HIking British Columbia's Savage Coast

Hike a rugged, historically rich trail for 21 miles along a nearly deserted island off British Columbia's coast.
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Hike a rugged, historically rich trail for 21 miles along a nearly deserted island off British Columbia's coast.

"What a terrific spectacle met my eyes; six naked savages, standing in a circle around me, covered with the blood of my murdered comrades, with their daggers uplifted in their hands, prepared to strike."

"The king...asked me if I would be his slave during my life?if I would fight for him in his battles....I was careful to answer, yes....Taking me by the hand, he led me to the quarter deck, where the most horrid sight presented itself...the heads of our unfortunate Captain and his crew, to the number of twenty-five, were all arranged in a line, and (Chief) Maquinna ordering one of his people to bring a head, asked me whose it was."

I place the book on my lap, turn off my headlamp, and let my mind drift in the darkness. Rain patters on my hammock's fly. Surf gnaws incessantly at the sand. I feel utterly alone on Nootka Island, lost in the timelessness of wilderness, trying to imagine myself in John Jewitt's boots just a few miles and 197 years from here. I wonder which was the stronger lure to British Columbia's shore: the promise of one of the West Coast's wildest coastal trails or the little book, White Slaves of the Nootka, otherwise known as The Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, Captive of Chief Maquinna.

Jewitt had been the blacksmith on a fur-trading ship when Maquinna vented the rage that resulted from years of abuse by whites. Jewitt's tale, sympathetic to Maquinna and his people, has been in print almost continuously since soon after his escape in 1805. In 4 days, I'll hike 21 miles to the remains of the native village where Jewitt lived during 3 years of captivity. This evening, though, my thoughts slip from Jewitt to my day's small adventures.

Early this morning, an hour-long ferry ride brought me to Vancouver Island, then I sped on snaking highways across the interior mountains to the Pacific coastline. In Gold River, I jumped aboard a floatplane for the short flight to 20-mile-long Nootka Island, known to Europeans since Captain James Cook landed here in 1778.

Eric, the pilot, set us gently upon Louie Bay, a quiet tidal inlet littered with foot-wide starfish glowing orange in the crystalline water. He poled the plane until my dog Neve and I could splash to shore, then poled back and took off. Soon all we heard was the trickle of a brook behind us.

I scanned the brush until a speck of orange caught my eye: surveyor's tape, knotted to a salmonberry bramble. Threading through the bushes, we found a faint track, then another orange speck. The Nootka Trail is not recognized or maintained by the government, but there are boot prints, tape, and other "signs" you follow to keep from blundering down the island's many black bear trails.

In an hour, we gazed upon a shoreline ground to rubble by the Pacific. Later, passing a pile of driftwood, I picked up a faded water gun and turned to shoot a log, only to notice a black bear 50 feet ahead, looking straight at me. As I reached for my camera, he turned and dissolved into the brush.

With a deepened sense of the wild, Neve and I strode along the beach, eyes engaged. Down the coast, I could make out large birds dropping to the shore, while others flapped upward and settled in ancient firs and cedars. Ten, 20?I stopped counting, awed by the sight of so many bald eagles. The object of their fancy: a rotting sperm whale, its flesh pocked with deep holes where blood and rain pooled.

That evening, sitting in my hammock, I returned to the past and learned that Jewitt's life had been spared because Maquinna was shrewd enough to recognize the value of a blacksmith in a Stone Age culture. Almost a year after his capture, Jewitt watched his master's clamshell harpoons break in the flanks of gray whales. The people went hungry. So Jewitt fashioned a harpoon of iron.

"Great was the joy throughout the village as soon as it was known that the king had secured the whale....I was praised for the goodness of my harpoon, and a quantity of blubber given me."

Despite such displays of Jewitt's usefulness, the tribe clamored for his death. For years, European merchants had exploited the natives, killing four chiefs and stealing furs. Then Jewitt's captain had insulted Maquinna, prompting the tribe's bloody act of revenge. But Maquinna, while promising to kill Jewitt if he ever tried to escape, showed such kindness that Jewitt later recalled him as a "friend and protector."

The tide slips away as night brightens to gray rain clouds. I crawl from the hammock to explore Calvin Creek. The water was waist deep and wave-lashed when I arrived yesterday, but it has dropped to shin-height, and I splash through to check the crossing before dismantling camp. As I turn, I see Neve gazing intently toward the hammock and then watch a black form ambling our way. The bear melts into the woods before reaching camp.

Late in the afternoon, we follow wolf tracks to Beano Creek, a stream crossing the pilot had warned me about. Once, Eric nearly had been carried out to sea when a hollow gravel bar gave way under a wave. Now I'm looking at high-tide waters surging deep and treacherous up the 100-foot-wide creek. My heart races as I build a driftwood raft with pieces of washed-up rope. Alone, with only Neve to rescue me, I'm afraid of the surf.

Soon the tide drops, and with it my fears. In another hour, the stream will be wadable, and I know that tomorrow morning's tide will be lower still. I relax, crawl into my sleeping bag, and drift back into Jewitt's world.

Maquinna's tribe, he discovered, roamed between three villages during the course of a year, the better to enjoy nature's bounty. One fall, camped at the mouth of a river, Jewitt witnessed what can scarcely be imagined today:

"I have seen more than seven hundred salmon caught in the space of fifteen minutes....Such is the immense quantity of these fish, and they are taken with such facility, that I have known upwards of twenty-five hundred brought into Maquinna's house at once, and at one of the great feasts, have seen one hundred or more cooked in one of the larger tubs."

- - -

At 9:30 a.m., I choose waist-deep slow water over knee-deep rapids, and soon return to beach walking, followed by long stretches through inland forest. In years past, I've walked the Olympic Coast and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail on southern Vancouver Island, but those groomed trails seem tame compared to Nootka. Still, the ground bears a worn track, and I welcome the passage of all who have come before.

