A walk in the park: Cathedral Grove & Little Qualicum Falls

cathedral grove101Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

You can almost taste the green. There is the nearly yellow of new growth and the nearly black of the moss, and every shade between those. It’s inside your nose, sweet but wet. Heavy.

It is raining, but the forest canopy keeps you drier than you expected. It is made of shadows and it is muffled, like there’s loose cotton in your ears. Like you’re in church.

This is Cathedral Grove.

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This is our nation’s ancient architecture: 800-year-old Douglas firs and the red cedars that were once used to carve totem poles and hollow out canoes.

These trees are alive. I mean really alive — they watch you and I think they laugh a little behind your back. Be still and you’ll see their faces in your peripheral vision. Rounded trunks become laughing bellies, moss-covered branches are arms, knots are eyes and noses, eyebrows are carved by nature into the bark.

“Cathedral” is a European invention, but the godliness you feel here is older. So much older.

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Just down the road from Cathedral Grove is Little Qualicum Falls. It is just as powerful, but it is not quiet and it is not peaceful. You can hear the angry cascade as you approach the forest, like static on a radio turned up too high.

We are still in rainforest here, and it’s dark under the canopy, so the white water shines as it bubbles and races down the mountain, eroding rock and devouring plants that have the misfortune to fall in.

It’s not safe here. That water is hungry, and some of the paths are steep and marked with tangled roots that can trip a careless traveller. The thick black mud under your feet is slippery and makes a threatening sucking sound every time you lift your shoes.

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I’m awarding MacMillan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove) and Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park four stroller wheels (out of a completely arbitrary five), with the caveat that I went alone, without children or strollers, and walked only a small part of Qualicum Falls at the tail end of a rainy day.

There are kilometres of trails at the Falls, and although I spent my time in the dangerous portion right by the falls, there are apparently lovely swimming holes and wider, family-friendly paths throughout the park. There is also a campsite. The parks are midway between Parksville and Port Alberni on Highway 4.

If you do both parks, as I did, save Cathedral Grove for the end. Its quiet beauty will offset all that raging water and close the day on a spiritual note.

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The ill-fated marriage of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw and Kwakiutl

It’s fitting that Thomas Point is so rocky; so was the marriage that was established here in the 1960s.

Arranged by the government, it was shortly thereafter dissolved with hollow-sounding apologies and “we meant well.” I guess they thought the shared history of the betrothed would be enough.

Thomas Point near Port Hardy.
Thomas Point near Port Hardy.

The Gwa’sala and ’Nakwaxda’xw people were forest-dwellers and fishers in the region now called Smith and Seymour inlets, tucked into the B.C.’s mainland. They traded and intermarried with the dozens of other aboriginal bands that line the coast and participated in the trade with white men, especially here, a base of operations for the Hudson Bay Co. And though they lived in relative isolation, they were not shielded from the European introduction of residential schools, disease, and liquor.

The Fort Rupert band — the Kwakiutl — lived here next to what would become Port Hardy, though to them it was Tsaxis, as it had been for the 8,000 to 10,000 years they called it home. The sharp mountains of Tsaxis were veined with coal and the Hudson Bay Co. coveted it. Though the Kwakiutl won the right to mine and trade with HBC, it wasn’t without cost: the residential schools, disease, and liquor taxed them as they had the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw.

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But neither band disappeared, and by the mid-1940s, the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw were getting stronger and recovering from a half-century during which their customs, artwork, and forests had been plundered. Canada began to pitch in some social programs, though the First Nations who were not willing to fully assimilate into European culture were still consigned to reserves.

Bands like the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw were far less likely to assimilate because they were isolated in their hidden inlets. Thus the marriage was proposed: Move to Tsaxis, Canada urged, and we will give you land, housing, education, health care — the sort of life you’ll never have in your backwards back country. But if they chose to stay on their ancestral lands, all social programs would be cut off.

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I imagine the boat ride across strait was long, quiet and cold. Behind them, their homes were being burned to the ground. There was no going back. Thomas Rock, here at the edge of Fort Rupert, is cold and black and must have seemed like the end of the world.

This may surprise you (if you’ve never opened a history book), but the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw say they got far less than they bargained for. And the Kwakiutl? The marriage was forced on them, too. They lived eight miles apart, like a couple that must remain in the same house so retreat to separate beds.

According to a Gwa’sala website, a government staffer wrote a book about the situation that was called, “How a People Die.” He must not have met these people.

