Body of First Nation elder recovered on beach north of Tofino, B.C., by his granddaughter

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After two days of searching, the body of Hesquiaht First Nation elder Harry Lucas was recovered on a beach north of Tofino, B.C., on Saturday by his granddaughter.

Kayla Lucas said her 80-year-old grandfather was last seen filling and securing his jerrycans at Ahousaht General Store on Thursday at around 3 p.m. PT, heading for Hot Springs Cove on the west coast of Vancouver Island in his 22-foot boat.

She found his body on Saturday on an isolated stretch of beach about 25 minutes away from his planned destination, after a piece of plywood from the cabin of his boat — painted sky blue — washed up in the inlet.

"It was there that I found him [...] It's sad to see somebody that way, especially somebody that you love. But in a way, I was somewhat relieved that he was home. He made it. We're going to bring him the rest of the way home," she said.

Family members, local boaters and the Canadian Coast Guard had been searching for Lucas since Thursday night when he failed to arrive to his destination by New Year's Eve.

The Canadian Coast Guard sent two vessels to aid in the search Thursday night, and three additional Coast Guard boats and another from the RCMP joined the search on Friday. Weather conditions over two consecutive days were too extreme to deploy search and rescue aircraft.

As a former fisherman, Lucas said her grandfather knew his way around the ocean, but that conditions, including gale-force winds, would have been terrible for any boater.

When the telltale piece of wood from his boat was found in the waters near her community at Hot Springs Cove, she set out on foot with the family dog, armed with a cellphone and radio, heading toward an isolated beach marked by cliffs, bluffs and pounding waves. It was there that she waded waist-deep into the water and found his body.

"I hiked with everything I had. The waves were crashing and it was raining, I was getting wet ... but I felt like I had to walk that," she said.

Submitted by Kayla Lucas
Submitted by Kayla Lucas

Linguist, carver, fisherman, family man

Lucas described her grandfather, one of the few remaining speakers of Nuu-chah-nulth, the language of the Nuu-chah-nulth people, as a "cultural encyclopedia," famous for his sense of humour.

"He was always, always willing to share the knowledge he shared, the knowledge he carried. He was an avid language teacher, he wanted everyone, anyone, to start learning our language," she said.

"He was a linguist, he was a carver, he was a fisherman, he was a family man, he was a knowledge keeper, and he was generous with all of that. The coat on his back, he would share it with his grandchildren."

Submitted by Kayla Lucas
Submitted by Kayla Lucas

'A huge loss'

Moses Martin, chief councillor with the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, said he and Lucas were old friends and fellow survivors of residential school.

He said Lucas was a key figure in the community, having worked as a translator during treaty negotiations in the 1990s.

"We all know each other on the coast here. It's a huge loss for the community, especially one of the very few fluent speakers that we find in our community," he said.

Also known as Nootka, the language is spoken by the Nuu-chah-nulth people along the west coast of Vancouver Island. UNESCO considers it a critically endangered language spoken by fewer than 355 people.

The Hesquiaht First Nation is the most northerly and also the most remote of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations in the Clayoquot Sound. Around 55 people live in Hot Springs Cove.

In a release, Hesquiaht Chief Councillor Joshua Charleson thanked Ahousaht Search and Rescue, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, the Canadian Coast Guard, provincial emergency responders and Hesquiaht community members for "their tireless efforts to locate Elder Lucas and bring him home safe."