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Into the Heart of the Great Bear

First Nation culture in a pristine wilderness make for a wild adventure by kayak in British Columbia
By Peter Potterfield - August 26th, 2005


We paddle into a blustery northwest wind as our flotilla of four kayaks heads up Laredo Channel after a lunch stop in the rocky Laidlaw Islands. All around us the magnificent ancient trees of British Columbia's sprawling Great Bear Rainforest cover the mountainous islands of this pristine coastal wilderness, where saltwater inlets and channels provide the only access.

Focused on the rhythm of paddling, I'm startled when a gray shape leaps with a splash out of the water just in front of the boat. It's a Dall's porpoise, and then another, and soon the cavorting pair joins our group to swim and frolic with us as we work against the chop and wind. We're just as likely to see orca and humpbacks here in the channel, and otter and seal, and merganser and petrel, a reminder that these remote waters harbor wildlife in unreal abundance.

We've already done 10 miles today, in both protected channels and open water, and now the stiff fair-weather breeze threatens to make hard work of it. But just as we paddle abreast of a heavily wooded point on Princess Royal Island, Douglas, ahead in the blue double with Mark, cranks a hard right, motioning for us to follow. We make the right turn and with relief put down the paddles, letting the wind push us into a perfect bay.

On the beach, Douglas kneels in the sand to prepare the five of us for what's to come. Douglas Neasloss, of the Kitasoo-Xaixais Nation, has grown up on these islands. This is his home, he has spent much of his young lifetime learning its history, and he enjoys sharing it. "I know you've already felt it," he says, with his small smile. "You can tell we have come to an extraordinary place. I think you'll find we are really in for something special. Come with me."

We follow Douglas from the bright sunlight of the beach into the cool darkness of the ancient forest. But before we can cover even 50 feet we are stopped in our tracks by what we see: Two old-growth logs, 40-feet long, lie suspended high above the ground on four massive cedar corner supports 10 feet high. The astonishing timbers span an open area of maybe 2,000 square feet, an interior space that gradually steps down in measured layers to a large platform some 15 feet below the forest floor.

This, Douglas tells us, is Disju, the best remaining example of a First Nation big long house left on the planet, a place still revered by his people and now protected as a World Heritage site. In active use as long as 400 years ago, and, incredibly, still standing, the sheer scale of the structure evokes hushed tones and a sense of awe. Disju, says Douglas, means "Gathering Place," or "Ten Steps Down," and it was here the Kitasoo people gathered for centuries to celebrate potlatch ceremonies and other tribal events. Disju--some references spell it Distsu--is by now a ruin. The roof is gone, and 150-year-old trees grow out of its interior (in fact those trees are the means by which it was dated). But the place still resonates with an intangible power, and a sense of historical import.

The sunken floor is traditional for such a long house, as was the fire pit in the center. The nearby rocky point (the one we paddled around, the one with a pair of eagles perched in a prominent spruce snag) provided a perfect vantage to maintain a look out for Haida raiding canoes coming eastward from the Queen Charlotte Islands. That critical feature made the long house here a relatively safe place in a dangerous world, where the Kitasoo people could congregate from their own far flung settlements along the coast.

We five visiting kayakers--two from Seattle, a couple from Montana, an adventurer from inland British Columbia--have paddled three days to get here. We came for a serious kayak foray into the Great Bear, a place with an almost legendary reputation among wilderness cognoscenti for remoteness, wildlife in undisturbed habitat, and pristine beauty. The solitude--you won't see other paddlers here--comes as a bonus. We're finding exactly what we hoped for, and, surprisingly, much more besides: a tantalizing glimpse into the last 9,000 years, the time this place has been home to Doug's ancestors, and his clan.

"Neeso Wakwis" means "our lands" in the Kitasoo language, and since the last ice age this area has been largely uninhabited except for the Kitasoo people, who have thrived for thousands of years in this, one of the richest, most diverse ecosystems on earth. The wilderness sea kayaking we've done has shown us the landscape, an environment we now know is made richer by its long history of the indigenous local culture. The combination of real adventure and an ancient culture makes for an unforgettable experience.

Besides the long house at Disju, we've seen others wonders in our long days of paddling. Not a half day out we stopped to look at traditional First Nation motifs carved into rocks below high tide, marking the burial site for chiefs, and ancient rock art high on the rocky cliffs of Swindle Island. We've seen an ancient burial box, carved and painted in intricate design, where it has rested unmolested for centuries. We've seen hundred year-old carved poles, still standing. Everything is hidden, so we would have missed them all, even paddled right by Disju, if Douglas had not been with us to show the way, and tell us what we were looking at. In fact, had his band, the Kitasoo-Xaixais Nation, not embarked on a program to bring what's termed aboriginal tourism to the Great Bear region, we wouldn't be here at all.

Our paddle began in the tiny settlement of Klemtu, home to just 400 people--all members of the Kitasoo-Xaixais (pronounced Hay-Hayce) Nation. But quirky Klemtu has many surprises, and one of those is an unexpected transportation infrastructure. The tiny village set amongst its storybook green hills boasts weekly service via BC Ferries, and five-time-per-week scheduled air service (even if the local airliner will be a floatplane such as a 60-year-old Grumman Goose or a DeHaviland Beaver). While it's neither easy nor inexpensive to get here, if you want to come, you can.

