A Kayak Journey to Vancouver Island’s Wildest Forest

There are some things to look out for to know if a logging road is ‘active’ or not while cruising the backroads of Vancouver Island. Huge, freshly compacted tire tracks with wet streaks from water jets spraying red-hot brake drums on the downhills, and encroaching roadside vegetation vertically clipped to a height of 20 feet, all coated with dust or mud depending on the weather, -these are good clues that rivet one’s attention firmly to approaching blind corners. Even without such signs, one must always assume that these roads are active and that without luck or care, a terrible, crushing death awaits.

At any moment, -generally when one’s vigilance is distracted by heartstoppingly gorgeous views over the landscape, -views only enabled by that most hideously distorted landscape that is the ubiquitous Vancouver Island clearcut, suddenly, one’s vision is engulfed by that most monstrous of industrial machinery, the full 100-ton-loaded, off-road Pacific loggingtruck roaring towards you. With its load of enormous ancient logs stacked twice as high as the truck, the on-rushing beast takes up the entire road. Now your heart is thoroughly stopped. The rule of the road is that might is right and barring any nearby pullout, your immediate and only survival option is the ditch. The deal on these public-financed roads is that if you get stuck there, or worse, the log-hauler will back up and pull you out. Krista and I are headed out beyond the exhausted, belching, 1910 forest-consuming pulp-mill of Port Alice, the farthest community reachable by blacktop on the island.

There are still 100 kilometres of active logging road to travel to get to the Pacific Ocean where we intend to commence our UVic research expedition to the remotest and wildest corner of Vancouver Island. Going against the grain of the moment of voracious timber extraction, we stuggle on in my old beater Volvo, Veronica, hearts in mouth, into the dust-choking onslaught of big logging. We face a rotation of trucks which are hauling out of East Creek, out through the gutted Klaskish valley, alongside the wasted Klaskino Inlet and out to the Mahatta River log-dump where they unload into Quatsino Sound and head back for more. It is truly heartbreaking to see these trucks loaded with 1000-year-old yellow cedar from the highlands of the East Creek valley, -the 85th of Vancouver Island’s 91 primary watersheds to be roaded and gutted in 150 years of massive industrial logging. The primeval forests of the Klaskish Valley, immaculate until 1997, have already been destroyed by Interfor, and just last year an incredibly steep mainline was punched from there into East Creek.

Now another unconscionable assault on our island’s magnificent wilderness is in full swing. The East Creek valley is an intact primeval ecosystem and contains an elk herd, wolves, cougar and bears. Marbelled murrelets nest in its ancient moss-laden trees and all 6 species of salmon run up its crystal-clear streams. But it is so remote and so far from the general public radar screen that this vicious crime against nature is being perpetrated virtually unchecked. In our wildest dreams, we hope that our efforts at East Creek might somehow help protect this jewel of wilderness from the depredations of voracious industrial logging corporations.

We launch our kayaks into the robin-egg blue waters of Klaskino Inlet which gets that colour from white marble silt carried by streams into the Pacific salt water, and begin the 5 hour paddle to the Brooks Peninsula were we plan to set up our base camp. Soon the clanking roar of the log-hogs begins to dissipate and is superceded by the sounds and silence of nature. Nevertheless, it’s still a long way to the real wilderness of our destination. Gradually we pass under the flanks of Yaky Kop Mountain and come alongside Tsowanachs, an ancient, now abandoned Quatsino village site.

All that remains of this village are deep shell midden berms which outline the old house footprints, which are all growing over with thimbleberry bushes. Its most ideal location behind a chain of islets has protected the sandy beachfront from the Pacific storms, but the entire landscape surrounding the village has been brutally stripped of trees. Directly across the inlet looms one of Vancouver Island’s most disgusting logging obscenities, Weyerhaeuser’s Red Stripe Mountain, better known as ‘Road Stripe’ now, with its flanks completely roaded and denuded right from peak to beach. There are 3 known abandoned villages sites in this area between the north Brooks Peninsula and Quatsino Sound, and Tsowanachs, as well as the one on the north side of Klaskino Inlet at Side Bay have had their surrounding forests ruined by the insatiable clearcutting. The other village site, called Klaskish, lies at the base of the Brooks Peninsula near the East Creek estuary and the forested landbase that sustained it has thus far been spared the axe.

