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Beautiful British Columbia Shines with Eco-Friendly Travel

by Jack Christie 

Back when the ditty “(It’s Not That Easy) Bein’ Green” debuted on Sesame Street in 1970, a handful of British Columbia outdoor adventure companies began including an ecological ethos in their mission statement. “It’s beautiful!” crooned Kermit the Frog, “And it’s what I want to be.” Gradually, more fledgling wilderness tourism operators appeared with environmental sustainability on offer. For its time, this was as radical a step as restaurants featuring fresh, locally-sourced menu choices.

Fast forward three decades to current times. Attitudes have changed with the times. Adventure travelers are now more likely to measure the size of their environmental footprints before setting off on vacation. The rewards? Returning home even more enlightened and enchanted by the natural world after booking trips with globally-conscious entrepreneurs such as Vancouver Island’s Tofino Sea Kayaking, Purcell Mountain Lodge in the Kootenay Rockies, as well as both Bluewater Adventures and Great Explorations in Vancouver. In the 1980s, each put down roots in pristine locations with a keen appreciation for the fragility of their respective ecosystems, from marine to alpine zones.

While many may profess a dedication to green initiatives today, these operators profess their success with a lifelong commitment.

Tofino Sea Kayaking

There are many richly-hued jewels to be discovered outside Vargas Island.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Vines

Tofino Sea Kayaking
Before Tofino Sea Kayaking opened its doors in 1988 on the west coast of Vancouver Island, owner Dorothy Baert spent years connecting with the wilderness in as non-intrusive a manner as possible. From her cabin on Wickaninnish Island, a chain of sand and granite outposts sprinkled in the open Pacific waters surrounding Tofino, she came to appreciate that the ecological footprint left by self-propelled adventurers perfectly suited the rich but delicate shoreline zone. For this reason alone, sea kayaking offered tremendous appeal. By extension, Baert believed she could market the magnetism of paddling to a rising tide of visitors drawn to experience the wave-lashed beauty of nearby Clayoquot Sound which adjoins the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (an area which boasts a combination of exposed coast and protected waters).

Two decades later, Dorothy still measures her actions against the statement posted on her website: “To strive for excellence in providing quality sea kayaking programs which promote environmental awareness, safety on the water, physical well-being and cultural sensitivity through the experience of wilderness and our human connection to the natural world.” Today more than ever, Baert says the company’s green approach is a key reason paddlers choose to adventure with Tofino Sea Kayaking. Judging from feedback, clients are as fond of TSK’s “Leave No Trace” credo as they are of the fine food prepared by the guides.

Purcell Mountain Lodge

Purcell Mountain Lodge explodes with wildflowers in the summer.
Photo Credit: Tourism BC/David Gluns

Purcell Mountain Lodge
Look way up beyond sea level and you’ll find Purcell Mountain Lodge nestled at the tree line between the Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges near Golden. That’s where company founders Russ Younger and Paul Leeson began leading backcountry ski tours in the early 1980s. As their business flourished, the pair envisaged creating a luxurious mountain retreat to rival lodges erected in the Rockies at the turn of the 20th century. Their major caveat was adhering to newly-emerging environmental conservation standards in every detail, from waste disposal to power generation, not the easiest feat when the only access is by helicopter.

Leeson, a life-long outdoors enthusiast, still mentors the lodge today. He admits the founders didn’t go green for economic reasons. They were motivated by a sense of conscience to preserve the surrounding alpine. Surprisingly, a green approach was never a factor in fostering business. However, once the lodge’s impressive minimal-impact design features were explained, guest feedback was instantly positive.

Despite pressure from would-be clients to offer more frequent helicopter service between Golden and the lodge, Leeson remains unbending. Flights are restricted to twice-weekly in the winter (minimum three-night stay), with an additional shuttle added periodically throughout the summer to accommodate shorter stays. While this green gesture may not seem like much, he contends that five people sharing a short helicopter ride for a multi-day sojourn in the alpine is a lot easier on the planet than a similar sight-seeing tour of the Rockies by car.

Bluewater Adventures

Totems prove majestic at Ninstints, in the Queen Charlotte Islands
Photo Credit: Bluewater Adventures

Bluewater Adventures
The last thing mariners want to encounter at sea is green water. When that happens, a storm has whipped the waves with such fury that the ocean boils. Sailors know to seek refuge well before then. Savvy salts like Randy Burke, who has helmed North Vancouver’s Bluewater Adventures since 1988, is thrilled that the youthful green spirit of the 1970s has come storming back in recent times. The green wash he sees swelling around his adventure sailing business is a rising tide of responsible travelers who value the environmental record and ethics of the companies they spend their money with. 

According to Burke, in today’s outdoor adventure market, companies that aren’t green are the ones falling behind. He believes commitment has to be more than skin deep. For that reason, Bluewater Adventures just completed a corporate review by Ecotrust Canada and the Pembina Institute to help it become carbon-neutral. While that alone may not solve all of the planet’s environmental woes, Randy maintains it will at least demonstrate his company is on the proactive side of the global warming ledger.

From the outset, Bluewater Adventures believed it was one thing to sail, but another tack entirely to sail with researchers and local guides to expand a visitor’s sense of place. For Burke, that place means BC’s Central Coast and Queen Charlotte Islands where the company forged relationships with first the Haida in the late 1980s, and more recently with the Gitga'at and Kitasoo First Nations. In this way, a sailing trip becomes a voyage of exploration of the living history of the coast. There’s nothing like an authentic voice to deepen a travel experience, especially when BC is blessed with the most outstanding wild coast in the world, a fact that makes Burke’s job, in a word, easy.

Great Explorations

Sea to Sky Mountain
Bike Trail Challenge

Great Explorations
In the mid-1990s, Robbin McKinney’s Great Explorations cycle touring company changed the face of bike riding in BC with its Sea to Sky Mountain Bike Trail Challenge and the Kettle Valley Trail Cycle Tour. Over subsequent years, such bike events have helped raise awareness of the trails while benefiting local communities. The strategy has been so successful that the 650-kilometre Kettle Valley Railway Trail is now an integral section of the Trans Canada Trail. Thanks to fundraising efforts spearheaded early on by Great Explorations and now championed by the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation, major trail building is proceeding on the 300-kilometer-long Sea to Sky Trail between D’Arcy and Squamish.  

Since 1985, when a self-admitted insatiable wanderlust overtook his life, organizing and guiding bike trips has been McKinney’s passion. He estimates he’s guided more bike trips for longer distances than anyone else in the business. While most guides burn out, the Vancouver-based cyclist and avid traveler never seems to get enough. He chose this path because, in part, biking is one of the best ways to make contact with people while leaving the smallest environmental impact. McKinney believes it’s far easier to be green now because his clients are themselves much more aware of the environmental ethic. Everyone agrees because it’s something most of them practice at home. It’s the right thing to do plus it makes good business sense. That’s the new green bottom line, and you can bet Kermit would be mighty pleased.

If You Go...

Tofino Sea Kayaking
320 Main Street, Box 620
Tofino, British Columbia VOR 220

Purcell Mountain Lodge
P.O. Box 1829
Golden, British Columbia VOA 1H0

Bluewater Adventures
#3-252 East First Street
North Vancouver, British Columbia V7L 1B3

Great Explorations
#203-1338 West 6th Avenue
Vancouver, British Columbia V6H 1A7

For more information on other British Columbia destinations and travel information, visit Tourism BC.