All Aboard the Uchuck III

All Aboard the Uchuck III

As I’ve said before the best research is hands-on. That way, you can indulge your senses.
Last Saturday, we enjoyed a day cruise from Gold River (on Vancouver Island, British Columbia) to Yuquot at Friendly Cove. This is Nuu-chah-nulth traditional territory. The term, Nuu-chah-nulth means “all along the mountains” and refers to sixteen tribes from Alaska to Washington state that speak different dialects, but collectively are sea-faring people.
Uchuck means healing waters. “The Uchuck III can move along at twelve knots, and carry up to 100 day-passengers and 70 tons of general cargo including three or four cars” (Get West.) We watched from the upper deck as the crew loaded supplies using a crane for the folks at Yuquot. This included a new red ATV that was immediately put to work when we arrived. bowWhen we were underway at last, the two-hour cruise took us through Muchalaht Channel past controversial fish farms and logging swaths, around Bligh Island (named for a young Captain Bligh of Bounty fame), and through Cook Channel into Friendly Cove.
cruisingIt was a perfect day of sun and fair breezes and the calm waters certainly felt healing. The captain said that humpback whales often come into Muchalaht Channel. All around Nootka Sound, salmon fishermen were hoisting their catch to show off their prizes.
In 2014, I lived at the Nootka Light Station for two months, while working as a relief lighthouse keeper. Although it was a short stint, catching sight of the white and red Coastguard buildings felt like coming home. We had three hours to explore the Yuquot site, which includes an amazing pebble beach, a portion of the Nootka Trail that leads past a graveyard and rentable cabins at Jewitt Lake, the old church which has now been reclaimed by the Indigenous community as a cultural centre, and of course, the light station.
FriendlyCoveBut I am setting a murder mystery here, so was most interested in locations where one might kill someone without being seen and hide something precious. This landscape is not new to killing.
White SlavesIn 1788, Maquinna (the Mowachacht chief) sent his people aboard The Boston to repay many insults—including the murder of his brother-in-law—by European sailors. The entire crew was murdered and decapitated except for the blacksmith John Jewitt, and the sailmaker who hid below. Maquinna needed Jewitt’s skills so kept him alive, and Jewitt convinced Maquinna that the sailmaker was his father. Jewitt lived three years as part of Maquinna’s family, wrote his story on the dead captain’s paper, and eventually returned to Boston where it was published.
The long pier was teaming with people as the Mowachaht/Muchalaht community was holding their annual Spirit Summerfest campout in the grassy area near the church and many friends and relatives had come out aboard the Uchuck III to visit. There was also a celebration in the church as this year marked the 240thAnniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival at Nootka Sound.
As the story goes, Cook arrived in what he first called King George’s Sound in the spring of 1778 with the Resolution and Discovery. Making the usual European blunder, he named the people and the place based on his suppositions. The Indigenous people—who’d been living here for thousands of years—called out and told the captain to go around to avoid the reefs. More precisely, it happened like this:
“Captain Cook’s men, asking by signs what the port was called, made for them a sign with their hand, forming a circle and then dissolving it, to which the natives responded ‘Nutka’. No.tkak or no.txak means “circular, spherical” (Sapir and Swadesh 1939:276) in The Whaling People. 
Though the village was teaming with people, Cook claimed the land for Britain. The British soon called all the people there, the Nootka, though there were 1500 Mowachacht people living in villages in the area. Yuquot was the summer home of Maquinna’s people and they wintered down the channel in Tahsis. The Mowachacht—“people of the deer”—began a lucrative (especially for the British) trade in sea otter pelts.
Captain Cook’s claim on Yuquot set the stage for later conflicts between the Indigenous people as well as the Spanish, who built Fort San Miguel on the rocks beside the lighthouse. Sadly, within forty years, the sea otter disappeared. Fortunately, they are now back in the area. I remember seeing them playing near the pier when I lived there. This charming sea otter photograph was taken by my friend Ivan Dubinsky, principal keeper at Scarlett Point Lightstation north of Port Hardy.
sea otter by ivan
On our return voyage, we sailed through the more turbulent waters of Zuchiarte Channel. I went up to the wheelhouse to ask about the ship, but Captain Adrien said that he’d only answer my questions if I took a turn at the wheel. So, under his direction, I steered the Uchuck III through King’s Passage.
The wheelhouse is beautiful and it was a thrill to turn the wheel two spokes starboard and then back to port to straighten her out while keeping my eyes on the bow.
The fabulous photo below was taken by Low Light Mike, August 28, 2010. One of the crew had just polished the engine-telegraph (to the left of the wheel) a piece from BCCS’s Princess Victoria,a River Clyde vessel that sailed around Cape Horn in 1904.
We arrived back in Gold River at 5:30pm. It was a long glorious day, and I recommend taking a voyage aboard the Uchuck III so you can get a taste of history firsthand. For more photographs, cruise and booking information, check out Get West. Below is a site map of Yuquot and a directional map to Gold River.
All maps Friendly Cove and Map to Gold River

