Nch’kay (Mount Garibaldi) and its origin story can teach us a lot about restoring balance. Words :: Amber Turnau // Photo :: Chris Christie.
Although B.C.’s Garibaldi Provincial Park is nearly a century old, the land has been a beacon of human resilience for millennia. Indigenous teachings about its most prominent peak reveal striking parallels to modern challenges. And for some, the protection and preservation of this land is a generational task.
Overlooking Howe Sound and the lower Squamish Valley, the park’s namesake mountain massif is a stratovolcano called Nch’kay’ by the Skwxwú7mesh people. The name, which translates to “dirty water” or “grimy one,” refers to how its volcanic dust drifts into the Cheekeye River. For thousands of years, local First Nations have depended on the tallest mountain in their homelands for trapping, foraging, purification voyages, and harvesting obsidian rock for tools and trade.
“Our land is laden with place names, mythology, and stories that remind us, as Skwxwú7mesh people, of who we are and what those places are used for,” says Chris Syeta’xtn Lewis, spokesperson and councillor for the Squamish Nation. “Our elders tell us that Nch’kay’ was a place of refuge during the flood, which is kind of a universal story [across many Indigenous cultures]—that there were apocalyptic floods.”
Lewis describes how ancestors fled in canoes, fastening cedar ropes to the top of Nch’kay’ to ride out the flood. According to legend, a few boats broke away and floated to Xwsa7k (Mount Baker), home of the Nooksack people, who share similar stories of kinship.
There’s a moral to the Great Flood story, he explains, one that’s relatable in the context of contemporary issues like the climate crisis or COVID-19 pandemic. “All of our teachings tell us that the reason the flood came is because we fell out of the natural rhythm of the land and the earth. We stopped listening to the elders and our teachers… and we fell out of balance.”
That balance would be tested again generations later with the arrival of European settlers. Colonialism didn’t just disrupt the Skwxwú7mesh way of life, it also changed the land and its stories. On an 1860 survey of Howe Sound, Captain George Henry Richards of Britain’s Royal Navy determined that the prominent Nch’kay’ would be renamed Mount Garibaldi after Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian patriot who never once set foot there.
“All of our teachings tell us that the reason the flood came is because we fell out of the natural rhythm of the land and the earth”
In August 1907, a group of six Vancouver mountaineers became the first known colonialist climbers to summit the 2,678-metre peak. In their trip report they described Mount Garibaldi as: “some terrible monarch of the skies not to be approached by man.”
Over the next 20 years, the area around Mount Garibaldi became a mecca for alpinists, and the Government of British Columbia designated it a park reserve in 1920. Seven years later, the province passed legislation to expand the land, turning it into an official park.
In the late 1940s, Joan Mathews and Ottar and Emil Brandvold built the Diamond Head Chalet near Elfin Lakes, an already popular staging area for exploration of the park. The lodge ran for three decades before it was handed over to BC Parks and fell into disrepair. In the 1970s, BC Parks built Elfin Lakes Shelter in the same area.
By the mid-1980s, some of the south coast’s most daring ski mountaineers had laid claim to first descents on this iconic massif: Peter Chrzanowski, Pete “The Swede” Mattson, Beat Steiner, Trevor Hunt, Eric Pehota, Steve Smaridge, and the late Trevor Petersen.
Decades later, the park’s popularity surges, even amidst a pandemic. But what lies ahead for the next 100 years? COVID-19’s societal upheaval and momentum of the civil rights movement have amplified the need to acknowledge the Indigenous connection with sacred landmarks. Reclaiming traditional place names is a catalyst for cultural dialogue and ancestral knowledge sharing, Chris Syeta’xtn Lewis notes. His hope is that in the near future, sacred sites within the park can reclaim their Skwxwú7mesh names.
“We’re in a really exciting chapter… and it would be sad to miss this opportunity,” he says. “As the mountain has always done for us, and the land has always done, it teaches us. I think we’re in a very teachable moment and I think Canadians and visitors that come from all over the world and people who call the Sea to Sky Corridor home are all ready to learn.”
As the sun sets on another day in Squamish, and the alpenglow casts its rosy hues against the winter-white diamond, Nch’kay’ takes on an almost supernatural glow. It’s as if the mountain is trying to send us a message—now it’s up to us to listen.
Excerpted from the Early Winter issue of Mountain Life–Coast Mountains.