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Neqemgelisa on Vancouver Island

  • Submitted by: C.W. Lee
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

Neqemgelisa (pronounced, approximately, as neckum-ga- lisa) is a term from the Wakashan family of Indian languages. The various Indian tribes that live on Vancouver Island all speak variations of this language. The word itself, neqemgelisa, is used both as a noun and as a verb, meaning either a person who stays in one place, or the act of staying in one place. The context seems to be that most members of the tribe would move regularly during the year, as the seasons and the availability of fish and game changed, but a few people would "stay in one place" for the whole year. These tribes do not have a written language, and the documentation by anthropologists and linguists is skimpy; therefore the pronunciation and usage of words is not authoritatively available to travelers like myself who rely on public libraries and commercial book stores for our research. In February, 1998, I spend a few weeks "staying in one place" on Vancouver Island.

Vancouver Island is oblong in shape, about 300 miles long, and about 50 miles wide, off the southwest corner of Canada. The major axis runs northwest-southeast, and the island is separated from the mainland of Canada by the 25-mile-wide Strait of Queen Charlotte and Strait of Georgia. The principal urban center of note is Victoria, located at the southern tip of the island, and home to most of the population and employment.

Tofino is a small community with a year-round population of perhaps 1,000. For most of the time that there has been a place called Tofino it has been a small fishing village. It is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, about halfway up the island from Victoria, and is the western terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway. Spanish explorers first noted the area well over 200 years ago, and named it after an admiral in the Spanish Navy. Only in the last 50 years or so has Tofino been connected with the rest of the world by a road, and that road has only been paved for about 20 years. The closest other village (Ucluelet), even smaller, is 20 miles away. One must drive abut 60 miles to find a modest city (Port Alberni). Commercial fishing has dwindled in recent years, for reasons not fully understood but basically because there are not sufficient fish in the nearby ocean to catch. Some claim over-harvesting, others blame global warming, and almost all of the fishing done today in Tofino is for home or local consumption, or done by the tourists who are discovering this remote and idyllic place during the summer months. At the height of the tourist season the local population increases by a factor of about 10, and it is hard to find a place to stay at any of the many motels and campgrounds nearby. Increasingly during the fall and spring Tofino has become attractive to affluent people in Vancouver who make the 2-3 hour trip for a weekend out of town.

Tofino has a public library about the size of a double garage, open several afternoons each week. Although Internet access is generally available at public libraries in Canada, it is anticipated that it will be another year or more before the Tofino library is on-line. I was able to access my email through the use of an individual's personal computer while I was in Tofino. As I asked around town about Internet access, I was eventually directed to a person who normally lived on a houseboat nearby, but for the winter had rented a small, vacant, gift shop to use as his office and home away from home. His plan had been to use solar power to recharge the batteries in a laptop, but that didn't work out the way he wanted, and so he needed 110 volts to use his computer on a regular basis.

Unlike my previous trips on which I used public transportation or walked, on this trip I drove my car. In addition to the scheduling and privacy convenience, I was able to take much more with me than on previous trips, since I didn't have to carry everything in a backpack. Because I didn't have to carry very much very far, I did not undertake any physical conditioning in preparation for this trip. I experienced no health problems while I was gone.

From my home in the Los Angeles area it is about 1,200 miles to Vancouver Island. I drove to Port Angeles in Washington, and crossed by ferry (a four hour trip) to Victoria. In addition to the basic 2,400 mile round trip, I drove another 1,200 miles exploring the island and various other attractions along the way. Some of these are mentioned under the "Plus" section of this report. I observed no differences in driving in Canada and driving in the US. Looking ahead to another visit, I investigated the public transportation system from the Seattle and Vancouver airports, across the water to Vancouver Island, and by bus from there to Tofino. There is one bus a day to and from Tofino; it connects with another bus that runs from the ferry terminal. One can take a ferry from either Seattle or Vancouver, and there is public transportation between the airports and the ferry terminals. On this trip to Tofino it took me three days to drive, with two nights in motels along the way. Because of the schedules involved, it would also take me three days to fly and take public transportation, with two nights in lodging that one must walk to from various terminals. Therefore my next trip to Tofino will also be by car.

