Porpoises and Totems

Chapple Inlet, early morning fog
August 7, 2008

Entering Fitz Hugh Sound

N 51 degrees, 55.101 minutes, W 127 degrees, 55.215 minutes

Dear friends and family:

We're currently heading for the Rivers Inlet area, just north of the north end of Vancouver Island. We have been in familiar territory (channels we traversed on the way north) for the last couple of days. When we headed north it was raining. Now, it's fog in the mornings, and then brilliant sunshine in the afternoons. The weather gurus tell us that there is another disturbance heading our direction -- maybe to arrive tonight or tomorrow? If it's a weak one, we'll continue heading south. If winds are strong, we'll wait them out in the Rivers Inlet area.

I think I last wrote when we were first encountering this glorious sunshine, in Principe Channel. That night we anchored at the northeastern end of Chapple Inlet, on Princess Royal Island. The inlet burrows in about 4 miles from the main channel. It's about as isolated a place as you might want. When we woke up in the morning, the wind was absolutely quiet, but there were hundreds of birds -- at least a dozen different species -- crying and shrieking and honking. We heard bird calls that we've never heard before. By now we're used to the chittering of the eagles, the honks of the Canadian geese, the squawking of the ravens and the call of the loon, but there were other different ones. Close perusal of our bird book has convinced us that maybe some of them were trumpeter swans.

It was low tide, and there were lots of rocks above water that we hadn't seen (except on the chart) when we came in the night before. One "rock" suddenly disappeared, and not from the rising tide. Instead, it was about 10 seals, piled onto each other in the sun, resting on a rock that must have been just under the water. Shortly after, we saw a commotion in the water that appeared to be seals going after sea birds (do seals eat birds?) These aren't the seals described in the text, but you get the general idea...
We had a very relaxed day in the sun; Craig went fishing in the dinghy (and caught only one small rockfish). In the late afternoon, a small aluminum boat came into the end of the channel. We hailed them on the radio and they came over to chat. It turns out they work for the federal fisheries department, monitoring the movements and count of fish in the area. They've been doing this for more than 30 years, summer and winter, and they had some interesting stories to tell about fish behaviors, winter live-aboard conditions in the Queen Charlottes, and bureaucracies. They said the coho salmon were just starting to gather around the mouths of streams and rivers. (Despite a considerable amount of effort, and a large expenditure for fishing license and salmon tags to the B.C. and Alaska governments, Craig has not yet caught a salmon on this trip. Locals say fishing is poor this year, and also that the salmon runs are late because of the late spring.)
The next day we headed south down Laredo Channel. A Dall's porpoise leaped out of the water and headed for our boat. Soon he was joined by at least three others -- I actually think there were a total of 6 or 7 at one point, although Craig thinks only 4. They stayed with us for at least 45 minutes, playing in the bow wave, playing chicken with the hull of the boat, and criss-crossing ahead of us. We probably took 200 pictures -- I haven't downloaded them yet, but there must be at least one good one? They are so fast, it's not possible to react, and the only hope is that you learn their pattern, and then click the shutter when you think they'll be in view. But their patterns change a lot...
After awhile we were approached by a big motor yacht, coming the other direction. The porpoises broke off quickly, and headed over to that boat, finding a bow wave to ride back to where they came from. We watched them disappear astern of us, a big boat with little splashes all around the bow, while humans above clacked away with their cameras.
We were headed to Klemtu, a First Nations village with a reportedly beautiful longhouse full of carved and painted totems. Not to mention Klemtu's showers, laundry, store, cell phone service, internet... According to the Waggoner cruising guide, Klemtu was formerly not friendly to boaters, but a few years ago they installed all these tourist facilities, about the same time they built the longhouse, and they wanted visitors. Interestingly, a lot of the tourist facilities are broken. It's as though they installed everything and it was nice, but nobody knows how to fix it when it breaks. The electricity on the dock was no more (a storm last winter took it out). Parts of the wooden cladding of the dock were missing, so contact between your boat and the dock would be damaging (that's what fenders are for, but still...) The dryer door was held closed with duct tape. The bathroom door wouldn't close or latch. But very friendly people. Two teenagers were the staff for the tourist office (their bosses were all on vacation, they said). They called up "Francis" to show us around the longhouse.

THUNK! As I was writing the last sentence, there was a sudden sound and lurch. We're motoring through the fog, ever cautious about the risk of hitting a floating log. That's always a problem, but particularly so in the fog. But we've hit logs before, this seemed different, like a soft collision, yet one with enough kinetic energy to noticeably slow the boat. Craig turned the boat around, and we watched as a humpback whale surfaced and then disappeared again, no apparent sign of distress. Wow, did we feel bad! But there was no warning, no way to see the creature, we had no sign there were whales in the area. All the admonitions are to stay at least 1/4 mile away from a whale, so we motored slowly away... El Bucanero, a boat not far behind us, saw the whole thing, and said a whale came up near them, a few minutes later, in no seeming distress. After the excitement, Craig did have an vision of our friends Craig and Mark aboard S/V Patriot being disabled by in a collision with a whale off Australia in 2004, but fortunately, Sequoia appears undamaged.

Back to Francis and the Klemtu longhouse. We walked around the bay to the longhouse which is on a point opposite the dock. It's a big, beautiful new building, a mixture of modern construction techniques and ancient longhouse look. After awhile Francis showed up, a thin elderly gentleman with a very soft voice. He took us around to the front of the longhouse, and showed us the welcoming totem (about 12 feet high) looking north. The totem held two plaques, one for each of the two bands living at Klemtu: the Kitasoo and the Hjehjish. (The last band name is not pronounceable in English, and that's my best shot at how you'd write it. A Dutch speaker might do better...)


More photos of Klemtu totems


Above:  Klemtu longhouse's northeast totem and bear lintel.  Note the left bear's teeth are different:  he's the grizzly.

Francis took us inside -- a fire pit is in the center, surrounded by a rectangular sand floor, then bleachers on either side, built of cedar. The boxlike structural framing consists of two huge winged totems supporting each end, topped by lintels. Running the length of the building, from lintel to lintel, are two massive hand-adzed cedar logs, at least 6 feet in diameter. The north lintel carving is of two bears -- a black bear and a grizzly. You can tell the grizzly by the pointy teeth. On the south lintel is the frog. The totems represent four clans: raven, eagle, blackfish (orca) and wolf. Francis tells us a few origin stories which seem very foreshortened. Francis says he wishes he'd listened to his grandfather when he told these stories. Francis was a member of the generations which were sent away to mission schools, prohibited from speaking their languages or practicing their cultures. (In June, the Canadian government officially apologized to the First Nations for the damage done by the residential schools.) Francis says that the missionaries took away all their knowledge of carving. So when they decided to build this longhouse (completed in 2001), they brought in artists from the Hunt family of Port Hardy and Campbell River. He said the artists in that area had gone underground when the government banned potlatches in 1921. The artists were in Klemtu for 13 months.
Francis told us that two years after the longhouse was dedicated, it was visited by the spirit bear. He says the spirit bear is a subspecies of black bear, but with white fur. The spirit bear told them that he was just coming to see his home, and they thanked him for coming. Many people were there and saw the spirit bear.

Francis said he needed to go receive dialysis, so we ended our visit. He called for a ride on his VHF radio (everyone in Klemtu seems to have one), and a station wagon pulled up a few minutes later, driven by a very heavy, very surly young man who seemed angry at the world and would not look at us.

That's about all I have to report for the moment. Best wishes to everyone!

Craig & Barbara Johnston S/V Sequoia

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