A bear, Neve, and I arrive together at the final stream crossing, one that Eric had warned might require swimming. As the bear lumbers upstream, I scout the passage for the next morning. When the low tide finally comes, I'm again relieved, as the surging stream spreads wide and shallow where it meets the surf.

Ahead, a white-steepled church marks Friendly Cove, where a "Christian ship" rescued Jewitt in 1805 after he tricked Maquinna into boarding with a letter that instructed the captain to hold the chief in exchange for Jewitt. Soon freed, the "white slave" clambered aboard dressed in a bearskin, face painted in the native style and his long hair tied with a spruce twig above his head. But overjoyed as Jewitt was, so too he "could not avoid experiencing a painful sensation on parting with this savage chief, who had preserved my life." Jewitt had to talk the captain into setting Maquinna free.

Beyond the church are a lighthouse and a few small buildings housing the last residents of Yuquot, a village of 1,500 in Jewitt's time. I'm striding toward the lighthouse, where an emergency telephone allows hikers to call for a floatplane pickup, when a smiling brown face appears at the door of a small frame house. Ray Williams introduces himself, then his wife, Terri. "Say, you need a ride?" he asks amiably. "I have a 100-horsepower motor on an aluminum boat. It's fast." The sun is out, the sea is calm, and the boat ride sounds great: 45 minutes for the 25 miles back to Gold River. I agree, then settle down to talk with the last descendents of Maquinna's tribe still living on the island.

In 1967, 250 Indians, the sole survivors of smallpox epidemics, remained on Nootka. The Canadian government offered houses and schooling to those who would consolidate with other tribes on the mainland of Vancouver Island. Only the Williamses refused.

According to Ray, very few people besides his wife and him still know the ancient language. He tells me of winter storm waves that "come in like mountains," of bad fishing due to stream siltation from logging, overfishing offshore, and water pollution from the Gold River pulp mill (now closed). He laughs at the ocean's notorious fogs, which he's mastered while navigating a lifetime on these waters. He tells me the real name for his people, Muchalaht, and about the falseness of the white man's term, Nootka. He boasts of his son, Sanford, a hugely talented carver of masks.

Then he asks if I want to see the totem pole.

"It's right there," says Ray, pointing to tall grass a hundred feet from his house, "the last one."

I walk over to a stack of lumber and there beside it, cloaked in weeds and the decomposing remains of a blue plastic tarp, is a time warp. Two feet across, the totem once stood 50 feet tall. Livid carvings of wolves, ravens, humans, and whales connect me to the vanished world of Yuquot as it had been for at least 4,500 years. I've discovered during the last few days that the wild coastline where this totem once stood has changed little from the time of Jewitt's "visit." But as I look back toward Ray and Terri, sunning themselves against their stick-framed house, I realize that their culture has slipped into history, swallowed like a bear's shadow in the woods.

EXPEDITION PLANNER: Nootka Island, British Columbia

Getting there: Nootka Island can be reached only by boat or floatplane. Use any of the various ferries to reach Vancouver Island from Vancouver, Seattle, or the Olympic Peninsula. The cost is roughly $25 for car and driver and $5 for each passenger, depending on the ferry chosen. Reservations are not required, but arrive early. Contact: BC Ferries, (250) 386-3431; http://www.bcferries.com.

Depending on which ferry you take, drive 150 to 200 miles to the town of Gold River. Fly to Louie Bay with Air Nootka (250-283-2255; http://www.airnootka.com). Fares are based on the type of plane used, not the number of passengers, and range from $185 for a two-passenger plane to $360 for an eight-passenger. Return from Friendly Cove via floatplane or boat. Returning by boat is more popular and cheaper: $15 per person on the Uchuck III, a minesweeper converted into a passenger vessel. The Uchuck III stops in Friendly Cove Wednesday and Saturday afternoons during the summer only, then returns to Gold River. Contact: Nootka Sound Service, (250) 283-2325; http://www.mvuchuck.com.

Seasons: July through September is the most popular hiking time, with often dry and generally warm conditions. March through June is typically wet and mild. October and November usually bring the first taste of winter's cold, wet conditions.

The trail: Because more hikers follow this route each year (about 140 last year), it's growing easier to piece together the inland passages of this roughly 21-mile coastal path. On this, as on all Northwestern coastal hikes, watch for fishing floats hanging from tree branches to mark the start of an inland trail. Allow 4 to 7 days.

Guides: The 1:50,000-scale topo Nootka 92E/10 is available from various sources, including Federal Maps, (888) 545-8111; http://www.fedmaps.com. Approximate prices: $7 for paper, $9 for Tyvek, plus $10 shipping. No guidebook covers the Nootka Trail. White Slaves of Maquinna: John R. Jewitt's Narrative of Capture and Confinement at Nootka, by John R. Jewitt (Heritage House, 800-665-3302; /bookstore; $16.95), is a recent edition of White Slaves of the Nootka, which is out of print, but available from used-book dealers such as http://www.bookfinder.com.

Special cautions: Cross streams at low tide. Beware "rogue" or "sneaker" waves that are visibly larger and more powerful than the prevailing pattern. These have been known to pull people to their deaths on other coastal trails. Don't let yourself be caught by rising tides in exposed situations. Check the tide tables at the Air Nootka terminal before flying to the island.

Guide services: If remote and sometimes brushy wilderness stretches your boundaries, consider using a guide service. Sea to Sky Expeditions (800-990-8735; http://www.canadianexpeditions.com) offers several Nootka Trail outings lasting 8 days each for $765, all inclusive from Vancouver.

(Note: All prices are in U.S. dollars and are subject to currency fluctuations.)