Yuquot: The Center of the World

Photo by Hans Tammemagi

In March 1778, about 1,500 Natives were living in a summer village at Yuquot on the west side of Vancouver Island. Can you imagine their surprise when two sailing ships, the Resolution and Discovery with enormous white sails and manned by people with pale skins, entered the cove? This was the historic first encounter of Northwest-Coast Indigenous people with white men.

Captain James Cook had pulled in to make repairs. For a month the two parties engaged in trade with the natives providing sea otter pelts and the visitors supplying knives and metal goods. Yuquot, which means “where winds blow from many directions”, was later renamed Friendly Cove due to the welcoming natives. Today, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, whose territory it is, is reviving the name Yuquot.

Already living in a bountiful region, the tribes were further enriched by the European goods they received in exchange for sea-otter pelts. The 13 Nootka tribes became the wealthiest in Canada, and Yuquot became known as the Center of the World

The late 1700s and early 1800s were glory years for the indigenous peoples. However, traumatic times lurked around the corner. First, the hunger for furs petered out. Then European diseases struck and, combined with cultural turmoil, by 1830 more than 90 percent of the local indigenous population had died. The federal Indian Act and residential schools followed.

Today, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation consider Yuquot, which was declared a National Historic Site in 1923, a crucial part of their heritage and are striving to make it a tourist destination.

Wanting to see this historic site, I head to Gold River, B.C., and board the Uchuck III, a converted mine sweeper, which carries freight and people. The cruise, through a landscape of inlets, islands and mountains, is stunningly beautiful.

We dock under the shadow of the lighthouse, built in 1911. With only a handful of permanent residents, Yuquot is still and peaceful, with a haunting feel of times past.

On a low ridge, a ten-foot-tall carved wooden welcome figure with outstretched arms, invites us to come ashore, and is a reminder of the past when longhouses fronted by totems lined the shore.

A church, built in 1954 after the original (1889) burned down, is now a Cultural Centre, with the interior alive with totems and colourful carvings.

While exploring, I found a totem pole lying abandoned in the undergrowth.

At his carving shed, Sanford Williams, a master carver and residential-school survivor, explains how he uses handmade tools in the traditional way. William’s artwork reminds me of Yuquot’s glorious past, and is a sign that recovery is underway.

Book your own day cruise from Gold River to Friendly Cove on the MV Uchuck III with Get West Adventure Cruises at getwest.ca/cruises/friendly-cove-cruise. Gold River is about a five-hour scenic drive from Victoria. A good hotel choice in Gold River is the Lodge at Gold River (thelodgeatgoldriver.ca).

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