Spectacular islands, sparkling seascapes, towering forests, quaint and isolated coastal communities: travellers find such appealing places in many areas of the world; but add the discovery of totem poles to the equation, and there's only one place to go ... the Pacific Northwest. And within that region, British Columbia's Vancouver Island is the best place to start exploring this unique culture.
Aboriginal people made their homes on the Pacific Northwest coast for thousands of years, where they lived within complex social structures of chiefs, nobles, commoners and slaves. As hunters, fishers and gatherers, they lived on what the natural world provided: mammals and fowl, fish, molluscs, and vegetation. Animal furs, bones, grasses, shells and stones provided the materials necessary for their daily lives, but of all the natural materials available to them, none was as important as the wood from the massive deciduous and coniferous trees of the region. With this wood, they fashioned sturdy homes, tools and canoes. And, they created a unique art form: the totem pole.
Aboriginal peoples appreciated and celebrated the inter-connectedness of living things. They were practical, but they also held strong beliefs in the spirit world, paying respectful tribute to all that they received from nature and letting their imaginations soar with mythic creatures and powerful spirits. They 'wrote' their histories, stories and beliefs by carving totem poles, soaring red cedar tree trunks, created to commemorate important events in the lives of the leading families in the various aboriginal nations, raised with great fanfare at spectacular potlatch ceremonies.
Enter the early explorers and traders, followed by adventurers and artifact hunters who plundered the totem poles for museums and collectors around the world. In addition, potlatches were banned by the Canadian government in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the art of carving totem poles was at risk of becoming lost. But in 1966, a celebration was required to mark the centennial of the joining of Vancouver Island and the mainland to form the colony of British Columbia. An innovative committee came up with the idea of involving the province's First Nations people in a pole carving project; thus was Vancouver Island's "Route of the Totems" born.
Most first-time travellers to Vancouver Island include a visit to the city of Victoria, British Columbia's capital city, in their itineraries. Arrive by ferry from Tsawwassen on BC's mainland or from Washington State, and you will be greeted by a totem pole. At the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal stands the totem pole that won first prize on the Route: a Grizzly Bear and Whale pole created by Henry Hunt, one of the most skilled pole carvers of modern times, while at the Washington State Ferries Terminal in Sidney, visitors are greeted by a Bear and Frog pole carved by Tony Hunt, one of several of Henry's sons who have become carvers.
Proceed into the city itself and there are many more poles to be discovered. Visitors to the Royal British Columbia Museum are greeting in the courtyard by an impressive pole by Richard Hunt, another of Henry's sons: a pole celebrating his family's proud history with crests, masks, chiefs and supernatural creatures. And adjacent to the museum is popular Thunderbird Park, created specifically to exhibit a fine collection of totem poles and to show its many visitors how the poles are created and erected.
What is a capital city without an impressive Parliament Building? Victoria is no exception, and on its grounds, overlooking Victoria's delightful and bustling inner harbour stands - you guessed - another renowned totem pole. Called the "Knowledge Totem," this pole was created by master carver, Cicero August of the Cowichan Tribe and his sons, Darrell and Doug. The pole was erected on the occasion of the closing of the 14th Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, as Victoria took over its role as host of the 15th Games held in 1994. The pole's loon, fisherman, bone game player and frog represent lessons of the past and hope for the future.
Victoria isn't the only location on Vancouver Island to discover fine totem poles. Far from it! Duncan, a small city about 65 km. north of Victoria, is known as the "City of Totem Poles," so created in 1983 by Mayor Douglas Baker to lure visitors to his town. Twelve large cedar logs were donated by the local logging company; some skilled carvers from the region were commissioned; and soon the project began to take place. Today there are about 80 poles in the town and along the adjacent stretch of the Trans Canada Highway, with 41 of the poles included on a self-guided tour. This is the site of the pole with the world-record width - Cedar Man. Carved by Richard Hunt in 1988 from a tree eastimated to be 775 years old, its diameter measures over 6 ft. in diameter.