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The unwanted marriage was dissolved in 1969. Their joint council was dismantled and the hard work of splitting land and resources began.

“What was done was honestly believed to be the best thing at the time,” Port Hardy’s director of community affairs told the North Island Gazette. “I think the fact you are dissatisfied now indicates that after it’s over, looking back on it, it was wrong. … It was an honest mistake and we’ll correct the things that are wrong now.”

Let’s not pretend things have been completely corrected in the past 45 years. But let’s celebrate alongside the First Nations who are finding a way to renew their customs and languages by rebuilding their communities with schools and other resources.

“Families hold potlatches and young people are learning to dance and sing, learning their names, so that they can potlatch when their time comes.”

The boxer who was feeling his age

“Man, am I feeling my age today,” the boxer said, tossing his skipping rope on the floor in front of the windows.

horseshoe bay ferry terminal bc 31His hair was short and neat, flecked with grey, and his face was the sort of tan you get from spending time outside, living — an almost rusty colour with paler lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth and running across his forehead, where crinkles weren’t touched by the sun.

The ferry hadn’t launched, but he had a sea-sway, standing in front of the big windows trying to decide whether to talk to me or the bay. He had a milk bottle of the sort you pick up in gas stations, but I don’t think there was milk in it.

I looked up from my book about body language and I guess my palms were open or my eyebrows lifted slightly, because he kept talking.

“I was boxing last night. You know, at this new place. Guy got me right here.” His hand was against his side, on his lower ribs, and there was a bit of wince left in him. “I just smiled, you know? I didn’t want him to think he got one on me. He was 22. You know.”

I had opened my box lunch and was eating, not making much eye contact. I wanted to hear the end of the story, but I didn’t want to make friends. He went off on a rant about boxing matches being fixed and I thought, “Ah, so you lost, then.”

“It was a new promoter, you know, so usually I get paid in cash, but this guy gave me a cheque for $45. I woke up this morning and it was gone. I lost it.”

This time I know my eyebrows lifted, and he assured it was going to be okay, that a cheque is a lot easier to replace than cash. But I was just surprised the going rate for being punched in the ribs is $45.

“My dad owned a boxing club,” he went on, and I could tell his drink was almost done by the way he tilted it up to try to get the last bit at the end of each sentence. “He taught me how to fight right, no cheating bullshit. He retired when he was 51.”

He put the milk bottle on a chair two seats away from me and started rifling through his pockets, pulling out a $10 bill and a dime bag of pot. He shoved the money back into the pocket. “You smoke marijuana?”

My “nope” was the first thing I’d said to him, but I said it with a smile. He shrugged, scooped up his rope and swayed on back to the smoking area just as the ferry’s horn announced we were set to sail.

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Where will they install the statue of you?

I would want the statue of me to be installed on a rocky beach. Not here. This ocean doesn’t move me. Attach me to the rocks on the Canadian Atlantic.

Sculpt my statue to sit on a big rock facing the waves, with one foot propped on a rock below. Balanced on a knee, a coil-ring notebook. A pen behind my ear, with hair falling around that and over my face. My shoulders should be hunched forward, my back rounded by the awkward, bent angle. When beachcombers come across my statue, they will shake their heads — there’s nothing to see here — and leave me to my business.

The monkey on Emily Carr's shoulder outside the Empress in Victoria, B.C.
The monkey on Emily Carr’s shoulder outside the Empress in Victoria, B.C.
The statue of Emily Carr outside the Empress in Victoria, B.C.
The statue of Emily Carr outside the Empress in Victoria, B.C.

Cities tell their stories with statues. So much time and commitment goes into casting a character in steel or bronze, carving them into stone. You have to hold a special part of a city’s heart to earn yourself a statue.

Saskatoon has a marvelous statue of Wilfrid Laurier meeting a young John Diefenbaker on a street corner. Ottawa’s Terry Fox memorial makes me tear up every single time. I recently discovered Jean Drapeau in front of Montreal’s city hall.

In Victoria is it Emily Carr, lovingly represented with her monkey on her shoulder and a little dog at her heel.

Harry Winston Jerome sprinting through Stanley Park in Vancouver.
Harry Winston Jerome sprinting through Stanley Park in Vancouver.

And this Olympian in Vancouver, who I had never heard of: Harry Winston Jerome. I met him as I biked at dawn along a narrow path in Stanley Park. The sky was lightening but still navy and rich and Canada Place was just a row of shapes on the horizon, not the terrible white beast it is from my hotel downtown.

