Tom Sewid, Native Watchman from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.
How many sea kayak guides do you know carry a shotgun? Tom Sewid keeps one around just in case, in addition to bear spray. Every island in the Broughton Archipelago except the tiniest has bears. Tom says that some sea kayakers camp on the small islands to avoid them, but that doesn't entirely eliminate the risk of a bear encounter, because bears can swim. "Bear safe" camping practices are always recommended here, including sleeping away from where you cook and store food, hanging food or keeping it in bear-safe containers, and always carrying bear spray, but I have to admit that Katya and I didn't do any of that because the other campers told us there weren't any bears on our island. Plus we felt safe among the crowd: you can't outrun bears, but as long as you can run faster than the next guy you're safe! Black bears are very common here and they are easily scared away by humans, although there are very rare situations where they can be dangerous. More of a concern are grizzlies which are far less common, although supposedly there is one wandering around Harbledown Island which the locals affectionately have named "Peanut."
Tom used to command a commercial salmon seine vessel, prior to becoming an entrepreneur in the eco-tourism business, running whale watching and sea kayak adventures as well as grizzly bear tours. These days he wears the regalia of the Native Watchman of the traditional lands of the Mamalilikulla Qwe'Qwe'Sot'Em' band (tribe).
The first Native Watchman program was started in Haida Gwaii in the 1990s. The goal of the program was to share responsibility for maintaining the ecological integrity of the land between the Canadian government and the First Nations people. It was an acknowledgement that the Indians were in the best position to help manage the wilderness as well as protect the areas most sacred to them, such as ancient village sites and burial grounds. First Nation elders who still occupied the land not only possessed a vast store of traditional knowledge or "naturalized science" about the local ecology, they also also maintained their ancient tradition of stewardship and management of natural resources.
Native Watchman Tom Sewid greets kayakers on the beach at Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
The massive gate (remnants of the interior frame of a longhouse) among abandoned houses of the village of Mamalilikulla at Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Darcy Coon, Village Watchman. Photo © Katya Palladina
Long before the official Native Watchman program in Canada, Tom was already giving eco-cultural tours of the ruins of Mamalilikulla, the "Village of the Last Potlatch", on Village Island. An extremely knowledgable and entertaining storyteller with a remarkable memory for detail, he would share the legends and stories of his ancestors while dressed in full traditional regalia with visitors who arrived by kayak and small boat. When the official Native Watchman program was instituted in the Boughton Archipelago, he was in the perfect position to step in.
The scenic beauty, vastness, remoteness, and ecological richness of Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coastline make it a popular sea kayaking destination. Unfortunately, kayakers often pass through with little understanding of how thousands of years of human habitation have shaped the environment.
Numerous examples of past human habitation can be found on Mound Island, a campsite that is often at full capacity during the summer months. Mound Island is popular because it is a free public site, has a pit toilet, and is only an eight nautical mile paddle from Telegraph Cove. It also has a protected, kayak-friendly beach composed of crushed clam and barnacle shells. From the campsite there is a view west across a small channel to Harbledown Island. Just west of the beach is a tiny peninsula where visitors have stacked rocks into cairns.
Mound Island was our first campsite when we paddled from Telegraph Cove for the Broughton Archipelago. Tom says that each "mound" on Mound Island used to be an Indian dwelling. All that remains now are large depressions where each house had been dug into the earth. The natives would use the narrow channel between Mound and Harbledown as a fish trap, capturing fish carried by the rising tide. Clam shell middens line the beach. The aboriginals also collected rocks studded with barnacles and cooked them by placing them in boiling water. Tom says they taste like oysters. The Indians would pluck out the flesh and discard the rocks. Over centuries, this created a white beach of crushed shells.
White shell beach at Mound Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
On the day before the full moon, Katya and I awoke in the morning to find the channel completely exposed by the low tide. On a whim we dug a few handfuls of mussels out of the mud for breakfast. Not having a fishing license, we guiltily hid our catch from the native watchmen Tom and Darcy Coon as they dropped by on their boat to chat with the campers on the beach. We actually talked with Darcy for quite a while, nervously wondering if he would pick up on the aroma of stewing mussels not more than a yard away from where he stood. When we casually mentioned the abundance of mussels to Tom later, he said don't eat them this time of the year because of red tide and the risk of dying of paralytic shellfish poisoning.
If you have ever foraged for shellfish here, you won't be surprised to hear that the intertidal zone of a Pacific Northwest Coast beach contains more protein per cubic meter than any other area on earth, and you can eat just about everything on it. It's the reason why bears prefer to forage at low tide during the spring. They push over boulders and eat whatever is underneath, including crabs, eels, bullheads, sand worms, ghost shrimp, mussels, and barnacles.