The Whaler’s Shrine at Yuquot

The Whaler’s Shrine at Yuquot

The weathered church that stands today in Friendly Cove was erected in 1956, for the purposes of “educating” the people of Yuquot. In the vestibule, old plaques and photographs are displayed, memories and keys to the significance of this place. One article in particular captured my attention. It tells a familiar story; one of loss, and betrayal, and exploitation.
In 1904, the entire Nootka Whalers’ Washing House, a 5×6 metre building, plus its contents was “purchased” from two elders and spirited away under cover of night. It was whaling season, and most of the community was off at work. A shady deal, no doubt, that the whalers would have objected to had they known. George Hunt, working under the famous anthropologist, Franz Boas, orchestrated the deal, which reportedly gained two men $500.00 but lost a community something sacred and precious. It ended up in the American Museum in New York, and has stayed there, in the basement, for the past century. This is an image of the contents:
What follows is a partial transcript of a framed article hanging inside the church. “Reviving Dark Forces” was written by Mark Hume and published in the Vancouver Sun, Saturday, May 25, 1991.
The shrine includes 60 carved human figures, 25 human skulls and two wooden whales. Native legend says the prayers and rituals practised by shamans gave hunters the magic they needed to find whales; it also made the sea send dead whales to the beaches around Nootka Sound.
What the magic was, and how it worked, may be beyond comprehension today, but Inglis says that looking on the faces of the shrine it is easy to believe it once had immense power. [At the time of writing, Richard Inglis was Head of Anthropology at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.]
The people of Nootka Island who used the shrine believe it still has that power. One of the native concerns now under discussion is whether such dark forces should ever be brought into the open again.
“It’s incredibly powerful stuff,” says Inglis of the magic attributed to the shrine.
“One of the issues is whether you want to bring that power out again.”
The shrine, a magic house that was considered “a great treasure” of the Nootka people, was in continual use for 300 years before it was collected by the American Museum in 1904.
Generations of Nootka whalers performed rituals at the shrine which at times drew its black magic from human sacrifice and grave robbing.
Inglis, who has been researching the monument for several years, says the native community has mixed emotions about the shrine.
Some want it returned to Yuquot, to be shown in a museum or cultural centre. Others think it should never be put on public display again. 
European mariners turned whale hunting into a deadly, highly mechanized science that brought world populations to the verge of extinction. But in the native world, during the shrine’s centuries of power, killing whales was a dangerous job that required the help of spirits.
Anthropologists say the Nootka developed the most spectacular sea hunting techniques on the entire Pacific coast. Travelling in large, ocean-going canoes, they killed whales with harpoons that had cutting heads made of mussel shells; sealskin buoys were connected to long lines made from animal sinew.
The techniques for hunting—and the magic—were cherished family secrets passed down from chiefs to their sons. In addition to the hunters, the Nootka had whale-ritualists, shamans so powerful it was said they didn’t have to hunt whales at sea, but magically drew to shore those that had died from natural causes.
Tsaxwasap,a man with great shamanistic powers, was one of those who first used the shrine. He intensified the power of the magic house by bringing dead bodies to it, and live infants stolen from their mothers. When Tsaxwasap inherited the shrine it had only four human skulls.
In her book, From the Land of the Totem Poles, Aldona Jonaltis, of the American Museum, says Tsaxwasap kidnapped infants and robbed graves to build the shrine’s power.
“He began removing from graves the skulls of men who had been long dead and then placed 40 skulls on the right-hand side of the shrine, 40 skulls on the left-hand side, eight skulls atop sticks on the right side, eight skulls atop sticks on the left, and four in front of the house to serve as watchmen. Then Tsaxwasap found 12 dried up corpses of people and placed them in two rows in the centre of the structure facing the door. After this, he kidnapped 120 more infants and placed them, in their cradles, in his house. This magical house served its purpose well, for many, many whales came to Tsaxwasap.”
The shrine, which dates back to 1700 and could be much older, was used by at least eight generations of whale ritualists. After the third generation of use, wooden figures were substituted for human skeletons.
There were only 14 skulls at the site when it was collected in 1904.
The wooden figures appear in the photograph above. I suspect the 25 human skulls may be all that remains of the crew of The Boston, killed by Maquinna’s warriors in 1803, but who knows? Friendly Cove was once the most important point of anchorage on the Northwest Coast.
As far as I know, the items in question are still housed in the American Museum. An article in the Vancouver Sun, April 2013, states that the museum has tentatively agreed to repatriate the shrine. One challenge is financial; moreover, what should the community do with the shrine once it is returned? This is a complex issue. The Nuu-chah-nulth people hope to build a Cultural Centre here, but to do so takes a great deal of money. Also, the cove is only accessible by boat or floatplane. Still, it makes no sense to me that this powerful, sacred treasure should be crammed in the basement of a New York museum. What do you think?
Memories of Nootka Lighthouse

