Vancouver Island Offers Lessons in the Power of Connection

Tofino on Clayoquot Sound Embodies Philosophy of First Nations 

Vancouver Island gave me some remarkable lessons in connecting with myself, with others, and with a sense of wonder. 

My husband Tom and I set off from Parksville on the 100-mile trek across the width of Vancouver Island to Tofino on its western coast. Most of the journey was through the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, traversing old logging roads that weren’t paved until the 1980s.

We had driven for some time on Highway 4 without seeing another car, in a wilderness more vast than anything I had experienced. After two hours, my awe at the majestic scenery began to turn to an uneasiness, acutely aware of the area's remoteness and my total lack of any survival skills. I checked my cellphone. No reception. A bank of clouds moved in above tall, densely packed trees and long shadows reached across our path. I envisioned a pack of hungry grizzlies emerging from the forest and encircling our car. An ominous version of the Wizard of Oz refrain "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" grew increasingly louder in my head.

Suddenly, Tom slammed on the brakes at a crest of a hill, and I swiveled to face front, drawing in a sharp breath at what lay before us. He and I looked at each other, eyes wide with surprise, and we began howling with laughter.  We had just bellied up to a single-lane parking lot.  Stretching down the mountainside and up the face of the next peak, were cars, campers, and motorcycles, all at the mercy of a flagman in the valley. 

We opted out to pull off the road and take in views of the magnificent gorge which cascaded alongside the highway. I sunned on a rock, dangled my feet in a cold pool and watched the sparkling water tumble down from a snow-capped mountain above, happy to be part of the landscape.

A few hours later, with traffic a distant memory, we reached the Wickaninnish Inn, which sits on a point that extends into the pearl-gray waters of the Pacific.

This trip was a departure from our summer routine of immersing ourselves in historic European cultures. In fact, Vancouver Island represented a return to something even more ancient and perhaps even primal, heeding the proverbial “call of the wild,” yielding to an inner instinct to re-connect with the out-of-doors. I had gone through a period of a couple of years facing some serious health issues that, in turn, were causing me to question my career, lifestyle and priorities. I had a nostalgic yearning for what had long ago brought me comfort and peace.

When I was young, my brothers and I were out the door early in the morning, spending our days along our backyard brook, and in the meadow and woods beyond it, returning home only when it got dark. We unearthed slimy rocks from mud at the bottom of the stream and built walled pools, where we kept fat, bottom-feeding suckers we caught with our hands. We huddled inside the hollowed-out trunk of an old, old tree barely hanging on to a hillside, the space inside big enough for three kids. We sledded down snow-packed “Olympic Hill,” and ate our peanut butter sandwiches atop “Big Rock,” a house-sized slab of granite in the midst of a field. These memories recalled a time of simplicity and contentedness. Vancouver Island for me was a bridge back to that state of being.

It certainly wasn’t rough sledding during our stay at the elegant Wickaninnish Inn, but the property did indeed inspire a sense of communion with the landscape, given our room seemed nestled in the boughs of sweet-smelling pine surrounding our balcony. After relaxing on our balcony in the treetops, we headed out for a walk along the water.

Chesterman Beach is a two-mile strand pressed between majestic Douglas firs and the sea, a shoreline speckled with broad, glistening slabs of stone. Cupped between these outcroppings, whole universes exist. In one tide pool, sea anemones waved their green arms; in another, starfish in sherbet colors lay below the surface. A bleached piece of driftwood straddling two rocks was fringed with long, thin ribbons of seaweed, from which tiny white gooseneck barnacles hung, making a delicate tinkling sound in the late afternoon breeze.

 A starfish half submerged below the surface.

Chesterman Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park is a surfer's paradise... Photos: Meg Pier

 Sea anemones enjoying the tide pool.

 ...and also home to abundant sea life.

Growing Up with Mother Nature on Clayoquot Sound 

Charles McDiarmid, Managing Director of the "Wick", as the Wickanninish Inn is affectionately referred to, grew up in Tofino. He spent much of his boyhood on the water, exploring Clayoquot Sound on a 12-foot aluminum boat with a nine horsepower motor. On one excursion, he and a pal found themselves fogged in on the west side of Vargas Island. Although the teens were supposed to be home by dark, they had no choice but to pull ashore, build a fire, and settle in for the night. It was an early lesson in acceptance for McDiarmid, one he has come to see often bears gifts.

“I learned I have to go along with what Mother Nature is delivering, not necessarily what is on my program,” he chuckled. “But while the ocean can sometimes separate us, it also joins us.”

“When just the right kind of storm came up, with the tides and winds perfectly aligned, we’d get up at high tide, sometimes at 3:00 a.m. and beach comb for glass floats used by Japanese fisherman to hold up their nets,” he continued. “The green balls were hand-blown and wrapped in rope, and a huge treasure along our rocky coast, as the only place they would wash ashore unscathed were on the few stretches of hard packed sand of Chesterman and Long Beach.”

We later learned that there is a Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation expression meaning “everything is one,’’ a philosophy rooted in western Vancouver Island and very much in evidence here.

Joe Martin, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, is a master canoe carver. When he was a boy, he and his father searched the forest looking for wood from which to make canoes. Joe’s father passed on an early lesson that he said is part of natural law: “Don’t cut down a tree within 100 yards of an eagle’s nest. The eagles are a gift from the Creator.”

