contests, pie eating contests, "prettiest baby" contests, tribal dancing, and prize drawings rounded out the festivities.

Front half of canoe


World War II brought an end to the Canoe Races. There were several attempts to revive them in the 1970s and 1980s, but it was not until the Washington State University/Island County Beach Watchers volunteers put on the first Penn Cove Water Festival in 1992 that the canoe races were once again an annual event in Coupeville. Beach Watchers produced the Festival for 12 years, with an emphasis on education about the environment and water quality.

History of the Festival

Photos courtesy of the Island County Historical Society


Creating the Association

In 2004, a group of Whidbey Island community members formed the nonprofit Penn Cove Water Festival Association, to plan and produce the annual event. The Festival takes place on one Saturday in early May, depending on which Saturday has the best tides for the canoe races. The races have expanded to include more categories, including the large family journey canoes. The Water Festival provides the setting for Northwest tribes to share their heritage with tribal dancing, singing, storytelling, native artists' booths and demonstrations, fry bread and salmon cooked over an alder wood fire. And Island residents still bake loaves of bread as gifts for the Indians.

Old logo

Native Art

Since 1993, each Water Festival has been indelibly associated with an image from the fertile mind of Coupeville artist Roger Purdue, working in the North Coast native art tradition of his Tsimshian heritage. The donation of Roger's art talent received the reproduction it deserved in the hands of Carol Peralta, who produced the T-shirts, art prints and posters sold to raise money for the Festival. Her passing in late 2005 was a great loss to the Water Festival and the Island community.

Info booth

Protecting our Waters

Residents and tourists alike benefit from a healthy Sound, lakes, groundwater, and aquifers. What's more, we all benefit from the salmon, otters, whales, shellfish, and other critters that live in, or because of, those waters. To promote awareness of, appreciation for and information on how to protect this environment, the Festival provides space to many of the Island's non-profit organizations for educational displays, as part of our Mission (see Main Page for our Mission Statement).

For a look at the meaning and purpose of the Penn Cove Water Festival, please see HonorWorks Presents: Penn Cove Water Festival
Tribal Roots Video: From 2015, with scenes and songs from past water festivals and interviews with Penn Cove Water Festival president Vicky Reyes and board member Michael Ferri. Compliments of Whidbey Telecom.
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