A Road Story – Chapter Fourteen – Fallen Sentinals

Vera in her wet gear.

We set off early to catch the ferry to Alliford Bay where we met representatives of the Moresby Explorers. We had arranged for a trip by Zodiac raft around Louise Island, with a few stops. After driving for more than an hour we got to their camp and received instruction and massive amounts of wet gear to put on for our boat ride.

There were about ten of us in all.

The day was clear and warm and the strait was calm.

We climbed into a large Zodiac and set out on our tour.

The first stop was near an abandoned logging camp on Louise Island.

As we wandered through the rainforest we saw a variety of sights, including cork work boots abandoned for more than 70 years. During the Second World War those men that refused to serve in the armed forces for conscientious reasons were sent to work camps including a logging camp on Louise Island. Red Cedar and Sitka Spruce were harvested to help the war effort, including the manufacture of the De Havilland Mosquito fighter bomber. At the conclusion of the war the workers dropped their tools and equipment and immediately left the island to to go back to the mainland. The rainforest is slowly absorbing these remnants.

As we continued to explore the interior of the island we came across an old grave yard.

There were a variety of headstones and markers, many from the 1880’s when the smallpox epidemic reduced the Haida population from 7000 to 700 and concentrated the survivors in the vilages of Masset and Skidegate.

If you look closely at this headstone you will notice that it is dated October 15, 1883 and that “Thomas” was aged ten years. He may have died during the smallpox outbreak in 1882 and 1883.

It is unlikely that this boy’s name was Thomas as it was the practice of missionaries working in the area to bestow English names on the residents. His age is stated to be 10 years and other headstones in the area similarly describe the deceased in round numbers as dates of birth were not recorded at this time. The story of the Haida and the smallpox epidemic remains controversial. See my last blog for a link to an article that sets out the Haida version of the origin of the outbreak.

In the afternoon we stopped at an interpretive centre at Skedans on Louise Island. The name Skedans is derived from the name of a prominent chief. The area is also known as the Village at the Edge.

After a quick lunch prepared by the Watchmen we went on a walking tour among the ancient totems.

Many of the totems have fallen to the ground and are being re-claimed by the earth.

This totem has been attacked by a selal bush that will eventually cause disintegration of the cedar and the collapse of the totem.

Totems are traditionally carved from red cedar and they record the family history of prominent persons and clans. In the background of this picture is a mortuary pole which was used to commemorate the life of a prominent person from the village. These poles differ from totem poles in that they are used to support bent wood cedar boxes that sat atop the pole and contained the remains of the individual and a few of his prized possessions. Eventually the pole would decay and the box would fall to the ground allowing the remains to be absorbed back into the surround earth.

The rings on the mortuary pole indicate the number of potlatches held by the individual. At a potlatch gathering a hereditary leader hosted guests in the family house and held a feast. Family assets were given away to the guest in a re-distribution of wealth. Through this process a promeninet leader could demonstrate to others the extent of his wealth by giving away his assets and then re-accumulating more assets in subsequent years. Counting the rings on this pole it is clear that this wealthy individual was able to hold 12 potlatches.

About leftCoast Reflections

Peter Buxton - husband, father, photographer, skier, kayaker and sometime cook.
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