The earliest written accounts of life on the coast, from the late 1700s, often refer to this area as being an “untamed wilderness.” The coast did not look like an English Garden, or a European farm, nor did the cultivation of these lands stand out with obviously unnatural or artificial features but rather was molded closely with the local geography. These authors did not recognize a form of cultivation that was unfamiliar to them. To their unaccustomed eyes, the coast was wild. It was not.
A local example can be found at Mittlenatch Island. The small island looks rather unremarkable from the Campbell River shore; however, a closer inspection reveals just how intensely it was cultivated. Nearly all the “wild” flowers and shrubs are edible in some part, either their roots or their fruits. Some species, such as Camas, require regular harvesting and even controlled burning to increase its production.
In addition to the fruits and flowers, there were fish traps in the bay, and shellfish on the beach. Mittlenatch was also rich in bird eggs found on the bluffs, many species of fish, seals, and other sea mammals in the surrounding waters. This small island was a rich pantry. Its pre-emption by a local settler, who grazed his sheep there, and later its designation as a Provincial Park, disrupted and prevented the continuation of these practices.
Kanish and Waiatt Bays on Quadra Island are filled with clam gardens. Bordered by rock walls found at the extreme low tide mark, these features increase the habitat for important food species of shellfish. Studies have shown that regular harvesting in these gardens served to loosen the sand and increased both the quantity and size of the shellfish. Oral histories state (and carbon dating through archaeological investigations substantiates) that the maintenance of these walls continued for thousands of years. These practices are being revitalized in many communities on the coast today, and the results are truly impressive.
The estuaries of important food fish bearing streams and rivers were filled with traps and weirs of various shapes and sizes, including here on the Campbell River. These structures were used and maintained for hundreds and in some cases even thousands of years before the colonial government made their use illegal in the 1880s.
Estuary gardens were common for harvesting the roots of certain species of lilies and clovers. Plots were owned and maintained by individual families. So too were berry patches and areas for hunting important mammals such as Mountain Goats. Franz Boas, an ethnographer, mapped out the estuary gardens, berry patches and fish weirs of the A̱wa̱ʼetła̱la community of Dzawadi, on the T̓linat̓łina river at the head of Knight Inlet. You can see from his map how intensely just one estuary was cultivated.
Eric Duncan, travelling to Campbell River to collect the Census in 1891, wrote of his astonishment upon discovering that a productive farm he encountered was not the work of a settler, but of the Liǧʷiɫdax̌ʷ community.
“The only white resident at Campbell River was Frederick Nunns, the last remaining of an Irish family that had settled there a few years before… the path had led me by some splendid cultivated fields with high rail fences. Well, I thought, the Nunns have not done so badly after all. But when I got through, I found that the Nunns’ farm consisted of about an acre of stumps on the river bank and the fine fields belonged to the Indians (sic).”
Perhaps if he had understood the long history of cultivation of the coast by Indigenous Nations he would not have been so surprised to discover that the local people knew well how to thrive on this land, even when they were prevented from practicing traditional methods of cultivation. There is a lot we can learn about how to live sustainably on this coast, if we look to their long history for an example.
Written by Museum at Campbell River Curator, Beth Boyce.
Note, this article first appeared in the September 27, 2023 edition of the Campbell River Mirror.