|Native totem poles at the Namgis First Nations burial ground in Alert Bay are lit up at night.
Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island
With its excellent vantage overlooking the glistening waters of Johnstone Strait, and a perfect curve of a bay mostly shielded from the worst marine weather, you'd think Cormorant Island's Alert Bay was named as a watch station for maritime operations. Not so (the name derives from the mid-19th century explorations of HMS Alert, a British survey ship). But this small island, 10 kilometers east of Port McNeill at the northern end of Vancouver Island, is a place in which modern visitors can learn a lot simply by looking.
Long a home to the indigenous Kwakwaka'wakw people, Cormorant Island today holds up to 1,500 residents of whom half are of First Nations heritage. Here, a century ago, Native residents defied the government's potlatch ban by continuing their centuries-old ceremonies; and here, after decades of arduous work, the artwork and regalia that was seized back then has returned home. Unguarded by glass or screen, the masks are as eloquent as any Shakespearean orator could be.
It's a stunning, never-forgotten sight when Alert Bay visitors first enter the masks gallery in the 'Namgis band's Umista Cultural Centre. The three dozen masks here are vivid reflections of a dynamic people whose culture thrives today, and they speak to the enduring value of tradition and respect for the land.
It's a special land, too. Facing west toward the Vancouver Island central range, the scene here features breeze-brushed Inside Passage waters framed by snowy peaks. The weather is often fine, with the Coast Range to the north fending off Bitter cold in winter, and the main Island blocking the worst of Pacific storms. Orcas and whales ply the channel; salmon throng in summer and fall; and towering cedars, spruces and hemlocks have long provided material for the homes and artifacts of the Kwakwaka'wakw. Among those is a three-piece totem which, at 53 meters, is believed to be the world's tallest.
The townsite's graveyard, overlooking the bay, is a beautiful spot to reflect on the reasons this place has been central to indigenous peoples for centuries. (Please admire but don't photograph the individual graves, which are sacred.) A few small inns and cozy cafes provide visitor services, and the 45-minute ferry ride to and from the main Island is a scenic delight. One cannot visit here without becoming more alert to the deep value of this part of our world. That's likely not what the original mapmakers meant when they named Alert Bay, but it certainly fits today.
|A young angler proudly displays his freshly caught Coho
Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island
The glories of spring have worn different faces in different times. While we 21st century West Coast residents treasure the passing whales of March and the bountiful blossoms of May, earlier Vancouver Island peoples welcomed the growth of nettles, the surge of sap in maples and, best of all, the first signs of salmon in our rivers and streams.
The latter is a harbinger of spring we all still love. No doubt modern fish processing and freezing techniques have improved the taste and texture of last year's salmon thawed from the freezer in midwinter. And a few stray salmon may be found in Island waters through the winter. But the year's first salmon runs, those magical pioneer fish that make their way across the North Pacific to the snowmelt streams that spill down from our mountains, signal not only culinary delight but the annual renewal of a millennia-old cycle that means everything to the Pacific coast.
Every year eggs are laid and fertilized in our rivers and streams and the hatchlings grow in these clean waters until an ages-old instinct draws them downstream to saltwater. here, in the rich waters of the North Pacific, they spend several years growing to mature size, and then head home to the waters in which they were born, renewing their race in a cycle that starts every year as the sun crosses the equator and warms the Northern Hemisphere.
Most often those early arrivals are chinook--king salmon, also called "spring" in many places because that is indeed when they first come home from their farflung journeys. These are hardy, burly and strong—deep-bodied fish often reaching 40 pounds, and occasionally nearing 100—much sought by commercial and sport anglers. The high fat content built up in their bodies from years at sea makes them especially rich and flavorful; just as spring nettles provided First Nations Island residents much-needed vitamins after long winters, so did spring salmon, which were often greeted with a "first salmon" ceremony.
Pretty fine of nature to start the year with a king, yes? We ought to sing and dance for them, too. After chinook come coho and sockeye, mostly mid- to late summer. Pink and chum are almost exclusively late summer and autumn, and various races of kings do run through the end of fall.
It all varies by year, by species, by river, by race of salmon; and it vividly illustrates nature's marvelous diversity and reliability. Each year, May brings the salmon back from the sea. It's a homecoming we treasure as much as any annual event on our ocean shores.
|A tubber flies through choppy water during Nanaimo's 44th annual bathtub race.
Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island
The English language changes and grows so much these days that it's easy to forget some of our words bear very old lineages. "Festival" is a multi-millennium-old descendant of the Latin festus, which means joyful, merry; feast derives from the same root, whose Latin forebear is festa—holidays, banquets.
Covers a lot of ground, all those meanings. And so do the multitudinous festivals that enthrall and engage visitors and residents on Vancouver Island. Of course, people everywhere celebrate all sorts of things with feasts, festivals, gatherings, commemorations, hullabaloos and more. We can't help but think that Vancouver Island's great beauty, depth of resources, cultural diversity and glorious weather all conspire to forge a slate of matchless festivals.
