Legends of Vancouver
11 The Recluse
View up canyon photo dated 1916
Capilano Canyon 1912-1914
Capilano River Park
View up canyon photo dated 1916
If you have spent any time in Vancouver, you have probably visited the Capilano Suspension Bridge, named after the famous Squamish leader. But did you know that the Canyon was haunted by a recluse? Chief Joe Capilano confided in Pauline Johnson the story of an exiled Chief, who, to save his tribe from catastrophe, was banished to the Canyon and lived there alone until he was sent a sign by the gods, to return to his people and restore nature’s balance. The Recluse: the legend of an exiled Chief who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his home and people.
Journeying toward the upper course of the Capilano River, about a mile citywards from the dam, you will pass a disused logger's shack. Leave the trail at this point and strike through the undergrowth for a few hundred yards to the left, and you will be on the rocky borders of that purest, most restless river in all Canada. The stream is haunted with tradition, teeming with a score of romances that vie with its grandeur and loveliness, and of which its waters are perpetually whispering. But I learned this legend from one whose voice was as dulcet as the swirling rapids; but, unlike them, that voice is hushed to-day, while the river, the river still sings on–sings on.
It was singing in very melodious tones through the long August afternoon two summers ago, while we, the chief, his happy-hearted wife, and bright young daughter, all lounged amongst the boulders and watched the lazy clouds drift from peak to peak far above us. It was one of his inspired days; legends crowded to his lips as a whistle teases the mouth of a happy boy; his heart was brimming with tales of the bygones, his eyes were dark with dreams and that strange mournfulness that always haunted them when he spoke of long-ago romances. There was not a tree, a boulder, a dash of rapid upon which his glance fell which he could not link with some ancient poetic superstition. Then abruptly, in the very midst of his verbal reveries, he turned and asked me if I were superstitious. Of course I replied that I was.
"Do you think some happenings will bring trouble later on–will foretell evil?" he asked.
I made some evasive answer, which, however, seemed to satisfy him, for he plunged into the strange tale of the recluse of the canyon with more vigour than dreaminess; but first he asked me the question:
"What do your own tribes, those east of the great mountains, think of twin children?"
I shook my head.
"That is enough," he said before I could reply. "I see, your people do not like them."
"Twin children are almost unknown with us," I hastened. "They are rare, very rare; but it is true we do not welcome them."
"Why?" he asked abruptly.
I was a little uncertain about telling him. If I said the wrong thing, the coming tale might die on his lips before it was born to speech, but we understood each other so well that I finally ventured the truth:
"We Iroquois say that twin children are as rabbits," I explained. "The nation always nicknames the parent 'Tow-wan-da-na-ga.' That is the Mohawk for rabbit."
"Is that all?" he asked curiously.
"That is all. Is it not enough to render twin children unwelcome?" I questioned.
He thought a while, then, with evident desire to learn how all races regarded this occurrence, he said, "You have been much among the Pale-faces; what do they say of twins?"
"Oh! the Pale-faces like them. They are–they are–oh! well, they say they are very proud of having twins," I stammered. Once again I was hardly sure of my ground. He looked most incredulous, and I was led to enquire what his own people of the Squamish thought of this discussed problem.
"It is no pride to us," he said decidedly, "nor yet is it disgrace of rabbits; but it is a fearsome thing–a sign of coming evil to the father, and, worse than that, of coming disaster to the tribe."
Then I knew he held in his heart some strange incident that gave substance to the superstition. "Won't you tell it to me?" I begged.
He leaned a little backward against a giant boulder, clasping his thin, brown hands about his knees; his eyes roved up the galloping river, then swept down the singing waters to where they crowded past the sudden bend, and during the entire recital of the strange legend his eyes never left that spot where the stream disappeared in its hurrying journey to the sea. Without preamble he began:
"It was a grey morning when they told him of this disaster that had befallen him. He was a great chief, and he ruled many tribes on the North Pacific Coast; but what was his greatness now? His young wife had borne him twins, and was sobbing out her anguish in the little fir-bark lodge near the tidewater.
