FRONT PAGE TRAVEL FEATURE: THE VICTORIA TIMES
COLONIST NOV 8TH 2003
KLEMTU - QUEST FOR THE SPIRIT BEAR
A fourty minute flight from Victoria and I'm in the South Terminal
of Vancouver Airport. Anglers, with reversed caps and perfect teeth, beam
down from rows of brightly-lit posters. Each clasps a trophy fish of biblical
size caught at "this" or "that" Lodge. On the tarmac,
a squadron of small planes is itching to prove that ‘getting there
can still be half the fun,.
"You won't fry my film will you?" I plead, clutching a ziplock
freezer bag bulging with high-cost high-speed rolls. "I'm off
to Klemtu to shoot the Kermode Spirit Bear." Unlike the Victoria
to Vancouver leg where I paid $7 for the privilege of being frisked,
Klemtu is rated a "non-security destination". I exchange my duffel
bag for a boarding pass and a quizzical look. Obviously no concerns about
exploding tackle boxes here!
I board the Shorts 360, one of Pacific Coastal Airlines more recent acquisitions.
A Native motif decorates the tail. The flight is full. Half of the 32
passengers sport the uniform of a high-end angler: Polo golf shirt; Designer
Docksiders; Preppy haircut and a healthy tan. Exaggerated fish tales
are exchanged in a Southern drawl. A "guys" outing from Atlanta.
Returning locals are easy to spot. Each has a sweater and rain jacket
close at hand, despite the 25C temperature on a cloudless day.
In Port Hardy, the contingent from Georgia departs with boyish anticipation.
The idling Grumman Goose, a veteran flying boat from the 1930,s,
will transport them to a hidden utopia where fish come in two sizes,
big and huge. Our plane, now half-empty, becomes a club. "How,s
your wife?" "Heard your nephew got married?" Most can't
wait to get home. "Hey, talk to someone in the city and they think
you want something." Boat traffic thins out. Unpredictable weather
North of Johnstone Strait separates the men from the boys.
Bella Bella Airport, hub of the central coast, feels more like a community
centre. A 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle is a work in progress on the check-in
counter. Art from the local school, covers one wall. Both feature fishing
boats. The place is humming with friendly banter. Do I detect a hint of
scepticism when I explain my quest?
Outsize white claws are painted on the runway. Are we finally in Spirit
bear country? No! "Just follow the Sasquatch footprints." I
share the 1947 Beaver with Ken and Gladys. She is returning home from
a hernia operation in Vancouver clutching a dozen yellow roses. "They
don't grow well in Klemtu, they don't like the winter." A
raffle helped with her travel expenses.
The young pilot is in constant motion. His eyes dart nervously across the
gauges. His hands search for fresh knobs and levers to tweak. We bounce
unevenly through gusting wind and whisps of cloud. Pacific rollers, perhaps
from Japan, attack the outer cliffs with ferocious boiling spume. This
is raw wilderness. Not a boat; not a house; not a sign of life. Glacier-
capped mountains frame a patchwork of connecting tree-lined inlets as far
as the eye can see.
A half-hour later, we lurch over the crown of China Hat island and descend
through the mist in a tight U-turn. The village, cunningly tucked up
a backwater, appears below. Klemtu is a Kitasoo word meaning, "hidden
passage." The population of around 400 is an amalgamation of Kitasoo
and Xai,xais people from 13 villages in the area. Trout Bay is a
sheltered natural harbour stretching from the "Big House" to
the fish plant. A daily flight and weekly ferry break the isolation. The
pilot distributes mail, a new engine part and a parcel from Sears, by name. "Hey
Archie, this is for you."
In the float-home a few paces down the dock, a young English couple are
settling in. They are on their honeymoon and express some surprise at sharing
digs with a stranger. Where can they buy wine? The local, who is busily
casting into a leaping school of Chum and Coho outside our door, confirms
that the place is dry! Looks of shock and horror. Sensing an emergency,
I crack open my medical supplies and pour fingers of Scotch into three
glasses. We bond!
Klemtu is a tightly run community. Any kid who defies the 9.50pm curfew
will have to contend with Jim, a 6,4" retired RCMP officer
with Kitasoo/Xai,xais Security emblazoned on his impressive shoulders.
A surprising number of unregistered cars and trucks cruise the short
waterfront strip. The satellite TV Community channel advises truck owners
kids inside the cab and slow down on dirt roads to minimise dust - Oh
and for $50 you can join Jim's 12 hour course on "how to
apply for a firearm licence."
The band cafeteria, the sole eatery, is your ultimate neighbourhood greasy
spoon. Laughter and smoke from the deep fryer seep through the door.
