Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

Kitwanga, BC to Ganges, BC

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Date: Wed, 4 Sep 96 02:53:00 GMT

Copyright (c) 1996 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Chapter 28 - Aug 18 to Aug 31 Kitwanga, BC to Ganges, BC - 10,793 miles cumulative

We stared with amazement and awe as the clouds parted revealing clear blue sky, sunshine at long last, and temperatures rose to a wonderful 70 degrees or more. We stood with our arms spread wide trying to expose every inch of our bodies to those warming rays. Life was good once again. But, were we in North BC. Not on your life.

For sometime we'd been considering cutting some miles off our journey southward by riding to Prince Rupert and hopping on the ferry to Port Hardy. For 2 1/2 long weeks we'd endured the wettest weather we've seen in our entire year of riding. Pulling into the town of Terrace, we were soaked. Everything on us or the bikes was wet, damp, soaked, or dirty. Debates about which was worse, wet boots or wet sleeping bags, just weren't funny anymore. We'd had enough. It was time to get back to a place with better weather and more services. So with another 3 wet days riding from Kitwanga to Prince Rupert we pitched our tent on the soggy, sponge like ground of the Park Ave campground to wait the 1 day before the ferry departure at 7:30 AM on Aug. 22.

And what a day it was. Rain came down in an almost constant sheet all night, all day, and on through the next night. Packing our wet sleeping bags, wet tent, wet clothes, wet everything in the pouring rain at 5:30 AM we were oh so happy to be getting on that ferry and getting south. Throughout the northern B.C. area we'd been hearing again and again how short, wet, and cold the summer has been. Not exactly conducive to enjoyable bike touring.

Riding into Prince Rupert did take us along some of the of the most senic highway, so there was some consolation for our perpetual wet state. The road follows along the Skeena river which emanates from the end of a long fiord extending right through the coastal mountain range. Steep Sitka spruce and aspen coated mountains dropped from the gray foggy skies right to the water's edge. All the rain produced water falls ranging from tiny trickles to huge torrents plumetting down the steep slopes. The road is perched right along the water's edge following along the Pacific Trunk railway tracks.

The Pacific Trunk railroad starts in Prince Rupert and goes all the way to the east coast. In fact, Prince Rupert came into existance because of the railroad. Originally the dream of a business man named Charles Hayes, the rail line was completed in 1914. He had this grand scheme to create a northern port city rivaling the more southern Vancouver. The site of Prince Rupert was selected because it provided a great, natural deep water bay and the fiord of the Skeena river provided an easy route through the costal mountains. Hayes never got to see the completion of his dream as he took an early trip to Davey Jones locker, he was aboard the Titanic.

Prince Rupert had a very humble beginning as no more than a simple tent city created for the railroad construction crews. But quickly lots were sold to private individuals and the town proper began. Today Prince Rupert boasts a population of about 19,000. It still is a major shipping port particularly for lumber products. It has ferry service to Vancouver and Queen Charlotte Islands as well as Alaska. Industries include a pulp mill, a salmon cannery, and tourism.

Riding into Prince Rupert on a drab, dreary, gray day with no prospect for sunshine in the near future, our first impressions were not altoghether favorable. It seemed like a typical, medium sized industrial town with buildings that weren't all that well maintained. But, we recalled our first impressions of Whitehorse and how the town grew in our esteme after several days. We figured that just seeing large buildings after so many weeks of wilderness is such an insult to the visual senses that no matter how well maintained the town is, we'd still find it ugly. So we wandered, hoping our feelings for the town would improve. It never really did. With the continual rain and dreary weather we just couldn't quite get to the point where we actually liked Prince Rupert. We felt no lose what-so-ever as we climbed aboard that ferry headed south.

What a contrast Port Hardy is. A town of about 5,000 lining the north side of Bear Cove, it's a picturesque little village whose main industries are tourism, fishing, and some logging. The ferry pulled in at the early hour of 12:30 AM, it was 2 hours late. Even in the dark we could tell our impression of Port Hardy would be quite different. The water of the cove was as still as black glass. Amber, white, and red lights from the town reflected in the dark water creating a picture perfect night city scene. The town was quiet and still, quite remarkable for a Friday night. Even in daylight we weren't disappointed. It stayed as picture perfect in the light of day. We knew at that point riding Vancouver Island would be a much more enjoyable and easy experience.

