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Conuma Peak 1910

From the Victoria Daily Colonist September 25, 1910.

The Story of a Pilgrimage to Conuma

Mr. Arthur W. McCurdy, President of the Natural History Society, strongly advocates the broadening of the work of that useful organization, so as to embrace subjects not usually considered as coming within the domain of natural history. The Society has already extended its investigations into other fields, but Mr. McCurdy has opened what is a somewhat new and almost illimitable field, in which its members can do useful and interesting work. During the summer he spent several weeks in the country bordering on Nootka Sound, his primary object being to make the ascent of Mount Conuma, one of the most striking mountains on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and around which some interesting legends are centred. He read a paper before the Society on his return, which was profusely illustrated by lantern slides from photographs taken by himself. A number of these are reproduced herewith. Mr. McCurdy began his paper thus:

"A monument ten times as high as the Great Pyramid;
A King's Tomb;
The Ancient River of Gold;
A Wilderness of Snow, Ice, Forest, Precipice, Mountain and River.

Such were a few of the headings of my programme on leaving Victoria for Nootka on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, on July 7 1910.

I will not at this time describe the wild and interesting scenery of the West Coast more than to say that Clayoquot surpasses Barkley Sound in interest and beauty, and the Nootka Sound excels them both. I will stop, however, to show you a photograph of a convoy of very small Indian boys in their six-foot dugout canoes as they came off from the Presbyterian mission with the freight boat at Ahousat."

Nootka Sound is about halfway between the north and south ends of Vancouver Island. The early navigators regarded it as the most accessible of all the harbours on the Northwest Coast, and there was a time when it played a very important part in international politics. It is worth mentioning that Green, in his "History of the English People," referring to the troubles between Great Britain and Spain over Nootka, says that this harbour is located in California. Mr. McCurdy says:

"You are all more or less familiar with descriptions of Nootka by Cook, Vancouver, Jewett and others. At the beginning of last century Nootka was the only port of consequence north of Monterey, and figured more than once prominently in diplomatic correspondence. From 1785 to 1787, not including the operations of Meares from Nootka, Dixon reports 5,800 sea-otter skins sold in China at an average price of $30 each. Mr. Swan reports a total 48,500 during the four years 1799-1802, representing approximately a million and a half of dollars. "More than once," says Sturgis, "I have known a capital of $40,000 employed in a northwest voyage yield a return exceeding $150,000. In one instance an outfit not exceeding $50,000 gave a gross return of $284,000."

Following the traders came the naturalists, who first broke ground in Northwest America at Nootka, and named specimens of plants and animals for that locality. There are, for instance, a Halietis Nutkaensis (an ear shell), a Rubus Natkanus (a raspberry), and a Chemaecyparis Nutkaenis (yellow cypress).

Such was the importance of Nootka, which was the centre of trade and commerce for the whole of the Northwest Coast of America a hundred years ago. In those days there was a large population of Indians on the Sound, whereas today there is only a small settlement at Friendly Cove.

Nootka also may be reckoned among the largest and safest harbours of the world. It has a wide, clean approach from the ocean, and is protected from ocean storms by Bligh Island, behind which lies a harbour of calm water, extending to the east for 32 miles, to the west 20 miles, and to the north for 15 miles, excluding the large basin of which Bligh Island is the centre. The great harbour is deep and navigable for the largest ships, and is free from rocks and sand bars.

Nootka has the most striking approach from the ocean of any harbour I have ever seen. The great peaks are signals which may be sighted by the mariner while still many miles at sea.

The central and most conspicuous peak is Conuma, in which in the cave near the top, legend places the tomb of the greatest of the West Coast Indian chiefs, King Maquinna. Legend also states that in olden times a River of Gold ran down the ravine from the cave.

The view of the approach to the sound was sketched from the Admiralty chart at a distance of seven miles from the coast, showing the elevation of Nootka Cone to be 1,619 feet, and Conuma Peak, which was distant 35 miles from the observer, to be 4,889 feet."

The above brief reference to Nootka will lead many persons to join in the expression of the hope that Mr. McCurdy will make the harbour itself a subject for description at length and full illustration on some future occasion. His account of his brief trip around the Sound was as follow:

"We dropped anchor for a few minutes at Friendly Cove, where I secured three Indians for our expedition, and then went on to the marble quarries, where we made our headquarters with Mr. Rawlinson and his family.

