From Part 1, Sept. 19, 2015: A visceral sense of place is very important to me when writing my novels, and after setting them in far-flung locales, I’m bringing this new novel-in-progress home to my back yard. Growing up fourth-generation in the far Northwest corner of the U.S., very close to Canada, I’m rooted in our green forests and inland waterways. I’ve always felt a tension between my love of my homeland and wanderlust, and in this new novel I’m exploring themes of displacement as ocean levels rise in the near future and coastal dwellers must move. Northwest native culture is so interwoven with the importance of ancestral homelands that I felt I needed a refresher visit to some coastal villages and wilderness just to the north in British Columbia. And research made a fine excuse to pack up the car for a ferry and road trip.
The First Nations village of Bella Coola offers much more than the mysterious petroglyphs that Thor and I visited with our native guide Chris Nelson in the last installment (Nov. 14). It’s the end and beginning of both the B.C. Ferry run through the islands/fjords and one of only two “highways” to access the rugged coast in mid/northern B.C. More about this road’s infamous “hill” in a later installment, on our way out of town…
Visitors to this Nuxalt tribal community of about 2,000 residents are welcomed with many painted and carved totems and memorial posts embellishing the landscape and buildings.
This doorway carving of the “House of Noomst” is a replica of the original doorway of Chief Qomoqua from the 1800s.
I’ll let this totem and its plaque speak for themselves:
I can’t help adding that the native people we spoke with on the trip were very open in talking about the difficulties their people have faced, and a determination to look forward. Recovering and maintaining the traditions and heritage that they can (though many family lines and stories have been lost), they recognize that they must be part of the evolving world. My sense is that many feel the larger world would benefit from learning more about tribal culture.
The Nuxalt Cultural Center, a modest building along the single main street that features two stores and a restaurant, displays the work of local artists. The guest book displays the signatures of two descendants of Thor Heyerdahl, who stayed in Bella Coola while he worked on his theories of trans-Pacific contact that eventually led to the voyage of the Kon-Tiki. He was convinced that some of the petroglyph designs indicated contact by visitors from New Zealand hundreds of years ago. Interestingly, farther along the valley is a settlement founded by Norwegian colonists who found refuge in this cold land of mountains and fjords. My Thor felt right at home!
One of my personal quests on this trip was to see one of the legendary Spirit Bears—the rare white offspring of black bears that populate this wilderness area along with the larger grizzly bears. Although we’d heard that the big salmon run this year had resulted in a lot of bear sightings along the rivers where they fish, we spotted only grizzly paw prints along the shore. You can see the size alongside Thor’s size 13 boot. In retrospect, maybe a bear encounter at that point might not have been the best of luck.
Ironically, I’ve encountered more bears while hiking in my local Cascades Mountains. We did enjoy our hikes in the surrounding forests and mountainsides, despite seeing “no bears nowheres.” We spotted a few cedar trees that had strips peeled off for traditional uses such as weaving baskets or hats, without killing the trees.
Mr. Toad here was our wildlife-spotting highlight on our hikes around Bella Coola.
Thank you, Bella Coola, and your gracious inhabitants. As Chris told us, “Now that we’ve met and shared our stories, when you return you will be family.” We hope to return soon to this magical valley.
Next time (Dec. 26) we’ll wrap up with our climb up that infamous “Hill” road to the Chilcotin, Williams Lake, the Fraser Valley, and home.
Sara’s newest from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.