Where the Wild Things Are
Photo: Mathieu Dupuis, Quebec Aboriginal Tourism, Forillon
Written by Valerie Berenyi
Wildlife experiences get guests up close but remain deeply respectful of the fauna.
Bobbing in a 28-foot aluminum boat off the northeastern tip of Vancouver Island, the tour group glimpses the curve of a whale’s hump before it slides beneath the ocean. Minutes later, as the boat operator quickly cuts the engine, a huge humpback emerges near the bow to look, eyeball to eyeball, with the 12 awestruck humans aboard. The up-close-and-personal wildlife encounter in “a small boat with a small group makes for a very intimate experience,” says Thomas Coon, an interpretive guide and tourism coordinator with k’awat’si Tours and a member of Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations near Port Hardy, British Columbia.
The heart-thudding experience of watching wild creatures freely going about their business in the natural world is unforgettable. But when that experience is guided by an Indigenous tour operator with deep knowledge of the land, animals, plants and cycles of nature—and with roots going back millennia—it’s incomparable. Research by the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) and Destination Canada show that American travelers, a key market, are looking for authentic experiences not available anywhere else. They seek real, personal connections with Indigenous people to get closer to the culture and experience nature in small, intimate groups.
If the market is there, so is the supply. Opportunities to immerse oneself in nature and encounter wildlife with Indigenous hosts are ever-expanding. The number of Indigenous tourism businesses grew from 892 in 2002 to more than 1,500 in 2014, according to figures from the 2015 National Aboriginal Tourism Research Project conducted by the ITAC.
Visitors want to engage with and to learn from Indigenous peoples, some of whom are natural-born storytellers and knowledge keepers, like Joe Urie. A Metis guide and owner of the Jasper Tour Company, Urie shares his knowledge of the Athabasca Valley—home to his family since the 1860s— with international guests arriving in Jasper, Alberta. On his wide-ranging driving tours, he teaches newcomers to observe megafauna such as grizzlies, elk, coyote, wolves and moose from a respectful distance. He shudders when he sees tourists rushing out of their cars when they spy a roadside grizzly mama and her cubs; his guests are permitted to leave the vehicle only when it’s safe and to keep a respectful distance. “But I try to get people on the ground as much as possible,” says Urie. “Their feet rarely leave the concrete at home.”
“Nobody knows the land better than [the Inuit people].”
Similarly, Inuit guides in Quebec serve as living examples of people being in harmony with the natural world when they tour guests through their homeland in Nunavik, comprising the northern third of the province. For instance, Inuit Adventures in Northern Quebec has an experience called “The Big Three” to see polar bears, musk-oxen and caribou—the three animals at the apex of Arctic wildlife. Guests travel by canoe and aircraft, and visit four of the 14 villages found in this immense region.
“Nobody knows the land better than [the Inuit people],” says Marie-Claire Moraine, who does business development for the company. “They have seen a decrease in the caribou, so they respect the animals and take only what they need. And they use every part of the animal.” As the planet undergoes climate change, Indigenous tourism can provide meaningful lessons in the fragility of the environment. Take Arctic Bay Adventures, based in the remote hamlet of Arctic Bay, Nunavut. One of its packages offers the opportunity to travel with local Inuit guides to experience the fleeting and wondrous beauty of life found at the edge of an ice floe under a 24-hour-a-day summer sun. Fortunate visitors might spot a “sea unicorn” in the Arctic waters, its tusk-like tooth spearing the sky; narwhals are threatened by climate change as sea ice dwindles.
Some tour operators take tremendous pride in showcasing the traditional ways of their people when it comes to harvesting plants and animals. Shammy Adventures, located in the vast Eeyou Istchee Baie-James region of Quebec, is a prime example.
“Visitors might spot a “sea unicorn” in the Arctic waters, its tusk-like tooth spearing the sky.”
The operator’s Cree ancestors have lived in the area’s boreal forest and taiga for nearly 6,000 years, and Shammy’s guides teach guests about medicinal plants, paddle with them on pristine waterways and encourage them to participate in net fishing as it’s been done for centuries.
Other Indigenous tour operators have a foot in both old and new ways. For the “extremely adventurous” who want to get out on the land and push themselves mentally and physically, Kylik Kisoun Taylor of Tundra North Tours runs the Ultimate Northern Adventure Package. An Inuvialuit/Gwich’in, he’s headquartered in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, where the seven-day expedition begins. It involves building and sleeping in igloos and riding snowmobiles long distances over the tundra to gently herd 3,000 semi-domesticated reindeer to their calving grounds—a modern take on an ancient connection between human and animal. Taylor says it’s his favourite cold-season trip, one “designed for people who want to experience ultra-authentic. It’s the closest tour I have that goes back in time—except for the really great snowmobiles.”