We plan to do a reconnaisance of the forests of East Creek and the Klaskish village environs, looking for Culturally Modified Trees. CMT’s are living heritage trees, which show evidence of usage by traditional First Nations who once lived in the area. Our project is to wander through the forests and drill increment bore samples of select CMT’s which we might find. By counting the rings in the calluses that grow across the barkstrip, or planksplit wounds, we can get an idea of when people last lived in these forests and how far and wide they travelled through them. So little is known about this village, and there is a lot to learn from the amazing story that is written in these CMT’s. As we paddle around Heater Point and out into the unobstructed Pacific Ocean swells, the hideous Red Stripe Mountain finally disappears behind us. We set our bearings on Mount Doom, in the centre of the Brooks promontory and as we paddle a porpoise surfaces here, a raft of curious sea otters bob their whiskered heads in our direction and slip under the sea and swim away. Few people in todays world will ever again have the chance to experience the Earth’s magnificent wilderness. It is disappearing so fast.

We pass beyond the ‘Cutting Edge’ -that extent to which modern ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’ has penetrated, and are now heading out into a pristine, primordial place. Before us stretches that rarest and most precious of Vancouver Island vistas, -an unobstructed forested landscape as far as the eye can see in every direction, but now there’s a difference in how it’s seen. There’s a sea-change in consciousness moving from one world to this wild and lonesome place.With all Babylon blasting behind, and the wondrous whelm of wilderness ahead, we press on, brought directly to the moment. Entering into the planet primeval, in which we seem so genetically, if not instinctually familiar, our moment is suspended in these gentle ocean undulations, juxtaposed in vulnerability and survival, and haunting, fearsome and mysterious beauty. How distant it is, so increasingly rare and alien to us, that we look at it as though we originated from somewhere else. But people lived here in the distant past, in wilderness, as did we all, and did so as fully functioning participants in the ecological processes of the land and sea. Their skillful stable civilization persisted here harmoniously for millenia.

We have come here to discover some of the story of their tenure which is hidden very subtly, deep in these forests. After a couple of hours of paddling down the shores of Brooks Bay we pass out of the ocean swells into the calm waters behind MacDougall Island and glide silently up to the beach at the Klaskish village site. This is where we will stay for the next two weeks. We pull the kayaks right up into the forest behind the wall of green foliage that backdrops the beach. The forest floor bears the compactions of the press of barefeet passing to and fro over centuries. The glittering shell middens piled against the walls of the long-lost houses, the only material evidence of their time, are gradually leaching their calcium back into the clam flats beyond the beach from where they were gathered. As anyone does who tends a place for sustenance, the mud flats before the beach have been cleared of boulders, which might have otherwise interfered with the clam harvest. Next to the beach, a small river flows out from a lake beyond, which provides fresh water, and from which an annual Sockeye salmon run nourished the village.

There is a tombolo leading to a little forest-tufted islet, and perhaps this river was once diverted to this side of the isthmus to scour out a passage to the beach, whereby a canoe might be paddled in at low tide. Klaskish village is perfectly located too, with easy access to the bountiful sea, with excellent protection from the violent Pacific storms. The smooth pebble beach allowed a large canoe to be easily slid up as though on smooth ball-bearings, and surrounding the village grows an ample cedar forest woodlot, from where the other necessities of existence could be gathered. There are long views out along the coast of the Brooks, and over to the other flank of Brooks Bay from where we have come. Mount Harris, a nunatack which protruded free of ice during the last glaciation about 10,000 years ago, rises behind us. The base of this very steep mountain is cloaked in thick forest, which melds into a belt of krummholz,-trees blasted into shrubbery by the ferocity of the winds, and is finally capped in rock.