Memories of Nootka Lighthouse

Four years ago, I was working as a relief lighthouse keeper for the Canadian Coast Guard. I’d taken a year off teaching to explore and destress and try something new.

Between March 27 and May 23, I stayed at Nootka and recorded my adventures, and misadventures, in a journal and a blog. This was my house for eight weeks.
my house (1).jpg

I’ve been thinking about that time a lot lately. This summer, I am planning to take the Uchuck III day cruise from Gold River to Friendly Cove, so I can walk those beaches and trails once again. I had hoped to visit with Mark, the lighthouse keeper I worked with at that time, but apparently Mark and Joanne retired last September. So, all I can say is “Congratulations!” from afar.

People often ask me what I did there. This video and article written and recorded last August with Mark and Joanne brings it all back to me. It is a beautiful landscape, rife with history—some of which is tragic—and I feel blessed that I was able to spend some quality time there.

This is my post from April 22, 2014.

And this is the pebble beach—one of my favourite places in the world. I can’t wait to walk here again this summer.

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

Rarely do I read a novel in less than 24 hours, but at 289 pages, Dragon Teeth is a quick, exciting, and informative read. It hooked me with its setting, its adventurous plot, and its historical fervour. Oh, and what a cover.

Dragon Teeth is the posthumously-published adventure novel of Michael Crichton who passed away on November 4, 2008 after battling cancer. He was only sixty-six years old. After reading about Crichton, I think the man was something of a genius.
Crichton always wanted to be a writer, but not a shadow-writer: a full-time make-a-living-from-writing writer. Fearing that wouldn’t happen, he opted to study at Harvard and graduated as a doctor in 1969. That didn’t stop him from writing though. In fact, he financed his studies at Harvard Medical School with his novels, and his first bestseller The Andromeda Strain was released as a film before he finished. Though he never practiced as a doctor, Crichton’s scientific and medical studies provided inspiration and experitise for many of his novels. He went on to become a director and filmmaker.
This is perhaps a forerunner to his famous Jurassic Park–dinosaurs and palaeontologists form the backbone. That a new Crichton novel can appear now, nine years after his death, is a kind of miracle. Like many writers, Crichton kept files, and this particular manuscript appeared complete. In an Entertainment Weekly article, Crichton’s widow, Sherri says:

“When I came across the Dragon Teeth manuscript in the files, I was immediately captivated. It has Michael’s voice, his love of history, research and science all dynamically woven into an epic tale. Dragon Teeth was clearly a very important book for Michael. I’m so pleased to continue the long relationship that he shared with HarperCollins with its publication.” Finding Dragon Teeth

The protagonist, William Johnson, is a rich, arrogant, and privileged young Yale student who loses a bet, and must, to save face, journey into the lawless West. It is the summer of 1876. Sitting Bull and his Sioux warriors are retaliating against the white man for the loss of their Sacred Black Hills and warring with the Crow. General Custer has just made his last stand at the Little Bighorn. The buffalo have not yet been wiped out, but soon will be, in an effort to starve the Indians into submission or extinction. And out in the Montana Badlands, two rival paleotonogists, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edmund Drinker Cope, are warring over dinosaur bones. All of this is historically researched.

