1989 – Tales from the Inland Passage

Adventures on the Wild NW Coast – copyright Peter Marsh

Cold Water and Hot Springs

By the time most sailors have weathered Cape Scott, at the tip of Vancouver Island, they are ready to set a course for the undeniable attractions of Hot Springs. Cruising alone in a half-ton boat, usually with plenty of time to spare, I prefer to keep my passages at sea as short as possible. Quatsino Sound is the first anchorage down the Pacific coast, shared with a busy fleet of trollers. The village of the same name is a fair distance inland, so, being well suppplied after my stop in Port Hardy, I left with the fleet in the morning.

After a good day’s run downwind the entrance to Kyuquot (pronounced kae-YOU-kt) required a good deal more attention, especially since the blustery wind had forced me to drop the mainsail. But once I had negotiated my way past the first of the rocky islets that guard the entrance I was irresistably drawn to the “back-door” of the harbor. With the board up I slid in, but an hour later, when I looked back there, the pass was high and dry!

The single store beside the dock carries “everything”; there is a constant stream of water traffic between the BC Packers barge, the jetty and the native village of Houp-si-tas, on the eastern shore. No roads lead in- an ancient supply ship, the M.V.UCHUCK keeps the village supplied. As luck would have it, the Uchuck arrived shortly after myself. The only land-vehicle, the fork-lift truck, rumbled above my head, along the dock til late at night to finish unloading.

I folowed the Uchuck out the next morning, but was soon left far behind on a flat-calm ocean. After wrapping quantities of kelp around the prop the chance to get off the Pacific was welcome. The route behind Nootka Island is a fascinating detour that could qualify as a short cut on a calm day.

I turned east past a barrier reef. The high mountains inland encouraged a wind to blow and pretty soon I had the spinnaker up and pulling. A sharp 90 degree turn loomed ahead an hour later and the sail was dropped as the steep, rock walls closed in. The tide was starting to turn in the narrow channel, while I searched along the shore for a likely place to wait it out.

A dock on the opposite shore looked promising. But it had a clean, cared-for look not usually seen up the coast, “could be a private, keep off situation”, I thought. Nonetheless I went ashore, along a gravelled path, to find the reason for this oasis of trim lawns, fruit trees and white-washed buidings. After a few minutes I found someone who explained that this was the Nootka Mission, and luck or providence had cast me up at Sunday dinnertime!

The meal centered around salmon caught off the dock and apples and berries picked in the orchard. I learned that this was the fiftieth year of the non-denominational ministry, which serves all the roadless or isolated settlements along the coast. Whether it is an outboard that won’t start, or a tooth that needs filling, the people at Esperanza are there to help.

After I’d recovered from the best meal of the summer I gave rides across the sound to all who wanted to come. They had arrived by motor boat, but this was the first sail for some, including a native fishermen who later showed me some of the elaborate paddles he has carved. Unfortunately, Nootka Island (site of Captain Cook’s landfall) has been ruthlessly clearcut, which has drastically changed the view from Esperanza.

When the generator was switched off I returned to the boat and found a bag of cookies, still warm from the oven, sitting in the cockpit. Before I left the next afternoon I had learned that the mission’s motor vessel, the Lady Carlisle, was away at one of the annual summer camps, and that among the volunteers who continue the work are teams from Seattle Pacific University. Gas, oil and water are always available, thte coffee shop is open at regular hours, stop by and see for yourself!

Further south, the people of the village of Tofino have mobilised to prevent the clearcutting of the largest cedar trees in Canada. Dominating the skyline behind the vilage is Meares Island, home of the Nuu-chah-nulth band and site of the “grove of the giants”. It’s all scheduled for harvest by Macmillan Bloedel unless the Friends of Clayoquot (pronounced KLAK-a-wit) Sound can prevail against the system. At high tide you can anchor and follow a fine trail, to stand under a cedar 61 feet around. Yes! The hot springs were worth the wait.