Reading material is limited to well-thumbed copies of "Better Homes & Gardens"
and "Western Farmers monthly". Jim Lim, a cheery Chinese chef brought
Vancouver, is succeeding in his mission to fatten the community. A request
for a small portion is greeted with disdain and an extra dollop. His
off-menu specials run to "Red Snapper Sushimi with Wasabe" - "Deep
fried chili and garlic crab" - "Egg foo-yung" and "Grilled
Coho" straight from the bay. After copious quantities of vanilla
ice cream topped with hot chocolate sauce, we agree to begin our quest
in the morning.
Charlie Mason is the senior hereditary Chief of The Xai'xais people -
obviously an important position in the confusing hierarchical setup.
and Mason," the store conveniently located in his basement, has an
edge over the band supermarket by selling T-shirts with poignant slogans
such as "I flew to Klemtu and survived!" He is waiting for
us with a confident grin in his 23, aluminum boat.
This is big country and it takes an hour before we reach the wide sandy
beach, once a parking lot for canoes, on Princess Royal Island. The ancient
arena, a few paces through the undergrowth, is reverting back to nature.
Four steps, cut out for seating, surround the sunken stage. The roof has
long since collapsed but massive support beams should last forever. Haida
booby-traps, camouflaged holes concealing upright sharpened spears, still
jinx nearby Wilby Point.
"Quick - over there!" Chief Charlie points to a pair of humpbacked
whales and guns the boat. We spend a magical hour hoping for that perfect shot.
They tease us and breach just beyond lens range. We trace the stink of rotting
fish to a froth of activity by a rocky outcrop. Sea-Lions are gorging on a
passing shoal of decaying salmon ready to spawn.
Clambering up the bank of Indian River is a challenge. The annual 50-foot rainfall
has created an almost impenetrable forest. Branches are knotted together
with moss and lichen. The ground is covered in a dense pale green spongy carpet
that covers rocks, stumps and rotting trees. Bald eagles, normally preferring
a treetop perch, are a mass of shadowy white dots hidden amongst the lower
branches ready to pounce on a hapless passing salmon. A small clearing at
river's edge has been flattened. Half-eaten fish carcasses are everywhere.
A wide tunnel through the undergrowth leads between two rocks. Bear country!
We wait and watch and watch and wait. Perhaps another day?
I spent 5 magical days absorbing the close community and traditions of The
Kitasoo/Xai'xais People. The newly completed Big-House with it's
extraordinary interior carvings, stands as a proud sentinel on a promontory
at the entrance to the harbour. A museum will hopefully house pilfered artefacts
now held in collections around the world.
I laughed with people named Robinson, Wallis and McKnight - Klemtu was on
The Hudson's Bay trading route? I chatted to missionaries who popped
by on their million dollar boat, The Coastal Messenger - They had stiff competition
from two ladies at The Edgar Memorial United Church who blast Elvis Presley
hymns across the bay through a PA system on Sunday mornings!
I saw pods of Orcas. Dolphins played under our bow. I helped haul up crab,
snapper and rock-cod at the end of another day of exploration in pristine wilderness,
so Jim Lim could work his magic.
I never saw another tourist - or a bear for that matter. The Kermode Spirit
Bear - "created by The Raven to remind him of the ice-age when
all things were white"- will just have to wait! I shall be back.
IF YOU GO:
BY AIR FROM VICTORIA: Pacific Coastal Airlines ( 1-800-663-2872 ) 7.15AM flight
to Vancouver neatly connects with their 8.15AM flight to Klemtu via Port Hardy
and Bella Bella. Truly a memorable experience!
BY BC FERRY: Weekly sailing,s from Port Hardy and Prince
Rupert in High Season - Bi-monthly sailings in low season. BC Ferry inquiries
1-888-223-3779 or 250-386-3431
CONTACTS: Check the Website www.kitasoo.org or phone Evan Loveless 1-877-644-2346
WHAT TO TAKE: The community is isolated and supplies are
limited. Take anything you feel you can't live without. You will be provided
with an excellent
list of suggestions. The community is alcohol-free. If you must imbibe -
exercise discretion and do so only in the privacy of your accommodation.
WHEN TO GO: June/September are the best months. Bear viewing supposedly peaks from late
August through September when the salmon are spawning. Treat a bear sighting
as a bonus and you will not be disappointed. There is so much more to experience.
Getting there is an adventure in itself!
IMPORTANT GENERAL COMMENTS: This is a very rare opportunity
to explore BC,s stunningly beautiful remote central coast based in a warm-hearted
First Nation's village. Your guides will be well educated in native culture
and traditions. Use the website as a guideline only. Specify your interests.
Kayaks are available and plans are under way to build a network of remote
base cabins. This is not a ‘slick, operation but if approached with
an open mind and an open heart you will return with unrepeatable memories
and anecdotes as I did.