British Columbia: Land of rainforests, mists and tales
By Christina Foerch
July 31, 2015
Most Lebanese know Montreal, the “French” city of the Canadian province Quebec with its French brasseries, contemporary art museums, and acclaimed universities. And some of the Lebanese might have traveled around the Eastern part of this giant Northern American country with its pretty countryside and old-fashioned cottages.
Indeed, when coming from such a tiny country as Lebanon, it is quite an amazing experience to fly over such an extensive country as Canada: when approaching the East Coast, one flies over the great frozen Hudson Bay, then over a large area of tundra with hundreds and hundreds of small lakes. Towards the center, there are the giant, never-ending forests of maple trees, Canada’s symbol, which in early fall turn the landscape into an attractive, fiery Indian Summer. Even further towards central Canada are the vast fields of corn and wheat, cut through roads that were designed with a ruler. At some point, the tops of the spectacular Rocky Mountains approach, covered in eternal ice. And finally, one reaches the deep rain forests of the Pacific Rim, the Canadian West Coast. These rain forests have still maintained some of their virginity and wilderness, and yearly attract thousands of tourists – trekkers, fishermen, hunters – with a hunger to dive deeply into nature and become one with the creation of God.
The Pacific Rim doesn’t only bear the secrets of dense forests with its hundreds of meters tall Douglas Firs, mosses and hidden waterfalls. It is also the land of the mist, which appears and loses itself on the steep coastal mountains, diving the wilderness into a land of mysticism. The fog hangs so deeply that earth and heaven are hard to distinguish – they become one entity. An eagle shouts his lonesome cry while flying over a valley. And in the ocean, a group of whales silently travels along the coastline.
This is the land where the spirits came out of the mist. It is Haida and Kwaqiutl and Nuu-chah-nulth country, homeland of hundreds of tribes of native Indians who have lived there for thousands of years as simple fishermen, sophisticated navigators, artistic weavers, storytellers, songwriters, herb collectors, hunters and totem pole carvers. It is the land of the raven and the eagle, of eternal mysteries and visions.
The native Indians believe that God created them in a shell that was floating in the ocean. An eagle saved the human’s lives by picking up the shell and bringing it to the mainland. They claimed to be the “First People” on earth and ever since maintained close ties to the nature and the animals surrounding them.
Due to the mild climate that made survival relatively easy, they had plenty of time to develop a refined culture, arts and crafts and a complex spirituality. These tribes lived in complete harmony with nature and their spirituality reflected their respect for all natural beings. They were the creators of the totem poles, which are holy for them. The totem poles symbolize chieftainships – each family believed that they belonged to a certain animal spirit, for example the raven. This tradition was passed on from one generation to the other, representing deep spiritual values.
The White Man invaded this universe in the early 19th century and settled down. The century to come wasn’t only marked by harmony between the two conflicting cultures. However, many of the white residents of the Canadian West Coast have adopted parts of the natives’ lifestyle, and vice versa.
Some 15 years ago, Tofino was a sleepy fishermen’s village located at the West of Vancouver Island. The island itself is as big as Switzerland and the small village has now transformed into a popular location for eco-tourism, offering whale watching tours, excursions to an island with natural hot springs, kayaking activities and hiking trips deep into the rain forest.
Many of the Nuu-chah-nulth have abandoned fishing as a career, and work as tour operators for whale watching instead. Moses Martin, for example, is a native who formerly worked as fisherman – a traditional profession passed on from his great-grandfathers, from generation to generation. His village once possessed a fleet of forty fishing boats, now they are down to five. Over-fishing is one reason – commercial and sports fishing have emptied the fishing grounds. Also, deforestation had its toll on the salmon reproductive cycles – the creeks, where the small fish grow were often polluted by branches and stones. The young fish couldn’t make their way to the sea and died. In the past, the natives used to clean the creeks and rivers after each heavy winter storm – and the baby salmon had free passage to the ocean.
In recent years, both the forest industry as well as the local population have become much more aware about protecting nature – and they noticed that even in such a large country as Canada, the natural wealth has to be safeguarded.
Martin takes along tourists on his motorboat Orca, which is equipped with a radar – in this way, he can spot the whales. He is also in touch with a scientific whale observation station, from which he receives the latest news of the whereabouts of these large mammals. A whale watching tour lasts around four to six hours and is a must for each visitor. Leaving Tofino behind, the boat passes many tiny little islands, lonely beaches and rocky shores. On the horizon, one can perceive the silvery mountain range of Vancouver Island. Martin can usually spot some whales – gray whales or killer whales. He knows their routes of travel and the time of the year when they pass by. Sometimes, groups of up to twenty whales swim along, while feeding off seaweed. It is impressive to watch these huge animals peacefully and silently swimming along, showing their back fin and the tale, and the fountain of steaming water that they shoot up from their breathing hole. In very rare moments, the whales flip up and let themselves fall down into the water – a spectacle of power, elegance and beauty!
Passing on from water to land, on the small Meares Island, tourists are guided by natives on a historical trail. The local guides tell them about the natives’ way of life and recall fairytales. Signs along the way explain their own version of history, for example an incident like this: “Here was a war path. Two neighboring tribes fought over a salmon creek.”
