Nootka Sound and the Surrounding Waters of Maquinna

Heritage House, 1996  ISBN 1-895811-03-1

Excerpt –


          All explorers who don’t have their own boat, should make a point of taking at least one of the three trips offered by the historic M.V.Uchuck III . Water taxi services can take you to the same places at your convenience but more expensively. Boaters will harvest special rewards and enjoy the luxury of dallying at their own pace.  The same pleasures and more can be enjoyed by those who do it my way – by kayak. Float planes and helicopters can extend your range and reduce your bank balance.


          The Uchuck is a working freight boat measuring 42 m in length with a beam of 7 m and a draft of 2 m. She travels at about 12 knots powered by two 500 hp GM Cleveland 8-268A diesel engines. She takes up to 100 passengers to Friendly Cove, Tahsis or even Kyuquot. The Friendly Cove trip with all its historic elements and intriguing church museum is the most popular. The Uchuck adventure actually starts when you try to get near it. Due to cramped quarters parking for the Uchuck may be some distance from the dock. Allow up to an hour from Gold River to drive the 12 km, drop passengers off, and then find parking and get on board.

          On days when the Uchuck leaves early, you will probably want to stay the night in Gold River. “Accommodation is often booked up at the Ridgeview, the Chalet and the Peppercorn motels so reservations can be important, especially if you plan to go on the Uchuck,” warns tall, vivacious Carol Gramlich who operates her own B&B. “I often have a full house even in winter and so does the other Carol.” Both of them have converted the ground floor of their houses so that guests share a comfortable lounge, bathroom and kitchen facilities. (For further details, see appendices).

          When the ship returns to Gold River, don’t miss the A’haminaquus Information Centre just past the boat launch ramp on the right. The Centre is usually open at this time. In addition to buying souvenirs, ask about special events involving the Nuu-chah-nulth community such as August house-post raising ceremonies at Friendly Cove. If the Centre is closed, inquire at the Band Office opposite.


          The Uchuck III was built in 1942 in North Bend, Oregon, as a U.S. navy minesweeper and for four years a crew of 40 saw active duty between San Francisco and Alaska. In 1951, Esson Young and George McCandless, owners of Uchuck II, bought her as a stripped-down hull and scrounged parts from many sources to convert her into a freight and passenger coaster.

          Uchucks I and II ran freight and passenger services from Port Alberni to Barkley Sound but in 1960, new roads pushed Young and McCandless north. When they first started to serve Nootka Sound, there was only a limited access logging road from Campbell River to Gold River. 

          In 1994, Dave Young (Esson’s son) and his partner, Walter Winkler retired and sold the Uchuck III  to Captain Fred and Sean Mathers and Alberto Girotto, who had previously sailed on the Lady Rose and the Frances Barkley in Barkley Sound. “This is a beautifully maintained boat,” said Captain Fred as he lovingly ran his hand over the polished brasswork on the bridge the day the three of them took over. As proud and experienced operators of this unique ship, I expect they will play a major role in the growth of this region as tourism expands.

On Board

 Passengers have free access to a big inside cabin and an upper passenger deck with a 360° view and wooden benches to sit on. There are no private cabins. As most passengers spend a lot of time outside especially when the boat stops and the cranes hoist freight and kayakers up and down, dress in layers with something windproof on top. Don’t forget sunscreen and lots of film for your camera as neither is available on board. In bad weather, sit in the combined stateroom and dining lounge. It has big windows on both sides and convenient marine charts on the tables plus a forestry map on the stern wall.

Meals and snacks

          When coming aboard early, put your order in to the galley right away for a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs. You’ll be served as soon as the crew have had theirs. Other meals are of the home-made soup and sandwich variety, with muffins and coffee for snacks. 


          This comfortable day trip normally leaves at a tourist friendly hour of 10.30am and returns before supper. (Call 1-877-824-8253  to confirm). After a two hour voyage in sheltered waters, you spend about 90 minutes ashore where a Mowachaht guide will give you a tour of the village highlights.  Both the journey and the destination offer visual delights.

