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Book excerpt: A pioneer in a glorious wilderness

How a young nurse left Victoria for the Island's wild west coast

Totem Poles and Tea, by Hughina Harold, paints a vivid account of Harold's experience as a teacher and nurse in the remote Broughton Archipelago on the west coast of Vancouver Island during the 1930s. Fresh from nursing school in Victoria and eager to start work, Hughina Bowden could not have imagined the challenges that awaited her in the tiny village of Mamililikulla.

In this excerpt, it is the fall of 1935, and 20-year-old Hughina Bowden has travelled from her comfortable home in Victoria to the tiny Kwak’wala village of Mamalilikulla near Alert Bay, where she will spend the next two years as a teacher and nurse. On her first day, she explores the village. Hyuya-Tsi, meaning “place of rest,” is the name given to the local tuberculosis sanatorium.

Marooned! Earlier, I had stood on the steps of the school and looked along the hillside path leading to the village. Now I walked along it, the Gables and the Hyuya-Tsi above, and the brown house below. The path was wide enough to walk two or three abreast, and the surface was hard-packed from years of wandering feet. Tall dry grass, thistles and stinging nettles grew where no houses stood.

If there was a plan for the village, it wasn’t obvious, except to ensure every house faced the sea. It seemed each builder had chosen a site on whim. A few had been built with care and an eye to design, while others were jerry-built shacks, old and weathered to a soft grey. Few had seen a coat of paint, and the ones that had were dulled by time and salt spray.

The shacks on the beach were the worst of all, looking as if they would collapse at any moment. Rickety steps led from the top of the bank to the doorways, and moss encrusted the curling shake shingles on their roofs.

Totem poles, ancient and lonely, told their timeless stories, but no one was there to listen. They kept their silent vigil, and their reason for being seemed long forgotten. They appeared forlorn, standing here and there along the path, almost like intruders. But the true intruders were the houses, elbowing these monuments of the old culture aside to make room for the new.

The stories were told in the carved designs, by the figures set one on top of the other — the Bear, the Salmon, the Raven, the Orca and the mightiest of them all, the Thunderbird. The carving on some was still distinct and fine, the adze marks plainly visible, while on others the elements had bleached them smooth and silvery, turning them hoary with age.

In an open space between two houses, the grass grew tall. Wood, neatly stacked, stood ready for the cold winter nights. A kitchen range, rusting in the wind and rain, stood abandoned beside the woodpile. There was something else.

Thrown in an untidy heap near the old stove and the fresh-cut wood were several carved images. About five or six feet in length, they depicted dwarfish men with round moon faces. These effigies must have been held in high regard at one time but now, their significance diminished, they’d been tossed aside. I studied three phases of history in this grass-grown corner — the ancient images, the middle-aged stove and the neat woodpile, a necessity of the present.

I walked on, passing a few empty, though obviously lived-in, houses. Then I came upon an open field where, at the edge of the path, an archway, guarded by a totem, stood stark and bare. The arch was at least 10 feet tall and constructed of peeled logs four feet in diameter. The ends of the lintel lay in grooves chiselled into the tops of the vertical columns. Time had lent a soft patina to this portal of the past. In the field beyond, traces of an ancient building’s footprint were barely discernible. Grass now reigned where once stood a mighty house.

Next, I walked toward the great square house which I’d first glimpsed through the glass of the Black Raven’s wheelhouse. I recalled how, from the sea, it had dwarfed the dwellings nearby. Now I stood just outside it, peering through the arched doorway into its shadowy past.

The skeleton of this great house was a grid of enormous logs and a triumph of primitive engineering. It easily measured 50 feet from the entrance to the rear wall, and each roof support was a single straight-grained log with a circumference greater than the span of a man’s arms.

The corner posts were embedded firmly in the ground, and the beams, which formed the rectangular shape of the house, rested easily in grooves chiselled into the tops of the corner posts.

At the rear, the ends rested on the heads of two mighty Thunderbird totems. With their all-seeing eyes, enormous beaks and widespread wings, they stood tall and silent. Because they were protected from the wind and weather, their colours glowed bright and clear. These were indeed two treasures of the Mamalilikulla culture. I stood, utterly still, and admired the magnificent structure.

No nails were in evidence in the construction framework, and I knew the great timbers had been raised above the ground only by equal amounts of will and manpower. The length of each beam and corner post and the straightness of their grain suggested these beams had been selected with meticulous care.

In the centre of the room were ashes and half-burned logs, remnants of what had been a roaring fire. Directly above, light filtered through the opening in the shake roof, cut there to allow the smoke from the fire to escape. Raised platforms defined the inside perimeter, and a dais sat at the feet of the great Thunderbirds. The floor was hard-packed earth.

Standing in the doorway to this old house, I could only wonder what stories of ancient cultures it could tell. But the guardian Thunderbirds would keep the secrets of this special place, as would the dense forest at its back and the sea on its doorstep. I turned to go.

I faced that sea then and felt the harsh wind chill my face and whip at my hair. I listened to the sigh of evergreens and the slap of waves on the rocky shore. As far as the eye could see there was only water, islands and more water. Not a living soul was in my sight. There was beauty in abundance, but at that moment — to me, at least — there seemed to be nothing else.

From Hughina Harold, Totem Poles and Tea, Heritage House Publishing. ©1996, 2006 Estate of Hughina Harold.