The virus exchange

The view from Marine Avenue across the low-tide beach.

Whenever we walk the sea walk in Westview, we speculate about the rock structures built up along the beach south of town. There seems to be evidence of both the fish traps and clam gardens Betty Wilson of Tla’amin says exist up and down the coast around here.

Rock walls were built to help soften the sand behind them, stimulating the growth of clams.

 

In Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast, Judith Williams describes the walls of rock built to soften the sand behind them, which enhanced clam production. A 1933 Powell River newspaper article refers to the beach at Grief Point with “clam shell deposits about 10 feet deep and several hundred yards long.” The huge volume of shells signaled sophisticated systems of ownership and cooperation that existed long before the arrival of Europeans and a population large enough to need a sizeable food supply.

The view down toward the beacon at Grief Point, barely visible in the distance. Note the wall of clam shells on the right. This photo from the Powell River Museum collection was taken, I think, in the 1930s. (I need to do more research, but the museum is closed right now.)

Fish traps were built to trap fish at low tide for easier harvesting.

In the midst of fears about Covid 19 and the xenophobia that sometimes accompanies it, it’s especially poignant to think back to what life might have been like here and in the rest of the Americas before European viruses arrived In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, author Charles Mann points out that in the so-called ‘Columbus exchange’ Europeans benefited enormously from the knowledge and technologies of the Americas – including the extensive plant breeding that produced potatoes, corn, squash, tomatoes, and cocoa, to name a few. The single prevailing gift from the Europeans was disease.

1491 is a massive piece of research that uses the written records of the first European arrivals as well as the archaeological and ecological record left by human artifacts, pollen deposits, tree rings, and other data now readable with new techniques. Current research indicates the Americas were heavily populated with estimates ranging from fifty to one hundred million people. The diverse communities diverted watercourses for irrigation and flood protection and to enhance fisheries, cultivated and bred corn, potatoes and other plants to produce higher yields and adapt to local growing conditions, and used fire to manage forests. In many places tens of thousands of people gathered together and built elaborate cities.

Initial records of European explorers and settlers, especially those written before Indigenous populations were decimated by illness, include descriptions of landscapes and communities that support Mann’s theories. Post-plague narratives, however, often tell a very different story. Conservative estimates now suggest that more than eighty percent of the population across the Americas perished.

By the time Europeans arrived on the northwest coast, the plagues had preceded them. BC geographer Cole Harris’s Voices of Disaster: Smallpox around the Strait of Georgia in 1782 outlines how smallpox arrived here long before the first wave of settlers in the mid-1800s. What they saw was the aftermath of a holocaust, not the kind of thriving civilizations that had existed before and were able to support larger projects like the building of clam gardens.

In his introduction Mann mentions visiting Gitxsan Neil Sterritt in Hazelton at the Ksan Carving School just as the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en title case was beginning. The research for that case revealed a complex cultural, economic and political system, now recorded in the court transcripts. Mann credits that visit as one of the events that stimulated him to try to uncover some of the hidden or forgotten stories of the pre-Columbus civilizations.

When I told Neil about Mann’s book, he recommended I take a look at Dark Emu Black Seeds: agriculture or accident? by Bruce Pascoe. Pascoe describes how the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, like the people of the Americas, were organized into societies much more complex than the settler myth of a few hunter gatherers scattered across the land. Knowing this, he argues, benefits both settlers and Aboriginals alike. “If we look at the evidence presented to us by the explorers and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity, then it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.”

It’s not so very long ago that Chief Justice Allan McEachern in his (since overturned) decision on the Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en court case exemplified the way many Canadians thought (and still think) about First Nations. He said that the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en did not exist as a people: “The plaintiffs’ ancestors had no written language, no horses or wheeled vehicles, slavery and starvation was not uncommon, wars with neighbouring peoples were common, and there is no doubt, to quote Hobb[e]s, that aboriginal life in the territory was, at best, ‘nasty, brutish and short.’”

He could not have been more wrong. As new evidence comes to light and as old sources are re-examined, Mann, Pascoe, Williams, and others urge us to re-evaluate how we think about Indigenous cultures.

