Located northeast of Tofino, British Columbia, Meares Island was contested in 1984’s “War of the Woods.” Now administered by First Nations groups, the plant, insect and animal diversity there is profound. The Island is part of the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park, which encompasses all of the traditional unseeded Tla-o-qui-aht territory.
Laced with a 3-kilometer trail that takes the observant hiker about 90 minutes to wander, the island is a rain-fueled preserve only accessible by water taxi. Or, as we’d travelled, in a hand-carved traditional canoe — more fitting transportation, really, as part of the larger cultural experience of this adventure.
T’ashii Paddling School
The source of our traditional canoe and paddling tour was T’ashii Paddling School, whose base is off the Pacific Rim Highway in Tofino. The school offers everything from paddling lessons and SUP courses to canoeing day trips, including the tour we selected.
Canoes ranged from 14 feet to 30 feet with the shorter options ideal for small groups eager to explore nearby islands, rivers, and harbors. Black and white paint adorned the finished hand-carved canoes, which while heavy to lift were agile in the water.
Our guide for the short, spirited paddle to Meares Island from Tofino, Tsimka Martin, turned the four of us into a workable team, varying the strokes and timing of our paddles. Her skills and experience are deeply engrained in her heritage, one that connects her with both canoe and the island that was our destination.
Alluring Sounds & Songs
After debarking on Meares Island, we continued to a path that led into the woods a short distance from the water. Wandering a narrow, hand-hewn cedar boardwalk among the trees, the pounding began – sharp beats that echoed through the damp forest. And then singing followed.
Strong, steady words came from a seasoned voice singing a traditional paddling song composed to propel a canoe forward against wind and tide. The sense of time — past and present — shifted ever so slightly during the next sacred minutes as his wooden beater collided rhythmically with wooden slats.
A Man & His Tools
Joe Martin was the man behind the voice who honored us with his song. He also happens to be Tsimka’s father and the hands behind the hand-carved canoes, recognized globally for their beauty. Plenty has been written and photographed about Joe’s work. But it’s another thing to see him carve in person, watching the shavings curl off the dense but buoyant cedar shell.
Few of Joe’s tools are new or rarely used. In fact, many of them were passed on from previous generations from which the art, craft and science of single-hulled canoe carving stems. Joe’s father, the late Chief Robert Martin, clearly left his tools in good hands.
Surrounded by ancient trees, flourishing spider webs wet with dew, and solitude, we began to understand why the island represents an irreplaceable resource to First Nations people and the world. The place evoked a sense of history seeded by truth and wisdom, a realization that life is about using what is inherited. That stewardship isn’t optional — or accidental.
We Were Changed
Back in the canoe bound for Tofino, each paddler reached forward to break the water, drawing long and steady strokes that aided in the effort. Eagles consorted above, sea lions circled off the port side, and bull kelp drifted in the wake.
As the dock grew closer, a thought occurred of the First Nations people, including the Martins, who call Meares Island their ancestral home. The Tla-o- qui-aht name translates to, “People who are different than they used to be.”
That description could also apply to the quartet of visitors who propelled Joe’s sturdy canoe to shore. After this voyage and exploration of Meares Island, there was no turning back. We were changed.