Thanks to recent efforts by the band to develop ecotourism in this wild region, once you arrive in Klemtu the wonders of the Great Bear are close at hand. You can go off in a boat in search of bears and whales, rent a kayak, hire a guide (cultural interpreters like Douglas, and professional certified kayak guides), find a place to spend the night, and a cafe to have dinner.

"People come here for the wildlife, or because they've heard about the wildness of the Great Bear Rainforest," said Neasloss, who is the chief cultural interpreter for the Kitasoo-Xaixais band and who does much of the day-to-day management of Klemtu Tourism. "Since we opened for business a few years ago, we've had visitors from Europe, Japan, the U.S., and all over Canada. And once they come the first time, they often come back."

"It really is kind of irresistible," said Evan Loveless, an adventure tourism consultant who helped launch Klemtu Tourism, and a Vancouver Island based outdoor professional who helped pioneer kayaking in the Great Bear. "The people are great, and the surrounding area is a mind blower. Where else can you experience a pristine environment like this and have wildlife encounters daily--bears, whales, wolves, otters, mink, eagles--and have them to yourself?"

While kayakers are beginning to find their way here, wildlife is probably the bigger draw in Klemtu, and fall is the busy season for that. Chances are best in those autumn months for spotting the signature wildlife of the region, the elusive, almost mythical "spirit bear." This white or cream-colored animal is not a true albino, but a variant of the black bear known to scientists as a Kermode bear. The creamy colored fur and secretive nature has made this creature special to the band for centuries, and it's an animal you can see only on this wild coast. Doug and other guides lead scheduled power-boat based spirit bear expeditions all through the fall.

Our group, by contrast, has come in July, prime sea kayaking weather, and we all feel lucky to have discovered this place when we did. This is a golden age for visiting the Great Bear. There are sufficient services here that you can get where you want to go, and do so in relative comfort, but at present it retains the feel of a frontier, the edge of something wild. The word is fast getting out, however. BC Ferries runs a seasonal boat, the Discovery Coast ferry, all summer, and when it docked at Klemtu one hot July day this summer, it arrived with Americans, Germans, Japanese and other international visitors coming up here for a look.

A new hotel, the first in town, is under construction. At present, visitors to the village who come through Klemtu Tourism are housed in a bee-hive shaped houseboat moored in the harbor. It's not fancy, but a few days in the funky Float House enjoying the low-stress pace of life in friendly Klemtu can be a great way to re-enter civilization after a week-long kayak trip in a truly wild place.

As our time in the Great Bear grew to a close, our little group made a rigorous 17 mile paddle back down from upper Laredo Channel to Kitasu Bay, with just one stop, for lunch, in the scenic Atiken Islands. This last long push made for a wild day of paddling, across a part of the sound where no islands lie to the west, exposing us to the six-foot Pacific swell topped with one to two foot waves. For me, a climber and a wilderness traveler but not much of a kayaker, the conditions were alarming as we got tossed about wth abandon. But the old hands in our group were relaxed, and were actually loving the wild ride, so I took my cues from them and did the same. We had loaded the big Current Design doubles from Klemtu Tourism to the gills with a week's worth of food and fuel and camping gear, so the boats rode heavy and stable in the intimidating waves.

We paddled under a blue summer sky, the fair-weather wind at our backs, hailed by a cruising sailboat that intersected our course. Beyond the mouth of Meyers Passage, we finally rounded Jamieson Point to enter the slightly more sheltered waters of Kitasu Bay. There, on Marvin Island, was the welcoming sight of comfortable Kitasu Cabin, built by the band to offer refuge for paddlers in bad weather. For us, the cabin was a mere luxury after a week of camping on the beaches in sunny weather. But in the typically wet conditions of the B.C coast, Kitasu cabin can be a trip saver, providing a warm, dry base in bad weather for day-paddles to nearby points of interest.

This was our last night in the Great Bear, so while the Montanans, Dean and Debbie, took their fishing gear and paddled out in search of dinner (so far they had provided the main course four nights out of six), I sat on rock in front of the cabin to make these notes. As the sun dropped toward the wooded headland, I saw otters playing in the waves just beyond the shore, and heard the seals barking from a nearby rock. A pair of eagles sat pridefully in a snag just across the tidal cut. Tomorrow morning we were scheduled for pick up, and the shuttle back to Klemtu for the flight out. The thing was, as we all gathered on the beach to watch the sun finally set, what we were talking about was not so much our week in this amazing wilderness, it was how to figure a way to come back.

Getting There:
Paddling in the Great Bear Rainforest has its challenges, including limited campsites, the potential for bad weather, and difficult landings on exposed beaches. There are two primary areas of interest to paddlers: First is the "outside, " where we spent most of our time, the outer islands, the traditional home to the Kitasoo band, where the inland waters meet the Pacific. Then there's the "inside," the impressive deep fiords of Fiordlands Recreation Area that cut into the mountains on the mainland. This is the traditional home to the Xaixais people and the only legally saved portion of the Great Bear Rainforest. Kayakers venturing up here for the first time should arrange for professional guides and Kitasoo-Xaixais cultural interpreters when visiting these areas. Klemtu has limited facilities for travelers, so visitors interested in renting kayaks and arranging for meals, lodging, and guides should contact Klemtu Tourism directly. More information can be found at the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast regional site and British Columbia Tourism. Klemtu can be reached by BC Ferries from Port Hardy, and by Pacific Coastal Airlines from Vancouver or Port Hardy.


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