Photo courtesy Stathcone Park Lodge

Alert Bay

I boarded a ferry at Port McNeil at the northeastern end of Vancouver Island and soon arrived in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. I strolled along the waterfront past piers, wharfs and dozens of boats bearing testimony to the main pastime of fishing. The town is one of the main centres for First Nations culture in British Columbia and overwhelming in its sensory — and often contradictory — richness. A large war canoe gleaming in red and white designs was pulled up past the high-tide mark. Next to it a pier was covered with junk, including a cut up airplane. Here and there totem poles reached majestically toward the sky. I was touched, in particular, by the cemetery with its extraordinary array of totems as well as crosses, a strange mixture of Native and non-Native faiths.

Hemlock House

We boarded the Papillon, a 35-foot converted gill netter that has seen better days, and chugged off to Hemlock House Lodge on Swanson Island deep in the archipelago of islands dotting the Inside Passage. As our boat puttered eastward, we witnessed the immense natural wealth of the region, a wealth that has supported the coastal First Nations for millennia. The tail of a humpback whale rose high in the air as it started a deep dive. A school of porpoises swam past, their silvery bodies performing a graceful water ballet. Fishing boats cast their nets for sockeye salmon as an eagle watched from its lofty nest.

With the sun low and the western sky bathed in orange pastels, we arrived at the lodge and ferried our goods onto a tiny sliver of sand and shells — the rest of the beach was swallowed by an enormous high tide. While Dawson Simmonds, the lodge owner, filleted a freshly caught sockeye salmon at water’s edge, I sat on the deck and gazed onto Blackfish Sound. Within short order a pod of Orcas paraded past, their tall dorsal fins carving elegantly through the water. Then came the incongruous sight of a tug pulling a barge of containers, followed later by a towering gleaming-white cruise ship. Dawson explained that although located in remote wilderness, the sound is on the shipping route between Seattle and Alaska.

Next morning, a black bear ambled across our beach. Then we boarded Papillon and crossed the sound to Hanson Island. En route we saw a large school of Dal porpoises gracefully swimming and leaping. An eagle high in a Douglas fir guarded the entrance to the bay. We landed and hiked to a place Dawson had mysteriously referred to as the “Earth Embassy.”

The Man Called Walrus

Inside a rickety deer-fence were about a dozen structures looking much like a squatters’ camp. The proprietor, David Garrick — aka Walrus — looked like an ageing hippy with his green Nepalese silk head wrap, dirty gray beard, and ponytail. But as I quickly learned, he is as intelligent and articulate as any CEO, and much more fascinating. An anthropologist, he has devoted himself since 1985 to identifying and studying “culturally modified trees,” that is, cedars that have had their bark harvested by Natives. In pursuing his goal to save the island from further logging, he lives a simple Robinson Crusoe lifestyle with no electricity and few modern conveniences.

The buildings are open-sided and made of small logs, branches, plastic sheeting and, of course, duct tape. We sat in his “living room,” which consists of a plank floor, a tarp for a roof, and a few mildewed old chairs and log circles for furniture, perhaps not like kings, but wonderfully close to nature. Similar structures form the kitchen, his bedroom, and a workshop. The library holds a treasure trove of files and photos stored haphazardly in cardboard boxes of old Greenpeace campaigns and his days as a Parliamentary Assistant in Ottawa. Another structure forms the class room and laboratory where Walrus teaches courses to Natives and visitors, many from Japan. A large sprawling garden contains indigenous plants and vegetables with signs — the letters painstakingly burned in with a magnifying glass — announcing their names in Native, English, and Latin.

As we toured, Walrus recounted his early days. One of the original Greenpeacers, he started the anti-whaling movement in Japan in 1974, and later he worked with Paul Watson, Greenpeace’s founder, to save wolves in British Columbia from aerial killing. He also dates Mayan artifacts, and casually stated that one time in Guatemala guerillas showed him how to sneak past a village without waking a single dog.

Walrus led us through the forest and under the enormous shadows of several gnarled old-growth patriarchs. He indicated a tree with a red ribbon around it and a weal down the side. “This is one of about 10,000 trees on the island that were sustainably farmed for their bark, some for over 700 years,” he explained. Cedar bark was used by Natives for hats, clothing, rugs, boxes, rope and much more.

