“Time and time again the young men scoured the hills but never a sign of the glittering spring could they find.”
Thanks to the popularity of hiking and cross-country skiing, Forbidden Plateau, within Strathcona Provincial Park, is a household name. But it first appeared on provincial maps just 75-odd years ago.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that the plateau’s solitude changed dramatically. Wrote journalist Ben Hughes: “Jealously guarded from intrusion by Indian(sic) taboos and shut in on all sides by mountains 4,000 feet high, a hundred square miles of table land has recently been discovered in the heart of Vancouver Island.
“This tableland, hidden away in the folds of the hills, where no one lives and few have found their way, had not been seen until last year, save by a few — a very few — trappers, prospectors and timber cruisers.
“Yet this alpine solitude is but eight miles away from Courtenay and the blue waters of the Gulf of Georgia. It is, to this day, unsurveyed and trackless, save for one pack trail, that has recently been cut…
“Protected as [it] is from every wind that blows, progress is unobstructed by the criss-cross of windfalls that make going tough everywhere the south-easters have a full sweep. One can travel for a day in the thickest bush and not find a single fallen trunk… In a tourist paradise like Vancouver Island there is nothing to approach this plateau for its wide views, the pleasant rolling landscape, and the wealth of vegetation…”
We have Hughes to thank for Forbidden Plateau’s name which resulted from his article in the Vancouver Province in April 1927 about a remote Vancouver Island wilderness that was taboo because it was “haunted by bad spirits and a fierce tribe”. Twenty years later, he noted that his inspired christening had “gone round the world and been the subject of much speculation as to its origin”.
There’s more than a little irony in the plateau’s present-day popularity with recreationists in light of its original evil reputation that, according to Wikipedia, was inspired by a raid by the Cowichans on the K’omoks tribe who hid their women and children within the Plateau. When the emergency was over, the refugees weren’t to be found and, while searching for them, a member of the tribe found red lichen covering the snow and nearby rocks. This, he concluded, was the blood of the missing family members. “Since then, the plateau became taboo for it was believed that it was inhabited by evil spirits who had consumed those they had sent.”
What we would today blithely dismiss as superstition was a matter of faith for the Island’s first inhabitants.
For them, Forbidden Plateau was off-limits, the home of a “tall, hairy race” so fierce and evil as to be of another dimension. Whether such a tribe actually existed isn’t known but someone had dared the Plateau’s solitude. Cumberland’s well-known black prospector John Brown had seen this for himself: “a pinnacle of rock that had been carved into the semblance of the head of a man”. He said that the craftsmanship was such that there could be no mistaking it for a natural wonder.
He’d had the tableland to himself because no First Nations man or woman would agree to accompany him. They couldn’t guide him, of course, as they would have no more known the way than, originally, did Brown himself. But the Plateau’s evil reputation failed to deter him nor did it do him any harm as he came and went so often, looking for gold, that he created a well-worn trail that was later named for him.
It’s thanks to Mr. Brown that the plateau is rumored to be rich in gold. In 1963 an article appeared in the Colonist’s Sunday magazine, The Islander. It was entitled, “Quest For Courtenay Water Led to Forbidden Plateau,” by Clinton S. Wood of whom editor Alec Merriman wrote: “[He] was the man who discovered and first developed Vancouver Island’s famed Forbidden Plateau in the mountains west of Courtenay, as a recreation area.
“In 1934 he built the Forbidden Plateau Lodge as a skiing and mountaineering headquarters, and he and his wife operated it for 11 years, before retiring. Mr. Wood was the first person to ski on Forbidden Plateau and his wife was the first woman to reach the top of beautiful Mount Albert Edward…”
In the article Wood described a chance encounter with Brown the prospector who’d become something of a local icon: “…Just as we were beginning to worry, we saw coming down the trail from Bevan a tall handsome Negro, followed by a husky white man with a large mustache, who was leading a big white horse equipped with a pack saddle loaded with a tent, blankets, food and tools.
“Introductions over, we found that our new acquaintance spoke perfect English with a pleasant Virginian accent. He was a pleasure to listen to and his brain was filled with an endless number of interesting stories, which one could, only with great difficulty, fail to believe in their entirety.
“In any event they were good stories and very entertaining when seated around a camp-fire high up in the mountains.
“His name was John Brown… He had been grub-staked by various hopeful citizens of Cumberland on the evidence of a sample of ore of fabulous value which, some suspicious, disillusioned backers were heard to remark, had been obtained from a lady of generous principles but mercenary habits whom he had met at Cripple Creek, Colorado.
“In any event Brown never gave up. He spent every summer up in the mountains and every autumn just before the snow began to fall would turn up in Cumberland with a story to tell of some marvelous discovery which needed only a small amount of capital and quite a large amount of faith to develop into a mine of sufficient richness to tempt even the more cautious of the seasoned [coal] miners of Cumberland.
“As mentioned above his ability as a raconteur and the charm of his manner resulted in a new crop of grub-stakers, many of whom were repeaters for many years.
“The last I saw of him was 35 years after I first met him in 1925. He was climbing a ridge above Moat Lake helping a new partner carry a modern portable drilling outfit which had been brought in by plane from Campbell River, over to the vicinity of Circlet Lake, about a mile and a half of rugged mountain country. He claimed to be well into his nineties…”
John Brown may have been a fraud, as Mr. Wood implies, but what about this tale of lost gold? As told by Rene Harding, again in The Islander, in 1967, it was related to her by the late Mrs. Moses Moon, of Comox. The mother of Chief Andy Frank, and well known for her knowledge of tribal history and legends, Mrs. Moon told of an ancestor by the name of Hoomtie who was a fine hunter who ventured far in search of game.
In Harding’s words: “While Hoomtie was out hunting for elk on the hills we call Forbidden Plateau, he became thirsty. In seeking water he came across a small hole in the rocks from which bubbled up a lively spring. Hoomtie laid aside his bow and arrows and knelt to refresh himself. To his surprise the water seemed to glitter. Very odd, thought the hunter as he looked upon it with pleasure yet quite unaware as to what he had discovered.
“Years passed. Hoomtie had grown old when white men first came to Comox Valley. He soon learned of their desire for the yellow stuff called gold. Gold was valuable. The old man knew at last what it was he had seen at the bubbling hole high in the hills.
“Hoomtie could never undertake the strenuous journey in search of the golden spring he had found long years ago but his son-in-law and nephew were strong young men, they must go in his place. These two were given as detailed a description of the area and the route to travel as the old hunter could recall. Together they set forth, only to return empty-handed.
“Time and time again the young men scoured the hills but never a sign of the glittering spring could they find.
“Hoomtie lived to be 100, hoping and hoping his tribesmen would come upon the hole in the rocks where glittering water gushed forth but all in vain. It has never been found to this day.”