It’s the viewing of the Potlatch Collection in the U’mista Cultural Centre that staggered me. Cedar permeated the air as I descended a ramp into a world of reclaimed precious items. Ceremonial masks, coppers, rattles and many other returned artefacts filled the hall, many of which were confiscated some years after a potlatch ban initiated by the Canadian federal government took effect in the 1880s.

The potlatch, derived from a Chinook word meaning “to give,” is a ceremony filled with pride for the Kwakwaka’wakw; one where a Chief passes along objects of value to those attending, marking a marriage, the death of a respected family member or other significant events in the community. Sent to museums and private collections all over the world after being confiscated, the recently returned artefacts are now proudly on display and gave me a sense of the richness of the community I was visiting.

Alert BayTrevor Marc Hughes

Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island—a short ferry ride away from Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia—is steeped in the reconciliation movement. Just outside the U’mista Cultural Centre was a grassy field where, just a few years previous, the last bricks of the residential school that dominated the town were removed by hand. I walked a path to the beach. Vancouver Island was visible across Broughton Strait as I strolled across pebbles, past derelict posts soaked in creosote and towards Gwa’yam (Whale) Trail. Alert Bay is “Home of the Killer Whale” and there are plenty of ways to see an orca pod around Cormorant Island. To the Kwakwaka’wakw, they are known as Max’inux, or black fish, and are best seen between mid-June and mid-October. But I wanted to take a hike, and Cormorant Island has plenty of day hikes that take in significant Kwakwaka’wakw sites.

Gwa’yam Trail hugs the shoreline and if you’re in the right place at the right time you might catch a lob-tailing orca. You’ll need to also pay attention to the ocean for another reason; the tide has been known to flood right to the treeline. About four kilometres of pleasant hiking gets you to Giwas (Deer) Trail. Take a right and it will bring you to the ‘Namgis Big House, its front featuring the wide face of a sea monster. Impressive too is the world’s tallest totem pole, at 52.7 metres, standing next to it. The pole shows the family histories of several tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw. The big house was modelled from traditional big houses where potlatches would take place. There was no potlatch in progress when I walked in, but I could hear cheers coming from the soccer field next door. June Sports is a First Nations soccer tournament hosted by the ‘Namgis, many being Kwak’wala speakers, that make up a band of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Held on Father’s Day weekend every year, the sporting event gathers together 10 men’s teams and eight women’s teams from First Nations communities across British Columbia.

Although the Cormorant Island trails can be challenging, the Shoreline Circle Route, the outer rim of trails, can be completed in a day. There is an impressive network of them. The Gwakawe (North Side) Trail continues past the ‘Namgis Big House; it’s a winding trail that looks out to Cormorant Channel. From that point, you can travel south and inland to the boardwalks of the Alert Bay Ecological Park. I decided, however, to join up with asphalt roads and find some food along Fir Street. I tucked into a cheekily-named “Bannock McMuffin,” a rich conglomeration of ham, egg, tomato and the comforting taste of bannock.

A short hike along Fir Street brought me to the original ‘Namgis Burial Grounds, a place where I needed to pay respect by viewing the impressive totem poles from the road. It’s where many high-ranking members of the Kwakwaka’wakw are buried, including Chief and master carver Mungo Martin, the first to host a potlatch in 1953 after the ban was lifted.

SointulaTrevor Marc Hughes

The first bicycles I saw in Sointula on Malcolm Island, a 35-minute ferry ride north from Alert Bay, were painted red and green and had been stationary for some time. They were part of a welcoming collection of colourful public art next to a quirky signpost pointing out the general direction of everything from whales to wi-fi. I was already getting a sense of the vibe of this former Finnish colony, an early 20th century attempt at utopia.

“The town offers free bicycles in the summer,” said Lynne Atkinson, who co-owns Orca Lodge, one of the few accommodations on the island. Malcolm Island has the benefit of being 
a fairly level landmass: “Long stretches of beach along flat, 
quiet streets.” It’s recommended that you leave your car in 
Port McNeill before taking the ferry.

I checked out the newest trail, the Kaleva Road Walkway. It’s a three-kilometre stretch that takes in some rocky shores and viewing platforms for those looking for bird life. Meaning “place of harmony” in Finnish, Sointula is a place to reconnect with the natural world. I was noticing this as the beachfront, leading to oceanside campsites, went on and on.

“There is an abundance of shoreline to beachcomb for driftwood or sea glass,” Atkinson told me. “If you are lucky you might find a glass ball.”

The walkway ends at Mitchell Bay Road, part of a thoroughfare that transects the island, leading to a system of trails on the west side, even one that leads to a rare manned lighthouse at Pulteney Point.

SointulaTrevor Marc Hughes

Beautiful Bay Trail consists of five kilometres of trail that winds along a ridge and features some stunning views of Queen Charlotte Strait. Mateoja Heritage Trail continues where Third Street left off, wandering through marshland and passing a couple of ponds, ending up at well-named Big Lake in the centre of the island.

It’s a place of harmony, but it would seem that Malcolm Island is also a place of serenity. The “build-your-own-adventure” vibe is quite welcome. And visitors are showing up for its outdoor pursuits, set amongst utopian ideals.

Trip Planner

Alert Bay and Sointula are accessible through regular BC Ferries service from Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island. Leave your car behind. Both Cormorant and Malcolm Island are ideally explored on foot.

Alert Bay/Cormorant Island

Camping is available at the Alert Bay Campground just off Alder Road, a short walk east from the BC Ferries terminal. The campground is attached to the network of Cormorant Island Trails and allows for quick access to the Alert Bay Ecological Park.

Hiking is an ideal way to discover Cormorant Island. Trails vary from easy to moderately challenging. Take on all 13 kilometres of the Shoreline Circle Route that incorporates Gwakawe (North Side) Trail and Gwa’yam (Whale) Trail on the uninhabited north and west shores of the island, or explore the honoured Kwakwaka’wakw sites of the ‘Namgis Big House, U’mista Cultural Centre ( and original ‘Namgis burial grounds in town.

Sointula/Malcolm Island

If you’ve tired of hiking by the time you’ve reached Sointula, bikes are plentiful and an ideal way of getting around Malcolm Island. They are free to use during the summer from the Sointula Resource Centre at 165-1 Street, across from the BC Ferries terminal.

But of course, you’re not tired of hiking. The five-kilometre Beautiful Bay Trail takes in stunning ocean views. Kaleva Road Walkway leads to beaches on the south shore ideal for beachcombing. Six-kilometre Mateoja Heritage Trail takes in marshland and ends up 
at Big Lake.