We haven’t done such a great job of managing a wonderful food source, one we just might need in the future.

As we all face this Covid game-changer, as the manufacture of all the cheap junk we are so fond of slows down, air travel shrivels, and we stay closer to home, it gives us an opportunity to find out what we can about Indigenous cultures in our own communities. We can look to earlier Indigenous practices to model more sustainable ways to function in our ecosystems and marvel at how resilient those cultures have proven.

And we can hope we don’t need to re-live the horrors our First Nations experienced. Instead we can hope the generosity and compassion our political leaders are showing (for the moment) are carried forward and we continue to invest in the well-being of our community and our planet.

 

 

 

Bravo!

“As the majority of people infected … have no symptoms and are unaware of their infection, the virus may spread through a large population before even being recognized.”

Sound familiar?

It’s not about Covid-19; it’s a reference to Canada’s polio epidemic. Most people with the disease had no symptoms; about five per cent developed mild symptoms and less than one percent developed limb paralysis. Of those, five to ten percent died. Between 1949 and 1954 about 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed and in 1953 alone, 500 died, the most serious national epidemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic, according to the Canadian Public Health Association.

My dad with my brother and sister a couple of months before he got sick.

In 1953, about six weeks before I was born, my dad, a millwright in the paper mill here in Powell River, got polio. He had mild symptoms for several days, my mom says. “He’d be standing in the bathroom shaving, saying his neck hurt. I finally got the doctor who thought it might be meningitis.”

While Dad was hospitalized, Mom noticed he wasn’t moving one of his arms properly. His symptoms were classic. He was flown to Vancouver and put in an iron lung as muscle function in his lungs deteriorated.

“It was quite bad because after he got flown down, we’d phone and they said he hasn’t reached the crisis yet – it was about ten days until he reached the crisis. It was,” she says, “a terrible time.”

My mother remembers standing beside a man, both of them looking in at their spouses lying in the iron lungs, the ventilators. The next day, the man wasn’t there and the nurses explained that his wife had died.

Mom and my one-year-old brother and three-year-old sister were injected with gamma globulin, an immune booster. There was no vaccine. I was born in December and six months later taken to see my father for the first time. My mom loves to tell me how the sight of my chubby red cheeks cheered him right up.

Dad lived, but he was one of the unlucky ones whose paralysis was permanent. It’s not like spinal cord paralysis that cuts off all feeling below the injury; the polio virus kills the motor neurons that activate muscles and they don’t regenerate. Rehab can bring some improvement and after about three years, my dad could walk, with support, and use his arms and hands.

Outside our new house.

By the fall of 1957, he was able to move with us into the house he’d been building when he got sick. Mom had gone back to work teaching and we managed quite well. Dad was able to be home on his own during the day and he was there when we came home from school.

It wasn’t easy – he had a temper and would get very frustrated as he tried to get us to do chores around the house or painstakingly teach us to do something he could have done in a second.  But I suspect the tensions were no more than was normal in most houses. Our family activities were limited, but he found ways to extend his mobility. He had a friend build him a wheelchair made of copper pipes that was very light and easy to pack when we went visiting. One summer Mom drove us all in our Vauxhall station wagon to Saskatchewan to visit his family. I think she had just learned to drive. He encouraged her to continue with summer school courses and finish her education degree, and later to apply for a job as a school principal.

While Mom was at school one summer, Dad stayed at Pearson Hospital where he had spent time in rehabilitation. Many polio survivors had been there for years, some in iron lungs or rocking beds. We felt lucky indeed we could bring our dad home.

When we had a house built down here at Grief Point in 1968, he and a neighbour, also a millwright, designed its elevator. But less than two years later, he developed symptoms of post-polio syndrome, which no one knew much about then. He died suddenly in his sleep Feb. 11, 1970.

My father had a life beyond his wheelchair; he worked as a bookkeeper, he read, played bridge, and loved a good argument. He was also very aware of how people with disabilities were judged and taught us that labels mattered. Cripple was still a common name for folks like him; he hated it. He was a paraplegic, he insisted. Disabled. Today, we often imagine how much fuller his life could have been with an electric scooter and a computer.