The north half of Vancouver is a vast range of forest lands, or more appropriately a huge tree farm. As evidenced by the large swaths of clear cut fields and the enormous pulp mill just north of Campbell River that belches forth its noxious fumes turning the sun into an evil shade of orange. Logging is one of the primary businesses. Clear cut acerage is perhaps among the ugliest sights we've encountered. Among a sea of dark green, there'll be a perfectly squared off section where all the trees have been removed leaving only scattered debris, stumps, and a few unwanted logs. I always think a clear cut forest must look much like the vast destruction of Europe following the trench warfare of WWI. Armies of machines meet on the hills to do battle and the trees lose. I have to keep in mind that these are farms. Like the corn, wheat, soy bean, and sunflower fields in the midwest, these are fields of crops that are planted, fertilized, thinned, and harvested on a regular cycle. It just happens that the cycle is 60 or 70 years rather than 1. Even corn and wheat fields are quite ugly after harvest when all that's left is the cold, lifeless brown stubble.

We stopped to read a sign posted by one of the lumber companies that discussed this tree farm concept. They started presenting the simple idea that these are farms similar to those growing wheat and corn. But, from there they digressed. They tried to justify chopping down old growth forest by claiming that these trees are just dying anyway. So why not cut them now and accelerate the process. To try to equate clear cutting with the natural procession from old rotting trees that are eliminated by pests or fire to the loggers' saw does not make sense. Nature replaces the trees in phases with the faster growing aspens coming first and the pines later. The lumber companies plant the trees they want and weed out the rest. The forests end up looking homogeneous with all the same trees all at about the same height. We think they would have done much better just to continue with the farm idea and leave the old growth forests out of the conversation.

The southern half of the island is a jolting jump back into the civilized world. Giant grocery stores, 7/11 gas stations, and the sure sign of bustling metropolis, McDonalds, Wendy's and KFC fast food restaurants. Campbell River was the largest most industrial town we'd seen since Anchorage and it was strange to once again see bumper-to-bumper traffic. It's nice having the services, but the riding does get much more difficult.

Just a short 10 minute ferry hop, though, brings you to the much quieter and slower paced island of Quadra. Having only 3,000 full time inhabitants, many of who are fishermen, the town has an easy going, relaxed atmosphere. Its crown jewel is the small Kikiutl, probably spelled wrong, village just about 3 miles south of the ferry landing. On a flat bit of land next to a rocky beach the wilderness has been cleared to make room for a row of small houses, community center, tribal leader meeting hall, church, and a most fascinating museum. The houses, all sitting in a row, are those small cracker box style homes that are found on military bases throughout North America. You don't suppose the government had something to do with their construction? The church is a cute, tiny white building with baby blue trim and an enormous steeple tower to house the bell. The tower is so large it gives the entire church an odd lopsided appearance almost like it's "half a church" as Brian said. The village isn't very big, so I guess there's no need for an enormous structure.

Now the museum houses perhaps one of the best collection of items used for giving a polatch; masks, rattles, sisuitl belts, staffs, and boards, button blankets, sculptures, canoes, totem poles, and photos, lots of really good photos. Button blankets came into existance after the influx of the Hudson's Bay Co. trade goods. Hudson's brought these black, white, and red wool blankets and loads of buttons. The natives had no use for the blankets as blankets and, of course, buttons weren't of much use. So they took these goods and transformed them into capes of red and black designs with single, double, or triple rows of buttons making birds, swirls, flowers. Everyone, from the smallest baby to the oldest elder proudly wore their button blanket cape to the potlatch. Oh, a sisuitl is a design with a representation of a human head in the center and two serpent heads at the ends of the belt pointing outward. The wearer of the belt, bearer of the board, or porter of the staff was supposed to be invincible.

Masks are extremely important for the dances. They represent humans, animals, or mythical creatures; bear, raven, whales, salmon, beaver, crooked beak birds, the sun, serpents, fools, and the dead. They're carved of wood, painted, and then decorated with feathers, shells and reeds. Some even have flaps, attached with leather straps and then ingeneously hung with strings that when pulled cause the bird's beak or the whale's fins to flip open and shut. They were all shapes, all sizes, and all quite imaginative. I found the raven masks to be the most amazing. The raven holds a position within the northwestern Indians that is similar to the coyote in the southwest. He is a spiritual being what is benevolent and helpful to humans at times and a real trickster at others. Consequently the masks seem to make fun on the bird by portraying it with a huge, ungainly beak. Often over 3 to 4 feet in length with a center of gravity hanging somewhere well in front of the face I had to wonder at the strength and agility of the dancers. Carrying the mask for several hours all the time moving and gyrating around people, other dancers, and objects would have to be exhausting.

