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In the village of Klemtu, a First Nations community hits its stride

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by John Zada

 Situated in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, Spirit Bear Lodge treats its guests to Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation culture and hospitality and ecotourism adventures. Photos: supplied

Situated in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, Spirit Bear Lodge treats its guests to Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation culture and hospitality and ecotourism adventures. Photos: supplied

In the summer of 2010, Tim McGrady took over management of an undeveloped eco-lodge on a far-flung stretch of B.C. coast. Little did the 48-year-old Comox resident know at the time that within less than four years, he would help turn the business into one of the most talked about First Nations success stories in the province.  

“Many people didn’t think we could succeed,” says McGrady. “Operating a world-class eco-cultural resort in a remote B.C. community has significant challenges. But we’re doing it, and the impact has been unbelievably positive.”

McGrady is the manager of the Spirit Bear Lodge, located in the village of Klemtu, roughly 500 kilometres north of Vancouver. A hamlet – population 450 – Klemtu is situated in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, and is the seat of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation.

Since McGrady took over operation of the lodge, people from around the world have been flocking in ever-greater numbers to Klemtu in the hopes of getting a glance of the area’s most famous resident: the elusive white Spirit Bear. Also known as the Kermode, the Spirit Bear is a black bear with a recessive gene that gives it a light-coloured coat. The animal’s shy nature, small population and limited distribution have made it one of the most widely sought creatures on the planet by wildlife enthusiasts.

With McGrady’s help and vision, the lodge, collectively owned by the First Nation, has been providing much-needed jobs and a source of revenue for the community. It has also become an important node through which the Kitasoo conduct ecological and conservation activities. As a result of all this, Klemtu has experienced a significant revitalization.

A smattering of work experiences has helped McGrady execute his challenging role. After 15 years working as a sea kayaking guide in both Mexico and British Columbia, McGrady was hired to work at B.C.’s Knight Inlet Lodge – the first grizzly bear viewing resort in Canada. After cutting his teeth in this crucial role, McGrady spent several years helping big corporations with their leadership and team-building efforts.

But by 2009, McGrady yearned to get back to doing work that was more environmental and grass-roots oriented. When friends, who had been managing Klemtu’s nascent lodge, suggested he take over the role, he saw an opportunity.

“At the time, this place was just stumbling along,” McGrady says. “It had a lot of the pieces, but everything was out of step. I saw what was needed to make it work – and I went for it.”

Since then, the Spirit Bear Lodge has grown by leaps and bounds. The resort, which previously ran just at peak bear viewing season (between late August and early October), is now open in June. New cultural experiences are also on offer, like this summer’s In Search of Bukwus Tour, which, in addition to some bear viewing will take in areas where the legendary Sasquatch (known locally as “Bukwus”) has been spotted.

For McGrady – who can be seen on any given day at the lodge managing its multifarious operations like a symphony conductor – the resort has huge potential to both grow and sustainably benefit the community and its environment.

“It’s a great adventure,” McGrady says. “That’s what my life has always been about. And this is on a pretty grand scale. I can’t wait to see where it all goes.” 

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