island hopping, days 4-6

After a very full and fascinating day of exploring Sointula and Alert Bay, the next morning we had to leave Port McNeill and head south to our next destination, Victoria. It was a pleasant drive of about 450 km. (5 to 6 hours) including stops for a picnic lunch and in Chemainus to see some of their famous murals. Our German visitors kept commenting on how many trees there are, especially in the northern portion of Vancouver Island with its lesser population. As we approach the south, the populations increase, with ever more towns and farms.

The town of Chemainus is famous for its murals, and this one is my favourite.

The venerable old Empress Hotel by the Inner Harbour

We checked into a nice hotel (not the above) in downtown Victoria near the Parliament Buildings and the Inner Harbour, a unique and pleasant experience for my husband and I, for we’ve always stayed, quite happily too, with family or friends when here. We had wonderful visits with everyone and our German visitors were given the grand tour by a niece and her husband.

On Cordova Bay, a temporary ‘beach hut’ installation with all manner of humourous found objects, apparantly made every summer by the family living above it.


Our last afternoon was spent celebrating daughter Elisa‘s birthday with family and friends at their home by a charming little lake with lily pads.


Goodbyes, then one more ferry ride back home to Vancouver! The next day our German visitors headed for the airport to catch a flight to the US for the next leg of their holiday.

So, that concludes the saga of our island hopping holiday. Total ferry trips: eight in six days!

Should you have missed some of the island hopping posts, here they all are in their confusion (along with ferry counts, heh):

Day 1 – ferry Vancouver to Nanaimo, drive to Campbell River

Day 2 morning, and more – ferry to Quadra Island, ferry back, then drive to Port McNeill

Day 3 morning – ferry from Port McNeill to Sointula on Malcolm Island, with more about Sointula, then ferry back

Day 3 afternoon – ferry to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island with several posts:
more Alert Bay,
colourful Alert Bay,
Alert Bay history,
the residential school and
the seaside
then the ferry back to Port McNeill.

And lastly this post of course as
Day 4 – drive to Victoria
Day 5 – in Victoria
Day 6 – ferry from Victoria to Vancouver

Alert Bay seaside






Islands mean water, water means boats, fishing, swimming…
And waiting for the ferry back to Port McNeill and our last evening in the area.
The next day, the long drive to Victoria

Alert Bay’s Residential School


Some time before our own island hopping journey last month, some dear friends had done a similar trip a bit earlier going farther north but also visiting Sointula and Alert Bay. They warned us about a very disturbing sight at Alert Bay. Indeed, as we approached Cormorant Island on the ferry and saw the village, we were stunned by the vision of a huge prison-like brick building standing out above the smaller structures.


This is St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. It operated from 1929 to 1974. When the school was closed, the First Nations residents of the island took over the ownership and decided to leave it standing, its deteriorating condition being a horrific testament to a tragic past of cultural genocide.


The Indian residential school system was implemented in 1879 by the Canadian government to eliminate the “Indian problem”—that is, to absorb the Aboriginal population into the dominant Canadian identity, and to impose Christianity, English or French as the primary languages, and the abandonment of cultural and family traditions. St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay was one of 140 Indian residential schools that operated in Canada. (quote from the Museum of Anthropology page regarding an exhibition I just learned about and must go see.)


It is located right next to the U’mista Cultural Centre which I wrote about yesterday. One side about a loss of culture, pride, language and family connection, the other about reviving pride in one’s culture, language and history.


Viewing this was all very very disturbing for us all, and quite the eye opener for our European visitors. It still remains with me, making this a difficult post to write. Man’s inhumanity to man.


This scene is in the grassy treed area in front of the school. In its innocence, it still made me sad when thinking of the long ago suffering children, yet suggesting hope and happiness for today’s.

