The Tla-o-qui-aht village of Okeamin on the east shore of the Kennedy River near the Clayoquot cannery, ca. 1930.
The Tla-o-qui-aht village of Okeamin on the east shore of the Kennedy River near the Clayoquot cannery, ca. 1930. Image AA 00287 courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

From across Canada and far beyond, visitors travel in great numbers to Tofino and Clayoquot Sound at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Inspired by spectacular images of old-growth rainforest, vast sandy beaches, and abundant wildlife, they flock in the hundreds of thousands to the westerly end of a winding road across the mountains and find themselves in one of the most acclaimed wilderness areas in the world.

Midway up the west coast of Vancouver Island, Clayoquot Sound covers approximately 2,600 square kilometres, measures some fifty kilometres in length and as much as twenty-five kilometres wide. The Sound embraces the land, lakes, rivers, islands, and inlets between Hesquiat Peninsula to the north and long Beach and Kennedy lake to the south. It includes nine major watersheds and four major inlets: Sydney Inlet, Shelter Inlet, Herbert Inlet, and Bedwell Sound, also covering Warn Bay and Tofino Inlet. Many rivers and streams flowing westward from the interior mountains of Vancouver Island run into Clayoquot Sound: Tofino, Bulson, and Ursus Creeks, and Bedwell, Moyeha, Megin, and Sydney Rivers, among others. The largest islands of the Sound—Flores, Vargas, and Meares—along with a scattering of seemingly countless smaller islands, Wickaninnish, echachis, lennard, Frank, and Stubbs to name only a few, protect much of the shoreline and the inside waters from the open Pacific Ocean. Several small communities are located in Clayoquot Sound: Hot Springs Cove, Ahousat, Opitsat, esowista, Ty-Histanis, and Tofino; of these, only the last three can be accessed by road.

The lush temperate rainforest of Clayoquot Sound supports one of the richest forest ecosystems on earth. Here stand some of the world’s most impressive old-growth trees, giant Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and most particularly the red cedars, some of them up to 100 metres high and between 800 and 1,000 years old, flourishing in the mild climate, dense fogs, and heavy coastal rains. The wealth of marine life in the area includes grey whales, humpbacks, and orca, with porpoises, fur seals, sea lions, and sea otters abounding in the offshore waters. Bird life teems on the expansive tidal mud flats of the Sound, and the an-nual return of the salmon to the rivers, streams, and lakes continues to be a source of wonder.

Our book focuses on Clayoquot Sound and Tofino, with a few ne-cessary detours taking us farther afield. The early history of european exploration, and the ensuing sea otter trade, inevitably leads us to Nootka Sound, just as the fur seal trade leads to the Bering Sea, the lust for gold to Wreck (Florencia) Bay, and the need to track businesses, bureaucrats, and gunships to Victoria. Despite such geographic departures, we have attempted as much as possible to remain within Clayoquot Sound and its immediate vicinity.




A rich, multi-layered past and a wealth of story have made this area what it is today, beginning with grindingly slow eons of geological upheaval and glacial movement forging the remarkable landscape. Some 4,200 years ago, indigenous peoples established themselves here, living in harmony with the environment, and harvesting the resources of land and sea in a seasonal cycle. Not quite 250 years ago, european explorers arrived—first the Spanish, then the British—vying for territory and power, bringing with them international conflict and hard-bitten, highly competitive fur traders, avid for sea otter pelts. Then ships arrived from the newly fledged United States, their captains fiercely determined to obtain furs and to establish an American presence in the Pacific Northwest. The presence of these early explorers and traders accelerated the spread of deadly diseases along the coast, with catas-trophic impact on the aboriginal people. The Nuu-chah-nulth, as the people living along Vancouver Island’s west coast have become known, diminished drastically in number throughout the nineteenth century as their contact with traders and newcomers increased.

By the late nineteenth century, immense scene-shifting changes occurred as more, and yet more, outsiders arrived on the coast and left their mark. These included captains of sealing schooners during the intense years of the fur sealing industry; then more traders, followed by missionaries, settlers, prospectors, fisherfolk, and early loggers. Some came to stay, to raise families, and to forge a community; all had an eager interest in the resources of the land and sea.

Many outstanding personalities have contributed to the history of this area over the years. They include such forceful characters as Tla-o-qui-aht Chief Wickaninnish, the duplicitous British captain John Meares, American captains Kendrick and Gray, the wildly eccentric trader Fred Thornberg, the outspoken Ahousaht leader Billy August, the legendary sealing captain Alex Maclean, the self-serving entrepreneur Walter Dawley. They also include the powerful Roman Catholic missionary Father Augustin Brabant and other missionaries who followed him, all ruthlessly determined to convert aboriginal people to Christianity. This process of “conversion” came to mean removing children from their families and placing them in residential schools, where they could not speak their own language. Two such schools existed in Clayoquot Sound: the Catholic school at Kakawis on Meares Island, and the Presbyterian school at Ahousat.




