3. Early Encounters
My first inkling that things were not totally fine on the outer coast of south-west B.C. came in February, 1980. A friend and I were paddling our kayaks down Zeballos Inlet, towards Nootka Island located on the west coast of Vancouver Island. We had waited in the Zeballos Hotel for a couple of days, listening to the deafening sound of the rain beating on the metal roof above us and the raspy voices and numbing music of the bar below. Eventually the downpours had seemed less intimidating and we had headed out.
Roughly 400 millimeters (15 inches) of rain fall every winter month in this area and to us it seemed that it was all coming down that very day. The mountains on each side of us were steep and the water was cascading off every rock and mossy outcrop. It was exciting. But, one thing was very odd. When we looked into the water at our white paddle blades we couldn’t see them. The water was muddy. We only had to look at the land to see why.
Much of the coast had recently been stripped of its coastal Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar trees. The blocks of logged clear-cut descended from mountaintop to shoreline and the soil was being washed into the ocean. We were paddling in water that was being muddied by soil that had taken hundreds, if not thousands, of years to accumulate. I would later learn that the next generation of trees might be marginally acceptable to commercial loggers, but by the third generation the soil would be too thin to support much growth. I would also learn that the muddy water affected the life below me in myriad ways. Kelp, which acts as a nursery for fish and crustaceans, grows less slowly in murky water. And when the sediment sinks it smothers benthic sea life.
At the far southeast corner of Nootka Island is the small village of Yuquot, “the land where the wind blows in all directions”. (49.594, –126,617) It is also called Friendly Cove, and is thought to be the site where the first Europeans made landfall on the west coast of North America. Captain Cook apparently received a warm reception. Here in 1778 he entered a small bay looking for fresh water and a place to overhaul his small ships. The local people shouted “Itchme nutka, itchme nutka” to Cook and crew, meaning “go around” to a better anchorage. Cook mistook this and named the island Nutka Island. It was just the beginning of many misunderstandings.
The history of the people who Cook encountered at this place began at least 20,000 years ago. Based on evidence supplied by archeologists, geneticists and linguists, their ancestors came from the headwater regions of the Amur and Lena rivers east of Lake Baikal, in northeastern Asia. These people made their way to the mouths of these rivers and started to establish maritime economies there. By the time the great ice sheets began melting at the end of the Pleistocene, at least 14,000 years ago, it appears that their navigation, boat-building, and fishing skills were already advanced enough to enable them to survive on and off sea and shore.
As the ice melted and the land opened up to them they would have found a bounty of shellfish and finned fish. It is not known exactly when the first salmon appeared, enriching the forest on their upriver migrations, but perhaps the humans and fish evolved together as the ice melted and the land became forested and welcoming.
The First Nation peoples of the north Pacific, from the Ainu and Jomon of Japan across the great arc of the Aleutians and down the coast of North America are some of the oldest pure fishing cultures on the planet. All of the oral traditions of coastal First Nations consider the salmon sacred, always there, and integral to the land. When did indigenous peoples first arrive in North America? Recent discoveries indicate that some of the Americas may have had human occupants 40,000 years ago, or more. Oral histories of First Nations say ‘since time immemorial’. There are outlying places on the west coast of Canada that were never glaciated. This is where the oldest remains have been found. My mother’s ancestors came from Scotland. The oldest human remains there date back about 9,500 years. Before that glaciers covered the whole area. Perhaps the terms “Old Country” and “New Country” need to be reevaluated.
With the arrival of Cook to this village on Nutka Island, the intensely spiritual relationship of the people to the land, sea and salmon began to break down. The local Nuu-chah-nulth people, who had lived well at this place for at least 13,000 years, received metal knives and other valuable objects in trade for their sea otter pelts. But, they also succumbed to European diseases, the rule of distant kings, and the eventual loss of their lands, culture and even their children.
Early seafarers made fortunes selling sea otter pelts in China. Sea otters do not rely on fat to stay warm. Instead, they have the densest fir in the animal kingdom. Word of these luxurious pelts got out in Europe, and between 1785 and 1825 three hundred thirty ships converged on Nootka and nearly exterminated the sea otter population. The sustaining, spiritual relationship of indigenous people to the land and sea was broken and was never learned by the newcomers.
In some ways this early paddle in Zeballos Inlet is a story of rejuvenation. Until the 1980s few people knew or cared about logging practices on our coast — except the local indigenous people, and they were ignored. But once recreational sailors, paddlers and others started visiting the coast an outcry was raised. In 1993, 12,000 people showed up in Clayoquot Sound to support the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations in their protest against industrial scale logging. This became the “War in the Woods”. Logging was halted in Clayoquot Sound and this also led to an agreement to greatly reduce cutting in what became known as The Great Bear Rainforest. (The agreements in place are too restrictive: 80% of old growth on Vancouver Island has been logged and the big companies are rushing to get most of what remains.) Nonetheless, logging practices have improved and the industry’s affects on our sea coasts have been significantly reduced. It shows what can be done and provides some hope.
Although still listed as an endangered species, sea otters have been successfully re-introduced into some of their former range. A small population had managed to survive off the coast of California. Between 1969 and 1972 some of these were captured and released in Queen Charlotte Sound. At the time of this writing they are found in two-thirds of their former range, although they are struggling for survival in some of these areas. This is an important success because these otters are a keystone species. They feed on sea urchins and other creatures that survive on kelp forests, which provide essential cover for herring spawn and other fish. These amazing mammals can dive to 330 feet and use rocks to pry shellfish from the seabed. More otters mean more fish.
Years later, my son, Evan; friend, Dan Elliott and I had a weird and fun experience with a sea otter. In the spring of 2002 we were paddling north up the mainland side of Queen Charlotte Strait. We had camped further south at Shelter Bay, on the mainland, and were headed up towards Cape Caution. I felt a heavy pull on my paddle. When I looked down, there was this big sea otter chewing madly on my paddle. Alarmed, I pushed it off. Then it climbed up on the aft deck on one side of my kayak, dived off the other side and suddenly jumped up onto Dan’s boat. That’s when we understood that this guy wanted to play. He dove from one boat to another, tried sitting on our spray skirts, climbed on our backs, and jumped around for at least an hour. After a while we paddled ahead, as we still had a long way to go. It wasn’t until we stopped at Skull Cove (51.049,-127.563) for lunch and got out of our kayaks that he finally swam away. We never saw him again.
 Nutka Island later came to be called Nootka Island.