Asuave Hungarian-Canadian film producer, a muskrat-trapping oil baron from Ohio, three wisecracking novelists, an MTV camera crew and the rumpled president of World Wildlife Fund Canada land on the dock of a remote luxury resort anchored alongside British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest – a breathtaking stretch of ancient red cedar, hemlock and spruce through which the hotly contested Northern Gateway pipeline may some day flow.
If it sounds like the setup for one of Carl Hiaasen's environmental satires, I must say there were times (usually after a couple of postprandial ports) when the three-night adventure felt similarly surreal, appropriately so. Here on Princess Royal Island, where black bears are born white and wolves swim with salmon, the floating five-star King Pacific Lodge offers a dreamlike retreat for pampered reflection on the true mysteries of nature.
"Champagne?" asks one of several khaki-clad staff members who greet our wobbly floatplane in a Fantasy Island procession as a majestic bald eagle soars overhead. I don't mind if I do.
Nestled in a secluded cove, 380 kilometres north of Vancouver, King Pacific Lodge is a 17-room resort built on a 30-metre barge towed in from Prince Rupert each summer. Lolling in my suite's deep soaker tub (filled with steaming glacial river water filtered onsite), I marvel at how the whole mobile kit and caboodle will migrate north in September, gliding through a narrow maze of mist-shrouded fjords without leaving a trace.
Ecotourism, King Pacific-style, certainly doesn't skimp on creature comforts. But low-flush toilets in expansive slate-lined bathrooms are only a drop in the lodge's commitment to sustainable luxury, which recently earned Travel + Leisure's Global Vision Award, in part, for playing an instrumental role in the 2006 Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. Brokered by environmentalists, industry executives, first-nations leaders and the provincial government, the landmark accord has been internationally lauded for creating new models of low-impact forestry and co-operation while protecting the second-largest (21-million-acre) intact coastal temperate rain forest on the planet.
Wrapped in a plush robe, I gaze up at the mountains, mesmerized by an undulating blur of endless green. Somewhere deep inside that dense thicket lurks the rare white Kermode, more popularly known as the spirit bear. Found almost exclusively on these islands and numbering less than 500, this ghostly variant of the North American black bear (neither polar bear nor albino) is the result of a recessive gene probably developed for camouflage during the last ice age. Weird.
We won't see any spirit bears on this trip. They don't lumber down to the riverbanks to fatten up on salmon until early fall. But the symbolic poster bear is once again being hauled out of hiding to front a growing conservation campaign against the Enbridge Inc. pipeline: a project so contentious that many predict it will soon erupt into B.C.'s biggest environmental battle since Clayoquot Sound. And that was before a U.S. investigation compared the Calgary energy company and its efforts to clean up a massive spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River to the slapstick Keystone Kops.
Puffing on a Cuban cigar before shoving off to catch salmon, Robert Lantos hardly fits the image of a tree hugger. Not that Canada's most powerful film producer, whose credits include the Golden Globe-winning Barney's Version, has ever claimed to be one. Yet every summer for the past 10 years, he has vacationed in this "pristine paradise."
"Most fishing lodges are strictly about getting the maximum amount of fish from the ocean, and drinking beer," says Lantos, who prefers single-malt Scotch, even during dinner. (Note to wimpy hungover self: Never again let him persuade you to join him.) "This place strikes a nice balance that works in harmony with the sea and the land. Not a single tree was cut down to create it. And aesthetically, it's very pleasing."
Environmental organizations are just as worried, if not more, about the sea as the forest. The proposed twin pipeline, which its proponents consider crucial for connecting the Alberta oil sands to Asian markets, would snake a 1,170-kilometre route through the rain forest to a coastal port stationed due north in the small village of Kitimat. If built, approximately 250 supertankers – as long as the Empire State Building is tall – will squeeze through these tight, winding channels each year.
Barring the worst-case scenario of an oil spill (which would spread much further in water than on land and be more complicated to clean up), high-density tanker traffic could still wreak havoc on a fragile marine ecosystem. Which is why we, a motley crew of journalists flown in courtesy of the King Pacific Lodge and World Wildlife Fund, are going whale watching.
Listen. Those high-pitched mewls, bellowing growls, whistles and screeches played over crackling static is the sound of whale music recorded by a network of five underwater hydrophones covering 25 square kilometres in this heavily populated habitat.
"Whales like to talk," says Janie Wray, one of two field scientists who operate Cetacea Lab, an independent research station perched on stilts and decorated in tie-dyed batik at the southern end of Gil Island. For 11 years, she, Hermann Meuter and a handful of volunteers have been conducting biweekly boat surveys and maintaining daily, 16-hour deckside vigils to count, identify and study these fascinating mammals. But mostly they listen.
