Ten East Bay students traveling as ambassadors for the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center learned profound survival lessons on an annual tribal canoe journey -- despite never touching a paddle.

Oakland-based MLK Freedom Center's summer program commemorated the upcoming 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by asking "What is America saying today?" To find the answers, the teens and young adults traveled to the Quinault Indian Reservation in Washington state's Olympic Peninsula.

Rough seas and dangerous riptides in the Pacific Northwest kept the delegation out of canoes in this year's Paddle to Quinault, but it didn't stop them from welcoming and serving 56 arriving tribal nations during the weeklong cultural gathering.

Darcy Grand,15, from Berkeley, talks about what the trip taught her about what is important to her as the group share their stories at Merritt College in
Darcy Grand,15, from Berkeley, talks about what the trip taught her about what is important to her as the group share their stories at Merritt College in Oakland on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. ( Laura A. Oda / Bay Area News Group)

On Tuesday, a day after their return, five of the would-be-paddlers shared their "takeaways" from the experience.

Twenty-one year old Eric Fuller was honored to be entrusted with stories told by tribal elders.

"They spoke from their hearts and told stories that had been passed between generations," the Merritt College student said. "I realized that television teaches us what to think, but if you have a passion to learn who you really are, your traditional customs and languages teach you what you need to know about yourself."

Darcy Grand, a 15-year-old Berkeley resident, admired the indigenous people's liberation from materialism. "They give things away and don't expect to be thanked for it. They may have lost the culture of barter and trade, but they have hung on to giving without expecting to receive." She also felt respect, especially in the fish house. "They let us wrap halibut for the traditional dinner celebration," she said.

Toan Nguyen, 15, was surprised by feelings he had during a totem pole-raising ceremony. The Oakland School for the Arts student said he had never seen such a "whole people coming together with the same mindset" nor had he felt so humbled. "Here, we stood out in our class: that's why we were chosen to go. But on the trip, we were constantly humbled."

Oakland resident Gabriella Ek, 15, ¿said she's always on her phone, isolated and "in her own world." Now, all she wants is to be with her family. "I don't even want my phone anymore," she exclaimed.

Like Ek, Samantha Wiggins, 15, of Alameda, responded to the warmth of the tribal community. "If there's one thing I'd tell my generation, it's to live in the present," Wiggins said.

From left, back row, Samantha Wiggins, 15, from Alameda, Toan Nguyen, 15, from Alameda, Eric Fuller, 21, from Oakland, front row, Gabriella Ek, 15, from
From left, back row, Samantha Wiggins, 15, from Alameda, Toan Nguyen, 15, from Alameda, Eric Fuller, 21, from Oakland, front row, Gabriella Ek, 15, from Oakland, and Darcy Grand,15, from Berkeley, pose for a photo at Merritt College in Oakland on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. ( Laura A. Oda / Bay Area News Group)

"We're always thinking about what we can do better," she said. "We could remember what we already have more often."

Grand, having absorbed a weeks worth of instruction, is eager to teach. She said that you have to "be open to your community, even if they're not open with you. It's hard, but let them know what you think and keep going."

Nguyen's discoveries were personal, but universally applicable: go outside your comfort zone to serve -- and go outside. "The girls there had muscular arms; they had survival skills. A man I met wasn't afraid to sleep alone, outside. We're meant to go for walks, run, to live in nature." Still, he is realistic, saying, "Just because you learn a lot, it doesn't mean you will change. I will change one step at a time because when I look at change as a whole, I get scared by the amount."

Fuller and Ek, grateful for the altered perspectives they plan to "portage" from their time with the Quinault elders to their peers in the Bay Area, find a common theme and a connection to King's legacy. The "What is America saying?" question they embarked on circled back to home and hearth, to history and a healthy appreciation for older generations and long-held traditions.

"Don't complain about little things," Ek said. "See what others have been through and know what matters."

To see clearly and completely, Fuller said his generation must be unafraid. "Have curiosity about what you don't know. It's worse to be embarrassed about your culture and heritage than (it is) to read anything bad that happened to your ancestors."