Hiking through history with Captain Cook, Chief Maquinna and the efforts to decolonize the Nootka Trail. Words :: Andrew Findlay.
In the summer of 1778, Captain James Cook dropped anchor in Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island after a long voyage from Hawaii. Chief Maquinna, of the Mowachaht people, and some of his men paddled out in cedar dugout canoes to greet the British explorer, whose two ships Resolution and Discovery flew the Union Jack and brimmed with colonial ambitions. The chief’s people watched the proceedings from Yuquot, their secluded summer village clustered around a protected cove on the southern tip of Nootka Island. And so began one of the most intriguing, and badass chapters in British Columbia history.
By most accounts, Chief Maquinna was cordial and not intimidated by these pale-skinned visitors. To Cook, the chief’s confidence was palpable, and he later wrote in his journal that the Mowachaht, “considered the place as entirely their property, without fearing any superiority.”
Rightly so: Maquinna’s people and ancestors had fished, foraged, carved canoes, made art, and raised families in Nootka Sound for thousands of years.
This encounter triggered a massive extractive industry, the sea otter trade. In a matter of decades, the sea otter population from Oregon to Alaska was nearly decimated—all for fur pelts that were fashioned into collars and hats for Chinese and European elites. The fur trade also nearly precipitated a war between two colonial powers, Spain and Great Britain, each vying for control over this lucrative industry and region.
• • •
Almost 250 years after Captain Cook’s first glimpse of Nootka Island, a water taxi deposits a family of four on the government dock at Yuquot on a warm summer day. The parents are laden, Sherpa-like, with heavy backpacks, probably questioning their decision to add four tallboys each to their loads. The kids skip ahead on a path sculpted from dense blackberry brambles and leading uphill from the tideline to a clearing in the trees. There, a young woman emerges from a tent to collect the requisite fee to hike the Nootka Trail. She’s a member of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, the descendants of Maquinna and his people. Cash, but few words, are exchanged. Before shouldering their packs and heading north, the hikers ascend the stairs of the old wooden Catholic church.
Sunlight filters through cobwebbed windows illuminating the ornately carved Yuquot family house posts flanking the entrance. It’s a striking contrast to the Catholic austerity that no amount of redecorating can completely obliterate. This church, or the one that stood here and burned down before this version was built, was made famous in a 1929 painting by Emily Carr. The Victoria artist, using the parlance of the day, called it The Indian Church. In the early 1990s, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht deconsecrated the church, stripping the building of much of its Christian colonial symbolism and reclaiming it as a community gathering place. Reclamation, in many ways, is the contemporary story of Nootka Island.
Shaped like an inverted triangle, Nootka Island is nestled between narrow inlets and the fetch of Nootka Sound. Its namesake trail stretches for 40 kilometres from Yuquot north to Tongue Point. Much of the route follows the shoreline, often on sloping soft sand or pea gravel that makes for awkward walking. In other places when the tide is low, rocky sea shelves make for fast and easy travel. Where there are impassable headlands, the trail veers inland cutting roughly through the temperate rainforest jungle. An hour’s walk north of Yuquot, the family of hikers arrives at the first crux, an intertidal river estuary. The tide is at its peak, so the parents and kids drop their packs, strip off footwear and bask barefoot in the sand to wait. The sky is blue, and the summer days are long.
For years, the Nootka Trail has been a self-regulating free-for-all—of sorts. No limits, no reservations required. Simply book a seat on a float plane from Gold River, water taxi from Tahsis, or the MV Uchuck III—a small coastal freighter that services Vancouver Island’s west coast—get to the trailhead and start walking. It’s the antithesis of the regulated, heavily quota-ed West Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. And that has always been part of the Nootka Trail’s appeal—a wilderness coastal thru-hike minus the government bureaucracy. But the dynamic is changing here; decolonization is underway on Nootka as it is across Canada.
Though the seminal encounter between Chief Maquinna and Captain Cook is now a fascinating footnote from the time of muskets and sea otter pelts in B.C. history, one thing hasn’t changed: Maquinna’s descendants remain as firmly rooted to this territory as the great chief was.
A lazy hour in the sun passes by. The briny smell of seaweed, exposed to the sun by an ebbing tide, is strong. The water level has dropped to thigh-deep in the narrowest part of the river’s surge channel, so the two adults shuttle the packs across the brackish stream, cold enough to make bones ache. Then they return to cross again, each holding a kid’s hand. Beyond the river, the trail enters the forest for a few hundred rugged metres of slippery roots and windfall, then regains the shore.
