S4, E10: A Canadian Grizzly Bear Changed My Life

On this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, we travel to Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, where one tour operator is saving this special place, one traveler at a time.

On the 10th episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, season four, we travel to Canada’s western coast, home to the Great Bear Rainforest. There, Kevin Smith, a boat captain who owns Maple Leaf Adventures, has invested in regenerative tourism that supports this iconic place.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that changed their life. Plus, this season, I’m sitting down with each storyteller to talk about life’s big travel questions. Well, I’m not really sitting down with them, because I’m recording all this from my houseboat in Sausalito, but you know what I mean.

This week, we’re heading to bear country. Up in Western Canada, on the coast of British Columbia, is a special place called the Great Bear Rainforest. True to its name, bears inhabit this wild space, as well as other wildlife and humans. It’s an exceptional place, for many reasons as you’ll soon hear. Our guide to this special place is Kevin Smith, who grew up on an island in British Columbia and has spent his life exploring, and now protecting, this part of the world.

Kevin owns an expedition company called Maple Leaf Adventures, which takes travelers on weeklong (or longer) journeys in Canada and Alaska. You can take a trip to Haida Gwaii or Desolation Sound or through the Gulf Islands. But one of their most popular trips is to the Great Bear Rainforest, which as you’ll soon hear, occupies a very special place in Kevin’s heart.

I first heard Kevin speak at a TED Talk event done in partnership with Destination Canada. He was sharing his story about how he helped save his business, and many others in his region, during the pandemic by embarking on the world’s largest coastal cleanup. His mission, the way he runs his business, and his love for the part of the world were so inspiring that that talk still reverberates with me today. A quick note before we begin. Last week, my cat interrupted our chat, and this week some construction sounds distracted Kevin. Such is the life of podcasting from home. But they inspired a really interesting question, so we left them in in one spot. OK, let’s hear from Kevin.

Kevin, welcome to Travel Tales.

Kevin Smith, owner of Maple Leaf Adventures: Thanks, Aislyn.

Aislyn: Yeah, it’s good to have you here. It’s been a while. You’ve been journeying around the world.

Kevin: I have, in fact, uh, yeah, lots of tourism-related stuff taking me all over the place.

Aislyn: It’s really neat that so many people are, you know, invested and excited about what you, what you do, what you’ve done. Can you tell us where you are right now?

Kevin: Sure, I’m, I’m actually in my home office in Victoria, British Columbia.

Aislyn: It’s such a beautiful part of the world. Have you always been an outdoorsman?

Kevin: Yeah, I’m very, very lucky. Uh, you know, it’s the thing about where you’re born and your, your parents and what they expose you to. You don’t really know it as a kid, how, how lucky you are until later in life, right?

Aislyn: Yeah, so true. So you were exposed to the water and to trees at a young age.

Kevin: Yes, water and cruising around the, uh, the B.C. coast in modest family little boats, and just a whole marine lifestyle up and down the coast. But born and raised on a little Gulf Island called Salt Spring Island, which some people have heard of.

Aislyn: I have heard of that. What was Salt Spring like?

Kevin: Salt Spring was just the ideal childhood, really. We had a small, small hobby farm there. And, uh, you know, I had—really the run of the island from a very, very young age. My rules were, um, “Be home for dinner and don’t get on any ferries.” And so I explored all over the place and had many adventures that I think parents these days would, you know, uh, be in shock that my free-range parents allowed that. But, you know, [I] learned some, some lessons about where to go and how to get home safely and, uh, you know, climbed over mountains to figure out that it was a lot colder on the other side and now I needed to go back again just to get back to the family farm.

Aislyn: Wow, that is incredible. I mean, I love that one of the rules was don’t get on a ferry. Did you ever get on a ferry?

Kevin: Well, you know, growing up on a Gulf Island, there was three different ferries connecting the island to the mainland and to Vancouver Island and to other Gulf Islands. But, you know, that rule kind of wasn’t so important after a while because I had my own little boats and was able to go out and explore around a little bit beyond the island itself. And you know, and, wonderful parents that just took me out with my, my brother and, um, yeah, we had many adventures cruising around the coast.

Aislyn: That is incredible. And now you’ve helped preserve and save this coast and highlight it for other travelers. As listeners are going to hear, you know, you really love this place called the Great Bear Rainforest. Why do you think people should spend time there? Why would you say, come up and spend a day with you or a week?

Kevin: Yeah, well it would be a week ’cause that’s, uh, that’s the length of our, our trips for sure. Yeah, I was hearing your background there. Thanks. And I’m easily distracted. So that’s the downside of being a bear guide and a captain. I notice everything all the time, all around me. So, I’m deliberately not looking out the window here for this.