Traditional clam garden beach. Photo © Katya Palladina
Another example of both the ecological and archeological richness of this area are the traditional clam beds, which are likely thousands of years old and are unique to this part of the world. In the process of harvesting clams, aboriginals would remove large rocks and pile them along the edges of a clam bed, forming low walls around clam areas. Over time this would result in the formation of a long, flat, cleared beach, a perfect clam habitat. It is thought that the low walls around clam gardens might stabilize the beach and trap sediment and phytoplankton, allowing for more clam recruitment or faster clam growth. Although not obvious to those unaware of their existence, these traditional clam beds are ubiquitous in the islands of the Broughton Archipelago.
Tom at the Chief's Bath on Berry Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
On the north shore of Berry Island there is a large pictograph painted on a sheer rock wall, clearly visible from the channel. It is the Bakbakwalanooksiwae, "The Cannibal at the North End of the World". The faded orange paint was made partly from crushed salmon roe. To the right of the pictograph is a ledge with a deep depression, called "The Chief's Bath". It was used for a ritual bath in ceremonies prior to potlatch or war.
This part of Berry Island is an Indian burial ground and is off limits to visitors. The Indians practiced above-ground "burial". After bathing the body, it was dressed and placed in the fetal position on the ground or inside a cedar bentwood box at the bottom of the bluff. Eventually, the bodies became covered with falling branches, dead foliage, and erosion from the overhanging bluff, and effectively become buried. Bones also became food for animals such as mice and voles.
One of the most important things that the native watchman does is educate people about this sacred site and prevent its desecration. There used to be a fishing resort on the island with a trail which unfortunately led curious visitors to the area.Tom says there were times when he resorted to throwing fishing guides off the rocks because they would not heed his repeated warnings to keep out. As he led us up the steep bank from the rocky beach before showing us this area, he called out to the dead: "In the Cree way, I offer you tobacco, to the North, to the South, to the East, and to the West. In your resting, Halla Kas La, go in peace".
Frequently in these islands we encountered the deteriorating ruins of houses, obscured by overgrown grasses and berry bushes. How could communities have thrived here in what now seems like a remote postapocalyptic wasteland being rapidly reclaimed by nature? We found them not only in Village Island but other places as well. Some rooms still had furniture or kitchen supplies. The upholstery of old couches would be rotted away, exposing the springs. The plywood floors were disintegrating. We found abandoned boats both on land and in the water. One cove just south of the Indian village of Tsatsisnukwomi (also known as New Vancouver) on the north end of Harbledown Island, was like a boat graveyard, with half sunken hulls floating among a tangle of ropes. A peak inside might reveal old pots and pans or an alcohol stove. Everything of value would have been removed long ago. According to the "rule of the bush", any abandoned property in this wilderness is a legitimate target for scavenging.
Ruins of an abandoned house at Mamalilikulla on Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
It is fascinating to imagine how these islands which seem so isolated and empty now used to be bustling with permanent settlements -- Indian villages, homesteaders, fishermen. There is even a story of a Hawaiian prince who fled Hawaii to escape assassination by one of his own family, King Kamehameha. He ended up living incognito in a cabin the northern shore of Harbledown Island, assimilating well because he was dark-skinned like the natives.
View from the beach on Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Tom and Andrew during a quiet evening on the beach at Compton Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Tom Sewid is a generous and gracious host and is quick to invite kayakers over to Compton Island. After spending a couple nights at Mound we took him up on his invitation. I didn't think Mound Island was a bad campsite, and fortunately it was not crowded when we were there, but the view from Compton is amazing! The beach has a sweeping view west over Blackfish Sound, where humpback whales surface, blow, and breach constantly. They showed up unexpectedly twelve years ago -- nearly 100 of them -- and have been returning for six months out of the year ever since. After we landed on Compton, Katya and I settled on the soft pebble beach and watched them for most of an entire afternoon while soaking up the sun.
View of humpback whale in Blackfish Sound from Compton Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Darcy and Tom among the cabins and kayaks on Compton Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Tom shared with us his grand vision for Compton Island. Three small cabins resembling traditional longhouses have already been constructed, and he plans to build a total of five. His crew were unloading cedar planks from a barge the evening we arrived, and were busy building the next morning. The sides will be painted with with traditional salmon and orca whale designs. There will still be sites for tents, of course, but Tom expects that the demand for the insulated cabins in the typically cold and rainy weather of coastal British Columbia will be high. He says that burning a single candle inside a cabin can provide a lot of warmth. Later, totem poles will be carved and erected outside, and a large war canoe will be parked on the beach. He is arranging to be able to fly visitors in directly from Lake Union in Seattle by float plane. Compton Island promises to be a truly unique sea kayaking destination, a perfect base camp from which to explore the realm of the humpback whale and orca as well as the islands of the Broughton Archipelago.