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Atsemal, the Dragon and the Laoyam Eagles



The skookum story of two communities, a town doctor, a group of high school students and a canoe

It’s a typical summer day in the Coast Mountains near Pemberton. The translucent green water of One Mile Lake is a mirror, reflecting Douglas-fir trees that ring the lake and silver clouds and a gold sun that hang in the sky.

That reflection is broken as a set of paddles dip into the water and a canoe flies across the lake. This is the home of the Laoyam Eagles dragon boat team – a group of high school students between the ages of 13 and 18 from Pemberton and Mount Currie.

The Eagles practice here twice a week – in a canoe – throughout the year. Rain or shine.

But the canoe and the weather are just two of the many challenges that face a dragon boat team from a small town in the mountains. The Pemberton area also faces a number of natural, economic and social challenges.

This is where the wet Coast gives way to the dry Interior. There are tall mountains and flat valleys. Hot summers and cold winters. There is logging and tourism; agriculture and development; oldtimers and newcomers; natives and non-natives.

The 26-member team has just returned home from a gruelling two weeks of dragon boat racing in the U.S. with a boatload of medals – gold from an international competition in Long Beach, Calif., and two silvers from the International Dragon Boat Federation World Championships in Philadelphia, Penn.

The team also won gold in June at the renowned Alcan Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver.

But this story isn’t necessarily about those achievements. This is about how the Eagles have overcome a set of challenges and helped create a true community out of those seemingly disparate elements.

It’s 1995 and Hugh Fisher, a family physician in Pemberton, is having a chat with one of his patients, Tamsin Miller. Fisher and Miller discuss the new high school in Whistler. Before then students from Whistler were bussed 35 kilometres north every weekday for school.

Pemberton is the kind of place where doctors and their patients talk about these kinds of things, as if they’ve ran into each other at the grocery store or post office.

They wonder what would make Pemberton secondary and its students unique. They decide on a dragon boat team.

"We wanted to choose something completely different that would give the kids their own sense of identity," says Miller, reminiscing about the talk. "But it couldn’t have happened without having Hugh in the community."