High Boats: A Century of Salmon Remembered
November 4, 2013
Review By Keith Ralston
The commercial salmon fishery has recently inspired a spate of books on the fading of the salmon industry. This volume fits into that literature. Among its special virtues are its basis in a specific area – the coast of northeastern Vancouver Island, the adjoining smaller islands, and the adjacent Mainland – an area known to its people as “North Island.” High Boats is also research-based, tracing the fishery back over a hundred years. The author, Pat Wastell Norris, is the ideal person to undertake this review as she grew up at Telegraph Cove, North Island, and her wide local contacts have given her access to the working fishers themselves. Her interviews reflect their point of view, but she is careful not to exempt them from their share of responsibility for the industry’s decline.
Norris’s thread through the centurylong history is the tracing of several pioneer fishing families, especially the descendants of Wes Huson, an American who came to the North Island in the late 1860s, looking for minerals. Unsuccessful in that quest, he sought other ways to exploit its resources. Settling in the fledgling commercial centre of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island with his Tlingit wife and their many children, he became a partner first in a salmon saltery and then a cannery. This latter operation was dependent on the abundant sockeye salmon runs of the Nimpkish River and Lake system on the opposite shore of Vancouver Island.
Huson’s cannery, as did many other early canneries, relied on Aboriginal fishers and Aboriginal women cannery workers for its workforce. The changes that this brought to the Aboriginal community were fundamental, and Norris, who saw the results of these during her childhood visits to Alert Bay, gives a sympathetic picture of the Aboriginal people who were caught up in the situation forced on them.
Having established her themes, Norris embarks on a lengthy and detailed survey of the ups and downs of the fishery in the North Island. This is the “High Boat” portion of her review – a tale of “golden years” and “hard times” that alternated for the working fisher. She also includes a layperson’s analysis of the effects of changing technology as well as of the vagaries of regulation by the federal department responsible for “sea coast and inland” fisheries (as the British North America Act defines them).
About one-third of the way through her narrative, Norris introduces a present-day representative of the Huson family, David Huson, together with his close friend Barrie McClung (incidentally, Norris credits McClung for her decision to write this book). She traces both their lives from the time they met in Victoria, Huson reluctantly taking his high school education and McClung trying to escape a drunken father. Huson’s story comes to centre around his current boat – not surprisingly, as a fisher and his boat are seen as a single entity by many in the industry.
Huson’s May S., a classic wooden seiner of the 1920s, becomes part of the book’s narrative. Huson and McClung take her on a leisurely trip, providing the author with a way to review the past of various ports around “North Island.” But this voyage turns out to be in fact a journey back to Victoria, where Huson is forced to sell the May S.
This is the point at which this book joins its predecessors in chronicling the decline of the salmon fishery along the whole BC coast. Norris includes a section on current problems – a loss of habitat from clear-cut logging up to the very banks of salmon streams, hydroelectric dams, the threat posed by fish farming, and failures in the regulatory system such as licence limitations and attempts to cut the fleet, which led to increased catching efficiency. All of these point to the “sunset” of commercial fishing and the end of the only life lived by individual fishers like Huson and McClung.
The text is accompanied by numerous illustrations, many from the private collections of the author, of David Huson and of Barrie McClung. There is also an index, mostly names, but a feature often lacking in a volume like this.