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People & Culture

Finding an island in the Great Bear Rainforest

  • Jan 21, 2014
  • 618 words
  • 3 minutes
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The late summer day was coming to a close with a beautiful soft light on a small sail-equipped schooner navigating the Broughton Archipelago of the Great Bear Rainforest. Five or six days into the adventure cruise, the captain needed shelter from night winds. Following an old map, Kevin Smith twisted the schooner through a labyrinth of huge cliff faces and tiny islets draped with evergreens, rocky outcroppings and the occasional shell midden left from coastal peoples over the centuries. But as he approached the night resting place, he realized there was a small problem — an uncharted island sat right in the middle of his intended anchorage.

In the age of satellite imaging it isn’t often that a new island is charted. But when traveling among the fjords and varied archipelagos off British Columbia’s coast, it’s easy to see how one may have been missed.

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(Map: Courtesy of Maple Leaf Adventures)

The Great Bear Rainforest was so dubbed by environmental groups in the 1990s, partly in reference to the famous Kermode spirit bears — a subspecies of black bear with a high incidence of a type of albinism — that inhabit islands like the Princess Royal in great numbers. First Nations groups, environmentalists, logging companies and the B.C. government agreed to a landmark plan in 2006 that formalized the protection of a third of the area that stretches from Alaska down to the Discovery Islands sandwiched between the northern third of Vancouver Island and the B.C. coast.

“There’s this magical, grand landscape that you’re travelling through that you’re humbled by,” says Smith, the tour operator, captain and part owner of Maple Leaf Adventures. Smith has been working in the area since 1991, when he did a nine-year stint as a park ranger. But he sees himself more as an explorer than anything else. He says he tries never to visit the same area twice on his tours because he needs that sense of discovery in his life.

“I get the biggest boost of energy when I’m off exploring new territory,” he says. “As a captain of the ship, I have this tremendous opportunity to decide which channel I’m going to go through on a particular day.”

And daily choices tend to include everything from twisting fjords with 1,000-metre deep inlets to the gamut of cascading waterfalls or ancient fish traps used by the ancestors of First Nations groups like the Heiltsuk. They invariably include an abundance of coniferous trees, orange-trunked cedar or the distant snow that takes over the rocky peaks from the verdant mosses blanketing the lower altitudes.

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Captain Kevin Smith at the helm of the Maple Leaf. (Photo: Mark Hobson)

It’s choices like these which led him to come across an uncharted one-acre island on a tour in the fall of 2009. Some of the landscape hasn’t been updated since the latest maps were drawn up in the 1930s or 1940s, allowing travelers to come across serendipitous moments like these. The island was named “Maple Leaf Island” by the tour guests who decided to claim the island by drawing up a flag and a coat of arms over an evening campfire on a beach.

As far as Smith is concerned, he’s happy his experience allowed for safe navigation of the 1904 mahogany-varnished schooner.

“Historically, when the captain had a problem, the rock would be named after the boat it sunk,” he says.

But in this case, the island was named in honour of a discovery on a memorable adventure tour.

For more on cruising in the Great Bear Rainforest, including the Canadian Geographic/Maple Leaf Adventures expedition happening this June, visit Maple Leaf Adventures’ website.


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