It’s funny returning after almost fifty years to the place where you grew up, a place you visited dozens of times over those years, but now you’re back to stay. Instead of the glance that mid-summer family visits gave you, you now have time to look around, to ground truth fifty-year-old memories. Explore places you rode your bike past on your way … where? Sped past on your way to a party … whose? Find the way to a beach you last visited when you were twelve.
We want to learn the topography of the hills and mountains in the familiar views, figure out where the lakes rest, where the creeks flow. We also want to walk trails we haven’t explored before.
And so, Gibson’s Beach. Last spring we took the turn and drove down to the water. The sun shining. Eagles chittering, harassing a heron, its nest likely nearby. A kingfisher. Gulls, of course. We spotted a trail sign and followed its direction for a while, twisting around big hemlock and cedar trees, sidestepping roots into an opening where some cedar bark had been stripped. Just south of Tla’amin, we realized, and a beautiful place to demonstrate how cedar bark is gathered.
We didn’t go far – having no idea where the trail led – but dropped down to the beach and stumbled back over the slippery rocks to the car.
In October, we decided to walk the whole trail. By this time we’d read about the Tla’amin village, Tees Kwat, that had been at the outlet of Powell River. The municipal plan, showing admirable concern for a more robust history, tells how it was destroyed (I’ve condensed it below):
Shortly after the colony of British Columbia joined Confederation, on July 20, 1871, tensions between First Nations and settlers increased due to the practice of allowing non-aboriginal people to settle and claim 320 acres of land at no cost, providing they signed a declaration stating that the land was not an Indian Village. Unfortunately, this requirement was often ignored. While settlers were allowed to acquire First Nation land for free, First Nations members could not claim land.
One such case resulted in the loss of the Tla’amin village known as Tees Kwat, a major village site at the mouth of what came to be called the Powell River. In 1860, Father Durieu, a Catholic missionary, attempted to convert Tla’amin to Catholicism and move them to Sliammon Creek, a few miles north. Shortly after, a land speculator and one-time Victoria Mayor, R.P. Rithet, ‘discovered’ the area. He was interested in developing a mill site at the mouth of the river and in 1874 was granted a timber lease for the land around Tees Kwat (Lot 450), on the condition that a mill be built there. This lease agreement caused great concern for the Tla’amin people. The head of the Joint Reserve Commission, Gilbert M. Sproat, requested that this land be held for Tla’amin and neighbouring First Nations until he could travel to the area to resolve the issues.
The provincial government attempted to stifle any effort by the Joint Reserve Commission to intervene. Sproat responded that Tla’amin and neighbouring tribes were engaged in hand logging and therefore required their timberlands; and noted that they were anxious about losing access to lands near their village sites.
Through his government connections, Rithet purchased the land in 1878 – in spite of the fact that it was a Tla’amin village site and that the promised timber mill had not been built as required. In 1909, Brooks and Scanlon purchased the site from him and built the mill.
Tla’amin people continued to live at Tees Kwat and use resources in the surrounding area despite the new mill. After 1910, however, much of the value of this site for traditional use was obliterated, when the now-named Powell River was dammed for power generation to serve the new paper mill. By 1913, the salmon run in Powell River had come to a permanent end and a large portion of the land now known as Lot 450 was converted to heavy industrial and urban use, eventually to become the company town of Powell River. Tla’amin homes were burned and the village site was destroyed by the dam and associated development.
We kept this history in mind as we left Gibson’s Beach to walk the old route. Cedars, hemlock, and big leaf maple predominated – the maples’ huge leaves covered the trail. The oceanspray, another new and beautiful addition to the plants we commonly see, had shed its leaves. The trail crosses a creek that I’ve heard called Schonfield Creek, though the name doesn’t appear on any maps.
After traversing the newish BOMB squad bridge (when my cousin hiked here, the only bridge was a log), the trail crosses a road that leads straight back up to the highway, but the trail continues along the water. Here it follows along below the Wildwood Bluffs.
Everywhere along this part of the coast, these outcrops of rock covered with grass, moss, and lichens open to the sky; they’re wonderful spots to stop and look out, as one always does, to the ocean. The way the light sweeps into curves on tidal currents, the ducks diving, resurfacing, the loons flapping, a seal, maybe an otter, and often the bellow of sea lions. The vegetation changes – here we found one nodding onion, some (Oregon?) stonecrop, cinquefoil and even a few aspen.
Although you can hear it, the mill is still a startling sight from this outlook.
The trail climbs into long groves of arbutus and we began to see more ivy, broom, holly, and bindwood (Hedera), a strong smell signalling its presence wrapped around tree trunks and climbing the blackberry brambles.
Then the chainlink fence and the gentle switchbacks down to the Wildwood Bridge. All the years we drove past the old boathouses on Powell River, I never once thought that a trail crossed the slope up above the river. A beautiful trail if you can ignore the noise and the sometimes acrid fumes from the mill. I don’t know where the old trail came down to the river or where exactly Tees Kwat was situated (more research to do), but can easily imagine the pleasure of descending to the village below.
Powell River is mad for trails, many of which follow old logging roads or railway lines. Others are made simply to amuse us. Most everyone walking or biking these trails is out for the fun of it. The trails are wonderful and the people who maintain them are amazing. But this trail between Tla’amin and Tees Kwat feels different. It feels like one made by people going about the business of living, making a path to the next village to visit friends and families, to trade, to celebrate. Thousands of years of footsteps creating a way through the world as it was. Incremental adjustments to a shifting landscape. It’s a trail to treasure – and thanks to all the people who keep it intact.