We were to learn that while we were here, back in Vancouver was a huge gathering of First Nations from across Canada for the Truth and Reconciliation Week. There were many many articles in the media about this event, but I’ll just post a few below should you be interested. Do at least visit the first one, a heartwarming story by a local well-known blogger who was there:

Walking Reconciliation by Chris Corrigan

CBC: Seeking Truth and Reconciliation in Vancouver

To Break Residential Schools’ Dark Legacy, Understand Why

ADDED later: more photos of St. Michael’s

Alert Bay history


‘Namgis Bighouse, next to the world’s tallest totem pole


the front doors of the U’Mista Cultural Centre

As I mentioned in my first Alert Bay post, we learned, unfortunately for us, that the U’Mista Cultural Centre was closed for two reasons, one that it was now on the fall/winter schedule with a Monday closing, and secondly and more seriously because of a recent fire.

In our wanderings around the village, we came upon U’Mista with its stunning doorside panels. I’m sorry I did not get a good picture of the larger structure. Unable to go inside, I thus want to point out their excellent website which I’ve been studying several times. For starters, the meaning of U’Mista is enlightening:

In earlier days, people were sometimes taken captive by raiding parties. When they returned to their homes, either through payment of ransom or by a raid, they were said to have u’mista. The return of our treasures from distant museums is a form of u’mista.

Do have a look at the gorgeous masks in the collection.

I’m grateful for websites like this and that we had managed a visit to Quadra Island’s Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre with its similar masks and other works, their stories and their sad history with the arrival of the Europeans.

Here’s more about that history.

colourful Alert Bay




amusing and colourful
on the waterfront road near the visitors centre
an urban contrast on a remote island of totem poles

more Alert Bay



Above: details of just two sections of the World’s Tallest Totem Pole. The Totem Pole is comprised of a 163 Foot and a 10 Foot pole making it 173 feet tall. Unlike most Totem Poles, which are specific to a particular family, the figures on this pole represent some of the tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw. (from the PDF about Alert Bay’s Totem Poles)



There are several totem poles located around the village and we visited quite a number, thanks to the map. It is fascinating how unique each is. Some are fairly recently created memorials placed in front of homes of the deceased. The above linked PDF document is certainly worth a read.

island hopping, day 3 Alert Bay

After a morning at Sointula, we took the ferry back to Port McNeill, then drove right back on it for the leg to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, about 40 minutes away. These ferry trips were a joy on another beautiful sunny day.

Our plan was to visit Alert Bay’s noted numerous totem poles and its U’mista Cultural Centre. Our first stop was at the visitor centre to get both print and verbal information and directions which were excellent. But also some bad news… the U’mista Cultural Centre was closed on Mondays! I felt very sorry that I had not rechecked the website concerning the fall and winter schedule change. We were also told that there had recently been a fire in one part of the museum so that part was closed for restoration work.

Still, we saw a lot in our afternoon there and took so many photos that I will have to show them over more than one post. Today’s focus is on the the island’s largest grouping of totem poles on the Namgis Burial Ground. Being sacred ground, viewers were requested to view these from the road, not a problem though I am grateful my husband captured some closer shots with his newer and more powerful camera.







We were given brochures which are very helpful in learning more about totem poles in general and Alert Bay’s in particular. One is available also as a PDF. I recommend the page “what is a totem pole?” Are these not amazing works of art and spirit?!

more Sointula

After all the recent distractions, I am trying to return to writing more about our island hopping journey in September. I last wrote about Sointula and now just want to add some more photos from there before moving on.


You know how intrigued I am by aging, weathered and textured things,


and the patterns of both light and dark and the disintegrating architectural shapes.


The above images are of the same boathouse as shown in the previous Sointula post.


This is a different one which has almost merged with nature’s overgrowth, almost melting back into the earth.

island hopping, day 3 Sointula

After our Quadra Island visit on day 2, we returned to Campbell River and headed north about 250 km. along a very good highway lined with forests, mountains, glimpses of lakes and ocean inlets but with very little population. Our destination was Port McNeill, but our accommodation was about a ten minutes drive beyond at a seaside campground, in a one bedroom log cabin. Though we knew that every cabin was full we were surprised by all the motorhomes and campers in the campsites. As we’d had great difficulty finding accommodation for four in town even a few weeks in advance, we surmised that there must be a lot of workers living in all the hotels, motels, and campgrounds in the area because of a lack of housing. We’d also been told that it was a popular fishing season for tourists as well.