For two days we explored the Sound in a small launch, and visited the Lagoon, which has a reversible waterfall similar to that of the Gorge at Victoria, and is exceedingly picturesque. Some distance from the Lagoon, on the other side of the Sound, we found a small harbour admirably adapted for an anchorage for small yachts, and a delightful resort for picnic parties.

At this time of year one is almost sure of catching some of the tyee or king salmon amid scenery which under every condition of light and shade, is always beautiful.

The Kleeptee Peninsula is an almost unknown territory, with Head Bay on the west, Muchalat Arm on the south, Gold River on the east, and Mount Conuma on the north.

The first expedition was planned to enter this peninsula at the mouth of the Kleeptee River, to explore towards Gold River, and if possible, to reach Mount Conuma before returning.

The Kleeptee River runs through a granite formation, and has on each side throughout its entire length, mountains from 2,500 to 3,500 feet high. The width of the valley varies from one quarter of a mile to one mile, and is about six miles in length. There are three small falls on the river flowing over ledges of granite, and the water is clear and cold.

Our first stop was at noon between the first and second falls, and while our cook was preparing lunch, our three Indian packers went in for a swim. The temperature of the stream was 45 deg. F.

At our next stop for lunch the Indians again went in for a swim, and I was hurriedly called to come and see the school of trout following them about the pool.

We camped on the shore of a lake not far from the source of the river, which we afterwards found to flow from a bed of snow and ice high up on a mountain side. From the lake three of our party returned to further explore the Sound and meet us at the end of six days near the mouth of Gold River.

Crossing the lake on a raft we landed at a beaver dam and descended into the valley of the Neesack. At the shore of this river, where it abruptly turns to enter the Sound near the entrance of Head Bay, we found four excavations under the overhanging bank, made, the Indians said, by bear, who could here lie in wait for salmon as the passed up the stream, fish them out, and eat them at their leisure.

A mile up the river a branch flows into the Neesack from the valley to the south. We proceeded along the main stream, however, to the divide separating the Neesack from the Gold River valley, and found that the Neesack also has its source in snow and ice.

We ascended a dome-shaped mountain 2,700 feet high from which we had a glorious panorama in all directions.

Mount Conuma to the north had not that spire-like form which we saw from Friendly Cove, but was shaped more like a huge wedge pushed up through the granite.

In the west and northwest the snow fields and high peaks of the range running north from Head bay; to the east of Conuma, but much further north, Victoria Peak, 7,484 feet; to the east Crown Mountain, 6,082 feet; to the southeast the great snow fields and peaks flanking the National Park at Buttles Lake; and to the south and southwest the valleys of the Kleeptee and the Neesack, up which we had come - all were in plain view from the summit of this mountain. As we ascended the mountain we found pink, white and dark red heather in full bloom at 2,000 feet. There was much snow in the hollows on the side of this mountain, and many small pools of water, with a small lake here and there. In one of these a bear was having a bath just before we came up.

Instead of going round through Gold River country, we turned southeast down a stream which enters the Sound about four miles west of Gold River. The Indians made unsuccessful attempts to catch the large salmon which were trying to leap over one of the small falls of the river."

Nothing daunted by his lack of success in this direction, Mr. McCurdy decided to attack the mountain from another direction, and what follows is the first description ever given by a white man of this part of Vancouver Island, and Mr. McCurdy has doubtless the honor of being the first white man to set foot upon this notable peak.

"Failing to reach Conuma from south, I planned a second expedition to pass through Head Bay, ascend the Mowatcha River, and reach Conuma from the north. At the left of the illustration and about a mile from the shore is located the Dunsmuir iron mine. The river is on the right behind Separation Saddle. The valley of the Mowatcha River is from a quarter of a mile to half a mile in width, and for three miles is comparatively level and wooded. The mountains to the north and south rising to an elevation of 3,000 feet, were burned over many years ago by an Indian, who said, "Now the white man will no longer come to disturb our fish and game." He intended to burn up all the timber of the Sound with his end in view, but before completing his plan of wholesale destruction, he was confirmed by authorities on a charge of insanity.

This burning of the timber has no doubt kept explorers out of this region, for above canoe navigation we saw no axe marks or other indications of any having been through this district.

