Our research and outreach vessel, Achiever, just returned from one of the most inspiring trips of the year. Let me explain why.
Situated at the mouth of an unlogged watershed, Koeye camp is what I believe to be the best summer camp on earth. For the last 21 years, the Qqs Projects Society has been running a camp for youth in this remote part of the BC coast.
It is a place steeped in the traditions of people who have lived in this land since time immemorial, while also embracing the evolving modern world. Youth ages 7-15 years old come to learn the culture that their parents and grandparents were widely prohibited by colonial oppression from learning. They come to engage with the landscape, building relationships with the plants and animals that sustained prosperous communities for millennia. Among other things, campers practice the art of consilience – learning from Indigenous Knowledge and science to better understand the world around them. And finally, and maybe most importantly, they have a retreat to be kids, to laugh and play, and make new friends.
Raincoast has been fortunate to play a small role in what Qqs does in this incredible place. Every August, students from Raincoast’s Applied Conservation Science Lab, at the University of Victoria, and Raincoast educators board our 66 ft sailboat Achiever, head north across Cape Caution and lead ‘Science Week’ – one of six Qqs camps offered in the season.
There are innumerous aspects of this magical place that warrant my claim of Kvai being the best kids camp on earth. To keep it brief I will discuss these important factors: the location, the ecosystem, and the teachings.
Roughly 130 kilometres north of Port Hardy and 60 kilometres south of Bella Bella, the Koeye River estuary sits in an inconspicuous sandy bay in Fitzhugh Sound, in the lower reaches of the Inside Passage. The presence of a deep water channel called Hakai Pass adds a unique flair to the otherwise protected waters of the passage. Deep ocean swells penetrate the two kilometre wide passage sending waves directly at the mainland coast, with Koeye being the epicenter. These waves stir up the shoreline, providing a nutrient boost to the already rich nearshore waters. As Achiever enters the bay from the south, after a buttery smooth crossing of Cape Caution, we are welcomed by the gentle roll of swell as the large cedar bighouse comes into view.
A small eddy calms the waters where canoes lie tied to logs, and squealing, swimming campers submerge themselves in the brisk brackish waters of the estuary.
Traveling east from the bighouse and navigating through the small entrance of the Koeye river, you arrive at the location of the camp. Perched on the edge of old-growth forest, alongside an ancient village site, the simple cedar cabins lie. A small eddy calms the waters where canoes lie tied to logs, and squealing, swimming campers submerge themselves in the brisk brackish waters of the estuary.
If you can make it past the excited and friendly group of kids and head further upriver, you are greeted with two kilometres of tidal waters. As the serpentine reaches of the estuary lead further inland, you enter one of the most incredible estuarine meadows on this part of the coast. The watershed has never been industrially logged, and drains countless streams and tributaries through intact old-growth temperate rainforest. No matter who you are or where you come from, this place holds a power that is undeniable and I am in awe every time I am lucky enough to return.
As campers explore intertidal life on the rocky shores of the outer coastline they pause to watch humpback whales breach, as the other half of the group gains a first-hand experience of life as a whale researcher, viewing the humpback mother and calf from the deck of Achiever.
As the tide fills in and the campers begin their migration back along the sandy beach to camp, we examine animal tracks from gulls, sandpipers, mink and, then finally, grizzly bear. The young bear had the same idea we did that morning, taking advantage of the 0.3 m low tide to scavenge for protein-rich treasures.
We pass through camp as the smell of smoldering cedar fills the air. Bald eagles and osprey call overhead, announcing their presence as we load up canoes and ride the tide up the estuary. Pink salmon jump alongside us, Common Merganser chicks follow closely behind their mothers, and Belted Kingfishers dive for meals with impeccable precision.
Pink salmon jump alongside us, Common Merganser chicks follow closely behind their mothers, and Belted Kingfishers dive for meals with impeccable precision.
The vast meadows we arrive at are an Indigenous farmland, filled with nutritious carbohydrates carefully tended for millennia. Springbank clover, silverweed, Northern rice root and numerous species of sedges intertwine throughout this edible botanical garden. Once again the bears had a similar plan. Their sign is everywhere, from scat to the countless digging pits where they had been uprooting nutritious tubers also sought by local people. There is a timeless feeling when you explore Koeye. It is a perfect representation of the real “Great Bear Rainforest”. Not a “pristine” landscape untouched by humans, but an ecosystem and peoples who have co-evolved together over the course of deep time, and continue to do so.
When we lead “Science Week” at camp, we do so under the protocols and guidance of local Knowledge Holders. We share the knowledge we have gained from working on research projects on this part of the coast, from marine food webs, to wolves and coastal bears.
Resident educators such as Rory, William and Jessie Housty share their knowledge of plants, animals, songs, dances, and traditions. Each night campers file into the Big House to practice singing, drumming, and to learn language in preparations for the feast on the final day. The knowledge campers learn will stick with them throughout their lives. Upon returning to life in their home communities, they share the experiences they have gained, and the wider web of influence grows. It is this fluid integration of hands-on learning ingrained in the culture, ecology, and people that makes Kvai so special. A place where kids can be kids, learning in the most natural way possible.
Beyond the knowledge that is bestowed upon campers from people, it is the land and sea that teach the most valuable lessons. A week immersed in nature sheds the technological shackles of modern life, and allows the youth (and indeed, us!) to connect at a deeper, more meaningful level with each other and the environment.
As we weigh anchor after the final day of camp, we do so with deep gratitude for what we have just experienced. For Maureen Vo and me, we have once again seen an incredible example of what we are now striving to create further south on the coast with Raincoast’s Salish Sea Emerging Stewards (SSES) program. Despite working with an older age cohort, the core of this program is the concept of consilience and the same informative, inspirational and connective experience that Kvai campers receive.
By engaging with local Indigenous Knowledge Holders, scientists, resource managers, mariners, and conservationists, we aim to create a holistic program that complements the hard work of local people to mentor the next generation of stewards in the Salish Sea. Preparing for this season’s SSES program we continue to engage a wider and more diverse audience. This year’s program will also see our first Junior Leaders – youth from past programs – directly demonstrate leadership as they join as crew on Achiever. We look forward to sharing more about our program as the season unfolds.
Indigenous groups around the world are looking to Qqs as a model of how to heal the wounds of the past, and move forward honoring tradition and embracing the future. We at Raincoast are grateful beyond words for the experiences, knowledge and relationships we have received working alongside Qqs for the past two decades. I’m as keen as ever to share our own learning and lessons with youth here in my backyard, the Salish Sea.
Until next time,
Ǧiáxsix̌a, Giànakci, and Thank you!