As of today, there are over half a million confirmed cases of Covid-19 around the world and about 25,000 deaths. According to the Canadian International Immunization Initiative, at the peak of its spread, polio “paralyzed or killed over half a million people worldwide every year.”

I used to get upset when people didn’t vaccinate their kids because our family experienced directly what diseases like polio can do. Now, when people talk about how we’re over-reacting, about the low percentage of people dying from Covid-19, I’m even more frustrated. It’s easy to forget that each one of those deaths is a loss to families, friends and communities.

Seeing those images of rows of people in ventilators in ICUs, I can’t help thinking of my father. How much pain he must have felt, how afraid he would have been. We have been through this before and I say, bravo! to those (that includes all of us) trying to stem the tide flooding the world right now.

 

 

 

 

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

 

The sea lions have been going crazy off the point here – sometimes leaping right out of the water. The herring are spawning and for the first time in years, streaks of white signaling the milt the males deposit on the eggs appeared in Scuttle Bay. When we went to take a look, we noticed that the sign welcoming you to t’Ɩšosǝm (Sliammon) explains that the name itself refers to that milky water.

Photo courtesy PR Outdoors

In Written as I Remember It, Elsie Paul describes the excitement about the herrings’ arrival, the richness they provided for the whole community of coastal life. “Like when the herring came in – it used to be around February and March, people are watching and ready and going down to the beach and really looking for – “Is it out there?” The seagulls are out so that means they’re here. And the word would get around. People are all hyped up and visiting back and forth and down the beach and it’s almost like you’re welcoming them.” (114)

We’re still in our first year of transition here and word of the herring reminded me of last February’s snowy drive to Gingolx at the mouth of the Nass to the community’s Hobiyee, a celebration in anticipation of the return of the eulachon to spawn in the river.

Unlike herring, eulachon spawn in the farthest tidal reaches up large rivers like the Skeena and Nass – they used to appear from northern California to Alaska. One freezing spring we visited the eulachon camps on the Nass as the fishermen dodged ice floes to set their nets; another year they were drilling through two feet of ice, an outflow wind howling out of the mountains.

The location of the camps are vested in families, the resources to catch and process them shared. This is no work for a lone fisherman – the tons of fish harvested to create the ‘grease’ require a large and organized workforce. The oil rendered from the fish, through an infamous process of rotting and heating, was a valuable trade commodity for coastal people and fed people far inland. The trading routes were called grease trails.

I interviewed eulachon biologist, the late John Kelson, for an article I wrote several years ago: “Eulachon play a crucial ecological role. Offshore, they are a key link in transferring energy up to the higher predators we humans like to eat, such as salmon and halibut. They are the first fish to run in the spring at a time when food supplies have been low and many animals are gearing up for reproduction. They are like the gas in the engine of the estuary and forest ecosystem. A few meals of eulachon can increase the number of offspring in seals and sea lions, otters, eagles, gulls and other seabirds.”

A couple of weeks after our trip to Gingolx, we were at tide water on the Skeena along with thousands of gulls, hundreds of eagles, sea lions and seals.

John Kelson photo

The eulachon spawn in gravel, unlike the herring which, when they haven’t been fished to near extirpation, deposit their eggs on almost anything. Elsie Paul describes how they hung out cedar boughs in the milky water and the eggs would be deposited, then collected and dried. Further north, kelp laden with roe was gathered and preserved.

“Several years ago, they opened seine fishing in this area [1983/84]. This whole area was lit up front of the village from Sliammon to Scuttle Bay and towards Powell River, over to Harwood. There was all kinds of seine boats out there.  And they scooped the herring. We never did get herring after that.” (116)

Powell River Historical Museum and Archives photo

Betty Wilson’s short film, Harwood, shown at the Powell River Film Festival, contained an even more dramatic image of the boats crowding into the strait, their gear getting tangled, and tempers flaring.

