Canada’s famous natural beauty conjures up images of never-ending forests, steep cliffs and rivers teeming with fish.
British Columbia’s Vancouver Island in the south-west of the country offers exactly what a tourist would expect, as well as being home to the Salish and Namgis peoples, two of Canada’s First Nations tribes.
Here, the country’s indigenous inhabitants proudly state that they have lived in this stunning place, which is approximately 32,000 square kilometres in size, since time immemorial.
The natural beauty of this Pacific island encompasses thick rainforest, mountains and, despite the temperate climate, a ski piste.
Strathcona Park in the middle of the island has over 150 hiking paths, including a 16-kilometre route over rope bridges, along lake shores and through deep valleys to Della Falls, which, with a total vertical drop of 440 metres, is the highest waterfall in Canada.
The movement of glaciers has created a rugged coastline, which in spring and autumn attracts over 20,000 grey whales on their migratory trip from the Arctic to the Gulf and Mexico and back.
The whales come so close that they can be observed from the shore.
Some even stay the whole year round and are joined by killer whales.
Back inland, black and grizzly bears stalk the riverbanks waiting for the returning salmon.
But its not only the bears who enjoy Pacific salmon, Namgis tribe member Roy Cranmer offers the fish on the menu at his premises on the beach at Alert Bay, situated on Cormorant Island in the north-east of Vancouver Island.
Cranmer prepares the salmon in the same way as his ancestors did for hundreds of generations. First the fish is descaled and filleted before being secured on a cedarwood skewer soaked in the fish’s blood.
“In this way, it won’t burn,” he explains, before placing the skewer over the flame.
“Our tribe used to own the land all the way up to Port Hardy,” says Cranmer. “Now strangers are logging in our forests and polluting the Nimpkish river with wood shavings.” The tribe is also suffering because of the arrival of outsider-run fish farms, which have brought with them fish lice that can infest the returning wild salmon. Fewer and fewer salmon are returning each year, Cranmer complains, threatening the livelihood of a tribe that has always lived from fishing.
Cranmer’s salmon barbeque is part of his family’s routine, which they call “Cranmer’s Culture Shock Interactive Gallery.” His wife and daughters are also involved, telling stories of mythical creatures that can morph from humans into animals. They also make jewellery and show visitors how to create braided bracelets.
Whales can also be viewed at close quarters in a traditional Namgis canoe manned by Cranmer’s sons-in-law.
A few minutes’ walk away is the Uemista cultural centre, with its impressive potlatch exhibition. A potlatch is a festival ceremony practiced by many of Canada’s indigenous peoples, including the Kwakwaka’wakw and Salish cultures.
The event involves a gathering of up to 1,000 people in the area’s Big House, a building as big as a sports hall with a sand floor and fireplace, where a family or hereditary leader hosts guests and holds a feast involving dancers and storytelling.
The tradition, which bans outsiders, went through a history of rigourous bans by the Canadian federal government as part of its integrationist policy. Garments, masks, drums and rattles were confiscated and given to, among other places, museums and cultural institutions.
Since 1980, the Kwakwaka’wakw of Alert Bay have had most of their cultural objects returned to them.
A snorkelling tour on the Campbell river allows tourists the thrill of swimming for a while with salmon returning to their breeding grounds.
However, once the terrain flattens out and the river becomes more shallow, it becomes too dangerous as grizzly and black bears come down to the water to fish. In nearby Orford River Valley, visitors can see the bears in action from specially constructed viewing platforms.
A two—hour drive from Qualicum Beach via Port Alberni ends up at the storm-beaten west coast locations of Ucluelet and Tofino, favoured destinations for surfers. Two-metre high ferns are the result of the regular precipitation while the Pacific Rim National Park runs for 130 km along the coast.
The 75 km-long West Coast Trail is one of the most popular wilderness trails on the island and runs from Bamfield to Port Renfrew. It should only be attempted by the fittest and requires visitors to register long in advance.