Potlatches are incredible events that take place even today. They are huge, unbelievable parties commemorating marriages, deaths, births, induction into clan, naming, basically any event of importance was celebrated with a potlatch. The host is expected to invite every major clan for miles and miles up and down the inside passage. It is accompanied with the raising of a totem pole, saying of prayers, dances, and gift giving. Although unlike similar Christian celebrations, in this case the host gives gifts to the guests. The more gifts given by the host the more prestige he has. Consequentlyt here was great pressure to literally give away the host's entire wealth. There was one photo showing the piles and piles of gifts waiting to be given away at one potlatch held in the 1920s. There were blankets, mirrors, desks, dressers, glassware, pots, bowls, jewelry, and pottery stacked several feet high in the open street giving more the appearance of one of those outdoor shopping bazares of Tijuana or even Soeul, Korea. Thousands and thousands of dollars of goods given by one person.

The dances usually signified some important historical myth, a ceremony, or a moral lesson. For a people with no written language, this was their only method of retaining their clan's history and for teaching proper social behavior to the young. Legends, probably based on some actual event involving mere humans, evolve to include animal taking on human atributes, spiritual beings, or gods as well as humans. We heard several legends that included a cannibal tribe. We wondered if these people had actually encountered cannibalism at one time or if it was simply a legend to teach children.

Dances used in the potlatch to commemorate the dead were most interesting. There are two major clans throughout the north west Indians; bear and eagle. Each member of a family belongs to one of the clans and is required to marry a member of the opposing clan, a primative but effective way of preventing inbreeding. When a person dies, the members of the opposite clan handle the basic funeral, burying the body and providing all the burial accutriments. Then, about a year later, the clan of the deceased holds a potlatch to thank the other clan for handling the burial. During this potlatch a dance in held in which a representation of the dead enters the big house, dances from corner to corner, and departs all the while accompanied by four chiefs as escorts. The escorts ask the family if they are ready to release the dead's spirit to the spirit world. With an affirmative response, the dancers depart. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if the family said "no". In all societies throughout the ages man has developed methods whereby those left behind by a death deal with their grief and carry on. These ceremonies are part of a healing process intended to help with the grieving.

The most important polatch gift and sure sign of a person's wealth was the copper. This was a shield made by cold working nuggets of copper into a flat, sort of rectangular shape. The front was inscribed with a design that gave the copper its name, such a the bear copper. Copper were traded, given, bought, and sold from clan to clan with its value increasing with each exchange. It was said that if one chief wanted to show his disdain for wealth he'd break the copper and then distribute its pieces to others. If an individual could then locate and reassemble the pieces, that further increaed the copper's value beyond what it would be unbroken. The coppers held no other purpose than to signify wealth and prestige. But they were very important in the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next.

Potlaches are held during the winter months after the summer harvest of fish, meat, berries, and other food has been put away. This was the time of leisure when efforts could be placed on more artistic endeavors. Clothes were made or mended, totem poles and masks carved, weaving and pottery made. Before the introduction of European technology and goods, it took years to properly prepare for a potlatch and the gift giving tended to be modest. It took a long time to prepare the totems, gifts, food, and quarters for the guests. But with the Europeans came a huge surge in premade goods that served as gifts and new tools that made carving much easier and faster. Consequently potlatches started to get way out of hand. A clan rivalry of one-up-manship developed, each chief trying to outdo the previous in his potlatch. This caused great concern among the whites leading them to eventually outlaw potlatches.