Joe is from Opitsaht, a community across from Tofino that means“meeting place.” He spoke of his community’s “constitution” and instructions on how to behave. These teachings are handed down not through the written word, but through crests on carved, wooden totem poles.

There are several totems in front of his family’s home, each erected to commemorate a significant event. The top crest of each totem is a thunderbird–folded wings symbolize female ancestry; open, male ancestry. On the chest of the thunderbird is a sun or moon, emblematic of respecting each other, all life, and that nature provides for need, but not greed. The bottom crest, typically a wolf, bear or killer whale, represents clans that uphold natural law.

According to Curtis Cook, executive director of the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust, the Nuu-chah-nulth people have lived here for millennia. Their communities flourished along the wild, west coast, in balance with the Pacific and the ancient rain forest. But over the past 150 years, settlers engaged in unsustainable extraction of the abundant timber and marine life. By the 1980s, the damage to Clayoquot Sound from logging led to increased collaboration to protect this rare ecosystem. As a result, the sound was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000.


  Clayoquot Sound has been inhabited by First Nations for thousands of years and was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 20000. Photo: Meg Pier

Clayoquot Sound has been inhabited by First Nations for thousands of years and was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 20000. Photo: Meg Pier

 “The interconnectedness of all living things is both a simple and complex principle. To the Nuu-chah-nulth . . . [it] is not even second nature, it is first nature,’’ Cook said. “They understand that if you harm a part of your environment, you harm yourself. Lower salmon stocks affect food supply for larger fish, marine mammals like whales, as well as bears, wolves, and humans. The impact is like knocking over a line of dominoes.’’

Artie Ahier, owner of Sobo restaurant in Tofino, considers himself a link in the area’s larger community.

“We have the glamorous end of things, but for us to look good, the salmon fishermen getting up at 4:30 in the morning on a crummy, wet day have got to be passionate about what they do,’’ he said.

“It’s a small world here on the island, on the edge of the rain forest, and we try to help each other out,’’ Ahier continued. “I can go to any of the other restaurants in town and say, I’m out of this or that, and they’ll provide it, and they know I’ll do the same.’’

Tofino Botanical Gardens a Living Lesson in How to Give & Take 

Another day, pulling into the 12-acre Tofino Botanical Gardens, we were struck by gigantic-leafed, prehistoric-looking plants called gunnera, found all over the area. Beginning our self-guided tour, we wandered through the kitchen and herb gardens.

“One of our mantras is that a garden is a good place to learn how to take what we need from nature without diminishing it,’’ said George Patterson, garden director.

At the cusp of the Old Growth Boardwalk, we studied a “nurse log,’’ a miniature universe of plants and insects that transforms the dead wood into new growth. Indeed, throughout one of the few remaining virgin forests on the Tofino Peninsula, we saw huge towering trees rising from these life-giving stumps.

Eventually we reached the shore and mudflats, an ecosystem that hosts up to 330 species of 200,000 migrating birds each spring and fall. We trailed after a brilliant blue Steller’s jay with a its plumed black head, as it rustled in the bushes and darted ahead of us on the path.

Offshoots from the main forest trail lead to cul-de-sacs featuring art that celebrates the varied cultures that have made Clayoquot Sound home: the Nuu-chah-nulth people, pioneer homesteaders, Japanese fishing families, and hippies. Sculptures include a psychedelic mural on an old VW bus, a copper cougar with a verdigris coat that seemed ready to pounce, an immense primitive totem head, an elegant gray wooden heron posing in the reeds of a lily pond, and a wire humanoid stationed at a desk with a rusted typewriter.

  Tofino Botanical Gardens features creative sculptures that invoke connection. Photo: Meg Pier

Tofino Botanical Gardens features creative sculptures that invoke connection. Photo: Meg Pier


According to Patterson, most of the sculptures are by Michael Dennis, who lives on Denman Island, off the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. He uses local, natural materials, such as salvaged cedar pulled from old logging sites, cast-off pieces that would normally be burned.

“In creating his pieces, he thinks a lot about ancestors, shadows on the walls of caves, reflection, fire,’’ Patterson said. “His work . . . addresses a lot of universal questions and concerns that everyone has — what are we, what are we a part of, where are we from?’’

Cook echoed this sentiment. “In many business meetings and presentations, a Nuu-chah-nulth blessing is given at the outset. . . . We remember that our choices and decisions can have far-reaching consequences . . . maybe not today or tomorrow but eventually. We are reminded of our responsibility and accountability to all things on this planet.’’

In the hishuk ish ts’ awalk philosophy of the Nuu-chah-nulth, every being is accorded respect for its own unique value and contribution to the greater good.  There is a profound recognition that the authentic nature inherent in every organism plays a role in the well-being of the broader community.  Honoring that inter-dependency fosters an environment where all can thrive.

The hush of a forest, the wonder of seeing a ray of light break through high branches, the flap of wings awakening me to the presence of small creatures–-these were all gentle reminders that, through one small decision at a time, I had become pretty far removed from whom I had once been, and what had been a source of comfort and joy for me.  Thanks in part to a Nuu-chah-nulth-inspired epiphany, I was able to move closer to being true to myself, and, thus, have more to offer my “brother.”

And now when stuck in traffic, even without a gorge to escape to, I can take a breath and say to myself “We are all one.”