Sights to see:

Muchalet Inlet          

          All three Uchuck trips go down Muchalat Inlet for the first hour or so. The steep sides of the inlet are an example of typical West Coast coniferous rain forest. Deciduous trees need a wet summer. By contrast, most of the area’s three metre rainfall occurs in the winter. A summer visit sounds wiser with each passing word, doesn’t it?

          A variety of trees flourish under these conditions. Mature examples of Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, Western red cedar and Western hemlock grow to over 60 m, while Amabilis fir and yellow cedar are only slightly shorter. Red cedars and Douglas firs can live for 1,000 years, while the yellow cedar survived up to 1,500 years before the arrival of the Europeans. The inlet slopes include some clearcuts made years ago that are larger than the 40 ha cuts permitted today.

          Looking at the quiet waters, it is hard to believe that it was once the scene of bloody battles which all but annihilated the people after whom it is named. After a tragic decade, only 36 Muchalaht fighting men were left to be reported on the 1860 census compared to 150 Mowachaht. A political marriage in the 1890s paved the way for the remaining Muchalahts to move in with their traditional enemies, the Mowachaht, and now the two bands are combined.

          In their heyday, the Muchalaht had small summer villages at the mouth of almost every stream on Muchalat Inlet: McCurdy Creek, Silverado Creek, Mooyah Bay, and Kleeptee Creek but the forest has swallowed all traces of them. Larger winter villages were located at Matchlee Bay and A’haminaquus (the Reserve near the Uchuck’s  dock). Cheeshish on Hanna Channel just beyond the mouth of Muchalat Inlet was also a Muchalaht village.

           Across the inlet from the Uchuck’s dock a stream comes down to a couple of trailers. These are the remains of the first logging camp in the area, Jacklah Camp, built by the Gibson Brothers in the thirties.

          Travelling down the inlet on a still morning, the Uchuck leaves a long straight white wake. Sun highlights small islands against the dark forest backdrop. Smells of coffee and bacon waft up from the galley. Because the Uchuck  is a working freight boat, she stops at small logging camps on the way. Mooyah Bay is usually one of them, others may include Aston Creek, Houston River and McCurdy Creek. Anything from groceries to metal beams, huge wire spools and even trucks are unloaded and loaded from her 200 ton cargo hold at these stops.

          The light beacon on the north side of the mouth of Muchalat Inlet marks Atrevida Point, named after one of the ships on Spanish explorer Alejandro Malaspina’s scientific expedition. It is a popular fishing spot. Just north of it is a large flat rock with petroglyphs.

Zuciarte Channel and Resolution Cove 

          Once out of Muchalat Inlet, the Uchuck turns west into Zuciarte Channel between Bligh Island and the mainland. At the end of the long peninsula of Bligh Island is the cove where Captain Cook spent a month in 1778. He called it Ship Cove but the name has been changed to Resolution Cove. Two plaques are embedded in the rocky bluffs in the centre of the Cove to commemorate the event. The Uchuck usually pauses briefly here. 

Spanish Pilot Group

          The southern two thirds of Bligh Island and the group of small islands, the Spanish Pilot Group, a cluster of islets just south of Bligh are now a provincial park. The islands’ rugged coasts conceal many nooks and crannies with occasional flashes of white sand beach. Today, people from Gold River and Tahsis anchor float houses here for weekend fishing trips in search of 13-18 kg salmon.

          From Bligh Island, the short crossing to Nootka Island is subject to swells from the Pacific Ocean but any choppiness does not last long on the stable Uchuck.

Friendly Cove

          On the southeast corner of Nootka Island is Friendly Cove. It was called Yuquot, place of many winds, by the 4,000 Nuu-chah-nulth Indians who lived there before the advent of the explorers and fur traders. Its people dominated the region when Cook arrived. The hereditary Mowachaht chief of Yuquot, who now lives on the A’haminaquus Reserve near Gold River, still holds the title of Maquinna, as his ancestor did in 1778. Because of the early European activities here, Friendly Cove was one of the first four places designated a National Historic Site by the Canadian Government in 1923.

          As the Uchuck enters the Cove, you will notice a lighthouse high up on a cliff on the left, straight ahead an elegant church spire rises above a wall of brambles, and on the right is a long low narrow dock with two houses above it. In one of the houses lives Ray Williams and his family. They are the only members of the Band to live here year round.