We puttered back to Hemlock House where I sat on the deck while about 100 Pacific white-sided dolphin splashed in the sound and pink clouds formed wreaths over distant peaks. But I was oblivious to nature’s display. Instead, Walrus, gentle dedicated Walrus, kept running through my mind. What drove him? How could he turn his back on the comforts of this modern age? Does it matter in the long run if his island is logged or not? That night I dreamed of how the world might change if we could inject some of Walrus’s philosophy into today’s materialistic, it’s-all-about-me society.


In the morning we set out with another tantalizing agenda. We crossed the sound to Hanson Island and were greeted by Dr. Paul Spong, who, assisted by his wife Helena Symonds, has been studying orca (aka “killer whales”) since 1970. A balding, unassuming man, but with an underlying passion, he quietly explained his research and led us through his internationally renowned Orca Laboratory. An operations room, like a control tower perched at the edge of the water with large windows overlooking the water monitors whale traffic. Two volunteers from England and Japan were listening to whales with headphones that receive signals from six hydrophones covering about 50 square kilometres of the archipelago. In addition, an underwater video camera is located at a nearby beach. The rising and falling tones of orcas “talking” filled the room. “That’s A5 pod,” announced one of the operators. “We can identify virtually every single orca in the northern group (about 220) by sight and by sound,” Spong explained, “and have come to know a lot about their way of life.”

Spong described how a mother and all her offspring, including males, live together for life as a close matrilineal group; these groups are linked into pods. In his decades of research he has seen no sign of fighting or territorial conflict. Orcas even share their food when feeding on spring salmon, their favorite. Modestly, Spong never mentioned that much of what is known of the orca behaviour and their society is thanks to his research.

Spong is impressed by the orca’s generational commitment to their group and the conflict-free nature of their society. He feels humans have much to learn from them, but he is concerned that instead we are threatening the very survival of orcas and their main food — salmon — with pollution, over-fishing, and global warming.

An Enchanted Forest

Then a crisis arose: our boat’s starter motor failed and we could not depart. Stranded, I had time to explore the island and entered an enchanted forest to visit Grandmother Cedar, a 1300-year-old enormous titan. I trod soundlessly on a carpet of moss while all around shafts of golden light peeked into the understorey. There was an overwhelming sense of peace and comfort in the dusky stillness of this grand forest, next to the towering, gnarled ancient cedar tree.

Here and there stood immense Douglas fir stumps, logged about a century ago. With nursery bushes sprouting from their tops like unkempt patches of hair and the notches cut for loggers’ planks looking like heinous grins, they were like giant madmen of the forest, soundlessly, protesting that a millennium of life has no worth in the human world.

Life Calls

Returning to the lab, I listened as the volunteers related their experiences including the touching story of Springer. Just a baby, it wandered off from its pod when its mother died. It was found, kept in captivity for almost a year and then returned to Hanson Island in 2004. Placed in a pen prior to release, the other whales heard its calls and gathered around in a very excited state with much vocalization and spyhopping (the head comes vertically out of the water to see). Next day Springer was released and successfully re-joined its original group. Amazingly, exactly one year later the whales returned and held what appeared to be an anniversary celebration.

With darkness falling, our boat was towed back to Hemlock House. Rocked by the waves, I mused about orcas and wondered at human conceit to consider ourselves the most intelligent species in the world.

We awoke early to fix the boat and then motored away over a sea draped in soft mist. Islands and fishing boats loomed suddenly out of the mist and then disappeared quickly behind us like ghosts. In Blowhole Pass my pulse quickened as our boat was tossed around by eddies, whirlpools, and the fast-moving tidal water.

The sun came out and soon I was aboard a ferry heading homeward. I gazed at the passing islands, reflected on the rich marine life and the remarkable human beings I had encountered; and I could already feel islomania setting in again.

If You Long for an Island

Alert Bay is a 45-minute ferry ride from Port McNeil (; for accommodations check:

Hemlock House Lodge on Swanson Island offers kayaking, and whale and wildlife watching tours:

To learn about orcas visit

For travel, tourism, and accommodation information on Vancouver Island visit and


Islands and Eccentrics in the Broughton Archipelago of British Columbia
by Hans Tammemagi

I must confess that I suffer from islomania, a rare malady in which islands — especially wild, beautiful islands off the beaten path — hold a sensuous allure and beckon to me irresistibly. Recently, my affliction worsened so I sought relief by visiting the Broughton Archipelago of British Columbia’s Inner Passage.


The Broughton Archipelago

Ministry of the Environment Information for the Broughton Archipelago

A Map of Queen Charlotte Strait (from the Atlas of Canada)

British Columbia's Inside Passage

© Unless otherwise indicated photos copyright of Hans Tammemagi