Tucked away neatly next to Browning Inlet is the surreal Grant Bay beach. Philip Stooke, who took a rather interesting trip by foot and boat around the whole of Vancouver Island, once wrote on its local landscape. The area is found within Quatsino First Nation’s traditional territories. Although I don’t know for certain, Stooke may have been native to Winter Harbour for a number of years. He finally decided to put pen to paper as he described the unforgiving, often wet, lands of the northern tip of the island. Interestingly, Stooke was able to finish his manuscript of the many local beaches with the help of North Island Gazette staff during the mid-70s. In fact, the Gazette is also no stranger to uncovering the unique history of the bay. Nearly seven years ago, the Gazette published a story on Grant Bay, in which North Islander Brenda McCorquodale covered much of the same information recounted in Stooke’s book. I aim to cover some of the more quirky details of the bay’s history.
Time and again, he often encountered a question asked by locals and tourists alike: which beach is the best to explore on the North Island? Well, it’s not so simple. “There are several answers,” he said in Landmarks and Legends of the North Island, “for each beach has its own character. For the family, San Josef Bay; for the camper, Guise Bay; for the beachcomber and adventurer, Raft Cove; the palm for beauty goes to Grant Bay.”
Stooke noted the beautiful beach once went by the name of Open Bay. Often, trails were used by First Nations of that time; a criss-cross of trails made their way around the peninsula near Grant Bay, “but nothing now remains of them,” Stooke also pointed out. At the time, trails spanned around Browning Inlet and what was called in the First Nation’s language as Tsegwas, which means the place of the trail. Browning Inlet, in fact, was called “Obalis” or beach found at the end; Grant Bay itself was called “Golade” or a place having salmon berries. More interesting is the fact that one settler by the name of Jones was organizing a rather unique project. The project was to use some of the grass flats near the bay, as Stooke recalled, somewhat similar to what settlers did at Hansen’s Lagoon. The grass flats was an ideal place to have a cattle ranch, so naturally Jones organized the whole shebang, of course with the help of one George Ildstad, who made his way up from Dakota territory to assist in the project.
Sadly, the project didn’t work out, and that was the end of that.
Finally, tales of one man yearning for the simple life made his way to what is called Richardson’s cabin, most likely named after a local family. “He lived, as much as was possible, on food gathered from the rocks and from the forest,” Stooke said. Shortly after, another young man moved into the remote cabin, too.
While often opting to return back to civilization during the harsh winter months, the second young man would live off salal berries and mussels during his stays. He’d fill his idle time by collecting bottles which once contained sake, a type of rice wine, then refilling the bottles with his own kind of homebrew. As the stories go, the man was rather eccentric, walking around in bare feet and a top hat and preferred to be called Professor Squidgit. Interesting to say the least, but not the most interesting part. This same man, Professor Squidgit, claimed to be “treated as a friend by the creatures of the forest, including Louise the doe and Alphonse the black bear, with whom he sang as he picked berries,” Stooke noted of the man’s tale.
I’m not making this up, but perhaps this Professor Squidgit had too much of his homemade grog. Now, admittedly the beach still is infamous for collecting a vast amount of driftwood compared to other open beaches along the northern tip, but most of it is found in Tsegwas or in the nearby creek.
Anyway, back to why Grant Bay might be the best beach on the North Island (besides the odd twists and turns of the local tales): “The bay is not as undisturbed now as it was,” Stooke pointed out, “but is still a tranquil place.”
He finally concluded that one a “frost, sunny day in February or March, with a big sea and an endless view, this is the prettiest nook in the whole North Island.” Of course, this is prime time for storm watching. It encourages me yet again to go explore the parts of Grant Bay I may have, well, taken for granted.
Thomas Kervin is a recent political science alumnus from Simon Fraser University. He was born and raised in Port Hardy. He’s also a First Nations person who wants to address issues facing Indigenous communities today.