Two Port Alberni adventurers are headed on a hiking and kayaking expedition to reveal the forgotten history of early Spanish explorations of Canada’s west coast.
Jacqueline Windh and David Gilbert will embark on a one-month journey starting Sunday, June 9 with a float plane dropping them at their starting point: the southern entrance to Kyuquot Sound. They will spend a month hiking and kayaking down the coast, arriving at Chesterman Beach on Monday, July 8. They will visit the remote, but historically significant, locations where pivotal events in the settlement of the west coast of Vancouver Island occurred.
“Most Canadians associate our colonial history with the English and the French,” says Windh. “Few are aware of the important role the Spanish played in the early explorations and first contacts with the Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest.”
(Even Port Alberni is named for Captain Pedro de Alberni, a Spanish naval officer who spent nearly three years in Nootka Sound.)
“Now a wild and nearly uninhabited region, two and a half centuries ago this waveswept coast was the hub of contact between four cultures: the Spanish, the British (led by Cook and then Vancouver), the Americans (with the two-year enslavement of sailor John Jewitt by Chief Maquinna) and of course Nuu-chah-nulth inhabitants,” she said.
Windh has been planning this trip for about a year. It started out as a simple adventure, and morphed from there. “We were thinking of doing a run down the West Coast Trail or something like that,” she said.
She is an elected Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and thought about how she and Gilbert could pair their adventure with the RCGS. While looking at the West Coast, she began thinking about the history of the place, especially the little-known Spanish history.
“I’m not linear,” she admitted. “Things come (to me) from different directions.”
Once she had a concept, that gave them purpose for their trip and the research began.
“There’s an exploration that’s beyond the physical exploration of the land,” she said. “The rest of Canada doesn’t have a clue of that history.”
The RCGS agreed, and the pair will travel with an official RCGS expedition flag when they depart later this week.
Windh lived in Tofino for many years and recalled hearing oral histories from her Nuu-chah-nulth friends about first contact with Spanish naval crews. She hopes to share those Indigenous impressions with storytelling sessions and permission to write some of the oral history in a book.
She is excited to hear First Nations’ view of colonization of the coast. “I’m pretty sure the First Nations accounts won’t line up with what the Europeans said.”
While society has given weight to written accounts of first contact, she said people shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss oral histories that have been passed from generation to generation. She referenced John R. Jewitt’s account of Chief Maquinna’s two-year enslavement of the sailor: “Just because (Jewitt) wrote it doesn’t mean it’s more reliable than the oral histories.”
Windh, already a published author, plans to write a book on their expedition, featuring photographs of the historic stops as well as a written history. She hopes to integrate Nuu-chah-nulth history with written records of the European and American explorers. Her last book, The Wild Edge, published in 2004 in a similar format, is a Canadian bestseller.
The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Spanish Embassy in Canada, and the Wickaninnish Inn on the west coast (which is sponsoring the Nuu-chah-nulth storytelling portion of the trip) are all supporting this expedition, Windh said.
“I have secured some very prestigious sponsors for it as well as numerous industry sponsors—it’s probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done.”
Windh and Gilbert were at Clutesi Haven Marina on Saturday, testing out their refurbished folding kayaks and other gear. The kayaks fold into 20-kilogram (45-pound) backpacks. Windh first bought hers in 1992 as a reward when she finished her PhD (she is an Earth scientist); she has also acquired its twin from her mother.
The couple, ultra-marathoners, are used to hiking. They completed the Nootka Trail a couple of years ago and have explored the hills and mountains around the Alberni Valley too. This will be their longest trip so far.
Windh and Gilbert plan to end their trip on Monday, July 8, weather permitting, arriving at 10 a.m. at Chesterman Beach near Tofino.
For more information on their trip go online to www.secret-coast.com. While they won’t be able to post while they’re in remote regions of the Island, Windh will update the website when she can.