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The secret history of Howe Sound

Off the beach
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Back in Manitoba, when the kids asked for a scary story, sometimes I’d recount The One-Legged Axeman of McNab Creek. The sound effects were the grabber. Thump-slide … thump-slide … thump-slide … then there he was, and you know that axe was right handy.

The kids loved it.

I learned The One-Legged Axeman of McNab Creek, and many other questionable yarns, during the seven years I attended Camp Potlatch. People back east usually laugh when they hear the name, but Potlatch was serious business to us kids. It was a place where, for two weeks a year — or a whole summer if you signed on as a counsellor or sub-chief — a city kid could get grounded in the West Coast forest.

The setting of Potlatch is magic. Above the beach and dock extends perhaps the finest open plain on Howe Sound, with a giant spruce serving as a regular rallying point for the kids. Lying just east of the main campsite, the creek itself snakes down through a canyon that commands spectacular views of a glacial plateau. Hikes included stretches over old corduroy roads and led to fabled places like the Japanese logging camp from the 1920s, or the old dam, or the plateau, or even the glacier.

On the water we set out in five-man canoes to the islands, hiking into Gambier Lake and climbing to the top of Anvil Island. The good swimmers earned special tokens for their necklaces by swimming to Hidden Creek, Bear Creek or McNab Creek.

Unlike the Christian camps around it, Potlatch was secular. Yet, in its way, it was committed to instilling at least a sense of native traditions into its TV-fed charges.

For instance, there was no applause at Potlatch after songs.

Instead one of the “head men” would intone: “Aha!”

And the room would respond: “Hyas kloshe!”

It’s Chinook jargon meaning “very good.” You find it in Emily Carr’s Klee Wyck.

A lot of it was silly. But for me, and many others who kept coming back, our feelings for Potlatch were inseparable from the First Nation character of the place.

It was only years later I discovered just how right we were.

I found it in a book called Capilano – the Story of a River, published in 1970 by a distinguished Vancouver MD, James W. Morton.

Morton, whose sources are good, tells us that when Europeans first appeared in these waters, the Squamish and their northern enemies declared peace.

“To celebrate it, a great potlatch was held for the two tribes at Potlatch Creek on Howe Sound, across from Anvil Island,” Morton wrote.

It gets better. The peace was “further confirmed” by the marriage of the northern chief’s daughter to a young Squamish, “Paytsauma, half-brother to old Chief Ki-ap-a-la-no,” the legendary giant-sized chief after whom the whites renamed the Homulcheson River.

“One authority states that the first child of this marriage was a daughter, Lay-hu-lette, meaning ‘beginning of the world.’ A more reliable source believes the first child was a son and Lay-hu-lette was his daughter,” Morton wrote. “In any case, Lay-hu-lette was born at Potlatch Creek, probably in 1857.”

Lay-hu-lette went on to marry a Squamish named Sahp-luk who became Hyas Joe, Capilano Joe and finally Chief Joe Capilano. It was the chief and his wife who gave Pauline Johnson the stories she included in her vastly underrated Legends of the Squamish, which a Vancouver Province editor changed to Legends of Vancouver.

So the mouth of Potlatch Creek was the setting of a major First Nations peace pact and the birthplace of a Squamish matriarch whose name was Beginning of the World. Imagine that?

When they talk about transforming McNab Creek into a gravel mine or running a highway across Potlatch Creek, I can only wonder. I’ve been to most of Canada’s big national heritage sites and would say none of them can touch that part of Howe Sound. For beauty or heritage. The Plains of Abraham has nothing on it.

But not everyone can appreciate that. Not everyone goes to Camp Potlatch.


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