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A taste of history on the Grease Trail

Following an old trade route of one of Vancouver Island's most important commodities was a memorable way to connect with the land and its past.

By Lawrence Millman / January 16, 2008

Indigenous art: A carved head adorns an aboriginal church in Nootka Sound on British Columbia's Vancouver Island.

Lucidio Studio Inc./Newscom


Alert Bay, British Columbia

Recently, in my capacity as a chronicler of offbeat trips, I found myself off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, on Vancouver Island's so-called Grease Trail. Contrary to what you might think, this is not an itinerary that connects local Burger King, McDonald's, and KFC franchises. Rather, it's the route that Namgis First Nation people once used to transport grease across the northern part of the island.

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A century ago, the grease in question – rendered from a small smeltlike fish called the eulachon – was at once a valuable trade item, a condiment, a medicine, and an insect repellent. Those First Nation people who didn't have access to it, like the Nuu-chah-nulth (formerly called Nootka), eagerly traded items such as copper and muskets with those who did, like the Namgis.

Eulachon grease is still esteemed by the Namgis, who refer to it as "liquid gold." At the instigation of Randy Bell, my Namgis host in Alert Bay, I smeared some on smoked salmon and instantly regretted it, for the grease replaced the inimitable flavor of the salmon with a flavor not unlike rancid lard.

Undeterred by my negative reaction, Randy offered to show me the highlights of the Grease Trail. So we climbed into his pickup truck, took the ferry to the town of Port McNeill, and then struck out for the island's interior.

Our first stop was a series of boulders on the shore of the Nimpkish River. Several frowning faces were carved onto them, an indication, Randy said, that enemy heads had once been lopped off at this site.

"Did the enemy make disparaging remarks about eulachon grease?" I asked uneasily.

"Not at all," Randy said. "The enemy were people from Gilford Island, and we always were fighting with them. We cut off their heads and hung them in that cedar tree above us."

Half expecting to see a collection of weather-worn human heads, I peered up at the tree. There was in fact one head, but it was attached to a bald eagle, a bird quite common in these parts.

A few miles south of Nimpkish Lake, we started hiking along a trail that grease-laden Namgis also would have hiked. Within minutes, the sky opened up, and what cascaded down from it would have made an Asiatic monsoon seem like a polite drizzle.