With the aim of developing a more “sustainable, conservation-based economy”, the Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' First Nations have bought a tourism business with 50 years of operating in its territory.
On May 10 the First Nation’s KCFN Marina and Campground Limited Partnership announced the acquisition of West Coast Expeditions, a company that has been offering guided wilderness retreats in Kyuquot Sound since 1972.
With its base camp on Spring Island southwest of the village of Houpsitas, West Coast Expeditions offers kayaking tours ranging in duration from four to an eight-day journey to the Brooks Peninsula, which is northwest of Kyuquot. Guests stay in tents with raised beds in a camp equipped with showers, a dining area and a chef-run kitchen.
“There’s a network of trails that we maintain on the island, as well as the incredible coastal hiking and shoreline exploring, including intertidal life,” said Dave Pinel, a past co-owner of the company with Caroline Fisher and Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' member Beverly Michel, who currently manage the operation as the First Nation undergoes the ownership transition.
“A big raft of up to 200 sea otters has been slowly increasing in the area,” said Fisher. “That’s a big draw for folks as well.”
Many guests are from various parts of British Columbia, but visitors also venture from the northwestern United States as well as Germany, Britain and the Netherlands, with some groups coming from as far away as Australia and Japan.
“Part of the attraction is to be unplugged from the internet and cell phones,” added Pinel. “It helps people reset in what seems to be a more entangled and confusing world.”
The former owner noted that guests are always introduced to the cultural importance of the territory they will be exploring, and connections with locals continue throughout their stay, including the weekly salmon dinners hosted by the Jules family.
“It’s unscripted, it’s conversations, it’s learning about life in the remote location,” said Pinel. “Last summer we started doing some language and cultural conversations with Tessie Smith, who is one of the Nuu-chah-nulth language instructors.”
The First Nation’s ownership of the company serves as a progressive localizing of the operation, as West Coast Expeditions looks to be run by more Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' members in the future. It was started in 1972 by the late Jerry Lang, an Okanagan College biology teacher who offered excursions with a marine biology theme to areas that were not impacted by the last ice age.
Although the tourism company only operates for three and a half months of the year, the First Nation hopes that the acquisition will lead to a more diverse economy beyond resource extraction industries.
“KCFN leadership was in full support of the acquisition, recognizing the long-term success of WCE and the opportunities it could provide to the nation and citizens in terms of economic development and employment,” said the nation’s Legislative Chief Tony Hansen in a statement.
“Forestry definitely provides the most revenue for the businesses at this point,” said Gary Wilson, CEO and economic development officer for the KCFN Group of Businesses. “The nation’s vision is to have a sustainable, conservation-based economy. So we’ve got to start the balance there and make sure that those extractive businesses are done in a fashion that’s going to be respectful of the values of the nation.”
Tours are almost completely booked for the summer, and more than 80 per cent of West Coast Expeditions’ guests this year are returning customers, noted Wilson.
“We recognise that tourism in itself is not going to be able to sustain all of operations or the economy, but it certainly will be a means to other opportunities and partnerships with respect to the group of businesses and the citizens,” said Wilson, who is looking to the potential of West Coast Expeditions to grow its following. “For protocol purposes and out of respect for the nations, we want to make sure that what we’re offering is authentic to Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h'. That’s something that will unfold over the next couple of years.”
A few years ago WCE guests experienced a particularly authentic stay when it was discovered they were sharing Spring Island with a pack of 11 wolves.
“They were amazing neighbours,” recalled Pinel. “The wolves don’t look to humans as a food item or food source unless we train them to do so. Let them forage successfully, if they’re clearly circulating [let them] harvest from the intertidal area or the forest.”
“We were very careful. We never left anything out that would appeal to them in any way,” said Fisher. “Toiletries were put away in Rubbermaid containers so there was nothing they could smell.”
Pinel added that the group discouraged the wolves from coming too close to the camp.
“Our seven-year-old son used to chase away the alpha female and the young pups and they would respond to that,” he said. “I think the wolves are more stressed out by us being there than us by them.”