The determined settlers who came, and who remained here, eked out a living through ingenuity and hard work; the community they estab-lished became Tofino, a village that from its inception attracted loners, eccentrics, and dreamers. As time passed and the community grew, townsfolk gathered to dance on Saturday nights in the Community Hall, and every ten days they rushed to meet the coastal steamer on Boat Days, delighted to have contact with the outside world. Before World War II, Japanese Canadians made up nearly a third of the town’s population, only to face evacuation and internment as enemy aliens in 1942. A large air base at Tofino Airport during the war brought thousands of servicemen to the west coast; because of them, a half- decent gravel road finally extended to Ucluelet, some forty kilometres southeast of Tofino, at the entrance to Barkley Sound.

For decades, west coast residents lobbied energetically for a road across the mountains that would connect them to Port Alberni and the rest of Vancouver Island. When the road finally arrived in 1959, unimagined consequences followed. Residents looked on in baffled amazement as crowds of campers and tourists, thrill-seekers and motorcycle gangs, hippies and surfers followed the road to the coast. Their sheer numbers at times caused chaos on the beaches and contributed to the impetus to create a national park along the west coast.

Meanwhile, fishing off the coast intensified, taking immense, un-sustainable hauls of fish, as if the stock could last forever. The multi-national logging companies also set to work, hungry for the great trees, careless of how they obtained them, leaving vast clear-cut scars on the land and mountainsides. After years of protests about logging methods, and growing dismay at environmental degradation, the summer of 1993 brought hundreds of not-easily-intimidated people from around the world to stand on the Kennedy lake Bridge and block the loggers. The largest mass arrests in Canadian history followed, and the fame of Clayoquot Sound spread like wildfire.

Following this intense storm of worldwide publicity, the village of Tofino could never be the same again. The quiet, rain-drenched com-munity at the end of the road found itself transformed into a major international tourist destination. In common with places like Banff, Whistler, or Niagara Falls, the very names “Tofino” and “Clayoquot Sound” conjure up potent images, instantly recognizable across Canada and in countries ranging from Australia to Germany to Japan.




A word of warning about the name “Clayoquot” in the following pages; its many applications can cause confusion. Widely used, it refers to all of Clayoquot Sound, to Clayoquot Arm on Kennedy lake, and to the Clayoquot River running into that lake. Some people call Stubbs Island, just off Tofino, “Clayoquot Island,” because an early trading post and a small townsite, both called Clayoquot, stood here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For a brief period, the rival townsite at the head of the esowista Peninsula, later named Tofino, also bore the name Clayoquot; and for a time this area had two schools, one on Stubbs Island, one in Tofino, and both named “Clayoquot School.”

The Tla-o-qui-aht people, living in the southern reaches of Clayoquot Sound, are sometimes called the “Clayoquots”; the name originated with them. They are one of three Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations inhabiting Clayoquot Sound, the others being the Ahousaht, who occupy the cen-tral area of the Sound, and the Hesquiaht, to the north. These First Nations all have ancient connections to their long-inhabited traditional territories, and they are all currently engaged in negotiations with various levels of government to settle land claims, to establish self- governance, and to gain greater control over their lands and resources.




The wealth of natural resources in Clayoquot Sound sustained the First Nations for thousands of years. This abundance also acted as a magnet that drew explorers, traders, and settlers here, followed by industrial-scale fishing and logging. The international protests about clear-cut logging in Clayoquot Sound led to intense popular awareness of the attractions of this area, establishing it firmly as a hot spot for tourism. When visitors arrive now, they expect the best. They walk the beaches, explore the rainforest and soak in the hot springs; they come for surfing and kayaking, for whale and bear and bird watching, and for winter storm watching. All of these activities rely on the natural resources here, on elements sustained and produced by the land and the sea and the temperate climate.

The economic fate and environmental health of this entire region have always been entwined. Past mistakes in resource management along this coast have been epic in scale: sea otters nearly became extinct, salmon and herring and various shellfish have been overharvested, mountainsides and watersheds have been stripped. The people of Tofino and Clayoquot Sound continue to face immensely challenging decisions concerning resource management and land use. Not all agree on the best way forward, but whatever their differences, no one wants to repeat past mistakes. So they work together, many different interest groups and organizations, striving to find consensus on the broad issues that affect the area.




To be in Tofino, or anywhere in Clayoquot Sound, means being on a storied coast with a complex past. As we trace the history in this area from slow geological movements to the fast-paced changes of recent years, we encounter many dramatic shifts and changes in landscape and in population, in resource management and in attitudes. Extraordinary events have shaped the history of Tofino and Clayoquot Sound, and no doubt many more will continue to do so. After all, here on the west coast, at the end of the road, the extraordinary often does seem to be the norm.



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[To Chapter 1: The Lay of the Land]