“In 1876, scientific acceptance of dinosaurs was still fairly recent; at the turn of the century, men did not suspect the existence of these great reptiles at all, although the evidence was there to see” (107).

While scientists and creationists vehemently debate Darwin’s new theory of evolution, these two real-life paleontologists engage in “Bone Wars.” Along with Johnson, we journey from Philadelphia all the way to Deadwood. By train, stagecoach, and on horseback. Through city, mountain, desert, and on into the Badlands.
UnknownJohnson, who learns photography–because he has no other appreciable skills–hires on with the abrasive Marsh; then ends up with Cope, a natural teacher who instructs and entertains his crew with his knowledge of dinosaurs.

“Well, it seems you can see everything but the bones. Now: look in the middle of the cliff, for a cliff this high will have its Cretacious zone near the middle–a lower cliff, it might be nearer the top–but this one, it will be in the middle–just below that pink striation band there. Now run your eye along the band until you see a kind of roughness, see there? That oval patch there? Those are bones.”

In the Judith Badlands (Montana Territory), Cope discovers the fossilized teeth of a dinosaur larger than anything yet discovered and names it “Brontosaurus, ‘thunder lizard,’ because it must have thundered when it walked” (144). Hence the title.


Edmund Drinker Cope (from The New Yorker)



General Armstrong Custer

One of the things I appreciate about this book is the historical narrator who interjects with relevant background. He seems objective; at least, more objective than a man in 1876 might be. He points out the racist and inhumane practices of the controversial Custer, and explains the background behind the Sioux War.

The federal government had signed a treaty with the Sioux in 1868, and as part of that treaty, the Dakota Sioux retained exclusive rights to the Black Hills, a landscape sacred to them…Yet one year after the treaty had been signed, the transcontinental railroads began service, providing access in days to land that could previously be reached only by weeks of difficult overland travel.
Even so, the Sioux lands might have been respected had not Custer discovered gold during a routine survey in the Black Hills in 1874. News of gold fields, coming in the midst of a nationwide recession, was irresisible.
Although forbidden by the government, prospectors sneaked into the sacred Black Hills. The army mountained expeditions in ’74 and ’75 to chase them out, and the Sioux killed them whenever they found them. But still the prospectors came in ever increasing numbers.
Believing the treaty had been broken, the Sioux went on the warpath. In May of 1876, the government ordered the army to quell the Sioux uprising (45).


Sitting Bull

It is into this arena that Johnson journeys with his rival paleontologists. The author uses Johnson’s fictional diaries to tell the tale of two real-life bone hunters. A ten-year rivalry collapses into one raucous summer. It is this melding of truth (if such a thing exists in the historical record) and tale that ensnares me and draws me into the man’s journey.
If you have a liking for westerns, for history, for adventurous tales, this book will capture you too.

The Last Neanderthal

The Last Neanderthal

Sometimes a story appears that lingers after I close the cover. The Last Neanderthal, or rather, Girl, who is the last Neanderthal, affected me like this.
I have a profound affection for the past and the ancestors; a respect for Indigenous ways. Perhaps that is why. One of my first anthropology papers (in the early 90s) was titled “Neanderthal: the First Humanitarians”. In it, I argued that the people were much like us, that they buried their dead and left flowers on their graves. This homage to those we love shows our humanity.
Cameron’s novel interweaves the stories of two women at key junctures in their lives. One is an archaeologist, named Rose Gale, who discovers a curious grave; the other, our teenage Neanderthal: the “object” of Gale’s efforts. Both are driven. Both are pregnant. But that is where the similarity ends.
I don’t like Rose. She is ambitious, obsessed, fearful of losing control of her work because of her pregnancy. The modern woman? She seems disconnected from her partner and her baby. Alongside Girl, Rose Gale is annoying and self-centred; at least, until she births her baby and accepts her tribe.
If Cameron’s purpose is to reveal how far homo sapiens sapiens (ironically: wise wise man) has strayed from humanity in his quest for knowledge and fame, she’s done a remarkable job.

