‘Lucky to be here’

A trip to pic­turesque Van­cou­ver Is­land of­fers vis­i­tors nat­u­ral beauty, wildlife and his­tory


The griz­zly bear makes a splash as she plunges into the Or­ford River on the west coast of Bri­tish Columbia, and quickly sur­faces with a salmon in her mouth for one of her cubs, who then chomps it down. An­other cub me­an­ders play­fully along a log. And then they all saunter along the river’s edge.

It may sound like the script of a Na­tional Ge­o­graphic show, but it’s just an­other day in Bute In­let.

“We’re guests in their area,” says Wil­liam Hack­ett, the In­dige­nous guide who es­corts my group of 12 peo­ple along the penin­sula to see some of the bears as they bulk up on pro­tein-rich salmon be­fore hi­ber­nat­ing for the win­ter. “We’re lucky to be here.”

Lucky in­deed. And this is just the be­gin­ning of my trip to see where the first Euro­pean set foot on the west coast of the coun­try.

There are 52 dif­fer­ent griz­zlies in this area, where the Ho­ma­lco band tra­di­tion­ally gath­ered berries and salmon in the 1800s. These days, about 18 In­dige­nous peo­ple live here part-time. Most of the Ho­ma­lco band now live on their re­serve in Van­cou­ver Is­land’s third-largest city, Camp­bell River, which has a pop­u­la­tion of 35,000.

“We moved with the sea­sons,” Hack­ett says. And from midAu­gust to the end of Septem­ber, it’s the busiest time of the year to see the griz­zlies, who are just chang­ing their di­ets from berries to fish, as the salmon start their an­nual mi­gra­tion up­stream to spawn.

I’ve taken a two-hour boat ride with Camp­bell River Whale Watch­ing, an ad­ven­ture tour group, to see the bears in their nat­u­ral habi­tat. And it’s some­thing I won’t for­get.

Not only do we see 19 bears, but we also stopped the boat en route to watch 45-foot hump­back whales play­ing around Dis­cov­ery Pas­sage. Plus, we saw bald ea­gles fly­ing above us, and the oc­ca­sional sea lion.

Jack Springer, a former teacher and one of the three co-own­ers of Camp­bell River Whale Watch­ing, says you can see more wildlife here now than 15 or 20 years ago.

Her­ring are at­tract­ing more Pa­cific white-sided dol­phins and hump­back whales. Roo­sevelt elk were in­tro­duced to the area. And an Or­ford River hatch­ery, run by the Ho­ma­lco Band, has helped en­sure there’s plenty of salmon for the bears.

In­ci­den­tally, the new pro­vin­cial NDP govern­ment re­cently in­tro­duced a ban against tro­phy­hunt­ing griz­zlies in the Great Bear Rain­for­est ( just north of the view­ing ar­eas), which will come into ef­fect at the end of Novem­ber. There hasn’t been any griz­zly hunt­ing on the Ho­ma­lco re­serve since the early 1990s, Springer says.

The knowl­edge­able guides clearly have an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the land and the an­i­mals. And na­ture seems to be re­ward­ing them.

I started by vis­it­ing the former home of Rod­er­ick Haig-Brown, a pi­o­neer­ing con­ser­va­tion­ist who moved here in 1936 and died in 1976. The god­son of Lord Baden Pow­ell (the founder of the Boy Scouts), Haig-Brown was born in Sus­sex, just out­side Lon­don, Eng­land. He was an avid fly fisher, a mag­is­trate, and the au­thor of 25 books. And he’s renowned in these parts for be­ing an early en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and a long­time salmon stew­ard.

The home, now a bed-and-break­fast and her­itage site, sits on two acres of land, next to the Camp­bell River, which has been known as the salmon cap­i­tal of the world for more than a cen­tury.

It’s fa­mous for the giant Chi­nook salmon (which can grow to more than five feet and weigh up to 110 pounds), but is also home to pink, chum, coho, steel­head and some sock­eye.

I bun­dled up in two wet­suits to get up close and per­sonal with thou­sands of salmon as they started their up­stream mi­gra­tion back to the area to spawn, after trav­el­ling at sea for up to seven years.

“The flat­ter you lie, the bet­ter you fly,” Jamie Turko, the owner-op­er­a­tor of Camp­bell River’s Des­tiny River Ad­ven­tures, told my group of four be­fore we plunged into the 14 C river.

The river swiftly moved me along a four-kilo­me­tre stretch — oc­ca­sion­ally swiv­el­ling me side­ways and back­ward (and briefly through rapids) — to the mouth of the ocean.

There were a lot of fish though they just swam on by seem­ingly with­out a care in the world.

