A Bridge to the Past

The lost isthmus of Pender Island


As a child, I ventured almost every year to British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands and I became fascinated with the history of the places I visited there. It wasn’t so much the tangible traces that intrigued me—the skeleton of a building or a scrap washed up upon the tide line—as the absences and spaces that punctuate the islands. I noticed even then that we referred to the Gulf Islands and their geographies by the Spanish and English names given to them by European explorers and settlers, while pre-existing Coast Salish names for the same places often did not appear on maps. Passing on a ferry, one cannot see many traces of the Japanese-Canadians who lived on the islands before the World War Two internment. And, although I have been told about the abundance of salmon that used to come through Active Pass, there’s not much evidence of them now.

Today, a small slip of a bridge connects North and South Pender Islands. It’s wide enough for one car to cross. Yet, as Noreen Hooper explores in the anthology Islands in Trust, and as other writers have also noted, there was once an isthmus that joined the Penders, effectively making them one island. Although the isthmus had historically been used by Aboriginal people, it was destroyed about a century ago so that settlers who wanted to move more easily between Port Browning and Bedwell Harbour did not have to choose between the difficulty of portaging across the isthmus and the inconvenience of going around the island by boat. After the rock and soil were torn away, the islands remained unattached for over fifty years until the thin bridge, with its low railings and symmetrical wooden trestles, brought them together once again.

It was from a book that I learned that there had once been an isthmus between the islands, but I’ve carried the story with me for so long and amassed such a varied collection, that there’s no way for me to know which book it was. In an attempt to learn more about the islands, I visited the bookstores on Mayne Island and North Pender, what was then Sabine’s Fine Used Books and is now Black Sheep Books in Ganges, and the Haunted Bookshop and Tanner’s Books in Sidney, and I scoured online booksellers across Canada. I tracked down old maps and guidebooks, transcriptions of oral history, memoirs and poetry collections, works of non-fiction and local history, and volumes of photographs and drawings in order to account for and uncover what seemed to have been lost.

Noreen Hooper wrote about the importance of the isthmus for Aboriginal populations on the island and the plethora of artifacts that once could be found there. In BC Studies, Roy Carlson and Philip Hobler also discussed how archaeological excavations in the nineteen-eighties revealed that the area around the isthmus had been used by Aboriginal people for centuries, even millennia. But the absence of accounts about the area by Aboriginal writers is striking, and I don’t recall ever seeing a photograph of what the islands looked like before the isthmus was destroyed. What has happened to the history that has not been recorded? Did it disappear with the bridge? There is now a man-made bridge where there was once an isthmus connecting the Pender Islands. Imagination has become the only real bridge to the past.

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