The day dawns grey, sea and sky pewter, as the big canoe slips easily through the water. We are in Tofino on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island with Gisele Martin, a First Nations guide and co-owner of Tla-ook Cultural Tours. The heavy, wooden canoe we are paddling is a traditional ocean-going vessel hand carved by her uncles and her Nuu-chah-nunlth father, Joe Martin.
“The names of my grandfathers have been known in the area for 42 generations,” Gisele tells us, pointing out a large First Nations village hugging an island shore. “The Nuu-chah-nunlth people have lived here in the Northwest Pacific for much, much longer than that.”
While the land surrounding Tofino is traditional Nuu-chah-nunlth First Nation territory, the Canadian government hasn’t signed a treaty with local First Nations people. Tensions between the Native and Caucasian populations, usually just under the surface, sometimes reach a boiling point here.
In the 1700s, more than 200 native long houses dotted the land where the town of Tofino now stands. These traditional structures, made of weather-resistant cedar, could measure more than 100 feet and served as communal homes and meeting places. By the 1800s, the native peoples were seeing European trappers, traders, and settlers and one of the area chiefs allowed the British to establish a trading post in Tofino. His generosity wasn’t rewarded. By 1909, the Canadian government started pushing First Nations people off their lands and onto reservations. Much First Nations culture was lost due to residential schools and many members tumbled into a cycle of poverty and substance abuse. Gisele and her husband, Doug Wright, are trying to reverse that trend with Tla-ook Cultural Tours.
“Mine are an ocean-going people; we are comfortable in the water,” Gisele says, steering the canoe close to a tree-covered island. “They used to use a canoe like this one to hunt seals. For whales, they used a larger canoe with seven or eight paddlers. As soon as a whale was killed, a hunter jumped into the water and sewed the whale’s mouth shut to keep it from sinking. It was important to be able to go underwater for a long time. My grandfather could hold his breath for four minutes. Eating fish eyes is said to help you see well underwater.”
A bald eagle calls from the top of a tree snag and Gisele calls back. “In the summer time, my eagle friends are in the same places. Same trees, same nests because they mate for life. Now they are scattered.”
As we pass different islands, Gisele talks about the conflicts over land ownership and resource management. “In 1984, my people declared Meares Island a marine preserve,” she says. “A company wanted to log the land and our’s was one of the first logging protests. This is our garden and we blockaded it to protect it. My grandparents, along with others, lived on the blockade front for nine months.”
Canada took the native peoples to court. But the government couldn’t substantiate their ownership claim and the old growth trees, many of which are more than a thousand years old, were saved.
In 1993, First Nations protestors and environmental groups again challenged the government’s right to sell logging rights with the Clayoquot Blockade, a major logging protest that drew international attention. “That summer, more than 800 people were arrested,” she says. “My father and I traveled to Switzerland to the United Nations to speak out against the logging.”
The Clayoquot Blockcade brought the issues of traditional land rights and threats to the environment in this isolated place to the world’s attention. It also forced the Canadian government to begin treaty negotiations with the area’s First Nations people. And, while no treaty has been signed and the land isn’t yet fully protected, Gisele insists they’re making progress.
Into the Garden
She eases the canoe alongside a gaggle of high-tech, multi-colored kayaks. Our beefy canoe looks huge next to the skinny kayaks. Gisele has us disembark and then ties our canoe securely to a nearby tree. This is Meares Island, now overseen by the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks Society, an poorly-funded First Nations non-profit. They’ve built and maintain a raised network of hand-split cedar planks that enable visitors to explore part of the island without damaging roots of the old trees – and without getting our shoes muddy. The haphazard boardwalk, resembling something out of The Hobbit, undulates like a big snake around trees, over bogs, and through the forest.
“Hand splitting the cedar makes it last longer,” says Gisele, effortlessly negotiating the gaps and slippery spots on the track. “If you use sawed cedar, it just rots.”
