Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


Under the Great Bears spell

October 2, 2002

A remote patch of sea and rain forest in B.C. is opening its doors to tourism — just a little

(Klemtu, BC) – Flying into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, I felt like I was in a scene from Out of Africa:A lone airplane glides above the ground, signalling the ease with which human beings can know the remotest locations — at least from high above. But as soon as our six-seater seaplane passed through the mist and splash-landed by the small town of Klemtu, B.C., in the middle of the world’s largest intact temperate rain forest, there were no more celluloid references to draw on. There was no glossy brochure to read, and no Robert Redford to take charge of the wild.

This trip would not be stereotypical adventure travel or ecotourism. It would not be a luxurious getaway from the city, a vacation with a regimented itinerary or a week-long hike through the forest. Five of us were taking part in the first tourism venture operated by the Kitasoo and Xaixais First Nations communities through Canada’s only rain forest — and we did not know what to expect.

After we deplaned — our group consisted of an Austrian couple, a woman from B.C., an aboriginal local being trained as a guide, and myself — we walked to the end of the dock to inspect our accommodation for the next five days: a barn-shaped float house with the rather unfortunate name of “halfway house.” We were in the heart of Klemtu, a town of 400, mostly Kitasoo and Xaixais people, situated on the B.C. coast, 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver. The town consisted of pastel-painted houses staggered on a hill, a brand-new traditional-style longhouse, a seafood processing plant and one paved road. The float house stood in the centre of the action: where fishermen from the tribes returned with their catch at the end of the day and where the Discovery Coast ferry pulled in on Sundays from Victoria filled with tourists and commuters headed up the coast to the larger communities of Ocean Falls and Bella Coola.

“Tourism has traditionally been undeveloped in Klemtu,” said Evan Loveless, the 34-year-old wilderness guide who helped develop the Klemtu tourism initiative with the local community. “That is starting to change, and on the community’s terms.”

Beginning next summer, visitors will stay a few nights in one of three cedar cabins being built by aboriginal carpenters on uninhabited islands near Klemtu. Participants on the five-day trip will explore the region by boat and on foot. Customized kayaking trips can also be organized. The goal is to use tourism to diversify the local economy, and to bring small numbers of people from around the world to see their homeland.

This focus on small-scale tourism marks a major development in the region’s history, Mr. Loveless said. Aside from the occasional ship heading from Seattle to Alaska, or the B.C. ferries travelling to other communities along the coast, the area hasn’t been widely visited — except for a few fishermen. About an hour away from Klemtu by boat, the King Pacific Lodge on Princess Royal Island attracts sport fishers — among them Kevin Costner — who come for the fish, not for interaction with the locals.

But few other travellers have set foot in the rain forest, and few ever will. To preserve the Great Bear experience, Mr. Loveless said Klemtu Tourism doesn’t plan to bring more than 150 people a year to the community, which would generate about 10 per cent of Klemtu’s revenue.

The small scale is to ensure that the natural environment is not undermined, while giving visitors an exclusive peek into a world dominated by hanging mist, abundant wildlife and small pockets of indigenous people.

The rain forest, which is geographically larger than the California Redwoods and more ecologically diverse than any European forest, is home to 1,000-year-old cedars and 60-metre-high spruce, grizzly bears, grey wolves and mountain goats.

Pods of Orca whales roam off the Pacific coast. A visitor might spot a Kermode, or Spirit Bear, a white-coated variation of the black bear (there are an estimated 100 in existence), but it’s a long shot, considering that many aboriginal people who live here have never seen one.

As long as there isn’t blustering rain, it takes three hours to reach Klemtu from Vancouver, on two airplanes and one seaplane. The ticket agents at Pacific Coastal Airlines in Vancouver are obligated to mention that travellers could be held over in Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island because of unpredictable weather. The same applies in the coastal town of Bella Bella, where heavy rain often keeps visitors grounded.

After a night in the float house getting to know each other, we boarded the aluminum fishing boat belonging to Kitasoo hereditary chief Ernest (Charlie) Mason and travelled north into the forest. We dressed in layers of fleece, rain pants, jackets and boots to stay dry, which we discovered wasn’t easy. The boat, named the Kynoch Queens after Mr. Mason’s five granddaughters, created a comforting shield from the rain (which didn’t let up until our fourth day). Out on the vast Pacific Ocean, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of smallness. There were no other boats, only porpoises; no noise, except murrelets fluttering their wings in the waves; and no bright, eye-squinting colours, only the grey of the ocean and the colourless mist.

