Breathtaking beauty and unpredictability

Richard Walker
7/29/08

The country of the Shishalh people is easy to get to and not soon forgotten

Firsthand look

SECHELT INLET, British Columbia - Our five kayaks settled off Miller Island at the confluence of Sechelt Inlet, Jervis Inlet and Hotham Sound. Our kayaks bobbed lightly, clouds swirled in the sky, a bald eagle watched from a cedar, forested mountains towered above us.

Silence. Then, a whoosh of air - behind, in front, all around. Seals - seemingly dozens of them - surrounded us, either curious or bothered by our presence. The sound of their breathing broke the dead calm.

I thought, ''How do you top this?'' Twenty-four hours later, I found out.

Chatterbox Falls roared as fog shrouded the mountains towering above. Here my wife, Molly, and I were at the end of Princess Louisa Inlet, which Capt. George Vancouver skipped in 1792 because he believed the entrance to the five-mile inlet was only a creek.

I had taken a footpath that led from the dock to the east side of the falls. To get a closer - and safer - look from the front of the falls, I took a path leading to the beach. When I turned and looked up, the mountain exhaled, sending a wall of mist my way. As the falls showered me, the fog broke, revealing mountain peaks towering more than a mile above me.

All of Sechelt, or Shishalh, country is like this: a powerful place, a world of breathtaking beauty and unpredictability. It's easily accessible: A 50-minute ferry ride to Langdale from Horseshoe Bay northwest of Vancouver, site of the 2010 Olympics. It's a visit you won't forget.

You and the family can have your own events marathon of Olympic proportions: This area, known as the Sunshine Coast, has numerous bays, coves, creeks, inlets and lakes. The area offers camping, canoeing, diving, fishing, golfing, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing and windsurfing.

Past and present blur here. The earliest written descriptions could have been written yesterday: ''Immense cascades dashing down chasms against projecting rocks and cliffs with a furious wildness that beggars all description,'' Vancouver's botanist Archibald Menzies wrote of Jervis Inlet 216 years ago.

''At certain times of the day, the whole inlet seems choked with mountains, and there is no apparent line between where the cliffs enter the sea and where the reflections begin,'' author Wylie Blanchet wrote of her first visit to Princess Louisa Inlet in the 1920s.

According to the Shishalh, their earliest ancestor, Spelmu'lh, first settled at ts'unay, at the mouth of a river valley on what is now called Deserted Bay in Jervis Inlet. Ch'askin, the thunderbird, helped him raise the cedar roof beams for his longhouse. Ch'askin helped the Shishalh people build and settle other village sites.

At the time of European contact, the Shishalh occupied about 80 village sites centered around four principal villages: xenichen, at the head of Jervis Inlet; ts'unay, at Deserted Bay; tewanek, in Sechelt Inlet; and kalpilin in Pender Harbour. Estimates of the early population range from 5,000 to 20,000.

In 1986, the Sechelt First Nation became the first aboriginal band in Canada to achieve self-government. Today, the population is about 1,100. The Sechelt First Nation is economically diverse, with investments in an airline, a deep sea fishing vessel, a gravel mine, an office and cultural complex, a salmon hatchery and other business enterprises.

There are a lot of ways to see the world of the Sechelt people. But to get the Shishalh perspective, as well as oral history, legends and stories, consult a Shishalh-owned company or tour provider.

Example: Our boat captain pointed out village sites and pictographs en route to Princess Louisa Inlet, and our tour included a visit to Malibu, a Young Life Ministries camp at the mouth of the inlet. He also shared his view of fish farming and logging practices.

But at the Sechelt First Nation museum, we learned that Malibu was built on the site of sway-we-lat, a Shishalh village. According to Candace Campo, our Shishalh kayak guide, a small island in the mouth of the inlet is a burial site. We learned that the pictographs marked memorial and resource sites. And we came to know sites by their names. Chatterbox Falls is ko-kwah-lain-am. Mount Albert, which towers 8,350 feet above the entrance to Princess Louisa Inlet, is sluh-uhtl. Jervis Inlet is leg-o-main. And through Campo, we learned about traditional and contemporary environmental stewardship of the Shishalh people.

Knowing some of the culture and history, we came away with a deeper understanding of this awesome place.

Here's a list of starting points.

" Galleries, museums and shopping:

Visit Gift of the Eagle Gallery, 689 Gibsons Way, in Gibsons (www.giftoftheeagle.com). The gallery has a stunning selection of contemporary Northwest Coast Native art - jewelry, music, painting, pottery and sculpture. Artists represented include Jessica Casey, cedar hats; Carol Evans, watercolors; Janice Morin Stiglitz, carved masks; Roy Henry Vickers, prints; and Joe Wilson, carvings and prints.

The Sechelt First Nation's Tem Swiya Museum, on Highway 101 in Sechelt, chronicles the history of the Shishalh Nation with displays of art, baskets, cedar carvings, hand-carved cedar canoes, personal stories, photographs and other artifacts. The adjacent Tsain-Ko Gift Shop and Art Gallery (www.nativegifts.com) has books, cedar carvings, gold and silver jewelry, music, souvenirs, sportswear and more.

At the Sechelt-owned Tsain-Ko Village Shopping Centre, you can have lunch, see a movie, shop, and go online during a latte break at Starbucks.

" Kayaking and nature walks:

Campo owns Talaysay Tours Kayaking and Cultural Adventures in Sechelt (call (800) 605-4643; visit www.talaysaytours.com). Kayak tours start at Porpoise Bay Provincial Park, near the southernmost part of Sechelt Inlet.

Campo is an anthropologist and experienced kayak guide. On her guided kayak tours, she shares oral history, legends and stories of the Shishalh people. You'll learn about the ecological practices of the Shishalh people and view many species of marine life.

Campo is friendly and warm; kayaking with her is like kayaking with family. On our tour, we relaxed on a beach (another village site) and chatted over a snack she prepared. She answered our questions (What is the Shishalh name for eagle? Sea gull? That island? That plant?). Two salmon leaped in the bay. An eagle sang as its mate took flight.

Campo offers a variety of kayak tour options, each lasting about three hours. Consider her Talking Trees Tour; you'll explore Porpoise Bay Provincial Park trails and learn about medicinal and food plants with an experienced First Nations guide.

" Don't miss: You'll want to take a boat tour up Jervis Inlet to Princess Louisa Inlet and Chatterbox Falls. Jervis is a 30-mile, glacial carved fjord, walled in by mountains towering as high as 8,000 feet. The entrance to Louisa is exciting; the tide flows through the narrow entrance at about 10 knots.

For a recommendation of a tour provider, ask Campo or visit www.sunshinecoast.ca.

The Sechelt Rapids at Skookumchuck Narrows on Sechelt Inlet are fast, at 16 knots during tidal change, reportedly the fastest tidal rapids in North America; Campo said Shishalh canoes traditionally traversed the rapids. Today, experienced sea kayakers accept the rapids' challenge.

The Skookumchuck Rapids Trail leads from Egmont to Skookumchuck Provincial Park and a rapids viewing point. The walk is about two miles one way through temperate rainforest; on the return you can reward yourself with fresh-baked goods and tea at The Green Rosette, a charming bakery near the trail's entrance.

Visit Egmont Heritage Centre (www.egmon theritagecentre.com) across the street from the trail entrance; the centre is a museum with exhibits related to the area's Shishalh heritage, as well as fishing and logging industries.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.

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