Travel

Walking on sunshine

Absorbing the spirit of the land through Indigenous-led tourism initiatives along B.C.’s Sunshine Coast

  • May 30, 2023
  • 1,372 words
  • 6 minutes
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As the wind whispers through the cedars and a misty drizzle falls, Candace Campo raises her voice in song. The timbre ebbs and swells, and the forest seems to lean in, listening to her song and acknowledging Campo’s timeless connection to this land. Porpoise Bay Provincial Park is on the traditional lands of the shíshálh people and, as she stands beside the mighty trunk of a second-growth cedar, eyes closed and arms raised, Campo embodies her ancestral name. She is xets’emits’a (to always be there).

On a sunny day, the views from Sunshine Coast Air's 1950 De Havilland are spectacular. The tour soars over old-growth forest and past white, sandy beaches as passengers enjoy an in-depth commentary about the area by Talaysay Tours' Candace Campo.
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Campo’s voice is the backdrop to an exceptional three-day tour of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. The driving force behind Talaysay Tours, a First Nations Tourism company based in the region, Campo is both a teacher and a guide — a storyteller extraordinaire conjuring up the history of this land and its peoples. Teachings about place flow into teachings about forest medicines; teachings about fishing flow into gossip about the exploits of her aunties. This journey is an opportunity to acknowledge the land in a meaningful way; Campo’s words are expressions of hope. If we understand what was (and is), we will begin to understand how to live in balance with the natural world once again.

Tucked into the southwest corner of mainland B.C., this 180-km stretch of coastline is actually part of the mainland but the mountainous terrain means it can only be reached by float plane or ferry. It’s still accessible — just a 45-minute ferry ride from West Vancouver — but that little bit of separation has imbued the region with a laid-back island vibe.

It takes time to get here, so plan to stay awhile. Get under the skin of the Sunshine Coast — appreciate the mossy rainforests, the meandering coastal road, the hippie vibes, the cute cafes. Slow down and find your own adventure. This was mine.

In the skies

The adventure: Exploring the fiords of ?alhtulich (Sechelt Inlet) with Sunshine Coast Air and Talaysay Tours

The skies are deep blue, the waters calm, as the flashy orange seaplane takes to the skies with a full complement of six onboard. Sunshine Coast Air recently teamed up with Campo to launch an audio tour of the sacred fiords and she jumps onto this guided flight, listening for the first time to her own voice sharing the stories, history and wisdom of the shíshálh people.

Talaysay Tours founder Candace Campo (left) has partnered with Sunshine Coast Air owner-pilot Josh Ramsay (right) to launch an audio tour in which Campo tells the stories and history of the shíshálh people as the sea plane flies over the sacred fiords of ?alhtulich (Sechelt Inlet).
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As the 1950 De Havilland soars over old-growth forest, dipping down to allow a closer look at a sparkling waterfall or a white, sandy beach, her voice comes through the headphones, speaking eloquently about the creation of the land, the bounty that once was. These words wash over the listeners, transporting us into longhouses the size of football fields, onto epic canoe journeys and into the midst of celebrations determined by the seasonal bounties of fish and berries.

Campo conjures up a worldview based on harmony, weaving in food and language, geology and history. Removing the headset as the seaplane taxis in after an hour-long flight, she says she feels fortunate to have grown up just after residential schools were mostly shuttered. Her family was very connected to the land and her summers were spent on the beaches and in the forests that we have just admired from on high. “The forests and beaches were my playground; the kayak was one of my toys.” She points to the beach and lists off the edible plants and animals in the vicinity. “We have a saying that when the tide is out, the table is set.”

In the forests

The adventure: Learning from the forest with the Talking Trees tour at Porpoise Bay Provincial Park

For this part of the journey, Campo pairs up with Richard Till to share Indigenous teachings about the forests of tsúlích (Porpoise Bay). The duo, who have guided together for some 25 years, make a formidable team. Till, a settler who has been given the name smanit stumish (Mountain Man) by the local Indigenous community, talks of the sea gardens and forest gardens tended by Indigenous People in this forest.

