Proposed aboriginal culture tours of British Columbia
Transformative travel takes many forms. Assisting people you meet on your journey through life, saving wildlife, preserving aboriginal culture, and practicing philanthropy are all meaningful endeavors that change the world for the better and transform your own life as well. Right here in my own home province of British Columbia there are ways to practice all of the above. Why not join me on a tour of Aboriginal Tourism destinations in BC and learn how Indigenous peoples have lived in harmony with nature for over 10,000 years, harvesting from the sea, hunting on the land, creating art from the forests? Here are several tours that can be arranged.
Let me invite you to explore the wonders of Haida Gwaii, an island chain located off the northwest coast that has been home to the Haida people since time immemorial. It is a wild and remote destination separate from most of the world, difficult to reach and explore. It can be approached by air from Vancouver or via sea from the coastal town of Prince Rupert. The ferry lands at Skidegate and the airport is found in the tiny settlement of Sandspit. There are several small towns and villages on the northern island section of Haida Gwaii known as Graham Island.
Here you will find people who fish and log, but the island is known mostly for its artists. Somesurveys show that up to 90 percent of the residents of Graham Island,
whether Indigenous or not, create some form of art or crafts. The small Indigenous village of Old Massett at the northern end of Graham Island features a small unmarked store containing a treasure trove of locally made sculpture, carvings, jewelry and other world class art.
The southern islands, including Gwaii Hanaas National Park, are mostly uninhabited. There are few places to stay and exploration via kayak or sailboat is very difficult. A locally-based company Moresby Explorers takes intrepid adventurers via zodiac on a 4-day exploration to the southern tip of the islands and back, certainly a “trip of a lifetime.” Expeditions are restricted to half a dozen people at a time and sell out well in advance.
Accommodations are virtually non-existent; the zodiac stops at a floating home in a secluded bay and a bed and breakfast cottage in tiny
Rose Harbour that may be the most remote B&B in the world. Food is either caught along the way or pre-prepared and brought onboard the zodiac. The craft offers no shelter from the rain in the open ocean. All passengers must wear heavy weather gear and life jackets.
The trip stops at several remote cabins staffed by indigenous Watchmen who guard the land. Here a guide will explain the history of the nation, the ancient cultures and traditions. The Haida were fierce warriors for many centuries until European diseases decimated their population. Remnants of their villages can still be seen, and ancient totem poles found in the forests. The voyage ends at the tiny island of Ninstints, a World Heritage Site where the waves can be so strong the island shakes in a storm. It’s hard to believe that anyone could live in such a remote place and survive. The return trip north winds through islands and inlets where sea lions, humpback whales, seabirds and other wildlife may be seen.
This trip is limited to only 5 people, with me as your guide and a captain to operate the zodiac. Quite likely the zodiac tour may be sold out, so time spent on Graham Island would be extended along with time in Prince Rupert, where a world class museum displays native art from the coastal region. Another option is to visit the Tsimshian village of Lax Kwala’ams where accommodations exist and to meet elders and explore nature. If you have an interest in joining me for an expedition to one of the most remote regions in the world, please let me know.
Searching for the Spirit Bear
The Kermode or “spirit” bear as it has been called, may be the rarest creature on the planet. Experts who have studied the “ghost” bear estimate there may be as few as 50 of the creatures in the wild. Other say there may be thousands. Either way, there are darned few of them in the forest and they are very hard to find. To the local Gitga’at people they are the very symbol of their culture, representing purity of life. You would be a lucky person to ever see one, but I can take you there. I am one of the lucky few who have seen the bear, and I have seen it three times. I know where it lives and I know a native guide who will take us there.
The expedition starts at the village of Hartley Bay, which in itself is difficult to get to. The best way is to charter a float plane from the town of Prince Rupert on the northern coast and land in the harbour at Hartley Bay. There is a bed and breakfast at the village in which to sleep. There are no stores, cafes or restaurants in the village but meals can be arranged or perhaps a feast or dance in the Big House, a veritable work of art full of sculptures and paintings. From the village it is perhaps an hour by powerboat to an island where the bears hide in deep woods. There, one bear in ten is a Kermode, greatly increasing the odds of seeing one. The time to go is in the fall when the salmon are spawning and bears are drawn to the creeks to fish. Sightings are not guaranteed (from a safe wooden structure built along the creek) but a deep emotional experience is inevitable as your guide tells you stories of Indigenous life, history and an culture of life on the seas and forest. Humpback whales, eagles, seals, Orcas and other amazing creatures abound in this remote region.