The primary reason for this trip was to experience days and even weeks of constant rain. I have lived all my life in California, most of it in the southern portion, and for me rain has always been an infrequent, but welcome, event, perhaps several hours a day on a few widely separated days a year. I am no fan of cold weather, so I was looking for a place of moderate temperatures and very predictable rain. I have made other brief winter trips to Washington and Oregon, for the same purpose, and have almost always encountered unseasonably dry weather. Usually, it had rained heavily before I arrived, and did again soon after I left. So, this time I contacted several meteorologists via the Internet, and the majority of them suggested the west coast of Vancouver Island in the winter as the most dependable place to experience daily rain, all day long. Ironically, the day I left Southern California was the start of the heavy El Nino rains that continued off and on for almost the full month I was gone. I returned to sunny skies. I was told by residents of Tofino that the rain seemed lighter, and less frequent, this year, also attributed to El Nino. It did rain every day I was there, but not heavily, except for one day when there was hail. There were often several hours during the day when it did not rain, although the air was heavy with moisture then.

While I was in Tofino, "neqemgelisa-ing," I went for days at a time without using my car. All of the commercial establishments and community facilities are located within a 10-minute walk of everything else. Unfortunately for me, only one restaurant was open during the winter, so I ate most of my meals at the same place everyday. I was very happy to discover that the restaurant had separate smoking and non- smoking sections. (Unlike my previous experience in Nova Scotia, almost all of the restaurants I visited while in other parts of Vancouver Island had separate non-smoking sections.) The tables in non-smoking all had a picture- window view of the bay and islands in the distance, so I took my time over meals, often reading between long pauses to watch the rain. The menu was pretty limited, and basic meat and potatoes fare. I made a quick adjustment to what I have come to call the Commonwealth Ice Tea Problem (the difficulty of obtaining ice tea in a place where tea is only consumed hot), and switched to coffee in the morning, and beer the rest of the time. There was a modest grocery store, and now and then I purchased some canned goods and ate them cold, or warmed them up in a basin of hot water in the bathroom of my motel. My own food preparation efforts made me appreciate the limited menu available at the restaurant.

On the drive both north and south I generally stayed at a Motel 6 or other modest lodging. In Tofino my room was of similar quality, with a modern bathroom and an outstanding setting. My room looked out on the islands in the distance, and the sea. The waves were crashing on the rocks about 50 feet from my balcony. I read late into the night, and when I grew sleepy I turned the thermostat down, left the sliding glass door open, and enjoyed listening to the crashing waves as I went to sleep. As the sun came up and the room became lighted, I awoke in a cold room, closed the door, turned the thermostat up, and went back to sleep for a few more hours. Then I awoke again mid-morning in a cozy room with a beautiful view.

Many businesses, especially the stores and other businesses oriented toward the tourist trade, were closed while I was there. There were two bakeries in town, and one of them was especially inviting, having a warm, glassed-in non-smoking lounge with papers and magazines to read as I drank hot cider and ate a variety of pastries. Some of the people who lived a few miles from town would stop in every day for a cup of coffee after picking up their mail at the post office across the street. Between 9 a.m. and noon it was a very active social scene, and then the afternoon was very quiet until it closed at 6 p.m.

The Canadian Coast Guard maintains a sea-rescue station at Tofino, and I visited it one afternoon. The Tofino area contains many islands, and of course the Pacific Ocean. There are small, inland speedboats the Coast Guard uses for inshore assistance, and one sturdy ocean-going boat designed for the roughest weather possible. When underway in heavy seas this boat, about 40 feet long and 12 feet wide, is sealed airtight, and is designed to sustain a full 360 degree roll around the fore-and-aft axis. That means that in very heavy seas the boat can be swept all the way to either side, and continue turning until it comes full circle out of the water and is upright again. There are automatic cutoffs on the diesel engine air intakes that shut the engines off as the top goes underwater, but the engines can be restarted immediately when the boat is upright again. The boat is fully outfitted with rescue gear of all sorts, a space to shelter rescued personnel and treat them for hypothermia, and elaborate electronic equipment to home in on SOS signals.

