West Coast voyage explores remote sites visited by Spanish explorers in 1770s

VICTORIA — Two British Columbia kayakers are set to depart from a remote Vancouver Island beach known as Rugged Point on Sunday for a month-long voyage retracing the passage Spanish explorers took in the late 1700s.

Jacqueline Windh, a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and her husband, Dave Gilbert, plan to hike and kayak the now virtually uninhabited outer coastal areas of Vancouver Island.

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Most Canadians are aware of Canada's British and French colonial history, but the Spanish connections aren't as well-known despite many West Coast islands, communities and waterways bearing Spanish names, said Windh.

She pointed to Cortez, Galiano, Gabriola islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and even Port Alberni, where she lives, as places on Vancouver Island named after Spanish explorers and dignitaries.

"I had no idea there was even a Spanish presence here," said Windh, who arrived in B.C. from Ontario in the 1990s. "I thought it was weird, all the Spanish names here. But the Spanish were here before Capt. Cook. Spain and England almost came to war over this new territory."

Spanish ships arrived on the outer coastal areas of Vancouver Island in the 1770s before the British, she said, adding they were searching for trade routes.

Windh said she's calling her voyage "The Secret Coast" and it received support from the Spanish Embassy in Canada, which highlighted the expedition on its arts and culture website.

"The order we're going, north to south, it's kind of roughly chronological with the history of the early Spanish encounters," said Windh, who estimates the entire trip will cover about 220 kilometres.

A float plane will take the couple to Rugged Point, where they will begin their journey hiking and kayaking along the Tatchu Peninsula, located on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. The nearest community is Zeballos, almost 500 kilometres northwest of Victoria.

Windh said once the expedition reaches the southern end of the Tatchu Peninsula a boat will take them to Nootka Island and the Hesquiat Peninsula, where they will make stops at Indigenous whaling communities and villages that are now almost completely uninhabited.

"We probably won't see anyone who's living there for the first two weeks we're out," she said.

Windh said she and her husband plan to stop at Homais Cove where the Spanish ship Santiago arrived in 1774 and first traded with Indigenous people. They will also explore the Nootka Island whaling site British explorer Capt. James Cook called Friendly Cove in 1778 after arriving there and interacting with the local Nuu-chah-nulth people, she said.

The Spanish built a fort on Nootka Island and after more than 15 years of tensions and negotiations between Britain and Spain over who would control the territory, the two countries reached the Nootka Accord in 1794, which turned the area over to the British and averted war, said Windh.

The final leg of the expedition involves paddling southward along the outer coast towards Tofino, she said. The expedition will stop at Flores Island, named after a Spanish viceroy, and home of the Nuu-chah-nulth Indigenous villages of Ahousaht and Opitsaht.

Windh said she and her husband plan to arrive at Chesterman Beach in Tofino on July 8. She noted Tofino, now a popular tourist town on the west side of Vancouver Island, is also a Spanish name.

She said the legacy of the 18th century Spanish expeditions to Canada's Pacific West Coast is one of the shared history of both countries. The expedition aims to raise awareness of a nearly forgotten period of history between Canada and Spain, she said.

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