British Columbia's Enduring Central Coast

Jude Isabella,
January 11, 2013


"You know it's a great day when you're knee deep in sperm." Ryan Cloutier, a young biologist, is delighted with his predicament.

[Editor’s Note: Often passed, seldom visited by outsiders, British Columbia’s Central Coast is home to the continent’s longest-settled places and most enduring peoples. In 2012, a special team of Tyee Solutions Society reporters spent some time there. What they found there was a land and culture that has thrived for thousands of years. These are some of those stories. This reporting was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI). TCI neither influences nor endorses the particular content of TSS’s reporting.]

The rocks in Kwakume Inlet are slippery. Spawning herring roil the shallow water. And Cloutier is happily scooping up as many fish as he can catch with the only net aboard the boat—a child-sized, white-meshed one—and plopping them into the bucket I hold in one hand, my camera dangling from the other wrist.

Every once in a while a fish propels itself out of the water and onto the exposed rockweed. I pounce, the camera bounces. I manage to grab the slippery silver specimen without slipping myself. It's inefficient, but we collect almost 40 herring this way, an impromptu solution to the problem of collecting enough DNA to track herring populations on the Central Coast of British Columbia.

I'm in Kwakume Inlet with four biologists, members of The Herring School, a punning name for an interdisciplinary effort to understand a fish crucial to the marine food web. What do they eat? What eats them? Are there distinct genetic populations—herring tribes or sub-species? How have they sustained human and other predators, now and in the past? It's all new to science.

Across the bay a Heiltsuk fisher practices a much older tradition, attaching kelp to fishing lines and stringing them close to shore. Female herring deposit eggs on seaweed near the shoreline, and males flood the waters with sperm (milt). The seaweed lures fish ready to spawn. Sometimes fishers dangle tree boughs in the water instead. Whatever the medium, later they will retrieve the salty 'spawn-on-kelp' to eat, another product of a ready-to-harvest habitat.

On the Central Coast, past and present co-exist. Not far from here is Namu, where the crumbling ruins of a 20th century fish cannery mark one of the oldest continuously occupied human settlements in North America.

The human footprint has always been part of the story here, its tread sometimes light, at others heavy. Today the herring are scarcer, the salmon more elusive, the forest diminished. Even the humans are fewer: only three people 'occupy' Namu continuously any more. But the story carries on, changing and the same.

It's unusual to find a place 'continuously occupied' by the same cultural group since, well, the beginning of modern human time. The Central Coast's ancient web of people, wildlife and landscape intrigues scientists. They seek to understand its remarkable resilience, a quality they see in a system's capacity to survive disturbance, to change and reorganize but maintain its essence; its capacity, in short, to bounce back from terrible loss or catastrophic events.

This is a capacity we may need some day.

Coast in motion

Carl Humchitt, a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, is our boat skipper on this expedition in pursuit of spawning herring. From Bella Bella, a Heiltsuk reserve, he had steered his Shellfish I, a rugged welded silver bullet of a boat, south to Lama Pass.

A powerfully-built man in his early 40s, Humchitt navigates with ease, vigilant to his surroundings as he points out places of interest and shares pieces of their stories. We pass one section of land he calls "right eye in, left eye out."

"My brother shot a deer there," Humchitt says, gesturing to spot on shore. "He hit the right eye and the deer's left eye popped out."

To its hundreds of thousands of transient visitors, the waters the Shellfish 1 is skipping across are those of the Inside Passage, a marine highway for BC Ferries and other shipping traffic between Port Hardy, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and Prince Rupert. Others see only a spectacular backdrop to a holiday snap taken on a cruise to Alaska. A place to pass through. Weather permitting.

Halfway between Vancouver and Alaska: the Enduring Coast.

Stormy. Formidable. Spectacular. Wild. As dynamic as the words tossed off by casual visitors are, their vision of the Central Coast is still only one-dimensional; they are seeing only a single frame in a long and ongoing movie.

The stretch of coastline south of Kitimat and north of Port Hardy is the bull's eye in the lush, wet coastal eco-region that runs from southeastern Alaska to northern California. It is a landscape in constant, if slow, motion. It teeters and totters in a tectonic rhythm, sinking or rising in response to how glaciers alternately compressed and retreated from it during the last ice age.

As a result, the level of the sea against the flank of the coastal mountains has also gone down and up for thousands of years; it's still in motion. That makes the search for cultural signposts here a challenge. The slow-mo wobbling of the land may bury artifacts underwater or fling them way above the current coastline.

Amidst the post-glacial geological chaos, though, it's certain that people settled in and formed communities. And they took an active role in managing their wider biological communities: salmon, herring, and eulachon runs, nurturing shellfish beds, and tending terrestrial food habitat; what scientists call "Mountaintop to Ocean Bottom" resource management.