Grizzlies found in Kitasoo territory
Just south of Gitga’at territory on the BC coast you find the village of Klemtu in Kitasoo territory, a stop of the ferry voyage from Vancouver to Prince Rupert. This little village boasts a Big House with a small museum, a little store and a café along the docks, and – better yet – the 3-star Spirit Bear Lodge with sumptuous rooms and fine dining. The lodge is named after the spirit bear, of course, but good luck finding one. Naturalists and guides with whom I spoke said they knew the bear was there from finding tufts of its fur, but they had never seen one. What is absolutely guaranteed, however, are sightings of the monster grizzly bears that dwell in these forests. If getting close to a creature that could and might eat you alive is a thrill you wish to experience, this is the place for you.
Fall is when the salmon run and grizzlies come out of the woods in numbers to the creeks where the salmon spawn. Spirit Bear Lodge guides will be happy to take you via power boat to an estuary or creek where the bears may be dining out. A good set of binoculars is recommended. Getting close to a grizzly is not recommended. The guides will tell you everything you need to know about a grizzly and maybe some you don’t want to know, like the
fact that a fully grown male grizzly bear may stand 12 feet tall and eat its own cubs at birth and will kill people if provoked. The ocean here swarms with humpback whales and Orcas. Salmon is best enjoyed at the Lodge’s dining room tables.
Cowboys and Indians abound on the circle tour of the Cariboo, Chilcotin and Coast
Now that the provincial government is returning the coastal ferry from Bella Bella to Bella Coola, it is possible to experience the fabled Circle Rout and the Frontier Highway, a route few tourists and many British Columbians have never experienced. It’s a Cowboys and Indians exploration that folks from Germany and many other countries truly love. It’s authentic, real life as it used to be centuries ago, and easily accessed by a sturdy vehicle.
Dozens of aboriginal tourist operations have opened in the Interior, coastal and northern regions, and Vancouver Island, and are starting to gain global recognition. Starting in Vancouver, tourists who venture no further north than Whistler can treasure the Squamish/Lillooet Cultural Centre and its vast collection of artefacts. Even closer to home, explorers can paddle a canoe with the Tsleil Waututh guides in North Vancouver’s Cates Park and in 10 minutes find themselves in the wilderness of Indian Arm. Not far from the bright lights of the big city there are 20 kilometres of isolated inland waters that few urban dwellers even know exist.
Heading east to the Interior, at Bridge River, just north of Lillooet, visitors to Xwisten Tours will discover that Indians lived in warm and cozy pit houses known as kekulis. In season, visitors can watch salmon being netted in the mighty Fraser River and dried on shore as it has been for millennia. At Hat Creek Ranch near Clinton on the Old Gold Rush trail, visitors can see what life was like 150 years ago and sleep in the obligatory teepee, although in fact only the Plains Indians slept in teepees. Further north at Xatsull near Williams Lake you can also sleep in teepees in a small replica of a village. Williams Lake is home to cowboys and its famed annual rodeo.
Turning left at Williams Lake, the Freedom Highway stretches into infinity, passing through Indigenous territory, grasslands and a high plateau, through small villages and to the infamous Hagensburg Hill where only the brave dare to drive down to the coast with brakes burning. Bella Coola is home to grizzly bears, salmon, Indigenous tours and the ferry to Bella Bella and on to Vancouver Island where you can find a unique collection of masks and Indigenous art at world famous at U’Mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay.
New Indigenous tourist destinations are popping up on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver itself. The Circle Route can be a self-guided tour for those with a few weeks to enjoy what the provincial government calls “the best place on Earth.” In the summer, when it’s not freezing or pouring rain, it might be just that.