Many reasons can be sited for the rediculous banning of the potlatch. The Christian ministry felt the Indians were participating in some sort of pagan ritual and even thought they worshiped the totem poles. They felt the potlatch was the greatest impediment to their control and conversion of the Indians. They also had trouble accepting the idea of one chief giving away his entire wealth. Christian celebrations tend to have the guests giving gifts to the host rather than the other way around. With the furious rivalry developing in the early 1900s they were concerned that the economic impact of this mass redistribution of wealth would upset the economic health of the Indians, or at least their perception of the economic health. But, what I think was the deciding factor was that potlatches went on for many days or even weeks. Since historically they were held during the more idle winter months, there wasn't much to do but party anyway. Well, I'm sure the whites trying to set up European style businesses that continued operation all year, using the cheap native labor, saw these weeks of partying and idleness as a major threat. We can't have these Indians walking out on a major production line for week at a time to do nothing but party.

Controversy over the outlawed potlatch came to a head in 1921 when one huge potlatch commemorating a death was held at Christmas time. It went on for 6 days and the list of gifts given away was almost endless. The authorities got wind that this had occurred and proceeded to drag over 50 people into court. The video depicting the proceedings of the trial showed just how silly and trumped up the charges were. People were sentenced to 2 months in jail for making a speech, dancing, recieving a gift, or just being in attendence. Is it not true that these types of activities take place in most all Christian celebrations, weddings, birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving. It seemed so stupid to condem these people for participating in their own celebration. But, the charges were levied and jail terms set. All would have served time except that the prosecutor and defender struck a deal, no jail terms if the people turn over all their potlatch making stuff, the masks, rattles, costumes and such. This was done and in the end only about 20 people served time. The contraband was sent to several museums or sold to a collector from New York. Hard to believe this repression of religious freedom took place as late as 1921, in our supposedly enlightened 20th century.

Over the next 60 years the Indians of the northwest continued to hold their potlatches in the utmost secrecy. Retreating to some difficult to approach island far north to "dry fish", the party became much shorter and the gifts less extravagant, sacks of flour and other foods. Totem poles and masks were no longer carved. But at least the dances and traditons were kept alive. In the meantime, they got themselves educated on the terms of Canadian law and began a many year fight to retrieve their potlatch articles. Turns out it was completely illegal for the courts to confiscate goods in exchange for a repealed jail sentance. The goods could be confiscated for use in the prosecution, but not in exchange for the sentance. So in the 1970s the Canadian government agreed to return and even buy back sold goods if the Kikuitl could provide an appropriate museum in which to store and display them. The museum, now on Quadra Island, was built for some $1.5 million and was opened in the late 1970s. The law banning potlatching was dropped from the books in 1956, not repealed as the natives had wished. So now potlatches, in an abbreviated form more suitable to modern day lifestyles, take place regularly and in the open.

We leisurely rode down the rest of Vancouver Island not being in any particular great hurry. Labor day weekend was approaching and we were reluctant to get to Washington just to fight with holiday weekend crowds at the campgrounds. With sunny warm days, a great tail wind, and only the most mild hills the riding was incredibly easy. The only drawback was the extremely heavy traffic that started at Cambell River and continued nonstop southward. They're in the process of building a 4 lane highway to replace the 2 lane beach side road, but it was not quite finished. We spent a pleasent afternoon wandering the downtown of Nanaimo, population a whopping 60,000, and a full day off the bikes on the Salt Spring Island. We located a campsite at the Moaut Community Park just at the edge of town where we relaxed and just waited for the weekend to end. We wandered downtown, peeking into the windows of the galleries and shops selling a plethora of the normal tourist trinkets, admired the boat tied to the dock in the picturesque bay, and watched people pass by. There were a lot of weekend bike tourists around so we felt as if we had lots of company. But, next week they all go back to school and work and once again we'll have the parks and tourist attractions to ourselves. It's hard to believe, summer's already come and gone.

Appendix A - Route

British Columbia

Yellowhead highway to Prince Rupert Ferry to Port Hardy Vancouver Island Highway from Port Hardy to Crofton Ferry to Salt Spring Island

Appendix B - Campsites

British Columbia

The Cedars motel in Terrace ($), Exchamsiks Prov Park ($), Park Ave Campground Prince Rupert 2 nights ($), Sunny Sanctuary Campground Port Hardy ($), Klakama Lake Campground, Fisherboy Campground in Sayward ($), Bayside Rv park in Campbell River 2 nights ($), Ship and Shore Marina in Deep Bay ($), Royal Motel in Nanaimo ($), Moaut park on Salt Spring Isl 2 nights ($)

($) indicates fee camping


Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.



We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.


Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site,

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