• • •
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The overpowering stench of death fills the air. In a tiny cove bookended by sea cliffs, gentle waves lap against a rotting whale carcass. A huge raven perches contentedly atop the gelatinous blob, poking it with an obsidian black beak. With the arrival of hikers, the raven retreats to the branch of a weathered cedar tree overhanging the beach, and perches circumspect. From the shore, the forest looks impenetrable, but it’s a façade. Behind this evergreen fringe lies a different side of Nootka Island, a messy tangle of logging roads and clearcuts. For decades, the region’s Indigenous people have been largely bystanders to the wholesale destruction of the island’s ancient forests from valley bottom to mountaintop at the hands of logging companies like Pacific Forest Products, which went bankrupt in 2005. Today, Western Forest Products holds the rights to log on Nootka Island.
In 2017, the tiny Nuchatlaht First Nation filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to say, “enough is enough.” The nation is claiming title to a large chunk of Nootka Island and some surrounding territory. Government lawyers claimed that they abandoned the island before 1846, the year Britain arbitrarily asserted sovereignty over what is now B.C. But it’s a paper-thin claim, as the Nuchatlaht’s Campbell River-based lawyer Jack Woodward argued when closing arguments in the case were made last September. The Nuchatlaht believe their case is strong.
“We’re hopeful, but now we just have to wait for the judge’s decision,” says Nuchatlaht band manager Sara Janzen.
• • •
Similarly, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht are asserting their historical rights on Nootka Sound. As a first step, the Nation has asked the provincial government to hand over control of recreation sites in their territory, including the Nootka Trail, Muchalaht Lake and Cougar Creek (such places are currently the responsibility of Recreation Sites and Trails BC, a branch of the forest service that is chronically understaffed and underfunded.) It’s part of a broader vision to develop a tourism economy and create opportunities for their members. Azar Kamran, administrator and CEO of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, says they’re waiting for the province to make it official.
“The handover should have happened last year. Right now, we don’t control the trail,” Kamran says. “This is traditional territory. We just ask that people be respectful of nature and leave it better than they find it.”
North of the Beano Creek campground, a morning fog clings to the forest like a loose-fitting cloak. Two wolves trot along the sea shelf, foraging for food. When the tide is out, the table is set, and the wolves are taking advantage. As hikers approach from the north and south, the wolves stop with ears cocked, pondering their next move. Silently they slip back into the rainforest and vanish, like apparitions in the mist.
When Captain Cook first met Chief Maquinna, he was so smitten that he dubbed his anchorage at the southern tip of Nootka Island, ‘Friendly Cove.’ It already had a name: Yuquot. There’s no doubt Maquinna could be friendly, but he could also be fierce.
In 1803, the trading ship Boston dropped anchor at Yuquot. At first, relations between Maquinna and the ship’s captain John Salter went well enough. They feasted together on fresh salmon, a welcome gift for sailors who had subsisted for months on a dreary diet of salted fish. In return Salter gave a musket to Maquinna.
The chief returned to the ship a few days later to present the gun, but now with a broken lock. Captain Salter reacted petulantly, and it wasn’t lost on Maquinna. He left then returned the next day with vengeance in mind. In a swift ambush, Maquinna and his men massacred the crew of the Boston, including the captain. Just two were spared—one accidentally because he eluded capture and hid on the ship, and the other, John Jewitt, by design. Jewitt was the ship’s armourer, responsible for making and repairing weapons. To the shrewd Maquinna, he was an asset worth preserving.
In Jewitt’s memoir The White Slaves of Maquinna, the young Brit recalls with surprising sensitivity and perception the tense exchange that led to the attack.
“… Maquinna knew enough English words and unfortunately understood all too well the reproachful terms that the Captain addressed to him. He said not a word in reply, but his countenance sufficiently expressed the rage he felt…” Jewitt wrote after spending 28 months as a captive of Maquinna.
Rage indeed. Canadian history has traditionally been told by the colonizers. Only in recent times has mainstream Canada begun to reconsider and rethink this narrative. However, there was something about Maquinna that elevated him in the eyes of the colonists, even in an era when governments and polite society considered Indigenous people and culture as something to be conquered and crushed. On the exterior wall of the Legislative Library of British Columbia in Victoria, there’s a row of 14 statues depicting historical figures. They were sculpted in 1912 and it’s a display of exclusively white men, with one exception—Chief Maquinna. In the escalating tensions between Britain and Spain, Maquinna did not side with either, putting his people, and their lands, first and cementing his legacy as a wise and astute leader.
At Third Beach, the northernmost campsite on the Nootka Trail, just two tents are pitched along the tree line. The afternoon sun is intense, almost tropical. Soft sand burns underfoot. The same two kids who left Yuquot four days earlier dive into a tidal lagoon, bracketed by a sheer cliff of black igneous rock and a perfect crescent beach. The parents watch from the shade of a cedar, relieved to have dropped their loads for the day. The place has the feeling of paradise, of something sacred. The impulse to linger and stay is strong. Many like this family of four transit through this West Coast wilderness collecting memories, some of them perhaps even life-changing. For First Nations, landscape is the memory, and today they are reasserting their sovereignty over this incredible piece of Vancouver Island.
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