"Beyond the doorway gathered many old men and women–old in years, old in wisdom, old in the lore and learning of their nations. Some of them wept, some chanted solemnly the dirge of their lost hopes and happiness, which would never return because of this calamity; others discussed in hushed voices this awesome thing, and for hours their grave council was broken only by the infant cries of the two boy-babies in the bark lodge, the hopeless sobs of the young mother, the agonized moans of the stricken chief–their father.
"'Something dire will happen to the tribe,' said the old men in council.
"'Something dire will happen to him, my husband,' wept the afflicted young mother.
"'Something dire will happen to us all,' echoed the unhappy father.
"Then an ancient medicine-man arose, lifting his arms, outstretching his palms to hush the lamenting throng. His voice shook with the weight of many winters, but his eyes were yet keen and mirrored the clear thought and brain behind them, as the still trout-pools in the Capilano mirror the mountain-tops. His words were masterful, his gestures commanding, his shoulders erect and kindly. His was a personality and an inspiration that no one dared dispute, and his judgment was accepted as the words fell slowly, like a doom.
"'It is the olden law of the Squamish that, lest evil befall the tribe, the sire of twin children must go afar and alone, into the mountain fastnesses, there by his isolation and his loneliness to prove himself stronger than the threatened evil, and thus to beat back the shadow that would otherwise follow him and all his people. I, therefore, name for him the length of days that he must spend alone fighting his invisible enemy. He will know by some great sign in Nature the hour that the evil is conquered, the hour that his race is saved. He must leave before this sun sets, taking with him only his strongest bow, his fleetest arrows, and, going up into the mountain wilderness, remain there ten days–alone, alone."
"The masterful voice ceased, the tribe wailed their assent, the father arose speechless, his drawn face revealing great agony over this seemingly brief banishment. He took leave of his sobbing wife, of the two tiny souls that were his sons, grasped his favourite bow and arrows, and faced the forest like a warrior. But at the end of the ten days he did not return, nor yet ten weeks, nor yet ten months.
"'He is dead,' wept the mother into the baby ears of her two boys. 'He could not battle against the evil that threatened; it was stronger than he–he, so strong, so proud, so brave.'
"'He is dead,' echoed the tribesmen and the tribeswomen. 'Our strong, brave chief, he is dead.' So they mourned the long year through, but their chants and their tears but renewed their grief; he did not return to them.
"Meanwhile, far up the Capilano the banished chief had built his solitary home; for who can tell what fatal trick of sound, what current of air, what faltering note in the voice of the medicine-man had deceived his alert Indian ears? But some unhappy fate had led him to understand that his solitude must be of ten years' duration, not ten days, and he had accepted the mandate with the heroism of a stoic. For if he had refused to do so his belief was that, although the threatened disaster would be spared him, the evil would fall upon his tribe. Thus was one more added to the long list of self-forgetting souls whose creed has been, 'It is fitting that one should suffer for the people.' It was the world-old heroism of vicarious sacrifice.
"With his hunting-knife the banished Squamish chief stripped the bark from the firs and cedars, building for himself a lodge beside the Capilano River, where leaping trout and salmon could be speared by arrow-heads fastened to deftly shaped, long handles. All through the salmon-run he smoked and dried the fish with the care of a housewife. The mountain sheep and goats, and even huge black and cinnamon bears, fell before his unerring arrows; the fleet-footed deer never returned to their haunts from their evening drinking at the edge of the stream–their wild hearts, their agile bodies were stilled when he took aim. Smoked hams and saddles hung in rows from the cross-poles of his bark lodge, and the magnificent pelts of animals carpeted his floors, padded his couch, and clothed his body. He tanned the soft doe-hides, making leggings, moccasins, and shirts, stitching them together with deer-sinew as he had seen his mother do in the long-ago. He gathered the juicy salmon-berries, their acid a sylvan, healthful change from meat and fish. Month by month and year by year he sat beside his lonely camp-fire, waiting for his long term of solitude to end. One comfort alone was his–he was enduring the disaster, fighting the evil, that his tribe might go unscathed, that his people be saved from calamity. Slowly, laboriously the tenth year dawned; day by day it dragged its long weeks across his waiting heart, for Nature had not yet given the sign that his long probation was over.