We arrived two hours later at an opening in the rain forest near Indian River and climbed gingerly around the edge of the boat onto shore. As we entered the forest, we saw kingfishers flying overhead. No one spoke, enjoying the warm rain on our faces. In Klemtu, the locals take no notice of the rain. That the town’s two stores don’t sell umbrellas or raincoats is indication that few people visit.

We followed a bear trail near the river through the dense undergrowth, deep mud and wet vegetation. Pushing back dripping wet branches and tall ferns, we kept to the path that led to a massive red cedar recently used as a bear’s scratching post. The bark was peeling off where the bears had dug in their claws. Some of the ferns that grew around the tree’s wide base had been trampled. We looked up, but couldn’t see the treetop, which disappeared into the mist. We continued following the trail and still no one spoke, frightened, and at the same time hopeful that beyond the next towering tree would be a grizzly bear munching on grassroots. We didn’t see a bear, but it didn’t matter. After an hour in the forest, all we wanted to do was sit down among the sweet-smelling cedars, contemplating their thousand-year-old histories.

The mist had started to rise off the water by the time we arrived back at the boat, which took us next to Butedale, a ghost town on Princess Royal Island. The town, which at one time employed 500 people, was abandoned in 1974 when its cannery closed after stocks dried up from overfishing. A few years ago, a man from California bought the town and hired an eccentric American cow rustler to take care of it year-round. No one but the cow rustler lives on the island, which may explain why Princess Royal is where most Kermode bears make their home.

Butedale, with its cluster of small, uninhabited buildings frozen in time, resembled a small country that might be featured at the Epcot Center. Bowling pins still stood in the bowling alley, half-filled tobacco boxes from Montreal and invoices dating back to 1965 were strewn along the warehouse floor. Hummingbirds were everywhere, some of which actually stopped humming and rested on the wet grass.

Our Klemtu tour was developing into a string of spontaneous discoveries. Each day proved to be unplanned and open-ended — an anti-tour of sorts. The only mainstay was that we woke each morning at dawn and headed out in the fishing boat, looking for the secrets of the rain forest. Along the way, we experienced whatever the forest wanted to show us, or what it kept hidden behind its thick green veil.

Mr. Mason had fun with his “wise native” role and managed to keep us locked in resounding silence, convinced that an approaching log was a grizzly bear. He chuckled as we passed by it, eager for a good look. We saw ancient rock carvings along the shorelines and inspected native rock art, which signalled the location of burial sites several hundred years old. In the forest, 19-year-old guide Doug Neasloss pointed out some of the 64 food and medicinal plants, such as Devil’s Club, which the Kitasoo use as a painkiller.

We soon were under the spell of the Great Bear Rainforest, no longer minding that our Gortex jackets were drenched and our fingers permanently wrinkled from the rain. We enjoyed our time in the evenings, eating fresh Dungeness crab and McCain Superfries, and listening to Roy Orbison with the locals in the Kitasoo Cafe, Klemtu’s only restaurant.

As we walked back to the float house along the only road, which was lined with pickup trucks, many locals took no special notice of us. No one stood on ceremony, but over the week there emerged a fine line between joining the community for a few days and feeling like a voyeur. At times, I felt the locals wanted us there. Other times, I felt like an intruder. I could see it in the faces of the people — they are still digesting the presence of outsiders.

We were forced to come to grips with the realities of a remote aboriginal community wanting to diversify beyond its traditional industries and our own erroneous stereotypes. Klemtu may be remote, but the community is very well connected. Many locals have satellite dishes on the sides of their houses and Internet connections. We saw a community that was adapting to the present, although our selfish notions wanted it to stay rooted in the past. We also had to adapt to being visitors in someone’s home, as opposed to travellers to a destination designed for tourists. On the tour, there were no staged events or slick tour guides, no merlot to sip out on the ocean or mints on our pillows. Instead, it moved past such travel pretensions to an honesty found in a simple dinner of fresh snapper and toasted Wonder bread.

“These tours are part cultural, part environmental, but they aren’t comfortable for people, emotionally or physically,” Mr. Loveless said, trying to find words to describe the tours. “It’s not about coming to see a big black bear and getting the T-shirt at the end.”