Proceeding northwards on the Trans Canada Highway the traveller passes such delightful settlements as Nanaimo, Qualicum Beach, Courtenay and Campbell River, all homes to fine totem poles. And then, in the north, comes Alert Bay, one of the few locations on the BC coast where totems remain undisturbed on their original site: the Namgis Burial Grounds, which are closed to the public but whose poles can easily be seen from the roadside. But it is not this cemetery that makes Alert Bay famous for totem pole lovers ... it is the fact that this town boasts the world's tallest totem pole, a two-part, fourteen-figure pole that soars to 173 feet. This pole was carved by six Kwakwaka'wakw artists and thus is not specific to one particular family, but it celebrates the several tribes of the Kwakwaka'wakw nation that have been united by marriage.
Port Hardy, in the north of Vancouver Island, is a well-used arrival or departure point. There, to greet or wish bon voyage, stands the first or last of the "Route of the Totems" pole, a Henry Hunt creation portraying Grizzly Bear clutching a salmon.
The more one learns about totem poles, the more fascinating they become. And seeing them in the spectacular natural surroundings of Vancouver Island is an incomparable experience. Travel the "Route of the Totems," and meet Thunderbird and Killer Whale, Eagle and Raven and Owl, Wolf, Black and Grizzly Bear, the spirits of the Forest and the Sea, two-headed serpents and mythical birds, even a boy with a missing finger that remembers a childhood accident.
Today's world-wide interest in totem poles has led to a renewed sense of pride and identity among the carvers and their families and tribes while the poles themselves, some with outstretched arms and wings to welcome visitors, provide the viewer with fascinating glimpses into a world full of natural and imagined wonders.
I am greatly indebted to Hilary Stewart and her wonderful book Looking at Totem Poles, which led to my interest in these artifacts, and taught me so much as I travelled through Vancouver Island.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com.
Tourism Vancouver Island:
Alert Bay: Big House photos, First Nations Carver, Totem Pole in Ucluelet: ChrisCheadle.com
Alert Bay: totem poles, Empress Hotel: George Fischer Photography
Crow on Totem Pole: Boomer Jerritt
If you go
Tourism Vancouver Island: www.vancouverisland.travel
Tourism British Columbia: www.hellobc.com
Tourism Campbell River and Region: www.campbellriver.travel
BC Parks: www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks
Comox Valley Tourism www.discovercomoxvalley.com
Nanaimo: http://www.nanaimo.ca/ or
Port Hardy: http://www.PortHardy.travel
Parksville & Qualicum Beach www.visitParksvilleQualicumBeach.com
Totem Poles: http://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/museum/totempoles/totem_home.htm
Tourism Cowichan www.visit.cowichan.net
Ten Shades of Green on Vancouver Island
© By Hans Tammemagi
Okay, you're worried about global warming, smog and toxic chemicals. You need a vacation, but you don't want to leave a large environmental footprint. Worry no more! Here are ten terrific ways to enjoy Vancouver Island, and they are all green. These exhilarating activities are not totally carbon neutral (you have to get there), but the emphasis is to reconnect yourself with the delicate beauty of nature while exploring it under your own steam.
1 - Watch the salmon spawn:
One of the best places to watch salmon spawning is Goldstream Provincial Park located 17 kilometres west of Victoria. Hiking trails meander beside the stream that ripples with salmon, and an interpretive centre explains their fascinating life cycle. Best time to visit is between October and December.
2 - Hike to the tallest waterfall in Canada:
Della Falls, at 440 metres, completely dwarfs Niagara Falls at a comparative paltry 57 metres. Located deep in Strathcona Provincial Park, the oldest in BC, Della Falls is surrounded by peaks that soar over 2,100 metres, sparkling alpine lakes and dense forests of aromatic fir and cedar. Strathcona Park Lodge is the perfect base for your hike, and it also offers rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, natural history, wilderness survival, orienteering, mountaineering and more.
3 - Gaze up, up, up at big trees:
Cathedral Grove, located in MacMillan Provincial Park, provides one of the most accessible stands of giant Douglas fir trees on Vancouver Island. Here you can stroll through a network of trails under the shadow of towering, ancient Douglas fir trees, majestic giants untouched by the modern world - some more than 800 years old. West of Qualicum Beach and east of Port Alberni.