We left out canoe at the mouth of a canyon, and proceeded over the burnt district, where fallen timber, small bushes, and bracken impeded our progress greatly.

In some places the banks of the canyon were two hundred feet high, all solid rock, with not a vestige of soil anywhere. Before the fire the whole region had been covered with magnificent trees. How they could grow to such a size on such a bed of solid rock is one of the marvels of this country.

Here at a distance of about four miles we had a glimpse of Conuma for several days, as fog came in from the ocean in the afternoon. The next morning bushes were wet and the traveling very disagreeable although no rain had fallen. We did not start until noon. At the head of the canyon, which I estimated to be about two miles in length, we found the river so congested that Sampson was able to jump across, but neither Dominck nor I cared to risk a leap over such a deep and boiling chasm, and a tree was felled to make the crossing. Above the gorge the river is about 100 feet width and a foot deep, running through a narrow, level valley, a corner of which was burned over in grand conflagration. There was no discoloration in the water of the river, no insipid taste - it was clear and cold, with a temperature of 45 deg. F. The bed of the stream was covered with small granite mixed with bluish stones characteristic of the dykes of the country, which are mineralized to a greater or lesser extent. We camped at the riverside not far from its junction with the "Ancient River of Gold from the Brow of Conuma."

During the next day our progress was slow owing to dense fog. Suddenly at an elevation of 1,300 feet Conuma flashed through the fog as if suspended in the sky almost above us and immediately disappeared. But this flash showed us its location, concerning which we had been somewhat in doubt. The picture revealed was of a great white horse hung up in the sky on a hard grey background. The "white horse" afterwards proved to be a great white snow field on the side of the mountain. The momentary impression made upon my mind was first, the nearness of the mountain, second, its great height, and third, the precipitous character of the cone. At an elevation of 2,050 feet we again found white, pink and red heather.

We reached the plateau on the north shoulder of the mountain at an elevation of 3,000 feet on Sunday at noon, and found between us and the cone a field of snow filling a great hollow in the mountain side about half by a quarter of a mile in area. Here the Mowatcha has its source, making a complete semi-circle of about four miles around the shoulder of the mountain to our camp No. 12.

During the afternoon we caught occasional glimpses of the cone through the driving fog, but did not care to advance further until the fog had completely disappeared.

Entering one of the pools of this plateau for a bath, I was surprised to see many small sticks about one and a half inches long and a quarter of an inch thick approaching from every quarter of the pool. Upon breaking one of these in two I found that the wood had been excavated and its place was filled by a grub about an inch long.

Next morning we started for the cone and arrived at the ravine down which in ancient times, legend says, flowed "A River of Gold." In the bottom of the ravine lay a solid bed of ice instead of a bed of solid gold, and looking up the ravine through a stone arch, I could see the opposite wall of the crater in the brow of the peak. This crater contains ice to an unknown depth. I could not see the "King's Tomb," although there could not be more a fitting place for it, and it may well be there. I had not the necessary equipment to provide for a descent into the ravine or into the crater, and further exploration of these two most interesting places had to be deferred to a future time.

While I was taking photographs of the arch and ravine on the edge of which I was held by a small rope in the hands of Dominick, Sampson had taken off his shoes and socks and had scaled the peak. We could hear him shouting "Fine, fine!" He was gone for three quarters of an hour, and in the meantime I took photographs of the surrounding panorama. Neither Dominick nor I would attempt it, for it was approximately 900 feet high. He brought back two samples of rock from the top and reported the crater to be seventy feet wide and one hundred and fifty feet deep: the natural bridge or arch to be twenty feet long, ten feet wide, and fifteen feet thick.

He had been all over the mountain which he described as a wedge-shaped, about 25 feet wide and a quarter of a mile long, with a knife-edge at the back. "No way of getting up than by which he had come. The view from the top was fine - Gold River, the Sound, high mountains and snow all around."

As we stood on an elevation of 4,075 feet, the top of the cone rises above the ravine 889 feet.

Truly Mount Conuma is a fit monument of a great king.

On our return we again passed through the valley between the great sow field and the base of the cone, where plants grow with tropical luxuriance, and on emerging from this valley on the snow again, we bade au-revoir to Conuma for this year.

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