Prime real estate

It's no coincidence that three First Nations—Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv and Kitasoo—rub up against each other's boundaries here, a vibrant world destined for territorial tensions. Paddle into almost any inlet or bay and the quantity of middens, a clear mark of occupation, confirms that this place was valuable natural real estate long before Captain George Vancouver sailed through in 1792, or explorer Alexander Mackenzie hoofed it overland a year later. Certainly long before fishers, loggers, and cannery owners swarmed a hundred years after that—or the energy companies now eyeing it as a shipping corridor.

At Lama Pass we briefly turn northeast to avoid Hunter Island, cutting south again where Fisher Channel leads down its east side, an area Humchitt says is the most treacherous in this part of the Inside Passage. One hand on the wheel, he waves to where relentless storms grounded him once for almost three weeks. To me it's an endless unrolling 3-D wallpaper of trees, rocks, ocean... tree, rocks, ocean... trees, rocks, ocean. Left alone here I would die.

Humchitt points to an island, a grim reminder of a long ago raid on the Heiltsuk from the neighbouring Haida First Nation. Fisher Channel leads to Fitz Hugh Sound where Mount Buxton slides into sight, announcing our approach to Calvert Island.

"I can't usually go this fast here, especially in June," Humchitt says. "It's full of humpbacks." And though it's April, as if on cue, a whale fin slices the water, its fluke sinking into the sea seconds later. Humchitt smiles when I ask how he did that.

Herring farts

As we approach Kwakume Inlet the biologists gaze out the back of the boat looking for bubbles in the water. "We don't call them 'bubbles,' we call them 'put ups,'" Humchitt says, and then he laughs, explaining that "put ups" are farts.

Scientists believe that herring sometimes communicate by blowing air out their anus. In a season that has left the biologists and the Heiltsuk bereft of herring, farting fish are a welcome sight. Once we spot the sea lions, eagles, seagulls, and the fisher's lines, the hunt is over.

Herring spawn on hemlock: a 'resilient' fishery.

The fisher across the Inlet, Babsie, a small woman in a purple shirt, white ball cap perched on her head, shoos us away from her side of the Inlet. Her lines stretch across the water, wavy ribbons of attached kelp dangling a metre below the surface. After a few days, Babsie will pull them up, the kelp encrusted with layers of herring roe.

Spawn on kelp (SOK) is a resilient fishery. It benefits multiple species: a high-protein food source for humans and other poachers—shrimp, crabs, and fish—while the herring will swim away to spawn another day. Babsie hopes for a good haul to sell; Japan is the dominant market. Or at least enough to share.

"We don't want you to spook them, and we don't know if there's going to be anymore," she calls, standing on her boat deck, practically vibrating with excitement. "You know, I haven't been down here for three years. They're just coming back."

Scare the herring, Humchitt explains, and they shoot past the kelp, like silver torpedoes. "Not good for the product," he states in his laconic way.

Of course, that's only a problem if there are fish. In the past four decades, spawn events on the Central Coast have declined by 50 percent. Humchitt remembers a time when grounded surf scoters—a type of duck—would paddle the shoreline by the dozens, too full of herring roe to fly. "The ecosystem counts on the herring," he says. "You can't survive without it, nobody can, not even us. It would be the most lethal game of dominoes to lose."

Today the water is milky white, so thick with herring milt the biologists have abandoned their goal of diving to try to puzzle out the place of herring spawn in the subtidal food web. A film of sperm masks everything, my camera lens included, and the biologists can't see a thing.

We adapt. Three of us in the water, three in the boat. Humchitt pushes the craft back from the rocks with one hand, with the other grabbing any fish with the misfortune to plop near his feet.

Snuffling sea lions play close by. Dozens of bald eagles gaze down from cedar trees, or less regally from rocky outcrops, standing amidst the riff raff of seagulls.

With herring spawn comes an explosion of life at all links in the food chain, strands of the food web, whatever—the world is more vibrant than the moment before the fish arrived, even the sky looks bluer, the clouds fluffier, the water greener, the sun brighter. The moment is magical. If a disembodied choir sang to us from the heavens I wouldn't be surprised. A perfect ending to a perfect day.

Except it's not quite over. Humchitt has another story to show us before the day ends.


Not long after we leave Kwakume, we turn to enter Namu Bay—known to its traditional Heiltsuk users as Na'wamu, or Ma'awas.

I'd first heard of Namu through scientific papers. Its sheltering cove at the important junction of Fitz Hugh Sound and Burke Channel was probably habitable as early as 13,500 ago. The sea was lower then. What today is Queen Charlotte Sound, to the north and west, was a coastal plain of lakes and streams where a living could be made.

The earliest archaeological evidence dates human settlements here to 9,700 years BP, or 'before present.' Estimating past populations is an inexact science, but more people certainly lived here seasonally prior to European contact than do now.

As a modern ruin this place had never interested me, until I see it. Holy cow.

The weathered grey profiles of several large buildings line the back of the bay. Moving closer, Humchitt maneuvers the Shellfish I along the crumbling waterfront of a former townsite.

Namu's first European settlers arrived in 1893. They built a fish cannery here and a sawmill. By its modern peak, around 1970, Namu was one of the largest of its kind on the coast, with 3,500 people working on shore and another 1,500 crewing fishing boats.