Gisele points out a green lichen called fairy puke on a large rock. She says it’s a sign of a clean environment. “Certain lichen won’t tolerate pollution,” she tells us. “Some of the lichen on Meares Island are more than 800 years old.”
We move along the trail as Gisele points out different ferns, mosses, and a brown salamander hiding in the corner of a small pool. When she comes to a six-inch long slug, she stops. “This is a forest slug, one of several different types here that include banana, tail dropper, and jumping slugs,” she explains. “Unlike garden slugs from Europe, these forest slugs eat only dead foliage. They’re important forest recyclers and you have to watch out for them because they can’t see well.”
According to Nuu-chah-nunlth legend, humans and animals belong to the same big family and were once able to communicate easily. Long ago, there was a gathering and the humans were late to arrive. The animals wanted to prepare a big ceremony to welcome the humans and the old eagle said, “I can fly high. I will fly high to see when the humans are coming and let you know so you can prepare.” But the old eagle’s eyesight wasn’t good. No one wanted to disrespect the elder eagle by telling him so. Instead, the slug offered, “My eyes are very good, Eagle. You should use them.” With that, the slug plucked out his eyes and handed them to the eagle who used the slug’s eyes and alerted the animals of the people’s approach. To this day, the slug cannot see well.
Gisele pauses as we round a corner. “My slug friends also tell what the weather is going to do. For example, if you find a forest slug napping on the top of a bush like this one, it means the weather will be mild. It may get a little misty, but it won’t rain or blow hard, no matter what the weatherman says.”
We pass a large cedar tree with a long strip of cedar missing. Last year, Gisele harvested the bark to make a cedar bark purse, one of many traditional uses of forest products.
First Nations canoe builders like Gisele’s father and uncles use spruce sap for a varnish to waterproof their canoes. Throughout the forest, there are culturally modified trees (CMTs) that show signs of traditional uses. Some, like Gisele’s cedar, have had bark carefully stripped from it so that it doesn’t harm the tree. Other trees have fallen from storms or age and have been carved on the spot into canoes. Still others have been cut down to be used in long houses.
“Our tribal law forbids us to cut down a tree unless we can use all of it,” Gisele says.
We come upon a large group and we step off the boardwalk allowing them to pass. These are the people who came to the island in the kayaks. Tour companies pay the Tribal Parks Society a few dollars for each visitor they bring to Meares Island.
As soon as the group passes, Gisele lets out a squeal. “Yes,” she exclaims, crouching beside a tree stump. “I’ve been looking for these all season.”
A cluster of bright orange fungi, chicken of the woods, is growing on the underside of the stump. Gisele cuts the mushroom from the wood, careful to leave some, and stashes it in her pack. She smiles triumphantly. “These are absolutely delicious and they come out for only a very short time.”
We settle under a cedar tree and pull out our lunches. “These forests are incredibly important,” she says, munching on some greens she’s gathered from her home garden. “Scientists have found that 80% of the nitrogen in trees is ocean nitrogen. The connection between the health of the forests and the health of the oceans and salmon is undeniable.”
She digs into huge pad of moss and hands us each a piece of licorice fern root. “Tuck it into your cheek,” she instructs. The root tastes super sweet. “This root is good to use when you’re traveling because it gives you energy.”
Our time on Meares Island is coming to an end. We push off in our canoe, dipping our paddles into the water and falling into a wordless rhythm. The sky is darker now and a brisk wind whips over the waves.
Gisele begins singing a Nuu-chah-nunlth song of thanks. Her voice echoes over the water, transporting us to a more ancient time. We don’t know the words to the song, but we, too, feel grateful.– Story by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; Photos by Bobbie Hasselbring and Anne Weaver, RFT Editor
Editor’s Update: in December 2015, RFT readers contacted us saying they were having trouble getting a hold of Ta-look tours. Apparently, this small business has closed. However, another First Nations company T’ashii Paddle School how gives dug out tours to Meares Island. They also do Standup Paddle Boarding. While our editors haven’t personally experienced their services, their tours look quite similar to what Ta-Look did and their website looks terrific tofinopaddle.com/