But to answer your question, why, why come up to the Great Bear Rainforest? Because it’s, it’s, you know, on a planetary scale, it is so special. It’s, it’s a place that still turns dark at night because there’s so few population centers. There’s just small villages. There’s so few people.

It’s completely quiet. I mean, it’s enormous, right? It’s the size of, of Ireland, and it’s, it’s unroaded. And it’s, it’s an area where, because of the foresight of planners, but especially Coastal First Nations, you know, it’s been designated as this conservancy, largely, you know, huge tracts of it are conserved.

So, um, you know, I always tell people that when we’re out experiencing it, that it’s, it is this critical control in this experiment that we’ve had on our planet, which is industrialization and development, and just generally, humans overwhelming nature. And no scientist would ever do a great big experiment without having a control to be able to measure it against.

And the control in our experiments on a planetary scale is these protected areas, these conservancies. The Great Bear Rainforest is absolutely crucial because it’s going to show future generations how to put it all back together again, because it’s still fully functioning. All the, all the systems there are as they should be.

Aislyn: It’s beautiful and also horrifying, you know, that we have to have a control—kind of gives me goosebumps to hear you say it. Well, I was really intrigued by what you just said because, you know, the loud buzzing in my background distracted you and you said that as a guide, you are constantly alert to your surroundings.

So is that because you’re, you’re always looking for bears and they’re not always easy to see or what, what—how do you see the world?

Kevin: Well, as a guide and a ship’s captain, I’m always aware of everything that’s moving around me and past me. All the sounds, good sounds, and, “Oh, that’s a new sound. I need to go investigate that.” And that skill set gets heightened when I’m leading people into, you know, an estuary, where we are there because we would like to, respectfully and carefully, you know, watch bears.

Because they’re beautiful animals, uh, and they’re not dangerous. But you, you don’t want to surprise a bear. So as the guide, moving a group of 6 or 10 people through an estuary, you know, they’re following me and I have all my spidey senses, uh, right? Uh, watching and listening and, uh, it keeps everybody safe. I don’t want to surprise a bear because I don’t want to have any negative interaction with a bear or mother and cubs. And ideally, you’re aware of, of wildlife, you know, from a long distance off, and then you’re just watching it to see its reaction to us being there. We’re visitors in its home.

Aislyn: I think that leads really nicely into another one of the topics that listeners are going to hear. In your story, you talk about regenerative tourism. Why do you think that’s so important for us as an industry?

Kevin: Regenerative tourism just acknowledges that we have a responsibility as travelers, uh, to try to find a balance between the, the effort and energy to allow us to be in this place and to be having these magical experiences. With where appropriate and where possible, some kind of giving back and, that as travelers, we, we have an ability to, to, understand the place and speak out for it or actually make it a better place because we’ve been there. And there’s, there’s all kinds of examples of, of how that transaction can actually happen, but I think, uh, travelers becoming more and more aware of that balance and finding travel providers that actually have sorted out ways to, to make that, that interaction possible.

Aislyn: Yeah, I love it. And you, you walk the walk. So I can’t wait for people to hear your story.

Kevin: The first time a grizzly bear lay down to nurse her cub in front of me, she changed my life. She fed her daughter, yes, but she also fed my absolute love for her and her home, the Great Bear Rainforest. There are moments that shape your resolve to serve a cause. This was one of them.

Imagine a lush rainforest valley with 2,000-foot black granite mountains rising from the fjord into which it empties. It was 2005, and I was sitting at the valley’s mouth with my guests, in a small boat in the estuary. Totally wild nature. No cities for more than 300 miles.

Thin waterfalls slid down a thousand feet, splashed the rocks, and disappeared into the sea. The grizzly bear walked down the opposite bank and swam across the creek mouth in front of us to this patch of sedge under the wall. She made her reluctant cub follow her. Then, fully conscious we were there, she lay back, she let her daughter climb onto her belly and nurse.

At the time, bears like her were being killed for sport in the neighboring valleys. If she went there, she could become a rug on some sport hunter’s floor. But thanks to the community I am part of, this valley was protected. She wasn’t my first inspiration. But she was a key part of my transformative journey, a decades-long quest to explore and protect the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Great Bear is one of the largest unspoiled rainforests left on the planet. It runs 300 miles roughly north-south, and from the height of the Coast Mountain Range to the offshore islands to the west. It covers 15.8 million acres—about the size of Ireland. You can only travel here by water. It feels wild, with fjords and primordial forest. And, it is in some ways. But it’s also a place that has lots of human history. It’s a place where First Nations people have thrived for more millennia than anyone knows.

I own and operate a regenerative travel company here called Maple Leaf Adventures. Before this, I was a backcountry park ranger and a teacher. I see my life’s work as using tourism to actually make the world better. What we do is take guests for a week on an expedition vessel, through the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s like a safari by water, or a Galápagos trip among forested islands, fjords, whales, and bears.

