Tranquil Beauty on Canada's Vancouver Island
I must admit, it felt a bit like I was in the old Oscar Hammerstein musical Rose-Marie. My First Nation guide, Tsimka Martin, and I were paddling our dug-out canoe through the glassy waters of forest-lined Clayoquot Sound, on the western coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
Then behind me, 27-year-old Tsimka, who runs the Tla-ook Cultural Tours from Tofino, broke into the beautiful, lilting “paddle song” of her Nuu-chah-nulth nation.
She said it was a sort of passport used when they were entering the territory of another tribe. Her haunting song echoed across the still waters of the sound and off the rugged, forested peaks, matching the rhythm of our dipping paddles.
Majestic bald eagles soared overhead as harbour seals popped up to take a look, and marbled murrelets skimmed the surface.
A little earlier we had coincidentally met Tsimka’s father, Joe, who was on a fishing expedition out in the sound, and grinning from ear to ear because he’d just caught a 10-pound salmon. It was Joe who had been the expertcarver of our canoe, hewn from the trunk of a single cedar.
Tsimka explained, as we hitched a tow with her dad, taking us further up into the sound, that these canoes were once relied on for hunting humpback whales up to 20 miles offshore.
Tsimka also recited for me a poem she’d written about a threatened copper mine on the distant Catface Mountain in the Clayoquot Sound Unesco Biosphere Reserve, which threatened the globally-rare temperate rainforest.
“We have a saying ‘Hishuk is ts’awalk’ – which means everything is connected,” she explained. “If you destroy the forest, then you also destroy the habitats of the animals and birds which our people have lived on for thousands of years.”
As we paddled gently back towards our starting point at Tofino, we passed the 5,000-year-old shoreline village of Opitsat, still the home to Tsimka’s people, but which I was told did not welcome visitors. Not surprising, I thought, after how the white man had exploited and continued to exploit their sacred land.
On another glorious day spent on Clayoquot Sound we had close encounters with no less than five black bears, including a mother with two young cubs, as pilot Brady Clarke, of Tofino’s Ocean Outfitters, took us around the old-growth forests of Meare’s Island, the scene in the 1980s of a major anti-logging protest, when nearly 900 people had been arrested. “Black bears are much more docile than grizzlies,” explained Brady.
“They are also quite short-sighted and deaf, which makes them much easier to approach.” And he related the delightful story of how he had taken his year-old son Kieran to see the bears: “He growled at them!”
The canoe and bear-watching trips were magical moments during our visit to Vancouver Island, the largest island on the west coast of North America.
The island is a place of magnificent, snow-capped peaks, deeply-forested fjords, and magnificent, deserted beaches, pounded by waves which have travelled unchecked for 5,000 miles across the Pacific from Japan.
Tsunami warning signs along coastal roads were a constant reminder of the threat posed by the mightiest ocean on earth. They even have winter storm-watching stays at the magnificent Wickaninnish Inn further up the north-west coast near Tofino, where we were privileged to stay for three nights.
I felt I had qualified for the luxurious accommodation, because I learned that the hotel was named after Chief Wickaninnish of the Tla-o-quiaht tribe, whose name literally means “he who no one sits in front of in the canoe.”
Every comfortable room in this wonderful hotel has sweeping Pacific views, and the service from the courteous staff was unsurpassed. I’ll never forget our wonderful meals in the elegant Pointe Restaurant, built on a rocky outcrop overlooking the ocean and the mile-long Chesterman Beach, and watching foraging otters over breakfast. The sense of peace and tranquillity was tangible.
Managing director Charles McDiarmid is the son of former country doctor Howard McDairmid, the driving force behind the creation of the Pacific Rim National Park reserve centred on Long Beach, Tofino, in 1971, and the original Wickaninish Hotel, which was unfortunately demolished when the park was founded.
Vancouver Island is also the site of BC’s very English-feeling capital of Victoria. There were banners outside the majestic, copper-domed Legislative Building promoting the Queen’s Jubilee, and the Union Jack flew proudly from many buildings (it’s also still on the BC provincial flag).
And the commanding Fairmont Empress Hotel, where our room overlooked Victoria’s busy inner harbour, where seaplanes come in and out like buses, had more than a feeling of the Raj about it.
Not to be missed in Victoria is the recently-revamped Royal BC Museum, a model of how museums should be, with many interactive displays for young people (including an exciting new dinosaur exhibition), and the finest collection of First Nation material in the province.
Even the name of the company with which we took an exciting, 80-mile whale-watching trip from Victoria Harbour (chasing a pod of orcas almost to Vancouver) paid punning tribute to the royal family. It was called The Prince of Whales.
Roly Smith flew to Vancouver from Manchester with Canadian Affair, which has twice weekly flights from May to October. Return fares start from £398 based on outbound travel in September 2012. Call 020 7616 9933 or visit www.canadianaffair.com .
Other useful contacts are the Canadian Tourism Commission Tel: 0207 389 9983, canada.travel email:visitcanada [at] dial.pipex.com, Tourism British Columbia UK Tel: 0207 930 6857, BritishColumbia.travel; Tourism Vancouver Island vancouverisland.travel, or Tourism Victoria www.tourismvictoria.com, Tofino’s Ocean Outfitters www.oceanoutfitters.bc.ca , Wickaninnish Inn www.wickinn.com , Royal BC Museum, www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca