21st century BC

Helicopters and log-cabin spas are taming the wilderness of British Columbia. Lydia Bell leaves the grizzlies to their salmon to ride, hike, kayak, fish and whale-watch in this pristine, elemental playground

August 20 2012
Lydia Bell

The first morning, I wake to the sound of rain on canvas. In the low light, the darkness of the trees is softened at their wispy crowns by the enveloping mist, and by sunlit patches left by fugitive clouds. Above, glacial peaks lend an aspect of chilly grandeur. The looking-glass waters are rippled by the gentle rain, green in parts where the trees are reflected, then glassily indigo black. Everything in the landscape is alive and dancing. Out there in the woods, black bears and cougars roam. It’s a near-bewildering sense of remoteness.

And remote it is. Clayoquot Wilderness Resort is in Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The arrival, by float plane, was as exciting as stumbling into Narnia. Flying over the spine of Vancouver Island, landing on a fjord, someone pointed out an orca below and a whoop went up. Then we tipped down and bumped along the water to a tiny dock and were bundled into a horse-drawn wagon.

I have mentally signed up for everything a woman from the metropolis does not do: riding in rainforests, hiking in river valleys; kayaking; bear and whale watching; deep-sea and freshwater fishing; zip lining; clay and target shooting; painting lessons. A waiver form mentioned “falling rocks” and “stray bullets”. We received instructions on how to respond if a black bear appears. (Do not mistake it for a dog, in its deceitful docility, and pat it on the head, as one staff member did; instead put your eyes down and shuffle off sideways like a crab. And don’t doubt you might see one; there are about 40 in residence.)

Our introduction to all this great wide open is a ride into the Ursus River Valley. The wrangler, Dickson, is the happiest man I’ve met in or out of chaps. The forest is alive with elk, cougar, wolves and owls, he says. We ride over moss-covered, spongy, shockingly red earth and into a Jurassic landscape of ancient cedar, Sitka spruce and giant ferns, like something out of Avatar. “Old Growth Forest” is a mantra in these parts, a place where loggers have never infiltrated. Western red cedars – which can live up to 1,000 years – are shorthand for British Columbia.

Clayoquot’s manager, John Caton, is a record-producer refugee who shed his Canadian East Coast life of drink and drugs, along with about 40 kilos, to start anew here. A keen horseman with a big heart and a charming tendency to verbal incontinence, he fits the West Coast profile of inspirational left-of-fielders to a tee. Maybe because of him I jump on to a zip line, and then ride the river rapids in a kayak, tipping into the glacial waters repeatedly. When I tell him later that I was shaking like a leaf from fear, he just laughs and says I’ll never forget it. We fly out to sea in a speedboat; colonies of sea lions grunt like zombies, and I see the inspiring blow of feeding Pacific Grey whales. Orcas roam here, but are trickier to find.

On route we visit Freedom Cove, the floating home of Wayne and Catherine Adams, hippies who have been growing vegetables and living off solar power for two decades. They’ve been featured on many television shows, including Extreme Cribs, but have no TV themselves. Nearby is Hippie Point, where American draft-dodgers built Amityville-style houses on rocky cliffs, circled by endangered bald eagles, in the 1960s.

Despite the logging and mining that has pockmarked the landscape, Clayoquot Sound remains one of the last great wildernesses: 350,000 hectares of near-empty inlets and snow-capped peaks. I wonder how they snaffled this spot. Sitting by the firepit one night, John tells me over a silky Joie Pinot Noir how he found the land in 1999: a 500-acre parcel with a mining road but no occupants. A logging company owned it – he persuaded them to sell.

But then this wilderness has always been a gold mine. From around 1865, Chinese, British and other prospectors flowed in; clear-felling, the practice of clearing large areas of trees, was rife. But in the 1990s, environmentalists launched a backlash – now the logging is reined in, the miners are gone, but different predators lurk. Commercial fisheries pepper the Sound, their captive salmon bringing the threat of viruses. The government plans to build the Northern Gateway pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest. The resort, meanwhile, is committed to conservation – 3 per cent is added to all bills to cover salmon habitat restoration, bear mapping, whale feeding and migration studies, marine habitat listings and raptor rehabilitation.

In the 19th century, great camps in the US Adirondacks brought glamour to North America’s undiscovered wilderness. Clayoquot’s tents adopt that romantic pioneer vibe: north African rugs, chests of drawers, oil lamps, wood-burning stoves. The cedar-panelled bathrooms have forest showers, puffing steam into the mist. Outside the log-cabin spa with cedar-wood hipbath, an Entlebucher mountain dog is slumbering on a bench – one of 17 dogs here. My favourites are Witwalk, a massive Scooby Doo of a redbone coonhound cross, and Peggy Sue, a springer spaniel with great joie de vivre.

Clayoquot’s canteen restaurant buzzes in the evening from cocktail hour on: amuse-bouches scattered over platters fashioned from cut logs, open kitchen revving up, vast open fire flaming. The spot prawn was caught just outside the window, says Ryan the executive chef. They are delicious, as are the Dungeness crab, spit-roasted wild Pacific salmon, peaches and cream, corn on the cob.

When I leave, I am bereft; but my next destination is the largest intact temperate rainforest on Earth. I chug on a boat towards Tofino, whence I will head north to Port McNeill, to fly across the Great Bear Rainforest to Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort. Craig Murray, Nimmo’s founder, whips me across the island in a red BMW X5 playing loud country and western music. He interrupts the flow to point things out by slapping my arm: “Loggin’ train, darlin’!” We arrive at the cottage that is Pacific Coastal Airline’s HQ, and a small band steps up to the Grumman Goose, an amphibious 1940s plane. In true Canadian West-Coast style, my companions include a Jewish professional clown who plays the violin like a Kerry man at a wake, and a motivational speaker.

Soon we are swooping over inky waters towards blue?hued mountains, jagged coastline and archipelagos, then over charcoal beaches. The float plane dives into an inlet: Nimmo Bay. The smart chalets strung out along a deck here are even more remote than Clayoquot.

On the dock waiting to welcome us is the latest generation of the Murray family: Craig’s son Fraser and his girlfriend Becky, who both manage operations at Nimmo. The family founded the resort in 1980, and it has remained remarkably off the radar to almost all, it seems, but its powerhouse gallery of largely North American guests (in the memory room, the walls are lined with thank-you letters. There’s William Shatner, the television producer David E Kelly, Sir Richard Branson; George Bush Sr’s reads: “I hope our paths cross again right out there on those lovely rivers.”)

Nimmo started as a fishing lodge, but in recent years it has expanded its offering to include the kind of “soft” adventure that allows it to exploit its unique position and access to vast wilderness: hiking, kayaking, wildlife watching and wellbeing – yoga and culture. (This is, after all, the Pacific West Coast, where New Agers are as prevalent as macho anglers.) And a swashbuckling streak remains at Nimmo: theatrical taxidermy, wild helicopter excursions, jamming sessions. But it also has serious ethics. Since its founding, it has maintained strict catch-and-release and single-barbless-hook policies. The Murrays have an accord with the local Kwakwaka’wakw tribe to respect their culture and environment – and to show that tourism can be an economic generator. And the lodge pulls the entirety of its power from the thundering waterfall onsite.

Over the next few days, Fraser takes us out, ranging far and wide in his boat, The Dance. He spent his early childhood in Nimmo, and he brings the landscape to us, bumping up against waterfalls so we can feel and touch, placing starfish on his head before plopping them in the water, sidling right up to the slug-like sea lions. He and Becky jump off on deserted islets, unroll blankets, uncork excellent British Columbian wines and unpack gourmet picnics. They point out dolphin pods, catch crabs and present them for supper, beautifully strewn on a plank of cedar. He takes us to the floating village of Sullivan Bay, where a very few, very rich Americans fly planes right to their front doors for a summer of fishing; and to Billy Procter’s Museum, a clapboard house full of precious oddities and curios: 1930s beer bottles, native trading beads, Chinese tokens.

We are presented with abundant fish – mussels, oysters, crabs, scallops, spot prawns and salmon so fresh you half expect it to talk back. These are deeply intimate dining experiences: you are en famille. On our last evening, our feast – three types of just-caught oyster – is interrupted by the buzzing of a massive mosquito: it’s Craig and his best buddy Peter Barratt, helicoptering into town. An 80ft boat has also docked in the bay; its occupants, a well-known Stradivarius collector and his family, disembark to eat and drink with us. Craig gets out the guitar, the clown starts fiddling, and his wife plays the spoons. Nimmo’s eccentricity is in full flow.

The next morning I go up in the Jet Ranger with Craig and Peter. We soar thrillingly over the canopy, battling the 130mph wind, and swoop over broad, epic valleys crossed with rivers slicked with alluvial sand and glacial silt, littered with busted logs. Slithers of white water dissect dark forest. I feel a sudden and acute envy of birds, seeing the world from this perspective all the time. Craig is pulsing music through our headphones: David Foster film soundtracks from the 1980s. We plunge to a waterfall on a river and admire spruce with 12ft-wide trunks. This is where the grizzlies roam; in salmon-migration season, there might be 2,000 fish on one river bend. “No pools, no phones, no pets, Lydia,” says Craig.

We chance upon a huge male grey timber wolf padding across the marshes, then Peter lands on a riverbed where water dashes over smooth, black granite, pastel-flecked with tangerine and baby pink. The snowmelt waters are vibrating with fish: this is where coho spin up and out from the depths as they hurl themselves upstream to spawn. The men cast out for steelhead. “Here, fishy, fishy,” croons Craig. After a few casts they have one hooked, and set to landing her. She is glistening, muscular, scales delicately painted coral on grey-green. Peter kisses her and throws her back in.

People travel across the world to land these trophy fish. You hear talk of the thousand-catch rule: the need to be prepared to cast a thousand times to land a steelhead. Craig and Peter catch two in five casts when I am with them. Anglers sign up to private trips that combine the duo’s skills, to be immersed in the pursuit of steelhead, salmon, bull trout or rainbow trout fishing. Helicopters are the magic carpets that whisk everyone, however decrepit, to adventures.

We go higher, where only mountain goats climb. It’s eye-squintingly white, and glacial waters, cornflower-blue, break through the snow. Lines of black lava score the mountaintop. It’s a monochromatic, prehistoric watercolour: a sworn atheist could think of the Creation looking at it.

“No humans back here, Lydia,” chirps Craig, as we hurtle over a saddle. “All vertical real estate,” adds Peter. These cliffs – the headwaters of the Saghalie Creek – are blurred with iron reds, arsenic yellows, copper greens. I stare open-mouthed at the glacier snow, and say – idiotically – “It’s like piles of Crest toothpaste.” Finally, we land on a slab of rock next to a fall of water that roils so fiercely it fuzzes the air for 10ft above it. Someone hands me a glass of wine. I ask them when they last saw another person in this place; about five years ago, is the reply. They are not the only people with a licence in this 50,000 sq m of wilderness; but they are the only ones with a licence and a helicopter.

Later, Peter flies me to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island to catch my connecting flight back to London. I spot others heading towards Port McNeill, their float plane a tiny capsule wafting in a cinematic sky. I reflect that British Columbia’s great gift to those who visit is this huge, brooding, elemental expanse. It holds you in its embrace; it gently absorbs your introspection, your worries, leaving you with nothing but to breathe deep.

See also