We go ashore a few times each day to explore. At Maple Leaf, we own our boats, which are themselves well-known characters of the coastal community. They are cared for by our crew, and our guests are hosted by that same crew and other local guides. All the money we spend, brought by visitors, supports the local enterprises: the food store in Kitimat, the bear-viewing guide in Hartley Bay. The small regional airport in Bella Bella.

Maple Leaf Adventures came to life in the late 1980s as a real grassroots mom-and-pop business. It was founded by a man with true vision named Brian, who wanted to share this beautiful part of the world with people while also protecting it.

Brian was a float plane pilot and was frequently flying over the British Columbia coast and seeing what at the time was just this massive acceleration of industrial clear-cut logging. Back then, logging companies were cutting it down as fast as they could and shipping it overseas.

Even so, the place was vast and still had large tracts that forestry had yet to reach. It just has so much power and beauty that it gets into your soul. So Brian and Maple Leaf Adventures wanted to show people this wonder—something to be cherished, not destroyed. Maple Leaf became a trusted tour operator for people who wanted to have a deeper understanding of what was here. The goal was never make everything look perfect and beautiful for the paying tourists and hide the reality of the devastating impact. Maple Leaf found a niche of sharing this reality. One of the trips they offered was called “the endangered coast.” The idea was: Come and witness this place before it’s gone—and be part of helping to save it instead.

And this is where Maple Leaf Adventures’ path and mine crossed. I was recruited to negotiate on a land use plan to determine the future of the entire Great Bear Rainforest region. I worked with the burgeoning tourism industry but especially Brian and Maple Leaf Adventures to learn what to negotiate to protect.

It sounds dry, a land use planning process. But it’s all about passion for nature, embodied by skilled negotiators from organizations like Forest Ethics, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and Greenpeace—and it’s also all about the realities of the local economy.

By the third or fourth year of negotiation, everyone knew we had to do it all: We had to protect the entire ecosystem, but we also had to replace the clear-cutting with something based on conservation.

I remember one week, near the end of my work on that plan. I had the conservation negotiators out with me aboard Maple Leaf, the legendary schooner that is still our flagship.

We were in this estuary that was still threatened. There are wildflowers and bear stomp trails, and a salmon-bearing stream, and mist hanging above the ground at dawn. Someone convinced us all to swim naked in the river. It was cold—it was fall and the fish were running. The river tasted like salmon.

Merran, one of the conservationists who came with us, was smiling. She knew how it affected us. She said, “You can’t swim in this river and remain impartial.” And you know what? You can’t.

The vision created in that land use plan inspired people to donate the first part of what would become a $120 million fund for local communities, to help transition the economy away from logging to conservation-based enterprises.

I wanted to be part of creating that better future, too. I was so inspired by what Brian at Maple Leaf was doing with the trips, and it turns out, he wanted to retire. So, in 2001, I took over.

As time went on, we asked ourselves: What more can we do? Just being sustainable wasn’t feeling like it was enough anymore. We had done everything we could do sustainability-wise. We had joined 1 Percent for the Planet, we were part of Travelers Against Plastic, and we were part of a green tourism pilot program to measure the impacts of tourism and reduce waste as much as possible.

So we decided to evolve to be more about regenerative travel—meaning, we want to make sure that we are actually making the place better because we’re here. Our first big project was properly recognizing the rights and title of the Coastal First Nations. I came out of that land use plan realizing that as a business I was required to pay taxes to Canada and B.C. to operate and I thought, “I should be paying taxes to the Nations so that they have money to protect this place.”

I decided to approach them and say, “Hey, we’re bringing travelers into your territory. We’re not taking anything and we’re not leaving any pollution of any sort behind. Our operations are totally sustainable. But, we’d like to honor your history in the lands and waters and maybe that will help pay for your people to protect it.”

And so in 2002 we signed our first protocol agreement, with the Gitga’at Nation and the Kitasoo/Xai’xais shortly thereafter. Nobody had ever approached them to do anything like that before.

So it created a lot of trust. At that time they were still, as communities, more involved with resource extraction than they were with any kind of tourism. But then that started to change. The $120 million fund helped them transition from a resource extraction economy to a conservation economy.

Together we promoted the idea of adventures through the fjords and islands. We promised to teach visitors about wildlife, to visit the communities and hear from local guides about the human relationship with this place that has existed for millennia. We also fought to protect this place. We all stopped the trophy hunting of grizzly bears. And people began to hear of the Great Bear Rainforest and think of it as an incredible place to visit.