We set up our tent and prepare a hanging food cache as we’ve seen a large and glowing purple pile of poop on the beach. The Huckle, the Salal and the Salmon berries are out in their full voluptuousity, so we don’t need to worry about hungry bears, but we hang our food just in case. 200 years ago this beach would have been laden with oceangoing cedar canoes pulled up to the forest, in front of the big cedar houses and with the smoke and bustle of village life echoing across the bay. Although we are totally alone, there’s still somehow a lingering sense of community, and there’s a comfortable coziness and intimacy about the place. The sun is out and the silence is deep as we strip off naked to swim in the warm water and then stretch out on the beach just to soak it up. Later we get a fire going and cook while a seal swims languidly back and forth nearby. While washing in the ocean, phosphorescence sparkles in the lingering luminescence of the sunset. We are following an ancient trail through a gnarly old Cypress forest near the East Creek estuary. I’m certain that it’s a human made path because it runs so directly along the easiest route over the lie of the land.

The trail has been well maintained by animal traffic, judging by the purple piles, and all the tracks, since the last human passage, perhaps 200 years ago. I have followed this same trail all the way to the Klaskish Inlet and I believe that it once connected East Creek to Tsowanachs. In ancient times when the path was well worn, I believe a good runner could cover that distance in a day. It’s unusual to see these yellow cedar trees so close to sea level, and in this area every tree has been bark-stripped. We don’t know if the early bark gatherer’s had a preference for red or yellow cedar bark, but this forest has been very meticulously stripped, and all the trees are still alive and well. The people who gathered this bark knew true sustainability, and during their watch these forests exploded in biodiversity. We’re drilling increment bores through the healing lobes which grow over the post-strip catfaces. If we are able to pierce the lobe at the exact edge were the callus first began to flow over the catface, we will be able to count the growth-rings to determine how long ago the strip was taken.

There are so many CMT’s in this area that we keep on going along the trail, just randomly choosing the ones we think will give us the most accurate count. Our idea is that by gathering temporal and spatial data from the CMT’s, that we might put to rest that old stereotype which holds that coastal First Nations were primarily sea-faring peoples, and thereby through a deceitful colonial calculation, hold no claim to the forests beyond their postage stamp reserved village sites. This old saw has allowed the blatant theft of these forests by those forces of destruction which swing the axe. The trail passes through a grove of enormous ancient red cedars, one of which we measured at 14 ft. diametre. That makes in the 8th largest cedar tree on the planet. The tree has a hollow burnt out centre which has standing headroom inside for ten people. I sheltered in that tree once during a blasting storm that blew in off the Pacific. A friend and I spent a pleasant day in there waiting out the storm by a little fire inside the tree, stoked by sheltered bone dry wood.

Big Logging is on its way here, on its grotesque corporate mission, -invasion, occupation and massacre. We think there is a lot to be learned about true civilization here in this final vestige of Vancouver Island’s, even the world’s primeval forest and we want to stop this monster before that opportunity is gone forever. Being in this magnificent ancient forest so replete with subtle hints of historic human involvement, we know that something precious is missing here. As much as we marvel at its awesome beauty, yet we are strangers in here, in this silence, stumbling around with our academic objective and our quantifying, measuring instruments. Dreadfully, at times we can hear snippets of the rumble and roar of big logging on its way here at the moment.

All around us, everywhere we have been on this landscape, we have found traces of this gracious civilization which was so loving and considerate of its forests. Human beings have lived on this land even as the glaciers of the last ice age began receding away from the ocean. They were participants in the development of this incredible efflorescence. Some 200 years ago, as our dendochronological data is telling us, they vanished from their land. And now the forest mourns for the loss of its human element.

INGMAR LEE can be reached at ingmarz@gmail.com This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it He would like to gratefully acknowledge the support and participation of the Quatsino Nation, who so graciously allowed us to travel and do research on their beautiful land.