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.