They listen for northern resident orcas calling out in the recognizably distinct dialects of each matrilineal pod – loud, social, close-knit family groups in which sons never leave their mothers. How Italian.
They use special equipment to hear low-frequency fin whales. The accident-prone species (hit more frequently by ships than any other whale) have just begun returning to this area, in steadily increasing numbers, after being hunted close to extinction decades ago.
Come fall, they will eavesdrop on the ethereal humpback whale song, one of the animal kingdom's greatest mysteries. Much like classical music, the song has a complex structure that can be broken down into a series of units, phrases and themes, repeated in sequential order during sessions that can last for several days.
Only male humpback whales sing the song, while hanging upside down underwater, as some sort of mating ritual to attract females or ward off other males. But every male humpback in a geographic region, from here to as far as Japan, sings the exact same song at the same time. What's even more astonishing is that the song is constantly changing into completely new patterns that are sometimes unrecognizable from year to year.
Until recently, it was assumed that humpbacks only sang after migrating to Mexico. But now they're singing here. "We have no idea how they all know to change the song, especially over such vast distances," says Wray, who recorded her first northern song eight years ago. "And we don't know how they'll react to all the noise from the tankers. We think they'll probably just go to another place to feed."
Pleasantly sated from a gourmet picnic lunch that included a luscious roast-pork sandwich, quinoa salad, chocolate tarts and a crema-rich shot of hand-pumped espresso, I cast my crystal flash wooly bugger across the gurgling Gamble River and sigh contentedly. This is my first time fly fishing and I've already caught four cutthroat trout.
Twisting through the newly designated K'Mooda/Lowe-Gamble Conservancy, the eerily isolated river is part of a vast lake system that has been fished by the Gitga'at and Gitxaala First Nations for centuries upon centuries.
Yet it still feels untouched, as if we're the first explorers to descend by helicopter onto the rocky, lichen-tufted tundra. If this serene sense of discovery is spoiled for future fishermen who happen to stumble upon a lost pair of Oakley sunglasses, I apologize in advance. (But please bring them back – they're prescription.)
Remote fly fishing is just one of the King Pacific's many epic wilderness adventures, which include ocean fishing, kayaking with whales, private heli-yoga classes on sandy white beaches, cultural tours of nearby Hartley Bay, home of the Gitga'at Nation and magical hikes through dark-canopied rain forests that seem to sweat spongy, neon-green moss and thick, waist-high ferns from every pore.
Back at the lodge, not everyone is feeling the bliss. "I can't believe that guide talked us into releasing those rock cods," a guest from Los Angeles grumbles, while soaking in the hot tub. "Just consider it our Lion King moment, we did our bit for the environment," replies his friend, part of a group from the World Presidents' Association (a global organization of CEOs). "Sure, that would have been fine – if we had caught some salmon," counters another.
After cocktails and hors d'oeuvre in the Great Hall, we all head into the dining room for an exquisite supper of slow-cooked venison loin and long-line caught lingcod with clams and fiddleheads.
Dinner conversation turns to the pipeline. The oil baron from Ohio hasn't even heard about it. He's more concerned about the stalled Keystone XL pipeline, backed by Enbridge rival Calgary-based TransCanada, which would deliver crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to Texas.
MTV host Aliya-Jasmine Sovani frets about being too sympathetic to one side of the story. "My mom keeps telling me, 'Don't be a hippie. It's just a forest.' " Andrew Davidson, one of the three Canadian authors that include Joseph Boyden and Steven Galloway, wonders why all this fresh air seems to make everyone smoke more. Gerald Butts, president of WWF-Canada, heads outside with him for a cigarette.
Me? I'm still lapping up the chef's delicious northern-style ramen made with homemade alkaline noodles, tons of fish and dried seaweed harvested by the Gitga'at at a nearby summer camp. He uses the same seaweed in his divine nori scones. He gets it from the locals at the beginning of the season, trading it for a huge sack of panko, which they apparently adore for batter on fried fish.
It's our last day in paradise. Cruising through the inlets with Gitga'at guide Floyd Dundas, we spot a humpback whale arcing elegantly out of the water, exhaling a stream of misty spray. We see eagles perched in their nests, watch seals lolling on land and smell the stench from a huge rookery of sea lions, belching and roaring and waddling high up on rocks.
Later, we try salmon fishing and catch one 26-pound spring. We get a few more bites, but then a school of about a dozen dahl porpoises start frolicking and splashing all around the boat.
"Don't steal my lure," one of the guests cries. "They're doing it on porpoise," Galloway cracks. Ha, ha. Bada bing.
We pull up our rods and head back to the lodge with the sun setting over the mountains, the porpoises chasing alongside.
King Pacific Lodge: 888-592-5464; kingpacificlodge.com; from $4,900 for a three-night stay (excluding taxes, conservation fee and gratuities).
To listen to the sounds of the whales, click here.