It’s no wonder those who spotted the milky water in Scuttle Bay were excited. And little wonder why so many are upset that DFO has once again opened the Vancouver Island herring roe commercial fishery. The herring play a similar role to the eulachon further north by providing food here for chinook salmon, the preferred food of the endangered southern resident killer whales. Humans are fond of the chinook as well.

Looking around Powell River at all the plants budding, the ducks donning their breeding plumage, the male mergansers spluttering and splashing around the females, the eagles sitting side by side, looking out over the strait, we all recognize and welcome what Dylan Thomas calls “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

That force here on the northwest coast is fed at some fundamental ecosystem level by herring or eulachon and links us all.

       A horned grebe. Photo by Carol Reid.

And then …

… just a few hours after posting this piece, we walked south along the sea walk toward Grief Point. Sea lions were lounging in clusters, the water seemed to be foaming up and turning milky. As we continued it became more and more apparent, the spawn was happening here as well. The spawn drifted south all afternoon, the sea lions and seagulls filling the evening with their cries.

And then again …

… today, the eggs on the low tide beach at Grief Point.

 

The place inside you

Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman: Hamish Hamilton, 2019

The Overstory by Richard Powers: W.W. Norton, 2018

I’ve read two astonishing books in the past month; both tell the stories of people trying to save the places they love. Each writer beautifully captures the enthusiasm, knowledge, anger, determination and despair that drive people to protect redwoods in California or tiny allotment gardens in urban England, hornbill nesting areas in India or lynx habitat in North Macedonia. Each is incredibly well-researched with enough facts for the geeks and enough glimmers of hope for those who can’t bear to count the numbers in the species extinction race.

Julian Hoffman’s Irreplaceable opens with a stroll along the Brighton Pier on England’s southeast coast. With all its glitz and kitsch, it’s hard to imagine a place more removed from the romantic ideal of the natural world. But a child suddenly points to starlings beginning their evening murmuration – an apparently random gathering of a few birds at a time until they number in the hundreds and thousands, wheeling and turning in a synchronized shadow moving across the evening sky, inspiring in the onlookers a sense of amazement and joy. All stop to watch until the birds filter away to their night roosts in the pilings under the pier.

The passage illustrates Hoffman’s beautiful writing and also describes the trajectory Irreplaceable follows: he has found small pockets around the world where individuals who, by resisting threats to places they love, gather enough other people around them to bring a halt to seemingly unstoppable forces. Folks might cherish an estuary in the Thames River slated for an airport, a hectare of meadow in a run-down part of Glasgow destined to become a parking lot, or an iron ore mine that would virtually demolish a small island in Indonesia and succeed in fending off their destruction.

Hoffman doesn’t shy away from the irrefutable evidence of species decline and extinguishment, of climate change, of corporate and government corruption. But Irreplaceable not only gives us vivid images of the special qualities so cherished by the locals, his examples give us the hope that we can light small fires of renewal in the most unlikely places.

Richard Powers’ stunning novel, The Overstory, is not as hopeful. Through eight family histories, it begins with the destruction of the enormous hardwood forests of the eastern United States where seemingly endless forests were cut, cut, cut and finally wiped out by invasive pests (think mountain pine beetle). We see how each character is triggered to resist the continued devastation of the coniferous forests of the west and eventually come together in that fight. One treeplanter tells each seedling he inserts into the ground to hang in there until we’ve wiped ourselves out. He finally decides we are doing too much damage and many species won’t outlast us after all and so moves to take more radical action.

Both of these writers powerfully evoke how the beauty of the natural world moves and sustains us. One of Powers’ characters, a research scientist, finds evidence of the vast web of communication taking place within forests – in the soil, the air and the water that sustains the myriad organisms that make up an ecosystem. Hoffman writes about the way children’s excitement about discovering the living world around them calms and comforts them.

 

 

 

Both writers also take the long view – focusing on ancient trees and the time it takes to build a wild forest or any integrated and sustainable place that has room for our richly diverse cultures, but also for its own well-being.