Who Were They?

Hunters, 40,000 years distant, Girl’s family are fused with the land and with each other.  Neanderthals are so named because of bones unearthed in the Neander River valley in Germany.  The species evolved in Europe and inhabited Eurasia. Though they are now extinct, their DNA survives in us; meaning, they interbred with us. The author, Claire Cameron, says that she is 2.5% Neanderthal according to 23andme. And National Geographic says that you or I could carry Neanderthal DNA:

Everyone living outside of Africa today has a small amount of Neanderthal in them, carried as a living relic of these ancient encounters. A team of scientists comparing the full genomes of the two species concluded that most Europeans and Asians have between 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal DNA.

Big Mother

Girl’s family live within a territory under the leadership of Big Mother, a stern loving matriarch who wears a headress of horns to highlight her status. They hunt bison and trap salmon during the spawn.
They are few: Him, Bent, Girl, Runt. And use few words.

There was a stillness to her culture. There were few points of contact between families. Changes rarely had a chance to spread. There were no other ways to live. Other words weren’t needed. The family knew how things were done (220).

Cameron has given them limited vocabulary. Aroo seems multi-purpose —  Hey, how’s it going? I’m back. Do you see me? Check this out. And pitch, which means, “keep your head attached to your meat and your family attached to the land.”

Singing the Soul of the Land

Girl’s family have much to teach us about our relationship with the land. Using pathetic fallacy, this poetic author sings to us of nature and our interconnectedness through Girl’s soul.

She put a foot on a sturdy branch and held the trunk with arms wrapped tight. She pressed her body against it. The warm trunk pulled her in and her body melted into the trunk like softened sap. Her limbs stretched down to dirt, and sap ran in her veins as if it were blood. This was the strength of the forest…The trees stood together like the whole body of a family lining the ridge. The swaying branches talked and told one another of what they saw. One flicked a branch. A few dead leaves that still clung after the winter storms rustled. The limbs let the secrets pass among them. Twigs snapped and the needles clattered together in discomfort. They swayed with sadness…If Girl watched and felt the patterns in the leaves, she could read them (119).

Girl knows nature and all within it are alive and sentient. When she sees slashes on a tree she is horrified. “It hurt the tree, just like cutting skin. Its sap had bled and bubbled up from the wound. To Girl it was a kind of senseless violence” (219). She feels and senses the nature around her: “Soon the yolk of the sun cracked into the sky and colour bled” (143). It is this consciousness that keeps her alive in wild terrain where all carnivores vie with each other for meat. And she is meat herself.


Early in the story, Girl’s family are attacked by leopards and she is left with Runt, a seven-year-old boy who Big Mother adopted. He is different from them in many ways. Smaller and finer-featured, his skin is charcoal, his hair “like moss”. He eats green plants (yuk) and jabbers too much (he’s a Crowthroat). His walking gait is more “elegant” and he likes to wear the skins of animals on his feet to protect them. Clearly, Runt is from another tribe, even another species.
Along with Wildcat, Runt becomes her travelling companion for over a year. Girl is pregnant by He (her older brother). Though incest is a taboo taught through shadow stories by Big Mother, Girl comes into heat and seduces Him, urged by a force too great to control.
From cover to final photograph, we are teased with the image of two skeletons who face in as if looking into each other’s eyes. Found together in the same stratum, they are clearly different species. One is our Neanderthal, Girl; the other is modern man. The archaeologist’s quest is to bring this story to light.
In the end, we do not see that final burial. They are touching noses: the gesture of affection Girl learned from her pet, Wildcat. But, we do not know how or why they ended up together. We are left to ponder. Is this Runt? Did Girl and Runt mate? (She is only six or seven years older than he is.) Or, is this the gaze of mother-child devotion? Is she his Big Mother and he her child? Or, did Girl survive long enough to find a new mate among Homo Sapiens Sapiens? I am troubled by this. After all her near deaths, I want to know how dead wood comes for Girl.

Dead Wood

It is their custom to excavate a hole and bury the body beneath a living tree. Thus, when a body dies it becomes wood. I love this. Let my body feed a tree. Drag the stones from our graveyards and plant trees. Leave our bones in peace. Leave our trees in peace. Let us nurture one another.


Large Irish yew tree in St Colmcille’s graveyard