Dreadful and Dreary: B.C.’s Inside Passage

Dread was in fashion in the 1790s, when the word “awful” still had a precise meaning, and images of the vertiginous crag, the dark forest, the storm at sea were calculated to induce a delicious sensation of vicarious terror. It happened that the Pacific Northwest was discovered by whites at the same moment as the idea of the Romantic Sublime was gaining sway. The lonely and forbidding geography of the place perfectly fitted the reigning preconceptions of how a Romantic landscape ought to look. It conveniently combined, within a single view, the essential iconic features of the Swiss Alps, the German forest, and the English Lake District.

There was a single, unfashionable, dissenting voice—that of George Vancouver, known to his men (though never to his face) as Captain Van. At thirty-four, Vancouver was far behind his time…. His posthumously published Voyage gives a candid, heartfelt portrait of the Pacific Northwest as seen through the eyes of a young fogy who was out of touch with the intellectual currents of his own age.

Captain Van took a great shine to Puget Sound and its immediate surroundings. Among the low hills and forest clearings, he was able to imagine himself in a New Albion of close-shaven lawns, artful vistas, rolling fields, and country houses….

But his pleasure in this newfound land soon curdled into repugnance as the expedition sailed north and west into the narrow, mountain-walled channels of the Inside Passage. While his juniors, along with the expedition naturalist, Archibald Menzies, thrilled to dramatic sublimity of their surroundings, Vancouver recoiled from what he saw. The snowcapped peaks were “sterile,” the cliffs of dripping rock and vertical forest were “barren,” “dull” “gloomy,” “dreary,” “comfortless.” Of the much-admired waterfalls, he complained that their incessant noise made it impossible for him to hear any birdsong.

—Jonathan Raban, Introduction to The Pacific Northwest Landscape: A Painted History (Kitty Harmon, Ed.)

Young fogy indeed! Considering how many people come here to retire, and how they love to whack down the forest to put in a lawn that looks like every other lawn that ever was, I think Captain Van would fit in perfectly now. He probably never imagined that some day people would pay good money to travel the Inside Passage and gawk at his “barren” and “dreary” landscape.

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7 comments on “Dreadful and Dreary: B.C.’s Inside Passage

  1. Jonathan says:

    That's a great line about the incessant noise of waterfalls.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Yes—being a bird enthusiast is another thing that would make him fit in here! 😀

  3. びっくり says:

    Reminds me of some of Lewis and Clark's diaries about their time at the mouth of the Columbia River. Very depressing entries about the incessant rain, sickness, and cold.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Heh. Well, I wouldn't blame them since they had to walk through it. Sailing through it is a little more pleasant.

  5. wil says:

    Living in the desert southwest, I not infrequently dream of visiting places damp and “gloomy”, full of dark forests and tumbling waterfalls. Sounds lovely.

  6. Carol A says:

    Try reading some of the initial views about Australia! A dreary place, dull flowers (only some of the most interesting anywhere), birds with “unpleasant cries” (so they introduced sparrows, blackbirds and pigeons – we have been trying to eradicate them ever since). I sit in my garden watching multicoloured parrots flitting around a brilliant red bottlebrush tree and wonder if it was just the long trip that mad them sour!

  7. Sylvia says:

    Oh yes, we're still dealing with the Scotch broom and ivy brought by some of our homesick settlers. And you're probably right about the long trip. It's still a long trip and I can't imagine being very chipper on arrival there!

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