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Vagabonding in Vancouver

The harbor at Cowichan, Vancouver, the site of a well-known native heritage center featuring an impressive display of First Nation art. Cowichan sweaters, known for their ability to shed water, are also made here.
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If you enjoy train travel, you would have found the Eco-Ventures Elderhostel announcement of a trip on Vancouver Island at the end of March exciting.

The E and N (Esquimalt and Nanaimo) Train Line, built by Robert Dunsmuir, runs from Victoria to Courtney and has always been appreciated by train buffs. Unfortunately, it is in danger of being shut down by June if new funding or ownership is not found, so this may be the last opportunity to take a ride.

We began our stay in Victoria in a hotel on the grounds of the original Craigflower Farm, which was begun by Scottish immigrants who came to farm for the Hudson Bay Co. of Victoria. The old manor house and several outbuildings can be visited here.



A tour of the city showed us some of the early wharf buildings and the site of the encampment of the local First Nation residents, the Coast Salish. (We would call them Indians.)

Our tour of the Victoria, B.C., Museum gave us more information on the First Nation residents. The collection of cedar baskets, boats, totem poles and other artifacts is outstanding.




We also attended the exhibit of Emily Carr’s paintings and the story of her life. One of Canada’s noted painters, Carr was born and died in Victoria. Her interest in First Nation villages and art work first brought it to the attention of the public. Photographs of Carr pushing her pet monkey, Woo, down the street in a baby carriage helped one to see why she was considered an eccentric. A curator lives in her family home and has open houses on a regular basis.

On our trip to Courtney, 95 miles north of Victoria, we saw forests, clear streams, deep gorges and beautiful inlets on the Georgian Strait. We discovered that a large number of Canada’s artists live on Vancouver Island or its surrounding islands.

In the Comax Valley, we visited George’s Magic Forest and saw art as faucets on trees and books inserted into trees with interesting statements, all done by avowed socialist iconoclastic artist George Sawchuk. The must-see forest is at Ships Point.

In Cumberland, where once seven coal mines employed British, Japanese and Chinese miners, we toured a coal mine in a museum and learn the history of that area. You can buy a miner’s cabin for $80,000 to $120,000 now, which makes it one of the cheaper places to live on the island. There is snow in the area, so retirees are not flocking there – they are going to Courtney, Nanaimo and other points farther south.

We next traveled back to Nanaimo, which is on a beautiful harbor. With sunny days, we could enjoy boats, seaplanes and ferry departures all day and the lights on the water at night.

The Hudson Bay Co. built a bastion on the harbor edge that looked like the bastions in Maine; it turns out the company used the same plan wherever it built.

New Castle Island across the harbor is a wonderful park you can visit by small ferry. In the 1920s and ’30s, it had a dance hall that people ferried to from Victoria on weekends.

We also visited the North Island Wildlife Recovery Center in Errington. We watched eagles fly in a large barn as they strengthened their wings in anticipation of being released. They were unaware of us as we peeked through tiny slits in the wall. A selection of birds and a bear were on display, animals that couldn’t be returned to the wild.

We also stopped at the wonderful country store in Coombs that features a slanted grass-growing roof upon which goats frolic and entertain the tourists. One story going about says a goat fell off last year and knocked a tourist down. Being a goat breeder, I know how sure-footed goats are, and I rather doubt that the story is true.

The next stop on the train trip was Duncan in the Cowichan Valley. At the Cowichan Valley Native Heritage Center, we saw wonderful First Nation art work at the Big House and learned about the natives of the area.

A speaker told us about Cowichan sweaters, those beautiful, heavy, gray or brown on off-white patterned sweaters that shed water. Originally made of mountain goat wool, they are now made of Scottish wool from sheep brought to the island by early settlers.

We also visited the Cowichan Bay Maritime Center and Museum, where a master boat builder will help you build a canoe, kayak or boat. Examples of old war canoes and boats were in the museum.

Finally, we visited the Freshwater Eco Center, where trout are raised. A delegation from the California Legislature visited last year to learn what they could do to save native fish, but were told it is too late for California because our native fish have mixed with fishery-bred fish. British Columbia learned to keep the fish separate before it was too late.

We visited Chemainus on our last day to see the 33 murals of island history painted on buildings. The town was dying and decided to tempt tourists by painting the history. A park on the square features wooden statues of various native animals and birds placed on high pedestals. We then returned to tour downtown Duncan to see totems that line the streets and park and to visit the museum by the train station.

We also visited the Hill Native Crafts Store, which houses a wonderful collection of baskets that are not for sale. Then we caught the train for the final leg of our trip back to Victoria.

Even if you don’t attend an Elderhostel program, you can see and experience what we did on your own. With a favorable currency exchange rate, visiting beautiful Vancouver Island and Canada in general is a good idea.

Linda Marschall lives in Grass Valley.


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