Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Jan 10, 2010 - 6 comments









Chapter One

Part Eight

Captain Vancouver’s boats continued on their way northward up the coast as far as Jervis Inlet. Vancouver had high hopes for this broad inlet, which he named after Sir John Jervis, a rear admiral in the British navy. Doglegging for more than 75 kilometres back through the coast ranges, it gave every evidence that it might be the northwest passage they sought. But at the end of the afternoon on June 18, “all our hopes vanished,” Vancouver reported, “by finding it terminate, as others had done, in swampy low land...”

The boats had now stayed out longer than Vancouver had intended and he began his return trip to the ships, which is where he was heading on the morning of June 21 when, unexpectedly, he spotted a pair of vessels flying Spanish colours anchored off Point Grey. These were the Sutil and the Mexicana, commanded, respectively, by Dionisio Alcala Galiano and Cayetano Valdes, sent by the Spanish to continue their own exploration of Georgia Strait. Vancouver went aboard the Sutil, where he shared breakfast with Galiano and his officers, and the two commanders agreed that they might as well pursue their exploration of the coast in tandem.

Vancouver continued on to Birch Bay, then moved his ships out into Georgia Strait to rendezvous with the Spanish. The Spanish vessels were schooners, only fourteen metres long with crews of about twenty men, much smaller than their British counterparts. The small flotilla worked its way northward along the stretch of shoreline that tourist promoters would later give the cheerful name, Sunshine Coast. Vancouver found it anything but cheery. The low skies, unbroken forest and brooding mountain ranges left him depressed; he used words such as gloomy, dull, dismal, uninteresting and dreary to describe what he saw and the way he felt.

(It is tempting to deride Vancouver for being too blinkered by his European aesthetic to recognize the wild beauty of the coast. Europeans preferred nature to be picturesque, cultivated, not so apparently inimical to human settlement. But it should also be recalled that Vancouver was conducting his survey during a period of global cooling now known as the Little Ice Age. From roughly 1300 to 1850 the climate was generally cooler than it later became; during the eighteenth century, for instance, mountain glaciers are known to have been in advance all over the world. When the first Europeans arrived on the Northwest Coast they experienced a world that was quite different from the present: colder, cloudier, wetter, in general much less pleasant.)

As the Europeans passed up the coast they anointed the landscape with names: names of friends, of naval colleagues, of national heroes and famous battles. Naming was a way of claiming. It was also a way to honour patrons, to recall past glories, to curry favour with superiors; a way, in short, of making the coast British while at the same time advancing a career. The Spanish did their own christening in their own language, but for the most part it is the British names that have survived. Cape Mudge, after Lieutenant Zachary Mudge, one of Vancouver’s officers. Bute Inlet, after the Earl of Bute, a prominent politician. Burrard Inlet, after Harry Burrard, a friend and former shipmate. And on, and on.

After investigating Desolation Sound (named by Vancouver for what he found to be its gloomy atmosphere) and probing the channels and inlets at the north end of Georgia Strait, the two expeditions went their separate ways. It became obvious to Vancouver from the tidal flow that open water existed ahead of him; that is, that Vancouver Island was just that, an island; and he decided to follow what appeared to be the most navigable passage northward via Discovery Passage and Johnstone Strait, what is today the main shipping channel through the lower Inside Passage.

The Spanish preferred to investigate the labyrinthine back channels through the islands that lie between the mainland and the large island. Like the British, they concluded that this stretch of coastline had little to recommend it. The author of the official journal of the Spanish expedition concluded that “the gloomy and sterile districts in the interior of this strait offered no attraction to the trader, since in them there were no products, either of sea or land, for the examination or acquisition of which it was worth while to risk the consequences of a lengthy navigation through narrow channels, full of shoals and shallows. We did not see otters or other animals whose skins might set an edge on greed; the character of the land did not offer expectations that places would be found suitable for the formation of settlements or in which the winter could, in case of need, be passed. Only a philosopher might, perhaps, find in these districts food for reflection, seeing there a land and peoples so near to the primitive state of the world, so far removed from European civilization, which they did not appreciate and for which they had no desire.”

The explorers had entered the territory of the Kwakwaka’wakw, who inhabit northern Vancouver Island, the adjacent mainland and the scattering of islands in between. As the Spanish journalist noted, much of this territory was barren of sea otter, so contact with outsiders had to this point been limited. But the Kwakwaka’wakw of Johnstone Strait were not so completely cut off from “civilization”. They were already receiving a steady flow of European goods, obtained via traditional trading routes from the Nuu-chah-nulth on the other side of Vancouver Island. When Captain Vancouver stopped at the village of Whulk at the mouth of the Nimpkish River, he reported that the people were growing bored with iron goods and “nothing but large sheets of copper and blue woollen cloth engaged their attention in a commercial way.” Not exactly the naive primitives that the Spanish described.

It was early August and Vancouver decided he had time to carry out one more survey before heading for Nootka. After surviving a near disaster when both Discovery and Chatham grounded on reefs in Queen Charlotte Strait, he sailed across Queen Charlotte Sound, one of the few places along the coast where the mainland is exposed to the open Pacific, before ducking into the long reach of FitzHugh Sound and finding a harbour at Safety Cove, a nick on the inside shoreline of Calvert Island. From there the final boat expeditions of the summer were launched to explore Smith Sound, Rivers Inlet and Burke Channel. When these were completed, Vancouver weighed anchor for Nootka, where he arrived at the end of the month to find his Spanish counterpart, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, waiting for him.

Next time: Diplomacy at Nootka