The Canadian Safari: Fall journeys that foster local business and protect the coast

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On a September afternoon in 2001, Kevin Smith and several others off the schooner Maple Leaf entered a dark and dripping forest on an island in the Great Bear Rainforest; a forest that, until five months before, had been slated to be destroyed.

They climbed along a stream swollen with rain and salmon. Spawning salmon, whose offspring may have had, until five months before, no future stream to return to. Kevin, the new owner of expedition cruise company Maple Leaf Adventures, was part of the huge community that protected the place.

As a follow-up, there was a denizen of this stream that Kevin hoped to pay his respects to. And a good chance he wouldn’t be there. But then, down out of the forest he drifted, a white shape: the old spirit bear.

From Obscurity to Eco-Traveller Bucket Lists

In those days it was a hard slog to view a spirit bear, one of the world’s rarest bears. Since then, Kevin and other tour operators have worked with members of the Gitga’at Nation on a more accessible way to bring very small groups of guests into this 6.4 million hectare maze of fjords and islands to have the chance to view a spirit bear.

It’s part of the now-world-famous weeklong itineraries to explore the region’s human and natural world.

Locally Owned and Carefully Maintained Yachts and Lodges

Like North American safaris, these trips on beloved coastal yachts or at local lodges take guests on an odyssey through the waterways, guided by passionate locals who know they are making a difference for their home.

Along with bears, guests explore the marine world with its seabirds and whales, the rainforest in its intricacy, offshore islands, local communities, and recent research discoveries.

The blossoming of this regenerative industry is just one of the incredible changes that continue to unfold from the intense and transformative community process that protected that old spirit bear, the salmon in its stream and its forest home.

A Vision That Rewrote the Great Bear’s Reality

That planning process rewrote the future of the Great Bear Rainforest. Instead of dozens of ancient valleys that would be clear-cut logged, it has remained a living, intact landscape that is the recognized territory of Coastal First Nations, and where people are building an economy based on conservation principles. Kevin’s ecotourism company, Maple Leaf Adventures, has long been part of that.

So long, in fact, that when Haisla elder Cecil Paul invited Maple Leaf to first travel into the Kitlope in 1992, both the Kitlope and the rest of the Great Bear Rainforest were unprotected.

Most of it was labelled on government planning maps as the “mid-coast timber supply area”. Maple Leaf’s trips there were originally called the Endangered Coast trips.

Insights for Guests from a History of Collaborating on Protection

Throughout the years, the community of this coast – from Nations to conservation scientists to businesses to municipal citizens – has fought to keep the Great Bear protected. They collaborated to keep heavy oil supertankers from the region’s maze of rich waterways; to stop the killing of grizzly bears for sport; and much more.

This deep-seated stewardship and local familiarity with the rhythms of the tide and moon, the berries and salmon, the whales and bears, means each guest who travels with Maple Leaf Adventures feels as if friends are showing them around their favourite places at home.

While naturalists entertainingly explain these wonders, local chefs prepare fantastic meals infused with local ingredients, and guests can relax on beautiful little ships decorated with local art and found objects.

It’s all part of what, decades ago now, the people in the planning rooms dreamed and visualized. And what began for Kevin that day in 2001, as he watched the spirit bear fish for hours.

“We were conscious of how at home he was in this valley,” Kevin says, “and how it had been nearly lost to logging interests at the [planning] negotiating table. He came closer, and from across the narrow creek, he looked up and into my eyes. He would never know how close he came to a great loss. But I knew, and I felt humbled by him, and also proud we’d fought for him.”

Guests can tour the wonder of the Great Bear Rainforest in the company of Maple Leaf Adventures’ genial crew this fall, a peak season.


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