When Matt Blaney stands up at the front of the tour bus parked on an old logging road, he has a can of pepper spray in his hand, a relaxed smile on his face and the rapt attention of his guests.
Using a mix of natural charm and the special training he got from customer service experts at London Drugs, he makes sure people understand one simple rule. Do what he says and you can safely get astonishingly close to some of the biggest carnivores in North America.
"When we head up to the towers we might see a few grizzly bears outside," he explains calmly. "Stay in a group. Keep your voices down. There's no food or snacks outside the bus.… I'll go out first to make sure there are no bears hiding under the bank here."
Then he's gone, slipping through the woods to make sure the grizzlies stalking salmon in the Orford River are not startled by a small group of tourists.
The group has come on a two-hour boat ride from Campbell River, on the East Coast of northern Vancouver Island, to visit a rugged, glacial valley in Bute Inlet, on British Columbia's mainland coast. The valley once was the traditional home of the Homalco, before residential schools dispersed their children, they lost their commercial fishing licences to market forces and the small villages were abandoned. Today Orford has no full-time human residents, but boasts one of the heaviest concentrations of grizzly bears in B.C.
The long-abandoned encampment has become active again because of a new band initiative which first restored the Orford River salmon run, and then added value by selling tours to watch the bears eat the fish.
The Homalco are developing the business with the unexpected help of a neighbour – Wynne Powell, the CEO of London Drugs Ltd., whose company owns Sonora Resort, a luxurious wilderness lodge located in the nearby Discovery Islands.
"He has been a tremendous supporter," says Shawn O'Connor, economic development consultant to the Homalco, a small band which has just 240 members on a reserve in Campbell River.
Mr. O'Connor said Mr. Powell has been a frequent customer, going with Mr. Blaney on numerous expeditions. He has offered advice and donated several dramatic, poster-sized photographs to decorate a new visitor centre at Orford River. Most significantly, he arranged for Liz McNally, manager of organizational development at London Drugs, to spend two days at Sonora Resort, training the band's six-member grizzly bear crew.
"The single biggest thing that's helped us was the training," said Mr. O'Connor, who has noticed improvements in poise and confidence among the guides. "They have become polished … they are really good at what they do and they take a lot of pride in it."
Where in the past they ad-libbed, they now have prescribed welcoming speeches, safety lectures and set tour schedules. Along the route are a series of carvings which are "talking points" the guides use to explain Homalco legends.
Mr. Powell, an avid photographer with a stunning grizzly bear portfolio, said he thought his company could best help by offering "our core competency, which is customer handling."
To do that, the company's training program was redesigned to make it relevant to wilderness bear guides.
"We brought all those [London Drugs]historical customer handling skills to them and helped teach them how one makes the customer experience the best possible," Mr. Powell said. "You've got to train people to say, 'How are you today?' because you care about them, not because it's a box that has to be checked off."
In past years, Sonora Resort staff went along to help on the bear tours, but Mr. Powell said that's no longer necessary.
"This year … they stood on their own merits and they came across in a very credible, professional manner," he said. "I'm very impressed with their commitment and I'm impressed with how well they have done."
Sean Ross, general manager at Sonora Resort, said the bear tour has become a must-do for most guests, especially those from Europe.
"They love it," he said. "It's a highlight of their trip … when they come back they're saying 'We saw them right in front of us! We saw one catch a salmon!' "
The bears are the stars, but the native guides add a cultural dimension that is priceless, he said.
"Our guests want to know about the bears and they want to know about the Homalco," Mr. Ross said. "And the guides are really good about talking about that."
Mr. Blaney, 21, says the interest of the outside world in the Homalco has sparked renewed enthusiasm on the reserve about the past. He and some other guides, for example, are trying to learn the now largely forgotten Homalco language.
"Even if it's just a word or two a day it's progress … it's rebuilding our culture. It's great to be a part of this," he said. "And I feel really good about what I do. You never get enough of up there at Orford."
On a recent tour, after talking about the wolf spirits depicted in a carving done by his father, Bill Blaney, Matt carefully shepherded his guests onto a viewing platform. Moments later, a bear came out of the trees on the river bank. Walking with a loose, powerful gait, water glistening on its fur, head swinging side to side, the grizzly was oblivious to the dozen tourists holding their collective breath 20 metres away. Suddenly it ripped into the river, raking a salmon that spun through the air before escaping.
There were gasps of "My god!" then the soft, rapid clicking of cameras. Mr. Blaney had a big smile on his face. He knew he had some more satisfied customers.