Forged in volcanic fire and sculpted by successive glaciers, the rugged coast of British Columbia we see today was formed as the ice melted ten thousand years ago. Burrard Inlet is an artifact of those long-ago forces, the drowned course of a river that flowed through a narrow valley before the last ice age. At the First Narrows – the Lions Gate – the river plunged down a waterfall and spread out over a broad sandy plain on its way to the distant sea. The crushing force of nearly 1,500 metres of glacial ice buried this ancient landscape.
As the ice retreated, the land reappeared. Worn and shaped by the ice, the river valley became submerged as the ocean rose a hundred metres, flooding in through the lowlands and fed by melted glaciers, leaving the former riverbed an arm of the sea.
It was the sea that people followed to reach this land, recently emerged from the glacial freeze raw and new. The first humans landed on these shores in skin boats they had rowed and paddled out of the Sub-Arctic. These prehistoric mariners followed the coast, living off the abundant resources of an unpopulated land. Attracted by the thick forests of cedar and a seemingly endless supply of fish and molluscs, some of the ancient mariners stopped and settled here.
These first peoples discovered that when the tide fell, the table was set. The sea and its harvests sustained them, provided goods for trade and inspired the creation of small fishing canoes, large long-distance trading canoes and sleek racing craft. These were a people of the sea more than they were a people of the forest. Their homes, built facing the water, were in the transition zone from land to sea. The beaches were lined with canoes that provided the means for extended voyages of trade, plunder and war, as well as harvests from the ocean. These eager traders, fishermen and hunters built a series of settlements in the region some 8,000 years ago. By 3,000 years ago, they had settled the shores of modern-day Burrard Inlet, False Creek, English Bay and the Fraser River. These ancestors of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil-waututh peoples shared the area and its resources, intermarrying and trading. Products harvested from the ocean reached far inland in exchange for commodities from the interior, all part of a complex series of commercial relations that used both sea and river as an easier way to travel than overland through thick forests and steep mountains. Those same waters would bring other peoples from far away, with dramatic consequences.