Before cities like Victoria were built, before the world-famous Butchart Gardens opened and internationally renowned hiking trails like the West Coast Trail attracted visitors from around the world, there were Indigenous villages.
Vancouver Island is the largest island by size off the Pacific Coast of continental North America, bigger in land mass than many European and Asian countries. For centuries, Indigenous people like the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Kwakwakaw’akw lived on what much later became known as Vancouver Island. The temperate rainforest and ocean provided them with food, an avenue of transportation, and harvest.
Today, these groups of people tell their stories through cultural presentations, art, adventures on land and by water, and interpretive centres with fascinating displays.
Here are five unique Vancouver Island experiences that you can indulge your senses in this fall. These include wildlife-viewing adventures to spot grizzly bears and whales, marine ecology outings, kayaking trips, and a visit to a marine provincial park accessible only by water.
All of these experiences are operated by members of B.C.’s Aboriginal communities, keen to share their living culture with you.
SEA WOLF ADVENTURES
Mike Willie started his Aboriginal tourism and water taxi business as a way to reconnect to the land and language of his people, sparking a culture revitalization for himself and his guests.
His company, Sea Wolf Adventures, links travellers to the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw Nation and its heritage, much of which is tied to the Great Bear Rainforest, the jaw-dropping and beautiful natural wonder that is approximately the size of Belgium.
The rainforest is on the B.C. mainland, but Sea Wolf sails guests into it from its home base in Port McNeill, an outpost in northeastern Vancouver Island.
Through grizzly-bear viewing and cultural tours with Aboriginal guides, Sea Wolf gives its clients both an education in Indigenous practices and a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experience.
“Our language comes from the land and is only a reflection of our surroundings, so the inspiration for my company was to get out there into the natural surroundings,” says Willie, who grew up in Kingcome Inlet, located in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Willie, whose Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw name is T’ɬalis (Breaching Whale Around the World), is devoted to offering a comprehensive and immersive journey into territory that has been home to his people for millennia.
Address: 1514 Broughton Boulevard, Port McNeill
Packages: Sea Wolf Adventures offers various packages including grizzly-bear tours, wildlife and cultural expeditions where visitors can travel into the Broughton Archipelago and the islands within. Check the tours page of Sea Wolf Adventures website for details.
SIDNEY WHALE WATCHING
The town of Sidney is the ideal spot for seeing whales because it is located in the middle of the feeding grounds for Vancouver Island’s resident orca population.
Visitors reputedly can get an average of 30 minutes more “whale time” here than at any other departure locations on the island.
Sidney Whale Watching, a family-run company, is just five minutes from the BC Ferries terminal and the Victoria Airport. Headed by owner Mike Child, Sidney Whale Watching has 30-foot walk-around vessels that allow visitors to view the sea from every possible camera angle. The guided tours include excursions in sea kayaks or the chance to charter an entire boat.
Child notes it is a privilege to operate within the traditional territory of the Salish People. He is from Fort Rupert and his Kwakiutl Nation name is T’lakudlas.
“Through the teachings of my grandparents and elders, I have always felt drawn to the traditional knowledge of my people,” he says. “There exists an inherent philosophy of stewardship and respect that manifests in all of the legends, origin stories and everyday ways of doing things.”
Address: #105-2537 Beacon Avenue, Sidney
Tours: Visitors can choose from a variety of vessels to experience the beauty of the Salish Sea (which includes the Juan de Fuca Strait, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound). Boats are equipped with platforms for video or still photography. There are even hydro phones on the vessels to listen to the language of the whales. Check out the company’s private charter page on its website for more information.
WEST COAST EXPEDITIONS
When you join a trip with West Coast Expeditions, you’re not only going to enjoy some of the best sea kayaking on the planet, you will experience a culture that has continued to paddle along the northwest coast of the Pacific Ocean for more generations than anyone can count.
Operated by members of the Ka:’yu:’k’t’h/Che:k:tles7et’h’ (Kyuquot/Checleset) Nations, West Coast Expeditions gives you the chance to learn in-depth about Aboriginal cultural.
Its highly personalized sea-kayaking tours begin on Spring Island in Kyuquot, which is about 150 kilometres (95 miles) north of Tofino. Visitors trek into a surrounding of old-growth forests and idyllic beaches, sharing the water with abundant sea otters in this enchanting wilderness retreat.
Cultural host Lana Jules, often accompanied by up to four generations of family and friends from Kyuquot, nourishes guests with a Aboriginal salmon feast and an evening of cultural sharing around a fire.
Tours: Visitors can sign up for tours ranging from four to eight days, and can choose fishing tours along with the sea-kayaking trip, or slightly less strenuous adventures. West Coast Expeditions’ website has information.
NEWCASTLE ISLAND MARINE PROVINCIAL PARK
This family-friendly marine provincial park is only accessible by foot passenger ferry or boat. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to reach.
Traditionally known as Saysutshun, Newcastle Island is located within Nanaimo Harbour. Once you’re there, you will be in the territory of the Snuneymuxw Nation, and you will encounter their magic.
Beautiful pristine beaches, shaded by giant trees, surrounds the park. Everything on the island is within walking distance and the panoramic views of Nanaimo and Coast Mountains are inspiring. Campers can reserve a site on the campground, while day visitors can park their car and catch a ferry.
Once on the island, hikers and cyclists can use the trails. Swimmers can wade into tidal pools and beachcombers can stride on the shore. When it’s time to replenish, head to the Sayutshun Bistro, where a restored 1930s teahouse in the dance pavilion serves burgers, smokies, seafood chowder and salads.
Address: Newcastle Island off Nanaimo
Activities: Snuneymuxw guides impart their knowledge of traditional medicines that are still being used by their people and share stories of their culture. Guided nature walks begin at the totem Pole. If you’d like to feast, you can make arrangements prior to arrival for a Snuneymuxw chef to cook a traditional salmon BBQ feast. You will also learn how to cook sockeye salmon in traditional methods. Tour information is available on the park’s website.
NUYUMBALEES CULTURAL CENTRE
For coastal Indigenous people, the potlatch was one of their most important and sacred ceremonies, serving a crucial role in the organization and social structure within their communities.
After the federal government introduced Anti-Potlatch laws in 1884, those ceremonies had to move underground. People who participated in potlatch were often arrested and some imprisoned and their ceremonial goods were confiscated.
Over the years, many of those pieces made their way off Vancouver Island and into museums and private collections around the world.
In 1975, Hereditary and Elected Chiefs of the Kwakwak’wakw Nation founded the Nuyumbalees Society to negotiate the return of their potlatch collection and regalia. In 1979, the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre opened its doors with the goal of revitalizing the Kwakwaka’wakw language and culture. You can visit this important site and see the returned artifacts for yourself this autumn.
Address: 34 Weway Road, Cape Mudge, Quathiaski Cove
Classes: A conversation class provides a basic introduction into the language and culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Visit the centre’s website to sign up.
By Guillermo Serrano, vacay.ca senior writer