Just after sunrise National Geographic Venture was positioned to begin her final approach to the Government Dock in the small town of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. This community was established in 1870 as a place to house workers for several salmon canneries. It was also the location of a residential school called St. Micheals. The school was torn down in 2016, bringing about great healing for the community of Kwakwaka’wakws who’s children had been taken from their homes in many nearby villages and forced to attend the residential school. Alert Bay has become one of several cultural centers in a large territory of Central and Southern British Columbia, that marks the ancestral land of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation.
The day began with a brisk walk through town heading north along the waterfront to the U’mista Cultural Center. The morning temperatures were quite chilly, with a thick layer of frost on many a surface! As the sun rose in the sky, its warmth melted the frost and brought just enough warmth to add to the lovely light of a bright and sunny day.
The U’mista Cultural Center houses an exceptional collection of traditional and ceremonial masks and artifacts customarily used in the Potlatch. This system of governance and ceremony has been the central foundation of the cultural lives for the people of the Northwest Coast for thousands of years. After seeing the Potlatch collection, we saw a short film about the continuum of potlatching and were gifted with a lovely conversation with an elder from the community.
Once our time in the cultural center was complete, we made our way a short distance to the Big House of Alert Bay. The day had warmed just a little with continued gorgeous blue skies. From intense bright sunlight we entered the other worldly atmosphere of the Big House. A roaring fire was blazing in the center of the room, sending smoke up through the smoke hole in the roof of the building. We were greeted and welcomed by elders and several young people, all members of the T’sasala Cultural Group. During the next hour explanation was given about the Potlatch itself, the young people performing and the significance of each phase of a Potlatch. The final song was a fun dance and many of us enjoyed an opportunity to dance around a fire in the Big House. The dancers, drummers and elders fell into a line to thank us for taking the time to visit their community and participate in cultural traditions just outside of our own lives. Today that bridge was crossed; each group learning just a little more about each other. A gift that only brings smiles and warm moments in reflection. As the final thank you was being exchanged, a seafood buffet was being laid out on tables in front of the drum log! As we lined up for lunch, we saw the bounty of this land being presented only affirming those foundations of a strong and rich culture. Wild salmon in three different dishes, clam fritters, deep fried halibut, eulachon or candle fish battered and fried, steamed prawns, steamed fresh crab, banoc or fry bread with homemade jams, steamed rice and three different salads! What a feast, as is the tradition in the Big House. Sadly, it was time to begin our walk back through town to our docked vessel. Slight wispy clouds were forming in the sky, but it was still a lovely fall day in the Pacific Northwest.
Once on board, it was the intention of the vessel and natural history staff to take a slow cruise heading south searching for marine mammals. Barely away from the dock humpback whales were spotted followed by a radio call from the bow – killer whales had been spotted. Over the next couple of hours, we cruised in and around Black Fish Sound just south of Cormorant Island, spending a leisurely late afternoon and early evening watching members of A pod. These were members of the northern residents of killer whales who spend a great deal of time in this area, especially this time of year when there is salmon in the water….and an all-round magnificent way to finish our day! We have celebrated what encompasses the entire Pacific Northwest; from the creatures of the sea, those of the sky and those of the land. From dancing in the Big House, enjoying a seafood feast as honored guests to a late afternoon of gorgeous fall light watching the marine mammals of the Pacific Northwest. As the rapidly moving fall sun fell towards sunset the sky turned just enough pink to remind us it was the end of the day, followed by a nearly full moon and a sky filled with stars.