After a few days in town, posters appeared announcing the impending arrival of a traveling magic show. Since commercial activities in the evening consisted only of drinking at one of the two bars in town, I looked forward to the magic show. The afternoon before the day the show was scheduled a wildly painted old VW van arrived in town, plastered all over with photographs of the performers and their animals. The van was moved around from spot to spot all afternoon and the next morning, so that anyone walking anywhere would see it. Starting around 5 p.m. the van drove around town, with a roof-mounted loud speaker announcing all the wondrous feats to be performed that evening. It reminded me of what I have read about medicine men coming to town to sell snake oil to the citizens from the back of a wagon, or of a tent revival by itinerant preachers living off the collections they took up at every service. The magic show was hired by the local PTA, which sold tickets both ahead of time and at the door.

The magic show was held in the local school, which included only grades K-8, with older children being bused some distance away to a high school. This evening of magic turned out to be a whole-family, whole-community affair. Those who had seats sat on folding chairs on the floor of the gymnasium; others sat on the floor or stood. At least 20 children climbed 10 feet or so up some exercise bars against one wall, and watched while clinging with one arm and a leg to the bars. The show was aimed at the younger audience, and not especially polished, but everyone enjoyed the evening. While the parents and other adults milled around in the back and laughed and joked and renewed friendships, the children screamed and shouted, babies cried, and everyone enjoyed a very warm and loving evening.

I found the people of Tofino generally friendly and polite, although some of the warmth seemed a bit artificial, and perhaps associated with my being a tourist having money to spend. There is some residual hostility to tourists and other outsiders who have "invaded" this small community. Some of the old-timers, who used to prosper through fishing or logging but are now un- and under-employed, look down on the many minimum wage jobs associated with the hospitality industry which booms during the summer, and languishes during the rest of the year. I believe some of the old-timers blame the tourists for the demise of fishing and logging.

I arrived with no agenda, other than to experience the rain. I watched it, I listened to it, I hiked in it, and in every way except getting wet tried to know it fully; I liked it, and plan to return to Tofino, or some other place with daily rain. The temperatures were generally in the 50s and 60s, so no special cold weather clothing was needed. I was prepared with waterproof clothing for my long hikes in the woods and on the beach in the rain. One day it hailed for perhaps 30 minutes as I walked along a path, so the temperature must have been in the 30s; the hail melted soon after hitting the ground.


While on Vancouver Island I did visit one logging/railway museum, and the yards of the only railway that currently operates on the island. Although the museum was closed for the winter, through the courtesy of a fellow railfan I had met on the Internet I was allowed onto the grounds, and into the shops where a crew of four was restoring and repairing steam engines. I had planned to visit another railroad at the north end of the island, but it was closed because of the downturn in Canadian timber harvesting, and it is unclear if that railroad will ever run again.

Both on my way from Los Angeles to Vancouver Island, and on my way back, I had the good fortune to spend a long day in the cabs of locomotives pulling trains on a small railroad in Oregon. The principal freight items hauled on this line are logs, and the associated lumber, plywood, particleboard, and wood chips derived from the logs after they have been processed at the mills. The first day on the trains, on my way north to Tofino, was through relatively flat countryside, often paralleling the highway. The second day, on my way back to Los Angeles, I rode some of the steepest railroad grades in the country, up, through, and over the Syskiyou mountains along the Oregon-California border. Much of this segment is away from roads, and is through some very beautiful countryside. It was snowing for part of the trip. It was a first- time experience for me to ride in the cab of a locomotive as it traveled through a few inches of snow on the track. US Interstate route 5, through the same mountain range and just a few miles away, was closed to traffic in both directions because of the snow, but the train was not slowed at all. Both of these trips were, for me, out-and-back. I left my car at one station about 7 am, and took one train to its destination, and then either returned with it, or on another train, to my starting point about 14 hours later.

Another nice segment (the "etc." portion) of this trip involved meeting my son and his family in Sacramento as I returned to Los Angeles. His wife was attending a conference there, and he and I, with my two grandchildren, were free to spend time together. We visited the Railroad Museum, a park, and the Capitol, as well as just relaxing together.


The approximate costs involved were as follows:

Category Amount
Gasoline $170
Ferry 60
Lodging 1,100
Food 500
Guest meals 70
Miscellaneous 100
TOTAL $2,000

C. W. Lee, April 20, 1998 Rec.Travel Library
The World
North America
British Columbia

Also by C.W. Lee:
New Zealand 1994
Papua New Guinea 1995
Australia, Tasmania 1996
Foaming Nova Scotia 1997
Fadging Around the Rock (Newfoundland) 1998
Hogging Logs on Vancouver Island 1998
Panama 1999