 

My husband and I walked the Atrevida Trail on the Tla’amin lands north Powell River earlier this month. We were initially puzzled by a sign pointing to “The Avenue of the Veterans”. After a while we realized we were in the shadow of huge Douglas-firs. They would have been little more than saplings when the original old growth was logged in the early 1900s – the huge nurse stumps notched where the loggers stuck in the planks to stand on when cutting down the trees. Imagine walking through a forest of trees that big in diameter and thinking, when all you had was a Swede saw, that you could fell them. Cut them down and then move them. What hubris. But of course it was a hubris imported from a Europe that had been severely deforested. Hoffman quotes reports estimating that 95 percent of England’s forests had been cut down by the 1600s.

It is easy to agree with Greta Thunberg when she says all the children demonstrating have not really had any effect; when you see international conference after international conference fail to reach any consensus, when Canadian premiers are fighting even the most feeble efforts to curtail carbon emissions, when what little is left of BC’s old growth forest is being cut and shipped overseas. Despair is not, however, useful. Anger, yes. Despair, no.

Just as each starling makes its own way through the intricacy of the murmuration, so we make our own path through our communities, each step we take speaking to everything and everyone around us. At the same time, the world moves us, nudges us along paths we’re often not even aware of.

If we give ourselves enough time and space to step outside our homes, out of our cars into a piece of the world with a few trees, some songbirds, frogs, or butterflies, we’ll begin to understand why people come to love a place, why they’ll stand up for it. They know it’s irreplaceable.

 

The trail to Tees Kwat – finding our way

 

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 July, we walked through the bird-rich Wildwood Bluffs and found our way down to the trail, which my cousin explained went all the way through to the Wildwood Bridge.

 

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.

 

Walking toward reconciliation

Sunday, we joined about 200 community members in Powell River on a reconciliation walk organized by the hɛhɛšin movement.* The walk, honouring the children of residential schools, began at Willingdon Beach and ended at the Westview wharf. Other participants were there to remember missing and murdered Indigenous women. All were there to take steps on a path that will bring us all to a greater understanding of and respect for Tla’amin and other Indigenous traditions.

Standing on the grass at the beach where my mother used to swim when she was a child, where she brought us when we were children, and where my own sons and grandson have played on family visits connected me to this place I am learning once again to call home.

It was just over a year ago when we still lived in Smithers that our publishing company, Creekstone Press, celebrated the launch of Shared Histories by Tyler McCreary with the Walk to Witset. Shared Histories detailed the history of Witsuwit’en life in Smithers and placed the racism they faced in a provincial and national context, one that applies to the Tla’amin people and Powell River as well. Smithers was a railway town; Powell River a paper mill town. In the early 1900s, each corporation planted a townsite on Indigenous territory without consultation or accommodation. Many of the subsequent settlers and their elected representatives took concrete steps to exclude the land’s original owners from the new communities.

The committee of Witsuwit’en elders and Smithers’ settlers who contributed to Shared Histories wanted to host a book launch that truly marked the process of truth and reconciliation. The book itself detailed some of the truth Smithers’ residents needed to discover, and the walk became a symbolic journey of reconciliation. Smithers’ then mayor Taylor Bachrach and Witset’s chief councilor Misilos Victor Jim joined dozens of others to walked the entire 34 km of Highway 16 that links the communities. The balhats or feast that welcomed them to Witset served over 400 people, more than half non-Indigenous. The book went on to win the BC Historical Federation’s 2019 prize for historical writing.

At Willingdon Beach, Rose Henry began by gathering the children around her to sing a song honouring them as ancestors, explaining that the Tla’amin believe (as do the Witsuwit’en) that children are their elders come back.

Cyndi Pallen (čƖnɛ) spoke about the origins of the walk, how members of the non-Indigenous community reached out to continue the work of bridging the gap between communities. John Louie (yaxwum) blessed the gathering with a prayer in Tla’amin reminding us that children in residential school were beaten for using their language: he asked that we all pray in our own way and respect the way others pray.

Along the route, we stopped to hear a woman’s warrior song, we sang together as we walked, and the group finally gathered at the Westview wharf, beside the Comox and Texada ferry terminal. I remember the wharf as an intimidating landmark for my younger self; it rises high out of the water and older kids fished off it, the braver ones jumped off it. For many Tla’amin children, John Louie told us, it was a place of great pain, the place where they were put on the boat that took them to residential school.

