The region around the Hakai Institute’s Calvert Field Station has a rich, glorious, and somewhat troubled history.
The Last Glacial Maximum
About 16,000 years ago, the ice would have completely covered Calvert Island and extended 75 kilometres or so beyond the present coastline, out to the edge of the continental shelf. It would have been perhaps one km thick at Hakai, so extending up to the peak of Mt Buxton. The coastline would have consisted of ice cliffs calving off icebergs into the ocean. It is therefore highly unlikely there would have been settlement on the nearby coast during this era.
The Ice Retreats
Over the next few millennia, the ice sheet began to draw back, exposing the coastline. Exactly when the land around Hakai would have come out from under the ice is still not known, but it might have been as early as 14,000 years ago. Almost certainly the coast would have been ice-free by 12,500 years ago.
The Central Coast First Nations’ oral history has it that: “In the beginning, there was nothing but water and ice and a narrow strip of land.” And that is no doubt true.
The people came and populated the bays and inlets around Hakai.
Our recent archaeological studies show that during the last 10,000 years a large population—certainly comprising hundreds of people, probably thousands—flourished in the protected channels and bays around Kwakshua Channel and the nearby archipelagos. These were permanent village sites, not seasonal resource gathering centres.
Waves of Pestilence
Direct European contact came to the region with the fur trade starting in 1787. With contact came fatal diseases—smallpox, measles, diptheria, etc. These waves of disease came roughly every twenty years. Many waves killed a greater percentage of the population on the coast than the Black Death killed in fourteenth century Europe. Quite possibly there were cycles of plague prior to actual contact, which were brought to the coast via the extensive overland trade routes from the south and east.
Robert Boyd’s book, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, is an excellent explanation of the effect of infectious disease on the Northwest Coast peoples.
The worst plague in recorded times was the smallpox epidemic of 1862 which spread north that summer from Victoria. Oral history recorded in the late ninteenth century recounts that everyone in “Luxvbalis” died in the plague, and that thereafter the settlement was abandoned. Whether “Luxvbalis” refers to one settlement or to the wider region around Kwakshua Channel is unclear.
In any case, it seems that in the aftermath of this tragedy any survivors and any others with ties to the region retreated to gathering places, notably Fort McLaughlin near today’s Bella Bella.
It is likely that many, many dead were left unburied at Hakai—residents of Luxvbalis and many from elsewhere on the Central and North Coasts who died en route to their homes farther north and were left on the beaches because there was no alternative.
We know no details of the next 60 years.
1920s to 1960s
The area was surveyed after World War I, and in 1925, the current Hakai Institute property passed into private hands, listed on the deed as “vacant land.” The 87 hectare parcel is unchanged from that time, and it was the only property ever deeded. The new owner, a good friend of the surveyor, was a prominent Vancouver lawyer, former war hero (DSO), and Rhodes Scholar named David Neil Hossie.
Hossie owned the property until his death in 1962, but he seemed to do little with it and evidently never visited.
During this era, there appears to have been unrestricted access to the land. The Heiltsuk built a cabin for the Bella Bella hospital’s long-serving doctor, George Darby. The Dr. Darby cabin came to be used widely by visitors of all sorts, including the crews of the fishing fleet that would anchor in the bay, legions of summer visitors from Ocean Falls and Bella Coola, and boaters en route to Alaska.
1970s and 1980s: The Brazier Years
After Hossie’s death, the property passed through several entities, and was eventually bought by John Brazier of Seattle. Brazier was the owner of Brazier Forest Industries, which owned and operated sawmills, lumberyards, a door plant, and a laminating plant in Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, and BC. I suspect that some or all of the entities that owned the property during the 1970s were under the control of John Brazier.
Brazier built a Pan-Abode cabin some time prior to 1980, and installed year-round caretakers. Brazier used the cabin as a fishing retreat and for entertaining business associates, and at the same time conducted logging on the main property between Pruth Bay and West Beach. Logs were loaded onto a barge, which was beached near the current location of the barge grid.
Dr. Darby’s cabin, by then derelict, was the only other structure on the property.
1993 to 1995: Hakai Beach Resort
In 1993, Columbia Management (from Vancouver) bought the land from John Brazier and commissioned the construction of the Hakai Beach Resort. Yellowhead Construction from Smithers was the contractor. Work began in February of that year and proceeded at great haste. The owners do not seem to have been diligent about getting the necessary permits.
In early May, the archaeology branch of the BC government notified the company that they were in conflict with two known archaeological sites. They asked that work cease and an Archaeological Impact Study (AIS) take place. The AIS was conducted June 17-23, 1993.
Despite protests from the First Nations and other parties, construction was allowed to proceed. Additional phases of construction were envisaged including a “millionaires lodge” on West Beach and individual residences for “billionaires.” Mercifully these were never built.
By 1995, Hakai Beach Resort was bankrupt and the courts awarded the property to Yellowhead Construction which had a contractor’s lien for unpaid debts.
1996 to 2002: An Awkward Truce
The original partners in Yellowhead Construction owned and operated the resort as a family business for seven seasons before selling in 2002. The lodge remained under a cloud because of the attitude of the original owners and unresolved issues with the First Nations and BC Parks.
2003 to 2009: A Gated Community
In 2003, the Hakai Beach Resort was purchased by The Cliffs, a real estate developer based in South Carolina that built gated golfing communities. Hakai was to serve as an exotic vacation spot for members of The Cliffs Communities. The name was changed to “The Cliffs at Hakai” to reflect that status. The resort was run as an exclusive gated community, consistent with the sensibilities of those guests. Visits by celebrities such as Kevin Costner and Rupert Murdoch highlighted this exclusivity. Tensions with BC Parks and First Nations rose during these years, mainly over rules and regulations regarding public access. For example, the owners insisted that all visitors vacate prior to 5 p.m. to avoid any contact between lodge guests returning from their day fishing and ordinary people. To be fair, it is clear that owners and guests did not appreciate the significance of the site to British Columbians generally and to the local First Nations in particular.
We acquired the property in September 2009 and established the Hakai Institute’s first field station. We have since endeavored to welcome visitors, honour the past, and foster positive activities that do justice to the history of this remarkable place.