4 - Dive deep into the subterranean world:
Like a miner, don a hard hat with lamp and descend deep into utter darkness at the Horne Lake Caves northwest of Qualicum Beach. Slivers of light from your lamp reveal the unusual formations that dripping calcite solutions created over centuries. Delicate soda straws, bacon strips, stalagmites and stalactites cover the walls and ceilings. Feel like a tiny insect wandering in meandering arteries of an enormous stone giant. A pervading mood of dark powers, entombment and mysticism envelopes you. (Good caving can also be found at Little Huson Cave Park south of Port McNeil.)
5 - Visit the longest raptor flight cage in North America:
Watch in awe as eagles spread enormous wings and cruise effortlessly from one end of the 40-metre cage to the other. The North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre near Parksville acts as a hospital and rehabilitation compound for injured wildlife that provides medical attention to 1,000 animals and birds each year. It functions also as a wildlife showcase with educational displays and countless heartwarming stories. See Knut, a huge black bear abandoned by his mother, and Brian, a bald eagle whose shot-off beak was replaced by a prosthetic device.
6 - This art rocks:
One of the finest panels of prehistoric petroglyphs (figures carved on rock) in BC, named K'ak'awin, awaits your view at Sproat Lake Provincial Park, near Port Alberni, the salmon capital of the world. No one knows who carved it or why. Does it represent a mythical marine creature, perhaps an ancient Loch Ness monster? Enough mystery? Enjoy swimming at the fine beach or try some fishing.
7 - Float in a kayak:
Feel intimately part of the sea in a kayak, rising and falling with the swell, with only a few millimetres of plastic separating you from the deep blue. View seabirds, seals, sea lions and, if lucky, even killer whales. Vancouver Island is world famous for kayaking, especially on the more sheltered east coast, dotted with beguiling islets. It's rougher on the west coast, but good kayaking abounds, for example, at the Broken Island Group and Clayoquot Sound.
8 - Snooze in a tree:
Deep in the forest, a womb-like globe named Eryn hangs like a Christmas ornament. "A sphere is a perfect shape," explains Tom Chudleigh, its creator. "It represents wholeness and offers spiritual wellness." Inside, discover the snug living space, compact and finished with teak and mahogany. Sway magically with the breeze and feel like you are part of the forest kingdom. More important, you are treated to a wonderfully soothing sleep. Near Qualicum Beach.
9 - Ramble the rugged, northwestern tip:
For a multi-day wilderness hiking experience, nothing beats the Cape Scott and North Coast Trails northwest of Port Hardy at the tip of Vancouver Island. The trails wander 60 kilometres with half of them situated along coastal terrain offering views of the Cape Scott lighthouse, remnants of 19th century Danish settlements, old-growth Sitka spruce, remote beaches and amazing sea life. Prepare carefully; this is for experienced hikers.
10 - Swing like Tarzan:
Experience vertical adventure in a treetop obstacle course. The TreeGo course, which is part of Wild Play Element Park near Nanaimo, takes you high into a Douglas fir forest where you slide on zip lines and clamber amongst suspended bridges, scramble nets and swinging logs. (Zip line and high rope course are also available at Strathcona Park Lodge, see above).
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.
Hans Tammemagi: Caving, Kayaks, Sphere, Tree Walking & Eagle
Tourism Vancouver Island:
Horne Lake Caves(2) Whale Watching: ChrisCheadle.com
Della Falls (3): George Fischer Photography
Fly-fishing on the Cowichan, Salmon - Cortes Island: Boomer Jerritt
If You Go
To plan your green getaway, visit: www.vancouverisland.travel
Goldstream Provincial Park: www.goldstreampark.com ;
Della Falls: for Strathcona Park Lodge:
Strathcona Provincial Park: www.strathconapark.org ;
Cathedral Grove: www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/macmillan.html
Horne Lake Caves: www.hornelake.com ;
The North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre:www.niwra.org
Sproat Lake Provincial Park: www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/sproat.html
Cape Scott and North Coast Trails: http://www.northernvancouverislandtrailssociety.com/ ;
The TreeGo course: www.wildplayparks.com