Walking and singing together lifted our spirits. We are beginning to recognize faces, to remember names. Our new home has every right to be proud of its efforts** to build connections between its communities and we are honoured to join in those efforts.

* hɛhɛšin is an ongoing grassroots reconciliation movement that started with a mixed group of non-indigenous people from the Upper Sunshine Coast, that wanted to reach out and connect with the indigenous people of this land, by honoring the teachings and territory of the Tla’amin people.

** Check out the 2011 presentation made to the BC Treaty Commission, the Powell River-Sliammon Experience.

Walking south from Westview

Great blue heron. Carol Reid photo

Hanging out the laundry in a grey, monochromatic morning of ocean, island and sky. I spun around at the blast of a humpback whale blowing not far offshore. Whoosh. Sheeww. A sound full of shshshsh. Two of them, grey backs curving up, the small dorsal fin in the rear, slipping back under. Another whoosh and another arc of grey. Again. Until the tail flukes rose to signal a long descent.

Our family had this house built beside Malaspina Strait over fifty years ago. I lived in it for two years plus one later summer before moving north to Smithers. I often walked the beach, smoked secret cigarettes sheltered in big piles of driftwood, dreamed of writing. There were sometimes orcas, but never humpbacks. Luckily their numbers have risen dramatically since the 1970s and we now see them regularly. And brant geese – I remember seeing those – as well as robins, crows, ravens, gulls and the occasional sapsucker.

Living in the Bulkley Valley, I learned to look more carefully at birds. And birds there were. Jays, nuthatches, chickadees, owls, ravens, waxwings, and the astonishing spring migration of warblers. Dodging rufous hummingbirds at the feeder, the underbrush quite literally a jungle racket. The melancholy song of Swainson’s thrush in the late afternoon. White and golden-crowned sparrows in the alpine. Invisible ptarmigan. Harlequins in Driftwood Creek. And always dippers.

Back here on the coast, I see birds I never saw before. Not birds that didn’t used to be here, like humpbacks didn’t used to be here. Birds I didn’t know how to see. Walking home from Westview along the sea walk, it’s ducks. The tide was at about thirteen feet so they were in close.

 

American wigeons. Carol Reid photo

Just past the Squatter’s Creek confluence, a group of curious American wigeons with their pale blue beaks and the light stripe on the males’ heads. They paddled toward me as if waiting to be fed.  A heron huddled on a rock. A cluster of about twenty-five oyster catchers gathered on a boulder topped by a gull – likely a glaucous-winged, herring, or hybrid. Sparrows in the blackberry brambles and driftwood. The white wing flashes of two juncos.

Oyster catchers and gull.

Next a big raft of buffleheads – the white males dramatic with their long black scarves flung over their backs; the females’ distinctive white cheek patches. They paddled together as if synchronized, then a quick lift of the neck and a tuck under into the neatest little dive. They were gone. A few seconds later, after gobbling some small crustaceans, they were back.

 

Four female and one male bufflehead. Carol Reid photo

Just past the end of the sea walk, dozens of surf scoters, in close. Their exotic beaks, clear identifiers. Over toward Texada, a touch of mist. The water was so calm, so grey, the more distant birds seemed to float above it. They were there. And then they weren’t.

It was pretty quiet until I neared home: a killdeer wailed past, three crows at the tide line, two harlequins, a Pacific loon, and a red-necked grebe. A sea lion huffing and puffing,

North of town, the thrum of the paper mill seems the same as it was when we first lived here, but I don’t remember the bellow of dozens of sea lions, mostly Steller’s, hauled out on the barges and breakwaters around its old log pond. Their winter numbers in these waters are also increasing. I don’t remember them hanging around just below the house. Sometimes at night, we hear them through an open window. As my mother says, “There’s a lot going on under those waves.” And unlike the tracks we’d see in fresh snowfalls, the activity here leaves no trace except for a momentary disturbance of the water’s surface. It’s there. And then it’s not.

 

Thanks to Carol Reid for the photos.