Harry looks as though he is about to take flight. He could be dancing, or jumping and there is something so very joyful in him. In the 1960s, the Olympic medalist was one of the fastest men on earth. He stayed on track despite career-threatening injuries and a media that refused to love him and when he could no longer compete, he kept a foot in, working for the sports ministry and developing a provincial program that would encourage youth to get and stay active.

His story ended when he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1982. He was 42.

How racism built British Columbia’s forgotten leper colony

My uncle knows the names of all the mountain ranges and most of the islands that are the mise en scène of this small town on Vancouver Island.

“That is the Olympic mountain range. Mount Baker is through there,” he tells me. “That is San Juan Island. And that—” he is squinting toward a dark green rise of land in the Haro Strait, far from us but not as far as the mountains or those heavy grey clouds.

“That was a leper colony.”

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When the Chinese started to arrive in Canada in the 1850s, Victoria was the first place they settled. They were no more loved here than they were in San Francisco, yet they were able to hang on and would eventually prosper for the same reason they did farther south: they worked better and harder than anyone else.

victoria chinatown fan tan alleyIn many ways, they were treated by citizens and government like lepers, so it is of little surprise that the real lepers who were eventually found among them were not treated with care. The unfortunate men were discovered in a small shack in Victoria’s narrow Chinatown. It was not widely understood at the time that leprosy is not very contagious, and the Chinese were hated anyway, so the smaller of the two D’Arcy islands was quickly designated a leper colony and the men unceremoniously dumped there with supplies.

Imagine for a moment that you are in those men’s’ shoes. Let’s say bare feet instead, because leprosy can cause toes to disintegrate. So you are maybe missing some toes along with the rest of the disfigurement that is a hallmark of leprosy. You almost definitely have large sores on your body and you are overcome with fatigue. Now get out there and build yourself a lean-to, because those rains aren’t going to stop just because you have some nerve damage and skin issues. There’s no one to complain to, because everyone’s going through the same thing, and trying to one-up each other gets old really fast. And you can’t stand that guy over there with the permanent frown, but there’s nowhere to go to get away from him.

There’s nowhere to go.

A lean-to on a Sidney-area beach, with D'Arcy dark in the background.
A lean-to on a Sidney-area beach, with D’Arcy dark in the background.

It was 1891, and the island would house — if I may use the term “house” — lepers for about 30 years, nearly half of that in subhuman conditions with little medical care. Every three months a boat would drop off supplies, fresh clothes and opium. A doctor would take a quick look, and the men would be alone again.

A doctor reported in 1898 that when the boat was set to leave, the men “lined up on the beach and cried like children.”

In 1905, things finally started to change. Some funds from the lucrative immigrant head tax were funnelled to D’Arcy Island to start improving conditions. A year later, the Leprosy Act came into being and one year after that the men were repatriated to China and treating facilities were built on the island to treat incoming cases of leprosy.

victoria bc chinatownIt is believed about 50 men and possibly one woman spent time on D’Arcy Island. In 1924, the final five were transported to the new colony on Bentinck Island and D’Arcy was closed, and mostly forgotten.

If you kayak out there now, you’ll find a plaque commemorating their lonely struggles, and you might some artifacts from their lives. You will see mounds where they buried their friends through their own exhaustion and if you’re very quiet and listen to the wind maybe you will hear them crying, and begging to go home.


Through the looking pass

Glaciers at Rogers Pass.
Glaciers at Rogers Pass.

We hit a low point this morning, but somehow the day went uphill. Straight uphill, to Roger’s Pass at 1,330 metres and on to Lake Louise and Banff.

Melani listed the reasons Kendra was in a better mood today, and she was right on all of them: she was really, really looking forward to true mountains, and we were in them; we did fun things and let her swim a little; we’re on our way home.

I wasn’t sure I was going to join them, Melani insisted I go to the hot springs in Banff, even though it was nine at night and I had Calgary on my mind.

 Alberta, 2008

Oh god. Oh god, I cannot find the words.

 Outside, with mountains right there (right there!), 50 people are relaxing in mineral waters that raised the mercury to 39 degrees C. The water is so buoyant one barely has to raise their feet from the bottom to be lifted to the top of the water. It was so beautiful, and so relaxing and so, well, warm. A fantastic end to a good day that has led us to Calgary, to my grandparent’s home.