The guide then goes on into more detail, about which tribe won the salmon war, how both neighboring villages reached reconciliation which ended by celebrating a big potlatch, an Indian feast held in a wooden long house – where, obviously, salmon was served.
The tour around the historical trail can take a few hours or a few days – passionate hikers can bring camping gear along and stay overnight at one of the calm beaches of Meares Island or spot a good place deep inside the rainforest. There are some outspoken rules, though. Don’t leave garbage behind. Keep the food out of your tent – hungry bears might approach! It is best to keep the food somewhere up in a tree – this way it is protected from hungry mice and raccoons and you’ll have your breakfast secured.
The hike usually ends with a visit to the local art gallery – the native people of the Canadian West Coast are excellent silkscreen printers. Their traditional motives of animals are very graphic, abstract and appealing to Westerners. The Nuu-chah-nulth also produce fine silver jewelry, wooden masks and baskets.
For more experienced trekkers, the real West Coast Trail is the right thing to do. Being well equipped with tents, sleeping bags, food, water, maps and a compass, this beautifully located trail takes you for several days along beaches, rocky shores, up to steep forest hills. It also takes you through the mud, over fallen logs, up on several hundred meters high ladders and over-hanging bridges. Some of the most amazing camping locations can be found – at a lonely lake, or at a shore where waterfalls invite for a refreshing shower. The nature is stunning, but the trail can be exhausting. It definitely is a challenge, even for well-trained hikers. However, the trail has become so popular over the years that reservations must be made about 12 months in advance.
Going back to the eco-tourism village of Tofino, the ideal place to stay there is the Tin Wis Resort. It is a Best Western hotel run by natives of the Tla-o-quiaht tribe and located on a beautiful bay between majestic cedar trees. Upon entering the resort, one immediately gets emerged into the special atmosphere of this place with its relaxing music that welcomes the visitor. The windows of the entrance door bear the craft of the natives – a sea snake, which is the Tin Wis’ symbol, is carved into the glass. The symbol is also stitched onto napkins and towels. Most employees are natives from the surrounding villages and in the resort’s restaurant, delicious salmon dishes are served in all varieties – cooked, grilled, or smoked. During summer, one can sunbathe at the sandy beach and swim in the still somewhat chilly water, just to heat up in the whirl pool right after. In spring and fall, hikes along the beach that conclude around a fire where grilled marshmallows are served are the right thing to do and the best way to make new friends with other visitors or locals. However, one must watch out – even during the summer, the fog can come quite unexpectedly and transform the landscape into a mysterious location where one can easily lose his way. This is particularly true when going on a boat tour by yourself – always ask the locals for advice!
Tin Wis Resort is a great place to relax, enjoy nature and forget all about the stress of daily life. In case of boredom – which is very rare to occur – there are many cozy cafés, bakeries and small restaurants to hang out. The neighboring logger’s village even has a small cinema.
In general, the West Coast of Canada bears many exceptionally beautiful spots, and on Vancouver Island, especially around Tofino, the area is easily accessible to tourists. Giant cedar tree forests, pristine beaches, and the wildlife, together with the exposure to the natives’ way of life can be a very thrilling and unique vacation experience.
Vancouver – Pearl of the Pacific
Vancouver, the buzzing, modern, cosmopolitan city is rightfully called the Pearl of the Pacific and going there can nearly evoke a culture shock when coming from low-key life in the wilderness around the area of Tofino. Modern skyscrapers set a great contrast to the mountain range. A hanging bridge, one of Vancouver’s symbols, is at least as beautiful as San Francisco’s Golden Gate, but set into a more beautiful location – Vancouver, set between the mountains and the Pacific, really is a pearl. City life offers plenty of distractions – Robson Street, for example, is the city’s most popular shopping destination. Gastown sports plenty of cafés, bars and galleries, while nightclubs are all over the city. In Chinatown, the biggest of its kind in North America, one can emerge into yet another culture – Asian shops and restaurants, temples and gardens are all interesting places to explore. But don’t consider asking people for directions – many of them don’t even speak English! There are also many cinemas, concert halls and museums, including one with an impressive collection of native art and culture at the University of British Columbia.
Quality of life is extraordinarily high in Vancouver – and one of the reasons is Stanley Park. Beautifully located on a peninsula just opposite downtown, the park is a vast green area where the city people can go jogging, inline-skating, walking, and relaxing. There are tennis courts, bike rentals, and the Aquarium, as well as a big water park where whales and sea lions can be observed from up-close. Vancouver is a great city to enjoy and a perfect place to experience the relaxed way of life that Canadians living in the West Coast are famous for.
Activities in Tofino
Hiking: There are plenty of possibilities – guided tours and lonely hikes for both beginners and experts are available along the shores, in the woods, and on Meares Island. For experienced and well-trained hikers, the West Coast Trail is recommended.
Kayaking and canoeing: Available along the seashore or on lakes in guided tours or alone. Rentals are available all over Tofino.
Diving: Tofino has many scuba diving shops that provide the equipment needed, including wetsuits. Experienced guides will show the way to the most beautiful spots and the best places to locate water animals such as sea lions and seals.
Airplane Tours: The whale watching station possesses a water plane and sometimes takes interested tourists along.