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Day One of a B.C. Ferries CirclePac Tour

By Margaret Deefholts

No matter how many times I've done it, I always feel a tingle of anticipation as I line up at the B.C. Ferries terminal in Tsawwassen. Today is no different, and yet in a sense it is. This time I'm joined by my sister, Phyllis - and we are about to launch on a six-day exploration of the east coast of Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast using a B.C. Ferries' CirclePac ticket.

We are on the Queen of Alberni, one of B.C. Ferries smaller vessels, but with all the comforts and on-board amenities of her larger sister ships. The mild April sun sheens the waters to rippled silver as we glide past the hulk of the Sunshine Coast mountains to the east, and to the north snow capped peaks glimmer like white ghosts along the spine of Vancouver Island.

We dock at Nanaimo's Duke Point ferry terminal and head south along the Island Highway to visit the first two attractions on our list: The B.C. Forest Discovery Centre and the Quw'utsun'Cultural Centre in Duncan.

In the entrance hallway of the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre a group of school kids exclaim at a cross section of a Douglas Fir that had its beginnings 1300 years ago at the time of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire. We pore over photographs and memorabilia of a long-gone era of early logging camps and sawmills in the museum area, and I drop by vintage logging camp bunkhouses. They look as though their occupants are away working in the woods-a lumberjack's plaid shirt hangs from a hook, a muddy pair of logger's boots stands in a corner and a three-bunk cabin has clothes drying on a line.

We board a small train, and clatter merrily through the 100-acre site, passing buildings that were once part of logging camps at Renfrew and Caycuse, and rumble across a wooden trestle bridge edging Somenos Lake. On the seat in front of me a little boy bounces with excitement, and waves at a group of picnickers in the recreation area. As we wind through a dappled glade, our driver and guide, Ron halts the train and exclaims, "Oh look, he's here…our brown owl!" We follow his pointing finger - and there, hidden in the leafy foliage is a feathered, beak-nosed "old man" gazing solemnly down at us. "There's also a pair of bald eagles who come back here every year," he tells us as we re-board the train. "We think the chicks are almost ready to hatch." He grins at his audience, "Who wants to come back and see them next month?" A forest of small hands shoot up.

Our next stop is the Quw'utsun' Cultural Centre in Duncan. The word Cowichan means 'the land that is warm' and the Cowichan Valley does indeed enjoy a temperate climate. Our host, Wilson Jr., a wiry Cowichan Band elder, greets us with the traditional welcome gesture, palms facing up, fingers curled inward as if to say "come on in"-and says "Ah Siem" or "Greetings, honoured friends."

Wilson is an accomplished story teller, and as we pause in front of an impressive totem pole with vivid carvings of several creatures, he says. "This is our Cowichan Family Crest Pole. See the Thunderbird? He is a spiritual being who belongs at very top of our ceremonial totem."

The heroic legend of the Thunderbird is only one of many tales that was part of the Band's age-old tradition of oral story-telling. Wilson talks of mythical birds and creatures who once lived in harmony with mankind, and tells of the dreams, hopes and visions that shaped the lives of the Quw'utsun' people living here for generations alongside the salmon bearing river. He describes his ancestors' reverence for the strength of the eagle that soared against the sun, and the power of the lightening that flashed from the Thunderbird's eyes. Rich in metaphor, stories of the wolf, the raven, and the whale still resonate among the many First Nations people living on our B.C. coast.

As we walk alongside the Cowichan River glinting in the soft sunlight, and pause before several intricately carved totems, Wilson describes his people's age-old spiritual beliefs of love, life and death. They honour, too, the small miracles of life, as symbolized by Swukus, the frog at the bottom of the Cowichan Totem pole. "Because we hear his song in the springtime, he is represents new beginnings and hope for the future." Says Wilson. "He's a very small, but very important little creature."

Our tour ends all too quickly, "There's a lot more going on here in the summer…you'll have to come back!" Wilson says as he bids us goodbye. We couldn't agree more.


B.C. Ferries have launched their swanky new Super Cs vessels: The Coastal Renaissance The Coastal Inspiration, and The Coastal Celebration. Their CirclePac ticket is priced at an affordable level of just under $200 which includes a car, two passengers and two kids under 11 years and is valid for 30 days.

BC Forest Discovery Centre: For more information as to hours and events through the summer, go to: Check out the On-line Exhibits interactive links.

The Quw'utsun' Cultural and Conference Centre: In the summer season (June to September), the Quw'utsun' Centre buzzes with activities and events, such as performances by The Quwutsun Dancers, cultural interpretive tours and multi-media shows. Cowichan band members demonstrate knitting, carving and weaving, and visitors can enjoy traditional cuisine at the Riverwalk Cafe or browse through the Centre's art gallery and gift shop.


1. B.C. Forest Discovery Centre bunkhouse cabin (from Macmillan Bloedel's Copper Canyon campsite) Photo: Margaret Deefholts
2. B.C. Forest Discovery Centre cross section of 1300 year old Douglas Fir. Photo Phyllis Beavan.
3. "Ah Siem" Wilson Jr. welcomes us with a traditional greeting at the Quw'utsun' Cultural Centre Photo: Phyllis Beavan
4. Wilson Jr. is dwarfed by a gigantic, elaborately carved totem Photo: Margaret Deefholts
5. Tzonokwa - Wild Woman of the Woods
6. CLICK HERE for 19-second clip of the little train at the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre

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