Jack Knox: Up-Island in the ‘middle of nowhere’ — we should be so lucky

There’s a cringeworthy scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral in which Hugh Grant’s character asks after another character’s girlfriend.

“She’s no longer my girlfriend,” the latter replies

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“Ah dear, I wouldn’t get too gloomy about it,” replies Hugh. “Rumour has it she never stopped bonking Toby de Lisle.”

To which the other man says, “She is now my wife.”

Which, for some reason, is what popped to mind after hearing about another foot-in-mouth moment on Gaby Wickstrom’s plane ride home to northern Vancouver Island last week.

As the flight from Vancouver landed, one of the other passengers peered out the window and observed, “Looks like we’re in Bum[bleep] Nowhere.”

This prompted Wickstrom to casually pass him her business card. “Welcome,” she said. “I’m the mayor of Bum[bleep] Nowhere.”

OK, she’s actually the mayor of Port McNeill, half an hour from the airport in Port Hardy, but people up-Island have each other’s backs, so she figured she’d stick up for the home team. To his credit, the guy who made the remark laughed at Wickstrom’s response, though not as hard as his fishing buddies did.

The thing is, being in the middle of nowhere, or at least at its gateway, is one of the most thrilling things about the top end of the Island. It’s a reason to go there, not stay away.

You don’t go to the north Island for the destination-shopping-mall experience, Wickstrom says. There’s no hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tour. But if you want camping, fishing, hiking, kayaking, caving, grizzly- and whale-watching, insight into Indigenous culture, or simply want to find yourself in a place where yours are the only footprints in the sand, then places like Port McNeill, pop. 2,100, make a pretty good launching pad.

“What we have is the ability to get out into nature and truly escape,” Wickstrom says. What a rare treasure. And what a squandered opportunity for Islanders who never venture into the”middle of nowhere” beyond Campbell River.

There’s more up there than wilderness tourism, though. Years ago, photographer Debra Brash and I collaborated on a series called the Other Island in which we poked into the far corners of what we called The Land Beyond Starbucks, the no-traffic-lights, no-McDonald’s world just a few hours up the highway.

We went to places like Telegraph Cove, where a woman told us how she gave a dead whale to her husband as a wedding present, and tiny Oclucje, past Zeballos, where we met Alban Michael — of the more than seven billion people on Earth, he was the last to speak his native tongue, Nuchatlaht.

In the wilderness beyond Tahsis, surfers caught waves while watched by wolves on the beach. In Echo Bay, where almost every building clung to the shore on floats, an 11-year-old girl tied a sea star to a rope and lowered it over a sunken teapot. When the sea star wrapped itself around the teapot, she pulled it up.

Outside Gold River, we stumbled across Luna the whale rubbing against the side of a prawn boat. He blew blowhole spray in my face. It tasted like fish. The next day, on the stern of the Uchuck III, waiting to sail to Nootka Island, Brash took a classic shot of Luna going nose to nose with a black lab in a boat.

On Nootka Island, we met Ray and Terry Williams, an Indigenous couple living in splendid isolation; they talked about gathering herring roe from hemlock boughs laid on the water, eating k’uc’im — mussels — and watching the Blue Jays thanks to the satellite dish their son bought them. Later that day, when we returned to Gold River by floatplane, the pilot had to abort the landing because Luna popped up right where we were about to set down. “Damn whale did it again,” the pilot said.

We went to Sointula, settled by Finnish Utopians settled over a century ago, then continued to Alert Bay, arriving just in time to see a seiner dock with the year’s supply of oolichan oil, the whole community turning out to see the freshly filled jugs distributed, precious as gold, elders getting their share first.

Alert Bay is also where the fabulous U’mista Cultural Centre houses Kwakwaka’wakw artifacts once seized following a then-illegal potlatch ceremony on Village Island in 1921.

When Bill Cranmer, the son of the ‘Namgis chief who hosted the potlatch (it resulted in 45 arrests) guided us down a path on the uninhabited, isolated island, we skidded to a halt after coming across a steaming fresh pile of bear scat in the middle of the trail. Cranmer turned to Brash and deadpanned “You go first.” It was a good line, a touch of quick, dark humour, just like Wickstrom’s.

Middle of nowhere? It’s magic, and I’ll be forever grateful for the experience.


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