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September 2001

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.

“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.”

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