Chapter 11: Tofino 1931


“I’m having a whale of a time.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan


The spring of 1931 was to start with a great disappointment for Cowan. He was poised to return to Jasper with Laing to collect for the National Museum, but the Depression was already draining federal budgets. Racey had encountered declines in his own business and decided to take the summer off. His instructions from Anderson were to look at nesting colonies on the west coast of Vancouver Island and the mysterious Vancouver Island Marmot in the Alberni mountains and do some work up in the Chilcotin. For Cowan, going with his future father-in-law was a second choice not entirely without its attractions. Racey was intending to pick up daughter Joyce and family for part of the trip.

One of the leads they were following was to reconstruct zoologist Annie Alexander’s 1910 expedition for the Museum of Vertebrate Zooloogy (MVZ) at Berkeley. Cowan was no doubt being encouraged by Racey and others to explore grad school at Berkeley. Getting up to scratch about the Alexander expedition and its colourful characters was part of his education. Alexander was certainly colourful; an American sugar heiress, with a keen interest in natural history and conservation, who seeded an intellectual dynasty for natural history by funding expeditions and two natural history museums, including the MVZ beginning in 1909. As benefactor of the museum, and with the help of her partner, Louise Kellogg (whom she would remain with for 42 years), Alexander selected the director, Joseph Grinnell, financed the expeditions and set the tone for who should come and study there, what they should be doing and why. Grinell is now recognized as “the academic grandfather of mammalogy” and vertebrate ecology, so Alexander is surely the grandmother. 

Cowan described Grinnell’s contribution this way: “He pioneered the concept of the environment and avifauna as inseparable.” Students were to study wild animals in their habitat, not as specimens in laboratories. Grinnell and Alexander’s philosophy resonated with Cowan’s own intellectual inheritance. They were adamant about sharing information. They also believed that all animals had intrinsic value. Racey was interested in the recreating the work of Alexander’s team from 1910 so in 1931 Cowan was about to trace his future benefactor’s footsteps around Vancouver Island. 

After finishing up at UBC, Cowan and Racey travelled up Barkley Sound to Clayoquot Sound on the SS Maquinna. Meeting them in his 16-foot flat-bottomed skiff was Dick Guppy, a young naturalist, to ferry their belongings down to a cabin on the Tofino Mudflats. Guppy was part of an extensive and famous naturalist–explorer British family. The Guppy family leased the original Chesterman homestead, which spanned Esowista Peninsula between the open, sandy Chesterman Beach, and the east-facing Tofino Mudflats. The area covers 32 square kilometres of mudflats and eelgrass beds woven together with tidal channels, sheltered from the open ocean by the narrow isthmus, enabling birds to easily move back and forth between quiet flats and open beaches. Greeting Cowan and Racey when they arrived were large flocks of waders feeding on the tide flats, including the first arrivals of Hudsonian Curlew (Whimbrel). 

As well as Whimbrels there were large numbers of other shorebirds as they flew in for their two- to three-day stopovers: Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, Dowitcher, Dunlin, Sanderlings and Golden and Black-bellied Plovers. The Tofino Mudflats and Chesterman Beach are now recognized as second only to the Fraser River Delta in importance for migrating shorebirds on the west coast of Canada. The area has been designated an international Important Bird Area, a provincial Wildlife Management Area and part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network to help conserve migratory shorebirds.

On May 9, with a clearing in the weather, they headed out with Guppy for a visit to Cleland Island, called Bare Island, a low, treeless island exposed to the open ocean. At the time, it was well known only to locals, who had fished and collected birds’ eggs there for millennia. Cowan writes a particularly vivid (as well as lethal) account of this first visit in his field journal. Cowan wrote to Joyce Racey about his time on Bare Island. “We had a whale of a time!“ The letter is the only surviving early correspondence from Cowan to Joyce. It was not your typical love letter, but rather an intimate communication filled with companionable exuberances of sightings of birds and their courtship antics. 

Forty years almost to the day after Cowan’s trip, Cleland Island was named the very first ecological reserve in British Columbia. It remains one of the most important seabird colonies on the coast, supporting globally significant numbers of nesting Tufted Puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets and Black Oystercatchers. Cowan’s enthusiasms for the island carried through from his first rough landing to his on-going support of the Ecological Reserves system, headed up by Bristol Foster, who was to follow in Cowan’s many-faceted footsteps.

One of their last expeditions with Guppy was to Meares Island to look for amphibians. Meares Island forest, then as now, is a statuesque forest with some of the largest trees in Canada and is one of the few large islands to have remained relatively unmodified by clear-cut logging. In 1984 the very first successful native challenge was made to the plans to log the island by timber company MacMillan Bloedel. Initiated by the Opitsaht, a tribal park was proposed and today the famous Big Tree Trail is one of the best-known attractions for Tofino visitors, a trail close to where Cowan collected Stickleback fish, Red-legged Frogs and Rough-skinned Newts. On the return from that trip, Guppy points out that he has seen voles on some of the tiny islets, which alerted Cowan’s nose for evolution. Small mammals on small, isolated islands were his version of Darwin’s finches and more interesting, as they can’t fly. They immediately set to trapping them along their runways in the thickets of salal. 

In 1952 he addressed a large provincial audience of game wardens about the failure of the provincial government to address the rights of wildlife outside of a few wildlife reserves, using Tofino Mudflats as an example. An application was made by the Game Commissioner (Frank Butler, a member of the ‘B’) to preserve the mudflats as part wildlife reserve and part public hunting ground. The application was rejected by government on the basis of the flats being a potential log booming area or oyster lease. That call would continue unabated for another 40 years. Cowan kept a burgeoning issues file until the day he died, called Forestry BC, in which he collected the literature on forest ecology that coalesced partly in response to public protests against clear-cut logging. Cowan’s student Fred Bunnell, headed up the Centre for Applied Conservation Biology, and was named the chief scientist in charge of the Clayoquot Scientific Panel in 1993. 

The panel was established to come up with principles for forestry management designed to end the famous “War in the Woods” that saw over 900 people arrested trying to stop clear-cut logging of old growth. It was the greatest mass protest in North American history and focused policy on the protection of biodiversity in old-growth temperate forests in a way unprecedented in Canada. Cowan’s contributions came not only from his legendary knowledge but also the influence he had on scientists like Bunnell.

On the marine front, he kept an interest in fur-seals, whose pelts propped up a major sealing fleet in Tofino in the 19th century and were decimated by the time the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention was signed in 1911, the first international treaty to address wildlife preservation issues. Cowan retained a keen interest in seeing this population recover and passed on his enthusiasm to H. Dean Fisher, who was one of his early grad students in 1944. According to Bunnell, Cowan supported activists behind the scenes. “He was a mentor and a statesman. He was too kindly to be an activist, it was the way he was raised.” There was no doubt in Cowan’s mind that the large interconnected ecosystems of sea, rivers, estuaries and forests sustained the diversity of the natural world. Places like Clayoquot Sound had cemented this understanding firmly in his mind and heart for life. Clayoquot was only the beginning of that summer, though, as Racey and he boarded the Maquinna and returned to Port Alberni.


Chapter 10: The Rockies 1930
Chapter 12: Vancouver Island 1931