Take a boat north of Campbell River, through the Discovery Islands to the Mainland coast, and it’s no surprise to see occasional buildings dotting the shorelines, dwarfed by the rugged shoulders of the mountains looming overhead.
On closer look though, it becomes clear not all are inhabited. Such is the case when you arrive at Church House Village. A few structures remain visible from the dock, such as a white medical building that once served the Homalco community, though the church itself is now gone. Many buildings have disappeared, though some like the school remain in what back in the 1800s was a village based around logging and fishing.
The land is still Homalco reserve land, and serves as a preserver of history and memories. It’s but one stop on a tour called People, Water, Land that is now being offered by Homalco Wildlife and Cultural Tours, an Indigenous company owned by the Homalco First Nation.
The day-long journey to Orford Bay sends travellers into the Homalco territory as well as their history and culture. Homalco Wildlife and Cultural Tours has been offering bear tours for about 15 years, so this latest venture gives them a chance to build on what they know by including their culture and other ventures such as their fish hatchery. The tours run from June through mid-August, at which point they start conducting their regular bear tours.
“We’re with guests from the point they leave the dock to the time in Orford to the time back to the dock, so we have time to share cultural knowledge with the guests,” says Kelsie Robinson, the operations manager for Homalco Wildlife and Cultural Tours.
What guests get is an immersive experience that combines whale-watching, bear-viewing and cultural exploration, but as Robinson adds, through an Indigenous lens.
The tours just launched in early June, and on this particular Friday, visitors gather near the marina in Campbell River to leave on an enclosed boat operated by local partner Big Animal Encounters. It’s supposed to take a couple of hours to get up to the destination at Orford Bay, an arm of the roughly 80-km-long Bute Inlet.
This trip isn’t simply about getting to a destination though, as much as it is about the journey. Along the way, there will be stops to view marine life and take in Homalco history. Only about 20 minutes in, boat captain Bill Coltart of Big Animal Encounters stops the boat and soon everyone is focused on the waters a few hundred yards away, as two humpbacks rise to the surface several times. There’s glimpses of the dorsal fins and flukes, as well as regular blasts of spray. One of the humpbacks even pokes a head above the water briefly, something that brings a moment of exclamation from the boat captain.
“This is probably, hands down, the best whale watching in British Columbia,” Coltart says.
(As an aside, Coltart notes there is some misinformation around about minimum distances for whale-watching. There is a 400-m minimum only in select areas. In general, the region’s limits are 200-m for orcas and 100-m for other whales.)
Moving past Church House, the boat heads closer to Orford Bay, and the waters turn a jewel-like turquoise from the glacial runoff.
The tour is still in its infancy, and the operators expect they will make some changes here and there, particularly around what is happening in the wild at particular times. For one thing, there’s the fact that when taking in nature, it becomes clear nature has little interest in tour itineraries or people’s vacation schedules. There had been hope to see orcas on the ride back, but they’d moved on.
The grizzlies themselves are a little skittish this time of year because they’re hungry, mating or have young ones. There are signs of them though. Large piles of scat, tufts of brown hair stuck to trees or the stair railing at the foot of the viewing platform and claw marks in the ground. When you get off the boat, the guides give you the primer on what you should and shouldn’t do when in Grizzly Country – for example, you must stay with the group.
An attempt to get the Zodiac up the estuary at Orford Bay proves unsuccessful because the tide is too low, but a bald eagle comes in for an impressive landing near the shoreline. Then the Zodiac starts to cruise to rocks nearby where the guides point out 1,000-year-old petroglyphs in the rocks above.
Along the way, they recount traditional stories such as that of Tol, a female relation to Bigfoot, who sneaks off with young children. The children try to fool Tol by having her collect pitch to spread all over her face to make her beautiful, but they end up pushing her into the fire. As she burns, her ashes turn into insects that bite, acting as Tol’s revenge. If its intent is to serve as a cautionary tale for children, it also makes for a riveting story for the adult guests on the boat too, as told by guide Janet Wilson.
“We have a lot of stories,” she says. “That’s the story of Tol.”
On the way to the viewing platform, Wilson and fellow guide Cheyanne Hackett speak at length of the importance of cedar in their culture, as well as other plant life. They give a crash course on weaving with cedar and let the visitors try their hand at making a bracelet.
“Cedar is so helpful to our people,” Wilson says. “We make everything with it.”
They sing songs such as a “Woman’s Warrior Song,” which was written in response to missing and murdered Indigenous women, and recount the stories, including those of their own families, of life in places like Church House. It’s a reminder of the resilience of culture and tradition, but also of how history is not always so long ago.
The idea of mixing Homalco culture with tourist activities like bear- and whale-watching seems like a natural, and J.P. Obbagy, the tourism development officer for the Homalco, says the demand for cultural tourism experiences such as what the Homalco can offer is growing rapidly.
“It’s on an exponential curve,” he says.
Part of the goal of People, Land, Water is to expand opportunities for the community, but it goes beyond mere economic development.
“It’s revitalized the culture and the language,” Obbagy says.
This latest tour offering serves as a means for the Homalco to reconnect to their land and culture, and to themselves as a people – and in the process, they grant visitors a rare gift in being able to come along for the ride.
“We’re using tourism as a vehicle towards Reconciliation,” adds Robinson.
To find out more about People, Water, Land, go to https://homalcotours.com/tours/people-water-land/ or contact 1-250-923-0602 or email@example.com.