De­spite their num­bers, they evaded me later when I joined the fa­mous Tyee Club to go fish­ing. Recre­ational fish­ing has been pop­u­lar in the river since at least the late 1800s, when Euro­peans came to fish. (You can learn about the his­tory of cen­tral and north­ern Van­cou­ver Is­land at the ex­cel­lent Mu­seum at Camp­bell River.)

The Tyee Club be­gan in 1924 and they fish in the Tyee Pool — where only row­boats and rods with­out bait are al­lowed. To be­come a club mem­ber, you need to sin­gle­hand­edly catch a salmon there that weighs at least 30 pounds (13.6 kilo­grams).

After some in­struc­tion and a cou­ple of hours on the wa­ter, I caught noth­ing but sea­weed — but that’s not to say oth­ers weren’t more for­tu­nate. There were a lot of “fish on” that evening and one per­son — Rob Nu­gent — be­came a new mem­ber of the club, which counts John Wayne, Bob Hope and the former king of Siam (now Thai­land) among its rank.

From Camp­bell River, I drove west to Strath­cona Park Lodge & Out­door Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre, which is near the en­trance to the big­gest pro­vin­cial park on the is­land. The 250 hectares of wilder­ness is made up of stag­ger­ing moun­tains, lakes and old growth for­est.

The lodge, which is run off the grid, was founded in 1959 by high school teach­ers Myrna and Jim Bould­ing (friends of Haig Brown).

To­day, their son, Jamie Bould­ing, and his wife, Chris­tine Clark, run it. Both used to row on Canada’s na­tional team.

The lodge has at­tracted every­one from the men’s Olympic row­ing team to the women’s rugby team, as well as nu­mer­ous school pro­grams and tourists.

This is def­i­nitely a place to un­wind and get back to na­ture (there’s no TV and hardly any con­nec­tiv­ity).

Hik­ing through the old growth for­est, I passed Douglas fir and cedar trees, mossy paths and dried up river beds to see Lupin Falls. And pad­dling across a calm But­tle Lake in the af­ter­noon, I passed only two other ca­noes.

The lodge makes it easy to get ca­noes, kayaks and even to go zi­plin­ing or rock climb­ing in the area. And whether you’re fly­ing through the tree­tops or walk­ing along the wa­ter’s edge, the land­scape is pris­tine and stun­ning.

From there, I had a scenic drive to Gold River, on the is­land’s west coast, to board the MV Uchuck III. The former Sec­ond World War mine sweeper is now the west­ern­most coastal freighter in Canada.

Get West Ad­ven­tures runs the ship as a work­ing boat car­ry­ing cargo and peo­ple to log­ging camps, fish farms and set­tle­ments. The two-and-a-half hour boat ride down Mucha­laht In­let and into Nootka Sound to Friendly Cove passes beau­ti­ful is­lands, sea ot­ters and ea­gles.

Ar­riv­ing in Nootka, I find an is­land with a hand­ful of build­ings — a light­house, a house, a church and some shacks — and a pop­u­la­tion of four. (Two of them, el­ders Ray and Terry Williams, are the only Mowachaht peo­ple re­main­ing there. In­dige­nous peo­ple have had a pres­ence here for an es­ti­mated 4,000 years, but their num­bers have dwin­dled since the late 1960s.)

Still, this is the out­post where Bri­tain’s Capt. James Cook, the first known Euro­pean to set foot on the Western coast of what is now Canada, landed in March 1778. Prior to that, Pope Alexan­der VI had de­clared the largely un­charted Pa­cific North­west from Alaska to Mex­ico as part of New Spain in 1493.

In the 18th cen­tury, In­dige­nous peo­ples, Span­ish, French, Rus­sians and Bri­tish were all in this area. Many of them were trad­ing goods and look­ing for a route they thought would lead them to the At­lantic Ocean.

Else­where, the Amer­i­can, French and In­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tions were un­der­way and ush­er­ing in a new era. But ac­cord­ing to records, it’s thought that the Span­ish and Bri­tish had friendly re­la­tions here at the time. And the Span­ish re­lin­quished the land here to Bri­tain’s Capt. Ge­orge Van­cou­ver in 1795.

Friendly Cove has a hill with a vast ocean view, a stony beach and a fallen totem pole, once painted by Emily Carr. It’s nat­u­ral, peace­ful and still feels like a fron­tier of sorts — even in Canada’s sesqui­cen­ten­nial year.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Van­cou­ver Is­land. The or­ga­ni­za­tion did not review this ar­ti­cle.


At the end of sum­mer, griz­zlies be­gin gorg­ing on salmon to pre­pare for win­ter.

Pas­sen­gers on­board the MV Uchuck III scan the wa­ter and sky look­ing for whales, sea lions and bald ea­gles.

The late pi­o­neer­ing con­ser­va­tion­ist Rod­er­ick Haig-Brown lived in Camp­bell River, B.C.

There are great views from the light­house on Nootka Is­land, B.C.

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