Now it's all dissolving back into the land and sea. Grey two-by-fours litter shoreline riprap, pilings are bereft of a dock. An old coastal freighter, the MV Chilcotin Princess, bleeding rust, leans against the rotting piers supporting a former warehouse. The liveliest sights are the trees and shrubs reclaiming houses and streets.

After the life-affirming immersion with the herring spawn, we're silent, chilled by the deathly pallor of a modern ghost town. The view from the Shellfish I's back deck is The World Without Us in real time. It makes us thoughtful as we head back to Bella Bella.

Life with ghosts

I return to the Central Coast twice after my stint at The Herring School, getting a second chance to see Namu a month after my first. I discover that the ghost town still has a community, even if it's made up of only three old people.

At first I'm confused when the boat bumps up against a floating dock below the collapsing walls of the old cannery. It wasn't there a month ago. I find it belongs to Pete and Rene Darwin, a couple in their mid-60s who assembled it—along with several small buildings that it supports—from salvaged logs and lumber recycled from the town's collapsing buildings.

Legal title to this modern ruin and some 100 acres around it is held by Namu Properties, owned by Langley businessman David Milne. It's been for sale for a decade but, as Milne says, "it's a complicated property," to unload.

Meanwhile the Darwins, along with Theresa May, 63, who joined them a year after their arrival in 2005, are Namu's "caretakers."

It's a nebulous job description, with little in the way of either specific duties or pay. So they adapt, setting up a party float with picnic tables, a fire pit and gift shop for visiting cruising boats in summer, and sea cucumber and urchin fishers in fall. Overnighters pay a $0.75-a-foot docking fee that hasn't changed in eight years. If you ask nicely, they may give you a guided tour.

This was once a humming settlement, with a nursing station, machine shop and forge, radio shop, store, restaurant, post office, school, and dormitories. It was all left behind when the last operator, B.C. Packers, closed the doors and walked away from Namu.

The faint smell of fish oil lingers amidst the intact buildings, some rented by local lodges to overwinter boats. The store is still "stocked" with magazines, engine v-belts hung along one wall, shelves of paint and spark plugs, fluorescent light tubes, pallets of tartar sauce, mayonnaise, and jam -- the last a sweet lure for marauding martens, resident weasels smart enough to break open the jars and feast. The store had a liquor license until 1995.

"We have spark plugs for your Model T should you want one," May says.

Other buildings are collapsing: roofs falling in, floors and pilings giving way, corrugated metal siding worked loose and rattling in the wind, even as smaller dwellings are going up: birdhouses line the cannery's silent "streets," now alive with flowers, currant bushes, fruit trees, and what I joke are 'culturally modified' alders, coaxed into hearts and other playful shapes.

"You can't be a pansy ass"

When not greeting visitors, Theresa and Rene carve art pieces from wood for their gift shop. Pete takes me to his workshop to show off his foray into the world of magnetic energy. More a student of biology and archaeology, I don't quite grasp the concept and equipment, although from the tools neatly lining the walls and the fact that they're isolated, it's obvious Pete knows how to fix things. Together the trio fish, tend their tulips and daffodils, their peach and kiwi trees, spinach and chives, and chase off the voracious golden-crowned sparrows that maraud their berry bushes.

And occasionally they burn down a house. Or two. Or three.

On a slope behind the cannery is an area they call New Town. Its small frame houses were once the homes of senior employees. Now they're increasingly in danger of collapsing on top of curious visitors whom no amount of signage or warning can keep from entering.

So the Darwins and May did the responsible thing. "We each got a house to burn down," says May, a grandmotherly figure clutching a vente-size go cup of coffee to her fuzzy pink sweater, white hair pulled up into a bun.

They figured the best way to keep some visitor from getting hurt was to remove the temptation.

"I was so excited the night before I couldn't sleep," May recalls, eyes lighting up at the memory. "How often do you get to burn down a house?" In hers, she piled dead candles, garbage bags full of toilet paper and old paint cans onto a freezer in the basement. Evidently, it all went off wonderfully. Now, she says, "Pete calls me 'The Pyro'!"

Each fall Pete, Rene and May tow their floats to a more sheltered cove behind "Whirlwind Bay," Namu's nickname in winter, returning to their station by the cannery in spring. "You can't be a pansy-ass and live in Namu," says Theresa.

Maybe not. Whimsy, however, appears essential. May came here for a summer job, to keep books and pump gas. The gas pumps are gone, there are no more books to keep, but she has no plans to move on.

"I was kind of a shy person," May says on reflection. "But you know, I have a good life here. I'm happy here, and it's good to share. And I have good stories to tell."

The 2.0 existence May shares with Pete and Rene Darwin here, with their satellite dish for Internet and a generator for power, carries on a human story that began on this spot while walls of ice still guarded the valley-tops.

And in a world accustomed to endings—whether happy-ever-after or apocalyptic—the story of this coast has none, no last days. It's about change and continuity, adapting to one damn thing after another. Resilient.

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American Indian History
Researching the Past