Beware Ghost Docks

The whole business began when my outboard died early one morning on the Canadian section of the Inland Passage. My vocabulary soon became strained as I sailed slowly north towards Butedale. By afternoon I was finally tied to the decrepid float, wondering if anyone was actually living there. I discovered there was no way up from the float, although the sign with moorage fees seemed recent.
Instead I shinned up a ship’s hawser hanging over the dockside and got one hand over the top. The rest of my body refused to follow however!
When I looked down, the float and my boat had swung out perpendicular to the dock, held by a single, mooring line. I was left dangling-to coin a phrase. There I hung, waiting for a miracle, until my grip failed.

The water was icy and my arms were weak. I survived a slow-motion dog paddle the 10-20 yards back to the errant float, burdened by oilskins and boots.
One piece of luck (if you can call it that) was that the inboard end of the float was waterlogged and almost under water, allowing me to slither back up without difficulty.
As for me, I stood shivering in the cockpit, towelled off, and put on ALL the dry clothes onboard. Then I rowed ashore under the crumbling pilings to explore the ghost town. Later in the trip I ws told that the last caretaker had broken his back falling through the planking!

A small creek was eroding the foundation of the waterfront buildings so I rowed to another landing spot. Finally I was ashore and free to wander the empty buidings and overgrown garden. Up on the hill the wood-plank penstock that delivered water to power the town had fallen off its support, resulting in a continuous explosion and a roaring fountain. The water emerged at enormous speed from its drop and turned to rainbows above my head.

This was back in 1988. If the flow continued unchecked the erosion will have made the waterfront even more dangerous.

Sentinels of the Shore

Nothing represents the complex relationship of man to the NW rain coast better than the totem pole. It’s a symbol recognised throughout the world and held in high regard for its artistic precision and integrity. Although poles can be seen in such diverse locations as the Sea Tac restaurant and the Burke Museum it’s only against a backdrop of mountains and forest that the viewer can begin to sense their power and cultural significance.

I highly recommend that you indulge in a little reading before you reach totem country (north of Campbell River). Edward Malin’s Totem Poles of the Pacific North West is an excellent source and easy reading, with sections on exploration and history, and the tragedy and triumph of the carver’s art. 160 superb line drawings reveal the form and detail of each figure. Equipped with a few insights from this you will immediately recognise whether a pole is memorial, mortuary or heraldic!

There are also clues to identifying characters like raven-long straight beak, eagle-curved beak, grizzly-short snout and teeth, and beaver, frog, wolf etc. I discovered the mosquito and octopus also appear on poles, a tall hat with bands denotes the number of potlatches presided over by the deceased, and any rectangular shape is a copper, symbol of high status in native life.

Only with the advent of the fur traders did the tribes acquire the steel tools and wealth which spurred the explosion in pole raising and potlatching. That’s another story in itself, the ownership of crests on the poles was a fiercely held privilege (no franchising), the society was highly stratified and the rules were strict. Once erected the pole had fulfilled its designated function- to preserve or raise a fallen pole had no merit and was pointless in the old society.

Since 1946 Malin has travelled the coast. At first just to record the great deserted centers of the last century-he’s reproduced 53 of the best early photographs full page. Later he began to meet the last of the old timers like Charley Nowell, who had been imprisoned in 1921 for potlatching, and Mungo Martin, the Kwakiutl carver who kept the tradition alive in the late 1940’s. Now he’s finally witnessed the renaissance of Indian arts with the approval and belated support of the various governments.
“Yeah, but what do they mean”, you say? Good question! Do we know what the signers of the Constitution thought they were starting? Only if you grew up knowing every story behind every figure, and living under them, would you experience the totem fully. So what-take your time and percieve what you can! And remember these aren’t like Mayan temples, ruins from a dead age. The people who carved them are alive and well!

The museums at Cape Mudge and Alert Bay display the last potlatch items recently returned by the Canadian government, while most towns in BC have erected poles in public spaces. Prince Rupert has a great number around the town and every Alaskan port has a display-whenever you stop at a museum ask if they have videos available and whether anyone is carving locally.


$29.95 TIMBER PRESS, Portland, Or.

By the same author: Masks of the NW Coast, $19.95


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