"Then, one hot summer day, the Thunder-bird came crashing through the mountains about him. Up from the arms of the Pacific rolled the storm-cloud, and the Thunder-bird, with its eyes of flashing light, beat its huge vibrating wings on crag and canyon.
"Up-stream, a tall shaft of granite rears its needle-like length. It is named 'Thunder Rock,' and wise men of the Pale-face people say it is rich in ore–copper, silver, and gold. At the base of this shaft the Squamish chief crouched when the storm-cloud broke and bellowed through the ranges, and on its summit the Thunder-bird perched, its gigantic wings threshing the air into booming sounds, into splitting terrors, like the crash of a giant cedar hurtling down the mountain-side.
"But when the beating of those black pinions ceased and the echo of their thunder-waves died down the depths of the canyon, the Squamish chief arose as a new man. The shadow on his soul had lifted, the fears of evil were cowed and conquered. In his brain, his blood, his veins, his sinews, he felt that the poison of melancholy dwelt no more. He had redeemed his fault of fathering twin children; he had fulfilled the demands of the law of his tribe.
"As he heard the last beat of the Thunder-bird's wings dying slowly, faintly, faintly, among the crags, he knew that the bird, too, was dying, for its soul was leaving its monster black body, and presently that soul appeared in the sky. He could see it arching overhead, before it took its long journey to the Happy Hunting Grounds, for the soul of the Thunder-bird was a radiant half-circle of glorious colour spanning from peak to peak. He lifted his head then, for he knew it was the sign the ancient medicine-man had told him to wait for–the sign that his long banishment was ended.
"And all these years, down in the tidewater country, the little brown-faced twins were asking childwise, 'Where is our father? Why have we no father, like other boys?' To be met only with the oft-repeated reply, 'Your father is no more. Your father, the great chief, is dead.'
"But some strange filial intuition told the boys that their sire would some day return. Often they voiced this feeling to their mother, but she would only weep and say that not even the witchcraft of the great medicine-man could bring him to them. But when they were ten years old the two children came to their mother, hand within hand. They were armed with their little hunting-knives, their salmon-spears, their tiny bows and arrows.
"'We go to find our father,' they said.
"'Oh! useless quest,' wailed the mother.
"'Oh! useless quest,' echoed the tribes-people.
"But the great medicine-man said, 'The heart of a child has invisible eyes; perhaps the child-eyes see him. The heart of a child has invisible ears; perhaps the child-ears hear him call. Let them go.' So the little children went forth into the forest; their young feet flew as though shod with wings, their young hearts pointed to the north as does the white man's compass. Day after day they journeyed up-stream, until, rounding a sudden bend, they beheld a bark lodge with a thin blue curl of smoke drifting from its roof.
"'It is our father's lodge,' they told each other, for their childish hearts were unerring in response to the call of kinship. Hand in hand they approached, and, entering the lodge, said the one word, 'Come.'
"The great Squamish chief outstretched his arms towards them, then towards the laughing river, then towards the mountains.
"'Welcome, my sons!' he said. 'And good-bye, my mountains, my brothers, my crags, and my canyons!' And with a child clinging to each hand he faced once more the country of the tide-water."
. . . . .
The legend was ended.
For a long time he sat in silence. He had removed his gaze from the bend in the river, around which the two children had come and where the eyes of the recluse had first rested on them after ten years of solitude.
The chief spoke again: "It was here, on this spot we are sitting, that he built his lodge: here he dwelt those ten years alone, alone."
I nodded silently. The legend was too beautiful to mar with comments, and, as the twilight fell, we threaded our way through the underbrush, past the disused logger's camp, and into the trail that leads citywards.