As we boarded the ferry for our 40-minute ride to Cormorant Island, three snowy peaks drifted in and out of our sight line, sometimes obscured by another island, then visible again as we made headway. I've not been able to discover their name, but they made a stunning backdrop for a day of exploration.
Alert Bay is a small community of 1200-1500 people on Cormorant Island. The Namgis First Nation has the largest population (600-750 people), with the remainder composed of the Village of Alert Bay and the Kwakwaka'wakw Tribes. Alert Bay is named for the Royal Navy ship HMS Alert which conducted surveys in the area around 1860.
The island is a quiet place in the off season, and becomes busier once the tourism season begins. We had hoped to visit the U'mista Cultural Centre, but it was closed. We wandered through town, glad for our layers of clothing as a sharp, cold wind blew across the water.
We admired the handiwork of the many totem poles throughout the village. The older poles have lost their colour, and I found them more evocative, standing tall after years of exposure to harsh weather.
A piece of land near the water held many large logs and showed evidence of work, however, no one was present during our visit. I placed my foot on the edge of this yellow cedar stump to give you an idea of the size of some of the trees.
A stop sign, with the word in both English and Kwakwala fascinated me. I'm happy to see the traditional languages revived. There are two elementary schools in Alert Bay, and older students take the ferry to Port McNeil.
Christ Church (Anglican) was built in 1879. Regular services are still held there and I thought the building so pretty with the gingerbread on top and around the bell tower.
In 1929, with direction and help from the federal government, a residential school was constructed. Here First Nations children were taken from their families and not allowed to speak their native languages. The school building, later used for other purposes, fell into disrepair and was taken down a few years ago. A plaque of memorial remains.
We visited Alert Bay on Good Friday and I found it interesting that the people who greeted us with "Good Friday" or "Happy Easter" were mostly from the First Nations. Are they able to dissociate the wreckage of the residential schools from the message of the gospel?
In 1909, two Englishwomen began a hospital in Alert Bay that served a vast area of small populations. The modern hospital there today pays homage to these early medical workers with a display in the front lobby. Our neighbours were born in this hospital, and their children. Their parents were Finnish immigrants who lived on a nearby island that I'll write about in my next post.
Fishing and logging were, and continue to be the main industries in Alert Bay. The building above was constructed as a saltery, where fresh salmon were salted and mild-cured before being sent to Victoria. Today, the building is almost derelict, but is used as a net loft, where fishermen hang their yards and yards of nets for mending.
Above the village is a small ecological park with a board walk. The sun poured down in this space and we enjoyed respite from the wind. This swampland was created by the damming of a small river to create a freshwater source for the saltery. The trees killed by the dam stand like ghosts, with long tangles of moss draped in and around their branches. Bald eagles soar overhead, and the raucous calls of crows fill the air.
Salal is a native plant that grows all over the coast. I have never seen it grow so tall as here in these northern rain forests. It was well over my head, and Tim's, too. The trails were tunnel-like in their narrowness with tall walls of salal.
We disturbed a pair of wood-ducks courting in the pond-side growth and they paddled off in a hurry. The ecological reserve is a quiet and peaceful place.
As we left on the ferry, we both said that we'd like to return one day when more things are open. It's a fascinating bit of our country's history that we'd like to explore.