Mike Willie of SeaWolf Adventure Tours is backed by some of the potlatch collection of historical Kwakwaka'wakw ceremonial masks at U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay while speaking to a tour group Apr. 13.

Sea Wolf finds niche in cultural tourism

A pair of North Island entrepreneurs have discovered there’s no time like the present to build upon their families’ past.

ALERT BAY—A few decades ago, it was unclear whether there would be a future for the aboriginal people of B.C.’s coast.

But a pair of North Island entrepreneurs have discovered there’s no time like the present to build upon their families’ past.

Mike Willie and K’odi Nelson last summer began Sea Wolf Adventure Tours, a First Nation-owned and oriented cultural tourism business.

And heading into their first full summer season of operation, the pair are finding a willing and eager audience.

“The reason we’re doing this is so we can get back into our territories,” said Willie, whose family hails from Kingcome Inlet. “How do you reconnect, as First Nations people? That’s getting into aboriginal tourism.”

The tours are run from a modest office on the boardwalk in Telegraph Cove. Guests are ferried in a new, rigid-hull boat purchased last summer, to nearby Cormorant Island for a three-hour tour of ‘Namgis history.

Featured on the tour are visits to the historic Memorial pole cemetery at the waterfront, the U’mista Cultural Centre and its century-old potlatch collection, and to the Alert Bay Big House, where the T’sasala Cultural Group performs traditional native dance.

The two men narrate at each location, weaving descriptions of pre-contact history with some of the darker aspects of life after colonization, including the residential school period in which their native language was all but lost to an entire generation.

“We also have a tour over on Hanson Island, where people can come and learn how our people utilized the living trees,” said Willie. “You can go and see six planks taken out of a living cedar tree.

“That’s our archeological sites. Archeology in B.C. is different from the Mayan ruins.”

Willie and Nelson, who both teach in the cultural program at Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw School in Port Hardy, hope to apply funds raised by Sea Wolf Adventures to establish and promote a language revitalization program.

Due to their teaching jobs, they are able to operate their business full-time only in the summer months. But they did take the opportunity this spring to showcase the Sea Wolf tour to various tourism charters and lodges, to show them what they could share with their clients.

The tours were an immediate hit.

“We have a group of regular clients,” said Colin Griffinson of Vancouver-based Pacific Yellowfin Charters, a high-end touring company. “They want to come back, but they don’t want to come back and do the same thing every time. That’s where Mike comes in, and his vision. This is an ideal fit for our charter.”

Sea Wolf Adventure Tours has also set up a working partnership with Nimmo Bay Resort in Broughton Strait, and will work with other operators to expand the tourism experiences they can offer their clients.

It is an idea whose time has come, and Willie and Nelson appear to be getting in on the ground floor at the perfect time.

In a long-term regional planning workshop hosted by the Regional District of Mount Waddington last month, William Trousdell of EcoPlan, Intl., put tourism high on the list of economic drivers of the North Island economy in the coming decades — and tourism wasn’t even listed the last time the RD worked up its plan in 2004.

“We’ve already done an exercise identifying the key sectors going to be driving the economy, diversifying the economy,” Trousdell told a gathering of civic, business and education leaders. “Tourism is an important sector, and there are emerging opportunities within that sector, particularly aboriginal and cultural tourism.”

 

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