Anyway, the cabin though tiny was rather cute with a loft meant for kids (husband slept up there the second night because of our awful hide-a-bed). I enjoyed watching and hearing the sea birds along the estuary, and the view across to Malcolm Island, with its lighthouse. We actually spent little time here, only to sleep two nights and make our own breakfasts and packed lunches for our outings. Dinners in town were very good.

Day Three was a full one with two very different destinations on two islands accessible by ferry from Port McNeill: Sointula on Malcolm Island and Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. I will write about Sointula first.

One of many old boathouses sitting partly over the shores, evidence of an early fishing community

Sointula has long interested me because of its early Finnish community. Sointula, Finnish for “place of harmony,” was settled by Finnish workers in the beginning of the 1900’s, as a co-operative community of utopian socialists led by Matti Kurikka. Eventually it failed with many Finns leaving for other parts of BC, yet many stayed. Some of their descendants are still living here. Please read more about their history here.

After a little drive around the old village, we headed for the Sointula Museum which offers a unique educational experience. Its collection includes artifacts, publications and photographs specific to the development of this community from a Finnish socialist commune to the quiet village of today. The 100-year history of the settlement from its utopian beginnings involves the development of socialist thought in Canada and the building of the commercial fishing industry, unions and cooperative economic structures.

At the museum we met Sue, the lively and informative manager with whom I spent most of our time there chatting. She said this building was the former schoolhouse which she’d attended as a child. The teacher was her English mother and she had a Finnish father. The museum is full of old objects from the lives of the islanders. I barely had time to see it all while husband and our visitors did. I especially loved the loom, so like the one we had in our home on loan for a few years when I was in my late teens. My mother wove a few things, I made a rag rug now long worn out.


As Sue said, most visitors find many of the admittedly worn and shabby things brought back memories of our elders. I don’t mean to be unkind, but I believe the museum really does need a lot of help and perhaps more space in organizing things in a more presentable way for it seemed too much like a junk shop. It must be difficult to find that help in this tiny remote village. For me, the personal contact with Sue was most heartwarming.


Because this was Monday, the bakery in town was closed to my husband’s extreme disappointment for he had been looking forward to some Finnish pulla. The Co-op store, the first of its kind in Canada was also closed. We went for a drive around the island, passing some newer homes and marinas, signs of perhaps vacation or retirement homes in some cases. On the east side of the island is a large campground and lovely views east to mainland BC.


Sointula was preparing for an exciting conference just a week or so later, called Culture Shock: Utopian Dreams, Hard Realities. And most exciting was that a Finnish musical theatre group was coming! Do check out this link to an excellent story and video by CBC. Wish I could have been there.

More about Sointula in Crawford Kilian’s articles in the Tyee : In Sointula, Survival of the Finnish, Radical Finns Persevere off BC coast. And Kilian’s own blog called Sointula.

Added November 1st: After Jean mentioned a Finnish Utopian society in Brazil in comments in another post, I searched and found a list of Finnish Utopian communes around the world – fascinating. Sointula seems to have had the largest population except for one in Karelia, next door to Finland.

Added November 4th: I have only recently come across the blog associated with the Suomi-Seura organization for Finnish expatriates to which I belong. It is called Kotisi Mailmalla (Your Home in the World). In it is a wonderful post about one person’s weekend visit to Sointula’s Utopia conference. In Finnish only, sorry.

island hopping ’13, day 2/more






A few more photos here from our visit to Quadra Island’s First Nations museum, gathering place and the spirit stones. The top image is of a totem pole next to the entrance to Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre. The others are more details of Ah-Wah-Qwa-Dzas, the gathering place.

(I am being very slow in processing all the numerous photos of our trip and in gathering my thoughts for writing here. After the initial busy-ness of catching up with things at home after our guests left, I came down with a nasty cold and bronchial infection which is slow to depart.)