As they searched the darkness, the ocean they knew so well changed shape, gathered itself into a giant wall of water about 10 metres high and came roaring shoreward, towering like a nightmare giant. They turned to run back to their beachside homes or maybe instinctively for higher ground. But tsunamis travel too fast to be outrun by humans. This one swept them up and then in swirling violent retreat sucked them, men, women and children and their homes out into the ocean to be lost forever.
Some stories tell us that on that Tuesday night of Jan. 26, 1700, near what is now known as the north end of the West Coast Trail, the entire Pachena Bay tribe was destroyed when, to use its modern name, “The M9 Cascadia Megathrust Earthquake” shook the globe from Vancouver Island to California and Japan. Other tales in the oral histories of our First Nations say that while the Pachena Bay beach village and its inhabitants were destroyed that night, there were tribal survivors on higher ground. Those descendants still live near the bay — but not as trustingly unaware of earthquakes and tsunamis as their ancestors.
In March 2012, Margret Munro, writing for Postmedia News in the Vancouver Sun in the wake of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake-tsunami that had earlier claimed 16,000 lives in Japan, talked with Tom Happynook, a hereditary chief of the Huu-ay-Aht First Nation. He told her of the new “big house” built on high ground 50 metres above and a short distance from the beach where the Pachena people died. He told her of plans to build 49 new houses, also up on the high ground, to replace homes still sitting in the danger zone. He recalls how the original village on the bay was “completely wiped out” and wants his people fully prepared when the next big one hits as he, and experts around the world, insist it surely will.
Although there are no written histories to confirm my picture of what happened at Pachena Bay, there are strong oral-history links. And while it is true that stories handed down by word of mouth sometimes get mixed up with myth and fable, there is usually a core of truth strong enough to give us next-best to eyewitness accounts.
If we compare the handed-down oral history of the tragedy at Pachena Bay in 1700 with what we saw on television of Japan’s disaster in March 2011, we can make some safe assumptions as to how things played out that long-ago dreadful night.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization offers excerpts from the story told by Chief Louis Clamhouse in 1964 as told to him by his grandfather of “the Pachena Bay people.”
“It is said no one ever knew what happened,” Clamhouse said. “I think a big wave smashed into the beach. The Pachena Bay people were lost. But they who lived at House-Up-Against-Hill the wave did not reach, because they were on high ground. Because of that they came out alive. They did not drift out to sea with the others.”
Similar echoes reach us from native voices from along the 1,000 kilometres of destruction stretching from Vancouver Island to Northern California, and eventually Japan, where the 1700 tsunami hurled its last gasp.
For centuries, we viewed as fable stories of whales being swept up and deposited inland, of rivers becoming suddenly salty, or canoes being found high in trees far from a beach; of darkness falling earlier and darker than had ever been known. In recent years, courtesy of television, we have witnessed the terror of towering tsunami waves sweeping people, homes, cars, trucks, boats and ships as large as freighters to relentless doom. Pachena Bay, 1700, becomes easy to envision, frightening to contemplate.
The picture became even clearer in 1996, when Japanese scientists via radiocarbon testing linked trees and tsunami debris from their shores with the Pacific Northwest. Japan has been keeping detailed records of earthquakes and tsunamis reaching its shores since the 1500s. It was their research, later internationally checked and acclaimed, that pinpointed the day and the hour of “M9 Cascadia Megathrust Earthquake, Jan. 26, 1700.”
The anniversary was yesterday, but it isn’t too late to reflect on what happened when the last “big one struck” Vancouver Island — and to check your survival kit and your quickest route to high ground if you’re a beach dweller.
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