Coastal Communities, Pacific Northwest
North Vancouver Island remained unsettled by white immigrants up until around 1884. After the 1884 Land Titles Act, optimistic immigrants began to stake claims over plots in various regions of the North Island. The settlers could choose any vacant 160 acre plot. The first influx of immigrants to settle here were the Danes. The township was named Holberg, after a figure from Danish literature. Four other townships to the Northwest were set aside for settlement as well. These sites would turn into the communities of Cape Scott, Sea Otter Cove, San Josef Bay and Shushartie Bay.
At the time, Holberg was extremely isolated. Local travel was limited to short distances on forest trails. Then in 1896, the government completed a road connecting Port Hardy to the southern island. After 1896 Settlers could sail down Holberg Inlet to Coal Harbor and then clamber 45 km over a rugged pack trail to reach Port Hardy on the east coast. The coastal communities of Cape Scott, Sea Otter Cove, San Josef Bay and Shushartie Bay lacking quality harbors for cargo vessels were pleased with this new shorter route to bring in supplies.
Now the flow of goods was primarily overland to Coal Harbor from Port Hardy and then by ship to Holberg and finally north on pack trails to the northern communities. These trails were hacked out of the mountains and were quite narrow, unfit for anything other than pack horses, to narrow and rough for wagons.
During the summer of 1909 a wagon road from Holberg to Cape Scott was started. A steam donkey engine was used to clear logs from the roadway. In the fall of 1908 the first post office was established at Holberg. In 1910 the government began to install telegraph lines along the trails connecting Holberg, Cape Scott, San Josef Bay, Sea Otter Cove and Shushartie Bay.
The road building, telegraph installation and creation of post offices created jobs and brought an influx of hopeful settlers to the region. Settlement spread outwards from the roadway into the valleys surrounding Holberg and San Josef Bay.
The Holberg township was beginning to have a lot of settlers moving in and by 1900, it was becoming busy, settlers could choose any 160 acre plot that was unclaimed and move right on to it. Holberg was the hub that supplied the other townships.
Large Scale logging operations began in the Holberg area in 1938 under the BC Pulp & Paper Co. Ltd. out of Vancouver. Hemlock, Spruce and Balsam were harvested from company land surrounding Holberg Inlet and transported by boom to a large BC Pulp & Paper mill at Port Alice, on the southeast arm of Quatsino Sound. In 1942 the first floating housing buildings were towed into camp. At this time Holberg had only a combined post office/general store that serviced the handful of trappers and settlers who still populated the region. As well as the increase of logging operations here, the Canadian military selected Holberg as the sight of a new radar base in 1950.
The company camp was built entirely on floating wooden structures. This construction method allowed segments to be constructed elsewhere and towed by tugboat into Holberg Inlet. Sections could be easily added or removed in response to the changing needs of this remote logging community.
By the 1950s, over 250 men, women and children lived in the Holberg camp, and another 1000 military residents were living on the base. Holberg was booming.
The logging camp was big, it was the largest floating camp in the world. The camp was over a quarter of a mile long with 50 detached buildings. Electricity, hot water, fire hall, pool hall, store, blacksmith, carpenter, warehouse, cold storage and a large community hall with seating for 260 were all provided to residents courtesy of BC Pulp & paper. A camp superintendent took the place of a major. Camp operations began to move ashore in the 1960s with the building of new warehouses and bunkhouses for workers. I logged here in the early 70s, the place was quite busy then.
Both logging and military needs would finally justify road building in the region and by the 1970’s, a road linking Holberg with Port Hardy was finally built. But the road came too late for those North Island settlers who had giving up on carving out farms in this isolated area and Cape Scott, San Josef Bay, and Sea Otter Cove ceased to exist as viable communities. All that remained was the town of Holberg, which itself was now on the decline. In 1991 the Radar base was closed down, the logging and forestry operations around Holberg had already been reduced big time.
The 20th century brought some permanent settlement to the region courtesy of forestry and the military. Transient workers have moved in and out of the region based on the growth of forestry, mining and military needs. Resource extraction and the staple trade proved to be the push for road building.
Today, Holberg is a great place to set out on a west coast adventure. There numerous trails that head out in many directions, trails to Shushartie bay, San Josef bay and Cape Scott will give you more than you could ever ask for. Ocean kayaking and canoeing are becoming quite popular and the area is perfect for this. The potential for eco tourism in this area is immense and is just beginning but you just wait, this place will become a mecca when it gets known more, this could be a good thing for those who live there but it will bring in more people and Holberg will lose its privacy.
One of the highlights in the area is Ronnings Wilderness Garden, located in the forests near Holberg. The gardens were started in 1910 by Bernt Ronning who was attracted to the region by its beauty and of a promise by the government to build a road that would connect Port Hardy to Cape Scott. The road was never built and many settlers pulled up stakes and left the area, but not Bernt Ronning, he continued to live on the property until the early 1960s.
Bernt cleared over 5 acres of land and planted a beautiful wilderness garden on these acres. He created this garden from seeds and clones of exotic plants and trees that he ordered from all around the world.
He earned his living working as a fisherman and trapper, even sometimes as a camp cook. But his passion was his garden which later became known as Ronnings Garden. As the years past, the garden continued to grow in size and variety. Often people would stop in to visit while on route to Cape Scott or Raft Cove just to marvel at the garden.
In the 1970s, Bernt passed away and the garden was left unattended, years of neglect allowed the west coast brush and trees to grow over the gardens. Eventually the hundreds of flowers shriveled away and Ronnings Garden almost disappeared. Some of the locals realized what was happening to the garden and took up the challenge to bring the gardens back to live again.
Now the gardens are beautiful again, the trails are all cleared and Bernt’s legacy is thriving. Check the gardens out when you visit here and think of the work that was put in to create this wonder. Some of the highlights of Ronnings Garden are the twisted Monkey Trees. The trees mark the entrance to Brent Ronnings home. The trails are cleared and you can meander throughout the historic homestead.
On the way into Holberg, on the east side of Kains Lake, there is an old Cedar tree snag covered in shoes. It is known as the Shoe Tree, it was started by hikers who placed their worn out boots and shoes after hiking to Cape Scott. This is a must see when you travel in the area.
After a great time hiking or kayaking, you can set yourself down at a table at the Scarlet Ibis Pub And Restaurant located in Holberg, the eats here awesome, and the friendly staff can answer all your questions you have about the area, the prices here are comparable to the bigger southern island centers and your plate is always stacked high with food, this is such a wonderful place to unwind in.