After dropping the anchor in a small cove on the western end of Village Island, I looked around, surveying the foreshore and the skeletal remains of a pier that once jutted out over the clear water. Questions swirled through my mind about its history, and even Porter asked, “Dad, what did that used to be?” It was a dock left by the former inhabitants of the island, and now it sits going the way of time and tide.
When we landed the kayak on the beach, remnants of the abandoned First Nations village of Mamalilicula could barely be seen. The old village has since grown over with bushes and brambles that have all but swallowed what was once home to 90 to 100 people of the Kwakiutl Nation.
Cruisers who visited the island even a decade ago have a hard time recognizing the spot today as it is so overgrown. Tall totems that used to stand here have fallen and been covered, as have most of the village’s structures. But just because it hasn’t been preserved for tours and tourists doesn’t mean we couldn’t explore it, learn its unique history and imagine what life would have been like here.
Pushing our way through head-high brambles, we were able to find a gateway built of huge logs and an old house. Walking through the house, we tried to envision what it would have looked like furnished and how its inhabitants went about their daily lives. Who were they? What did a typical day entail here?
What we know of the island’s past was gleaned from a few cruising guides and the excellent book, Totem Poles and Tea by Hughina Harold. She was a nurse and teacher who came to Village Island from Victoria in the 1930s to work for the local population. Her memoir offers profound insights into life on the island, its history and what the Broughton Archipelago was like during that time. It also provides a deep look into how the modern world was creeping into the lives of people whose ancestors had inhabited these same places for thousands of years, subsisting happily on the bounty of the land and sea that they respected. That is, until foreign diseases ravaged the population, a religion not their own was foisted upon them as superior and the idea of money was introduced, which forced them to work in ways they never had before. Fascinating.
These multifaceted learning experiences are one of the things we love most about being sailing nomads. To sit and try to understand it fully from the couch, a desk, the TV or Internet is virtually impossible and at some point the learning stops. Out here, though, we are constantly learning and teaching as we go. History is everywhere, always providing a look at the past and a healthy respect for where we are and how to plot a positive and more meaningful way forward.
By reading books on the areas we visit, we’re able to gain snapshots into what the place was like many years before we sailed through and dropped our hook. Then to go see it up close, touch it and experience it first hand brings the lessons to life. It’s captivating to envision what it was like for the First Nations people who lived solely off the land and sea, for Captain George Vancouver and his crew as they surveyed the area, or for homesteaders, loggers and fisherman who carved out a crude living from the beautiful yet harsh wilderness.
And while all this history is immensely fascinating, there’s just as much or more to learn about the natural world around us and how deeply connected we are to it. Our National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest is the most read book on Yahtzee and is quickly referenced when we get back from a hike in the forest, a trip to the beach or a paddle over a reef. Learning to identify rocks, trees, edible plants, sea life, birds, mammals, insects and more, we are voracious about finding out what the ocean, mountains, streams and forests have in store and how we are dependent on their health.
Take salmon for instance. In Bill Proctor and Yvonne Maximchuk’s book, Full Moon Flood Tide, not only do they tell the human history of the Broughton Archipelago, but they explain the life of a salmon and how important it is to the area. A salmon’s lifecycle imparts a useful and compelling narrative to us about how fragile an ecosystem they live in and how many other animals around them depend on it. From birth to death and beyond, they are a provider for everything from other fish to bears, birds and plants. And interrupting this cycle doesn’t just mean less or no salmon, it means altering a whole community of natural systems that won’t continue to thrive.
Whether it’s people, plants or animals, finding out more about them and the places we’re visiting and living in paints a worldly picture that is a never ending education. These learning experiences are addicting, and make the slow life of cruising that much more enjoyable because we’re truly a part of it all. Which, for us, is how we want life to be.