“Would you like to take their photo,” the dog owner asked without hesitation, already reigning in her three large pets. We had stopped to take a photo of an ageing wooden boat on the main street of Ucluelet.
“That would be nice, if you’re sure?” I replied. But the lady, who introduced herself as Janice, was already scooting her three dogs up on the bench that was positioned in front of the Evelyn May. Its once brilliant colours still brightened up the otherwise ordinary street. The fact that it had become an unintended focal point on main street in a small Canadian town, didn’t surprise me.
Vancouver Island is that kind of place, comfortable in its unpretentiousness, resplendent in its natural beauty; an incomparable delight at the continents edge. It took ten minutes or so to get the dogs positioned just right, but Janice didn’t mind. She was more than pleased to display her three adorable hounds and they just happened to be wearing colours that complimented the faded hues of the Evelyn May.
It had been like this, the last 24 hours, chance encounters with many friendly folk. We had made our way from the structured elegance of Victoria and woven along the Pacific Rim Highway towards the ocean, to the wild margins of Canada’s most westerly point.
We had purposely taken our time, stopping frequently when our curiosity was piqued. And there’s been much of that. Sites that we were pleased to have stumbled upon; people with whom we were thankful we had stopped to share a moment.
For Canadians, visiting this part of the country is on most people’s wish list. The surfing, kayaking and whale watching, the seamless marriage of ocean and rainforest, the inviting harbours and superb seafood. The island is a living picture of ethereal beauty, but also home to thriving trade and industry. In the small harbours and hidden inlets are lumber mills and mining, fisheries and canneries, fishing trawlers nestled beside gleaming white yachts.
We chanced upon one such place; Cowichan Bay with its long history as a fishing destination. From the early 1900s, Cowichan Bay attracted sportsmen from all over the British Empire for superb salmon fishing, earning the name of Salmon Capital of the World. It also beckoned celebrities such as Bing Cosby and John Wayne in the 50’s to fish for sport. Tales abound at the renowned local hotel of legendary fishing conquests from those days. It’s a peaceful bay where whales are said to wait patiently for the salmon run, anticipating the feast that will come their way.
The drive took us onwards to the the small city of Duncan, home to more totem poles than anywhere on earth. This is the land of the Coastal First Nations who carve their legends and lore into towering cedar logs. I am transfixed by the vivid colours and enchanting stories that inspire this unique art. It’s here that we met Robert from the Cowichan tribe, one of the ‘people of the warm land’. Robert sat on a bench surrounded by the symbolism of his ancestors, backdropped by a bright red Canadian National railcar. He lamented wryly that despite being drawn to this spot for inspiration, ironically, because of an allergy to cedar, he could never linger long.
Robert told us that his great regret was never being able to give ancient stories life through wood carving. He took the time to relate his painful upbringing in a residential home, of the wayward ways of youth in his tribe and of better times now emerging in Duncan. I pointed out to him that Mr. Duncan himself was carved in the tallest totem towering nearby, a reminder of the confluence of tribal and settled lands. I asked him whether he regretted living here.
“No, I’m happy in Duncan, it helps me forget the past. I hope you like our town,” Robert said to me with an appreciative smile. “Where are you from?” Skirting the complexities of my life, I told him that I didn’t live in Canada full-time, but that I loved being here and learning about his history.
“In fact,” I told Robert, “I’m from Alberta originally and hadn’t quite appreciated the vast differences between the coastal and the plains First Nations people.”
It’s true that being here on the coast causes one to appreciate this. Instead of hunting and subsisting on the buffalo as the tribes of the plains people had, the coastal people had relied on the ocean, primarily on whales. Given that the whale hunt was crucial for survival, whalers were the one of the most honoured members of the tribe. The expedition to intercept, kill and tow a whale home with a canoe in the open ocean was perilous. Not least of which was first the necessity of stitching up the mouth of the whale, so as to not take in more water and thus sink the crew and canoe. Every part of the whale was instrumental for survival. As with the plains people, I sensed there are many aspects from these former days that are keenly missed today.
On we went from Duncan to Parksville where we walked on the tidal flats of Qualicum beach – rippled sand, Brant geese on their grand migration gorging on eel grass and sea lettuce, and the moon pulling on tidal waters. At dinner our waitress asked where we were headed. “We’re on our way to Ucluelet,” we replied.
“I hope you’re staying at Black Rock,” she said. “I just stayed there on my honeymoon, it’s the only place to be.”
“Yes that’s where we’ll be, glad to hear this.” We chatted a little more and I asked where we should stop along the way. She told us the drive was beautiful and not to miss Cathedral Grove.
As we cut west towards the Pacific, we soon found ourselves captivated by the beauty. We ambled through old growth forest where 800 year-old Cedars and Douglas Firs tower over ferns and mossy, twisted branches. As eagles swooped over dizzying tree tops, I could appreciate the reverence for the cedar tree. Every part of it was used by the First Nations. The inner bark was woven into mats, baskets, even waterproof clothing. Branches became ropes and the rot resistant wood was fashioned into canoes, houses, totems and ceremonial masks. In fact, the regions first inhabitants simply called it the tree of life.
As we arrived in Port Alberni it was very much in the clutch of a spring chill; a counterpoint to the budding cherry blossoms, the bright daffodils and lime green willows. We walked along the harbour, the pulp mill belching into the misty air, snow lingering on distant peaks. We came across Angelo, sitting on a bench with binoculars, spying across the inlet. He was keeping an eye on the logging unit he had worked with for 38 years.
“I moved here from Italy after the Second World War, through Ontario but I eventually found work here. The pulp mill was hiring,” he told us, his handsome face belying his 80 some years. When I asked Angelo if he had any regrets that he had immigrated to Canada, he shook his head. “It’s been more than a happy life and besides, I have too many Canadian grandchildren to ever return to Italy,” he told us fondly. We talked awhile and shook hands. I sensed he was pleased that we had taken the time to chat, as were we. If I’ve learned anything at this stage in life, it’s to take the time to converse. Take that time to connect with people, hear their story, learn something new.
We also took the time to slowly cruise the back streets of Port Alberni, chancing upon colourful, striking everyday images. Port Alberni also retains its original train station, a design that is emblematic of most small towns in Canada. Constructed from the same blueprint, these iconic structures have welcomed people like Angelo as they arrived from afar to build a new life in Canada. Now the train tracks are less busy, with once useful cars spruced up for museum pieces or left to rust. A reminder that few things stay the same in life, but also that there is beauty in the old and abandoned, as well as the vibrant and living.
Onwards to Ucluelet where we planned to spend some time, between here and Tofino. As we checked into the Black Rock Oceanfront Resort, a welcoming young man, Mustafa opened up a local map to show us the region.
“The Wild Pacific Trail is right outside, if you’re lucky you’ll see whales as you hike along it,” he offered.
“Wonderful, we heard the Pacific Rim Whale Festival is on this week, hoping to see some! Are you from this area Mustafa?” I asked.
“I’m originally from the Middle East, I came to work for a summer and never left.” I looked past him to the massive windows beyond the lobby. They frame the Pacific ocean as it pounds against the craggy black rocks.
“I understand why,” I said, full with anticipation of the stay ahead. Full of new found appreciation for this special place on earth.