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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.

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.

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