Gorge Harbour is an idyllic boating outpost on the west side of Cortes Island in the Discovery Islands between Vancouver Island and Canada’s mainland. I made the trip there with my dad and girlfriend for Father’s Day in his boat for brunch and to seek out some pictographs that are found on the steep face of the narrow harbor entrance. The entrance to the harbor is dramatic, although narrow and easy to miss. As you enter steep cliiff faces surround you that in the past thousand year have served as a defense post for the native peoples that called the harbor home. That is before their communities were decimated by small pox and tuberculosis after the gold rush of 1858 brought hundreds of thousands of gold-seeking white men through the area. The harbor’s inhabitants would poise large boulders on the tops of the cliff faces and with timely precision drop them on marauding invaders from other tribes. I have also read that in foggy weather the tribe would position a young woman with a big singing voice at the top of the cliffs to serve as an audible beacon for canoes coming in from hunting. I find this about as haunting as it is fascinating.
Small caves also line the harbor entrance and were formerly used as native burial sites. This practice contrasts with other methods of burial and general dealings with the dead by the ancient indigenous people of the area. In Wylie Blanchet’s Curve of Time memoir she describes seeing ancient burial boxes hanging from trees over the water north of Gorge Harbour. While still very much alive, local natives would build their own personal burial box and keep it in their home, often using is as a piece of furniture, a shelf, or a table. When they passed, their family would put their body, curled in the fetal position, into the box and hang the box from a large tree. At a predetermined time of the year all of the settlement’s boxes would come down and be cremated as part of a ceremony. I can only imagine the morbid site of these boxes hanging from trees. In her travels, Wylie also saw abandoned camps where some boxes had fallen from rotting ropes and their own weight to the shore below, while some still swung from cedar ropes above.
The anthropology of Desolation Sound and the areas surrounding my father’s home at Bliss Landing continues to fascinate me the more I learn about it and see it with my own eyes. I was particularly excited to see the pictographs that were on the cliffs at Gorge Harbour’s entrance.
In our first pass I missed them. I had read that often shore side pictographs could be found at a very specific level, coinciding with the height of man standing in his canoe. I was looking at arm’s reach-height and saw nothing as we motored though the pass. As we left Gorge Harbour we were able to spot them. Much higher than I expected, but still vivid and unfaded.
Where it was obvious that they had not been drawn from a canoe’s perch, I also have doubts about the theories that suggest the artists had been lowered from the top of the cliff with woven cedar ropes to paint the figures. It seems that the cliff face has a convenient, flat perch there that easily could have held a man without fear of falling or losing balance. The markings themselves I find eerie and hard to understand. There is the obvious drawing of a man perched atop a whale or large fish, but the other stick figure drawing I can’t begin to comprehend.
The age of these pictographs is also hard to tell. There’s no doubt they were there painted before 1858’s gold rush and subsequent small pox epidemics, but just how long is unknown. I have heard of other local shore side pictographs being dated anywhere from 200 to 2000 years ago. Locals and anthropologists theorize that many of the shore side pictographs mark great fishing spots. I can’t see this applying to the Gorge Harbour entrance, as fishing would be questionable in the shallow water, although the harbor currently holds a successful commercial oyster farm and likely provided its ancient inhabitants with bountiful shellfish, if not salmon. I interpret the pictographs as a warning or marking of territory. They could also just be ancient graffiti. A local wanting attention after making the dangerous climb down or around the cliff, akin to a graffiti writer climbing a train trestle or overpass to spray paint their tag.