Tread Lightly in British Columbia's Wilderness

By Jack Christie   Hello BC

Whether its ancient forests or spirit bears, wild rivers or alpine meadows, visitors journey to British Columbia for unique wilderness experiences that they just can ’t find at home. What they discover is far more than simply the overwhelming beauty of the landscape. They also encounter individuals with a keen sense of place.

It takes a savvy traveller to research and, just as importantly, organize self-guided adventure trips. Instead, most of us place our trust in local wilderness tourism operators to show us hidden gems. What we gain in return are the tangible rewards of meeting individuals who have invested their lives in introducing others to the multitude of natural wonders, both on land and sea, found here in the Pacific Northwest.

Much like the priesthood, wilderness tourism is not just a career, it’s a calling. Which is why the passion for environmental stewardship and wilderness preservation is viscerally contagious. Take a guided eco-adventure and you’ll not only have the experience of a lifetime, you’ll find that you’ve made friends for life as well.

Therein lies the secret of success: once having established a bond with our hosts, we frequently return year after year to renew acquaintances. Beyond simply spreading word of mouth, we bring our family and friends along with us as well. After all, when we’ve found a slice of heaven, most of us instinctively want to share it with those we hold most dear, which is exactly the impulse that drew wilderness tourism operators to set up shop in the first place.

The following is a sample of British Columbia wilderness tour operators not only recognized for their environmental stewardship work but just as importantly for their ability to share their vision with others.

Canadian River Expeditions

Dip your paddle in an untamed BC river and don’t be surprised if a jolt runs up your arm. Not a nerve-numbing electric shock, but more like the shiver of excitement that comes when you plant a ski pole in fresh powder snow. In return, the river, with its picturesque environs, puts its hooks in you. Something clicks and you know you’ve found a partner for life.

And you’re not alone. Canadian River Expeditions has specialized in introducing this spectacular land to guests since 1972. Along the way, the company, founded by the Mikes family and now headed by Chris Ford, has successfully lobbied for the protection of northern waterways, including the mighty Tatshenshini-Alsek.

CRE’s most perennially-popular trip is “Best of BC”, an 11-day, tour-de-force sampler that begins at Chilko Lake - one of BC’s most drop-dead gorgeous settings - and spills down into the sagebrush and cactus canyons of the Chilcotin River. So thoroughly does CRE cover its tracks that once each trek is complete, hardly a trace of human activity remains. Only the memories. And the unending rush of the wild rivers.

Chilcotin Holidays Guest Ranch

Ever drop in on friends and finding nobody home? You know they must be around somewhere, just not at the moment. That’s the way of life in the South Chilcotin where the Coast Mountains meet the rolling plateau between Whistler and Lillooet. Sylvia Waterer and Kevan Bracewell put down roots here in 1990 when they built their Chilcotin Holiday Guest Ranch.

From day one, they’ve recorded every wildlife sighting on their "Wildlife Sightings Forms", and have collected hair samples from grizzly rub trees for DNA analysis. Entries on bears, mountain goats, wolves, moose, deer are systematically catalogued to be used as research for population counts and other studies. Such data provides the basis for decisions by industry and government when it comes to making the case for conservation, resource management and land use planning for the immense tract of public land that in 2004 became South Chilcotin Provincial Park. Sylvia took a lead role in developing "A Business Case for Wilderness Tourism" within the park, a case which has been used provincially to secure land for wilderness tourism throughout the province.

This is exactly where you’ll want to head, either on foot or horseback. And if your trip awakens a passion for this lifestyle, the ranch runs Registered Wilderness Guide Training Programs that will train you to turn pro as a wilderness guide.

Knight Inlet Lodge

When Dean Wyatt hosted a conference at Knight Inlet Lodge in 1996, he had little idea of the eventual outcome. The forum of scientists and conservationists found common ground over the cause of preserving BC’s central coast rainforest. And not just any rainforest, but the recently-celebrated Great Bear Rainforest, one of BC’s newest protected areas. The gathering also led Wyatt to establish the Glendale Grizzly Trust Fund, marking the first time in Canada that scientists have been involved from the beginning on a wildlife viewing program.