Some are broad in scope--celebrating midsummer, or marine culture, or aboriginal tradition. Some are more focused: Victoria's Busker Fest is devoted solely to the art of street performance, and Salt Spring Island's Apple festival savors its eponymous autumn fruit.
Whether broad or narrow, indoors or out, urban or rural, big or not-so-big, an Island festival is hard to beat for an appealing activity. The slate is almost constant year-round; it would be easy to find something to celebrate virtually every weekend. And not only are you bound to have fun (and eat well) it’s hard not to learn something in the process. How do apple growers turn their crop into cider? What do the elaborate dance steps signify in First Nations performances? Is there really a trick to juggling? And a sand castle that towers 6 feet above the beach: How do they do that?
Read on to find out how you can find out the answers to such questions, and many more.
• Quality Foods Canadian Open Sand Sculpting Competition & Exhibition: Parksville is known across Canada for its broad, bronze, sun-washed flat beaches, and its summer low tides that leave hundreds of yards of sand exposed. Sand artists from around the world come to the Island in early July to create their sculptures, turning loose grains of stone into works of art; they remain on display through mid-August; parksvillebeachfest.ca.
• Clayoquot Oyster Festival: With clear, cold, rich waters, strong tides and numerous freshwater inflows, the vast area of bays and inlets along our West Coast is ideal for growing highly flavored oysters. Fried, sauteed, baked or broiled—or just freshly shucked and in the shell—oysters top the seafood list for some connoisseurs. This engaging celebration’s slogan is “Keeping Tofino’s Population Growing Since 1997.” You’ll need to attend to learn exactly what that means; late November, oystergala.com.
• Feast Tofino: Celebrants gather to savour Island foods (especially from the sea) in this quirky coastal town. The highlight is a dockside feast in which the food on hand was offloaded from boats just minutes before; throughout May, feasttofino.com.
• BC Shellfish & Seafood Festival: Do we seem a little seafood-centric? With 3,400 kilometers of coastline, the sea is our neighbor on every side. Shellfish from nearby Fanny Bay comprise one of the highlights of this Comox Valley celebration during the second half of June; bcshellfishfestival.ca.
• Savour Cowichan Festival: Yep, more food. Food is good. Island food is especially good, and growers in the warm Cowichan Valley produce some of the best in Canada. Apples, grains, cheese, vegetables, meats and more all combine in an early autumn gourmet blowout; there’s a special focus on the valley’s many vintners, brewers, cidermakers and distillers; more than 50 events in late September and early October, savourcowichan.com.
• Nanaimo Marine Festival and World Championship Bathtub Race: In this world-famous gathering, the celebrants go to the sea themselves to, um, “sail” across Nanaimo Harbour. Concrete, metal, fiberglass, porcelain—there’s no limit to the conveyances. There’s also entertainment (as if bathtub racing weren’t captivating enough), arts and craft displays, kids events and of course, food. Why bathtubs? No sense making things too easy; late July, bathtubbing.com.
• Alert Bay SeaFest: From a fishing derby to a chowder-eating contest, this late July waterfront gathering celebrates everything maritime in a scenic setting. The village is one of the centres for BC First Nations culture; alertbayseafest.com .
• Aboriginal Cultural Festival: The many vivid and dynamic manifestations of indigenous culture along the North Pacific—dance, chant, arts and crafts, food—come to Victoria in late June, with participants from dozens of bands in BC and beyond; aboriginalbc.com/events.
• Hornby Festival: It takes two or three ferry rides to reach Hornby Island, a blissfully beautiful and serene outpost in the Strait of Georgia. Musicians, performers and festival fans make the trek here at the end of July and early August for a wide slate of outdoor (and indoor) performances; orchestral music is among the highlights, which embrace folk music, dance, poetry and more, hornbyfestival.bc.ca.
• Victoria International Buskers Festival: What better place to experience the wide array of street performance than one of the world’s most pedestrian-friendly cities? Hundreds of buskers come to the Inner Harbour and Old Town from around the world, and while acrobatics, juggling, singing and miming are popular, imagination is the only limit to what people conceive for the entertainment of passersby. Bring pocketsful of loonies; late July, victoriabuskers.com.
• Salmon Festival & Logger Sports: Salmon and trees are central to life in Campbell River; at this colourful event you can answer the question, how long can I stay upright on a log rolling rapidly in the water? Not to mention axe throwing, log bucking, tree climbing… And we haven’t even mentioned salmon yet. Yes, more seafood; early August, crsalmonfestival.com.
• Salt Spring Apple Festival: Aside from pies, ciders and fresh-harvest apples—350 different varieties grown on Salt Spring Island—this annual event celebrates the island’s longstanding small-farm heritage. Early October; saltspringapplefestival.org.
• Ladysmith Festival of Lights: Perched on a rise overlooking the Strait of Georgia, this mid-island hamlet blazes with lights every year during holiday season, as every building in town is draped with Christmas lights. The highlight is the late autumn evening when the switch is thrown and the displays come on; late November through early January; ladysmithfol.com.
To find more festivals and events—many more—please consult our calendar at vancouverisland.travel. And be prepared to have fun!
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