          Once the guns of the Spanish fort boomed across the cove from the site now occupied by the lighthouse.  With 200-300 sports fishing boats off the point on weekends, the Nootka Light keepers perform a crucial safety function which has earned them medals from the Federal government. Even so, despite a flurry of protests, the same government is busy automating all the lighthouses. If time permits after the tour, climb the rocky path up to the station and sign the visitors’ book. The view over the Cove and up and down the coast is spectacular.

          In the late 1700s, explorers and traders came to Nootka Sound and the islands by sea. Little remains of the Spanish settlement (1789-1795) but the stained glass windows in the church were donated by the Spanish Government in memory of it. The present church was built in 1956 to replace an older one which burnt down. The church is now a museum for some beautiful replicas of Nootka traditional interior houseposts. These are like totem poles but were placed inside buildings instead of outside. They consist of legendary figures, mainly birds, animals and fish, carved one on top of the other to honour particular people in the community. The Jack posts on the west side, which were erected in 1993, honour the Muchalaht chief. The Maquinna ones on the east side, erected in 1994, honour the Mowachaht chief.

          The raising of these houseposts in the church was accompanied by songs, chants, gift giving and a salmon barbecue. Among the guests at the Maquinna post raising were the descendants of a 19-year-old Yuquot woman who had gone to San Blas in 1791 on a Spanish ship. It was quite common for young people to be invited south to learn Spanish ways. On arrival, this woman lived a life of comparative luxury as a ward of the Governor and was baptized Maria de Jesus de Nuca. In the course of doing some genealogical research, one of her descendants, Geraldine Shelley from San Diego, contacted the Mowachaht-Muchalaht Band Office. She discovered that Elder Sam Johnson of the A’haminaquus Reserve remembered that “the sister of one of my grandmothers” had left on such a voyage. He and Chief Amos Maquinna had long held that the Spanish cousins would be found one day and invited Shelley and her family to attend the raising of the Maquinna house posts and participate in special family chants and dances.

          Adjacent to the church is a ball-field where once the Spanish gardens grew. Every year Band members camp here for two weeks of socialising and renewal. It is also an opportunity for anyone with a dispute to settle to take it to the traditional place, Tu-tu-quis, down among the rocks on the beach behind the church. Though little used now, in the old days the disputants would talk themselves out before the whole community and then the elders would render judgement.

          Surf from the open Pacific ocean pounds on this beach and occasionally whales can be seen from the trail above it. The trail leads along the shore, past a modern graveyard, to a large freshwater lake where cabins can be rented and where the whaler’s shrine used to be. (See Chapter 1). 

          Returning from the lake, you will pass the remains of the school which closed in 1967 and then examine a large totem pole lying on the ground. This was erected in 1929 in honour of Captain Jack, Chief of the combined Mowachaht-Muchalaht Band in the twenties and thirties and the first visit to the Cove by a Lieutenant-Governor of Canada. Ten carvers from five local bands created it and it stood proudly until the first fall storm of 1993.

          Beyond the totem pole a rocky cliff separates a small beach from the rest of the cove. It was here that Maquinna permitted Meares to build the first ship on this coast, the North West America and it was here too that a later Maquinna permitted the Roman Catholic missionary, Father Augustin Brabant, to build the first church in 1889. This burnt down in 1954 and the resident priest moved away.

          Although history dominates at Friendly Cove, the visit ashore may be an opportunity to see some wildlife of which Nootka Sound has a great variety. Look for the gleaming white heads of bald eagles atop tall trees especially on dead branches. Kingfishers perch on branches near the water waiting for small fish to surface. Pigeon guillemots and marbled murrelets dive and resurface endlessly, while black oyster catchers, sandpipers and surfbirds flutter over the rocks at low tide. Although the sea otters were hunted to extinction by fur traders in the early 1800s, they are making a comeback in the kelp beds of the outer coast and you might catch a glimpse of one from the trail by the Pacific Ocean. Whales and seals are occasionally seen from here also.

The return voyage on the Uchuck follows the same route but, uses the express lane.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print but you may find a copy you can borrow from a library.