Over the past decade, visiting experts have assessed the impact of humans on the bears who have gradually become accepting of human presence. The move also signalled a shift away from fishing at Knight Inlet Lodge. Today, almost all of the 2,500 guests, who make their way between May and October to the lodge’s remote location on the BC coastal mainland, come to see grizzly bears.

For the good of all concerned, bears are given a wide berth as guests share space with them from viewing platforms in the forest or off-shore in small boats and kayaks. Still, that comfort zone does nothing to lessen the experience.

Knight Inlet Lodge is an assortment of floating structures, some of which date from the 1940s, moored at the site of a former fish cannery in Glendale Cove. On shore, black bears feed on the mussels that robe old pilings while keeping a wary eye out for their bigger relatives. Except at salmon spawning season, the two branches of the family don’t mix.

When Wyatt bought Knight Inlet Lodge, the local grizzly population numbered 40, roughly the same as today. And Wyatt, through the Glendale Grizzly Trust Fund, finances upwards of $200,000 a year in state of the art bear and salmon stewardship projects and scientific research to ensure sustainable viewing continues well into the future.

Strathcona Park Lodge

It’s fitting that BC’s first provincial park, established in 1911, would also be home to the winner of Tourism British Columbia’s 2003 Environmental Stewardship Award. The same spirit that originally inspired the creation of rugged, mountainous Strathcona Provincial Park on central Vancouver Island infuses the Boulding family’s approach. They built and continue to manage Strathcona Park Lodge, a rustic counterpart to the Banff Springs Hotel in Canada’s first national park. Well ahead of their time in the 1960s, the Bouldings began offering a variety of outdoor education programs that a half-century later continue to appeal to both families and young adults.

Expect a full spectrum of activities here - paddling, mountaineering, hiking, or simply relaxing on the lodge’s lakeside beach - coupled with a healthful approach to nutrition, including some home-grown organic produce. The lodge’s remote location west of Campbell River offers guests a chance to disconnect from stress while at the same time leaving the smallest environmental footprint possible - short of living in a tent that is.

Maple Leaf Adventures

Welcome aboard BC’s classic tall ship, the Maple Leaf. For skipper Kevin Smith, sailing BC’s waters proves the epitome of no-trace adventuring – not to mention a memorable way to explore the province’s scenic landscape and hidden treasures. Since he took over as master-and-commander at the helm of the Maple Leaf in 1986, Smith has championed the cause of conservation while offering soft adventure cruises along BC’s coastline, from the southern Gulf Islands near Victoria to the Great Bear Rainforest and the Queen Charlottes off the province’s northwestern coast, an archipelago also called Haida Gwaii.

A leader in negotiating tourism protocol agreements with First Nations communities, Smith’s cruises offer guests unique opportunities to interact with both local landscapes and indigenous peoples. Who better to explain their intricately commingled lives and destinies than those who have live here for millennia?

When guests go ashore, they not only revel in cultural experiences, such as visiting a ceremonial big house, or marvelling at ghost-like spirit bears, they also provide jobs for communities experiencing increased pressure to sustain traditional practises.

Early on, Kevin Smith understood that his guests were eager to explore beyond the thin veneer of coastal forest seen from the water. They wanted to discover the naturally-undisturbed landscape for themselves. In order to provide this experience, Smith found himself in the vanguard of efforts to conserve large tracts of wilderness, such as the Great Bear Rainforest (similarly, Maple Leaf Adventures colleague Brian Falconer was a forerunner for efforts in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve). As a result, these days those fortunate enough to sail on the Maple Leaf reap the benefits gained from countless hours of negotiations without having to sit through meetings and writing discussion papers. They simply get to enjoy the winds of change that fill the sails and noiselessly propel the Maple Leaf and her guests on their journey.

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