Richard Till (left) and Candace Campo (right) have guided together for more than two decades, sharing teachings about the forests of tsúlích (Porpoise Bay), as well as around Vancouver.
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The Talking Trees tour explores how Indigenous Peoples have lived in harmony with the forests and waters in this region, using their bounty for food and medicine, transportation and ceremony.
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He leans against a shore pine, whose sap can be used as a disinfectant, its resin as caulking and glue, then points upwards to a licorice fern anchored to a damp trunk, its sweet root good to chew. Beside us, an Oregon grape whose roots are used to treat intestinal upsets and, nearby, a salmonberry bush whose berries will be ready to pick in the early summer. 

We could spend days with the mighty cedar, whose wood, bark and roots were used to make everything from baskets to clothing, masks to the massive canoes that plied these waters. “The cedar permeates every aspect of our culture,” says Campo, gazing up into the forest canopy. And, yet, this massive tree towering above us is a fraction of the size of the old-growth giants that once dominated the landscape here. “The trees were so big that we could remove a piece big enough for a canoe without cutting down the tree — the tree would continue to live and grow.”

Along with this Sunshine Coast walk, Talaysay Tours runs a number of nature- and history-themed tours in Vancouver and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish).

On the Art Trail

The adventure: Admiring cedar carvings and weaving innovation with artists Derek Georgeson and Shy Watters

Maybe it’s the sunny weather, maybe it’s the scenery. Whatever the inspiration, the Sunshine Coast has become the home base of choice for hundreds of artists. Many invite visitors to see their work through organized art tours, self-guided visits through the Purple Banner Tour, or through stops at the many galleries peppered along the coast.

Cedar weaver Shy Watters with just a few of her pieces. Note the mortarboard (second from top, at right) — a unique take on the classic graduation cap.
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This carving in progress by Homalco artist Derek Georgeson of Aupe Studio features an oversized bear with a massive salmon gripped in its claws. He says it is getting harder to find large cedar trunks for bigger works such as this one.
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Homalco artist Derek Georgeson of Aupe Studio stands in his backyard beside a massive cedar carving in progress. When asked how each carved story comes to be, he says, simply, “I let the wood decide.” This oversized bear, a massive salmon gripped in its claws, came to him readily, but he says he lives with some pieces of wood for months before a story reveals itself.

His wife, Shy Watters, is a member of the shíshálh nation and a celebrated cedar bark weaver. Fittingly, the two artists met more than a decade ago during the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, a trans-national Indigenous voyage that brings together nations of the Pacific Northwest. Watters talks a mile-a-minute as we admire dozens of intricately woven cedar hats perched on multi-pronged hat stands in the couple’s studio.

Weaving for more than two decades, Watters was recently honoured by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which is currently showcasing one of her unique graduation caps for an exhibition of historic northwest coast artifacts. (She fashions a classic mortarboard out of cedar, then uses wool to create a colourful tassel and to weave traditional designs at the cap’s base that reference a student’s heritage or school.) She laughs as she recounts that when the museum request first came in over email she was convinced it was a scam until the curator set up a Zoom call to make it official. She was told that some U.S. high schools continue to ban students from wearing accessories that celebrate their Indigenous heritage.

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The natural world and its bounty are at the centre of the rich cultures and traditions of the peoples who have lived along the Sunshine Coast for thousands of years — the Skwxwú7mesh, shíshálh, Tla’amin, Klahoose and Homalco nations. Exploring the region through the lens of Indigenous tourism makes me wish that every trip within this place we call Canada might incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing. The deeper context makes the waters, mountains and forests that much more beautiful. As the ferry departs for the 45-minute journey back to busy Vancouver, I reflect that this journey was just a beginning. There is so much more to learn from the Sunshine Coast — and many more adventures to experience. I can’t wait to come back.

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