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The fourteen hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy passes uneventfully enough. There are occasional whale sightings pointed out by the ship’s watch; humpbacks puff water vapour, a distant pod of orca put on an acrobatic display, a pair of porpoises swim alongside the boat – but I spend most of the time transcribing notes to my computer and a few hours catching up on sleep.

The ferry arrives late and I set up the tent in the dark in a grassy area near the ferry terminal – a noisy, exposed place. Cars rumble by off the ferry for almost an hour and at five in the morning they start queuing up again for the journey back to Prince Rupert.

In the morning, I spent some time in Port Hardy on the internet and then head for Port McNeil, a small town not far down the highway, where the ferry goes to Sointula – the main settlement on a sleepy island of shingled houses. On my way to camp on the far side of the island I stop at a marina to collect some water and a woman doing her laundry at the laundromat sends me to where her boat is moored to collect a huge piece of salmon from her husband. Dinner is sorted!

I decide to camp at Bere Point and as I am riding the gravel road towards the point a police car passes me and pulls up fifty metres ahead. One of the policemen walks purposefully towards me and I wonder if they are looking for a deranged cyclist and have mistaken me for their suspect. However, he merely asks me, as he approaches, if I would like a lift to the point. I refuse as politely as I can and after some jokes about handcuffs and arrest they continue on their way.

Policemen trying to be helpful.

Policemen trying to be helpful.

The pebbly beach at Bere Point is covered with logs, scattered like discarded match-sticks up along the tide line. I cook the salmon and then set up my tent. I go for a walk on the beach when it is almost dark. Two men sit on the beach in the fading light next to a small fire drinking beer – their Saturday night entertainment. We sit and talk awhile.

Eating doesn't get any better than this.

Eating doesn't get any better than this.

Sunset on the beach.

Sunset on the beach.

Logging driftwood.

Logging driftwood.

In the morning I set off for Alert Bay – the major town on a neighbouring island. The island has a large First Nation community and a cultural centre has pride of place at the left-hand end of the harbour, the tribal crest painted on the wall facing the sea, a totem watching over the building. To the right and slightly behind the cultural centre sits a red brick Edwardian building – the abandoned residential school.

Totems and the residential school.

Totems and the residential school.

The history of this community is full of pain. In the late 19th centaury the Canadian government outlawed potlatches – a central ceremonial rite of the native people, occasions of celebration and redistribution of wealth and resources within the community. The colonial administration was hostile to this expression of different cultural values and tried to forcibly stamp it out. The tribes of the area continued to hold potlatches in secret but when their activities where discovered they were charged and tried as criminals for various ‘crimes’ including giving speeches, dancing, carrying and receiving gifts and sentenced to imprisonment. In order to avoid incarceration they were given the option to surrender all their sacred object and ceremonial regalia. The confiscated objects were sold to collectors or sent to various museums.

The community was devastated by their loss and not all of them managed to avoid imprisonment despite giving up their sacred objects. However, showing remarkable resilience, members of the community never gave up petitioning to have the ceremonial objects returned to them and finally in 1970s they were successful in having the majority of them repatriated. The returned masks and other regalia were welcomed back into the community like dearly loved and long missed family members. They form the core of the cultural centre museum collection.

I spend a few hours in the museum watching a film that tells this story and examining the masks which are displayed in a large open room. The curators decided that these masks had spent too much time already locked away in glass cabinets.

Burial ground at Alert Bay.

Burial ground at Alert Bay.

Burial ground at Alert Bay.

Burial ground at Alert Bay.

Eventually I leave the dim museum and return to the afternoon sunshine. The island is small and covered in berries – I can scarcely make any headway at all, my fingers blue from blackberry juice. I head to the back of the island to an abandoned campground to set up camp, my tent facing the sea with the fly open to view the water.

Beach camp.

Beach camp.

I cook on the beach and light a driftwood fire, sitting in the dark staring alternately at the flames and the starry night sky. Satellites flare briefly as their rotation brings reflective surfaces into the sun’s rays. I try to remember what I know of the constellations of the northern sky. A whale signs and splashes offshore in the dark water.

In the morning, I explore more of the island, stopping off at the Ecological Park to walk the boardwalk across a large bog.

Boardwalk over the bog.

Boardwalk over the bog.

Skeletal spruce.

Skeletal spruce.

Bog.

Bog.

I arrive back on Vancouver Island at around 1pm and feel the need to get some miles under my wheels. I set off fast into the warm sunny afternoon. I find myself climbing through hills, the forest largely decimated by logging. The occasional log truck thunders by. The traffic on a Sunday afternoon is quite heavy and seems largely unsympathetic to a laden bike tourist climbing hills on a highway without a shoulder. A truck passes by close enough to practically graze my arm.

I pull into a picnic area late in the evening and cook a hurried meal of noodles and then set up my tent in the dark at the end of a trail leading to a river.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Eileen | April 6, 2015 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Hello Anna
    You will be pleased to hear that the nasty residential school at Alert Bay has been torn down. Many healing ceremonies have taken place as the native community struggles to overcome this soul destroying history.

  2. anna | May 17, 2015 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    I am glad to hear that. It is indeed a soul destroying history that has been repeated all over the world in the encounter between colonising cultures and indigenous cultures.

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