The Kitasoo/Xai’xais created a tourism program. Members of the Gitga’at Nation started a bear-viewing enterprise, and we partnered with both. We purchased two more boats, as did one of our colleagues. High-value, low-volume tourism had established itself as one of the key tenets of the conservation economy.

And then, COVID-19 hit.

When the lockdowns began, tourism was first hit and hardest hit.

For a little context, we all book all of our trips up, a year ahead of time. And then over the winter, we spend all that money getting the ships actually ready to go. So COVID was a real challenge. The guests, of course, didn’t get a trip, so we had to negotiate ways to have them put their trip off until later when we would be, we hoped, allowed to operate. And Maple Leaf Adventures wasn’t the only one hit hard. There are many other similar businesses in the area. So in the pandemic, all these companies had less than no income and massive fixed costs. We had to figure out something to survive.

One day in March 2020, I said to the other business owners, “Hey, I’ve got an idea.”

Between us, we had 9 expedition vessels, 18 shore boats, 110 crew, and an incredible knowledge of the coastline. And I wanted to use those exceptional resources in the Great Bear Rainforest to remove the industrial marine debris that was tangled under beach logs or hurled into the forest edge. All the businesses agreed. Everyone was onboard.

We took the plan to Coastal First Nations for permission and involvement (they said yes), and then the provincial government, and the B.C. government created the Clean Coast, Clean Waters Initiative to fund our proposal. In late July, we’d gotten the nod but not the official contract from the government to pay for this unprecedented expedition.

But we were under a time crunch. Winter storms could start in late September and we were going to the outer coast, the exposed and dangerous part. We had to be done before weather could stop our work. So we hired all our crews at our own expense. We arranged incredible logistics chains with a tug and barge, a helicopter, and so on. And we set out as a fleet of nine ships, traveling together, which we had never done before. The official announcement for support came after we’d started, north of Cape Caution. So my wife was the only one in Victoria for the press conference. She stood there on the empty wharf, with all our boats gone, and read a statement about how much this project meant.

The Great Bear Rainforest is a spectacular natural place. Yet, after the winter storms, there are beaches where you can land and find what the sea tosses: debris from the international fishing fleets, the lines, nets, floats—most of it some form of nylon or plastic—but also trash from the other side of the Pacific and so many water bottles. So much garbage in such a remote place.

What I recall most from these incredible marine debris expeditions during the pandemic was this: Love creates grit.

For six weeks, we worked our way along hundreds of miles of coastline. We had a general plan we’d charted, and each morning the captains of each boat would gather and agree on the actual locations and projects for the day. After hot coffee and breakfast, the crew slid on their outerwear and tendered to the day’s shoreline. Maybe a beach that trapped fish floats and dragger balls, maybe rock with tidepools that collected plastic bits, but almost always topped with bands of logs tangled in giant fish nets and heavy ropes. We’d lift, and cut, and lug this stuff to our sort pile where we’d divide it and bag it by type, weigh it, record it, label it, and set the coordinates down for the heli-lift job later.

The physical element of the expedition was insane. Sea conditions and tides were in charge; at every captains’ meeting we reminded ourselves that despite the challenges, our top priority was to keep the crews and the ships safe. It wasn’t always easy.

We innovated every day, using long logs as levers and short, fat logs as fulcrums to unearth buried lines and massive nets. We played with physics like kids on a beach, only we got good at it.

Sometimes you’d find the top of a net in the sand and think, “OK, let’s pull this out.” You’d learn six people can dig a hole the size of an SUV before lunch. Eventually, after digging and digging and pulling and cutting out pieces, we would get it and then chop it into manageable chunks for the helicopter to lift out.

I can still hear the crinkle of plastic water bottles underfoot. In total we would pick up 88,000 discarded bottles that had floated across the Pacific. We carried coffin-sized blocks of Styrofoam from where the biggest winter storms had tossed them.

Much of the trash was massive, industrial-sized equipment from international fishing. Once lodged in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, all of it finally spiraled out and tumbled onto our coast.

And yet, no one quit. Every single person in our 110-person crew was fueled by a great love for this coastline that gives us our life. Our anger at the mess motivated us. But our love for the misty rainforest, the creeks that tumble through them that support salmon and wolves and bears, that support us—that love is what kept us going.

We all took some pretty big risks because we felt strongly that this needed to happen. It wasn’t a money-making operation. But all of our costs were covered, which kept our crew employed and kept our ships moving. And that allowed us to do something huge and incredibly meaningful for this coast.

In 2021, we did another six-week cleanup. Those two cleanups saved everybody’s businesses—and over the two years, removed some 2 million pounds of marine debris from the outer coast. It was the largest coastal cleanup of its kind.

But during both of those cleanups, every day, every night at dinner, we talked about the same thing: This is one thing to clean this up, but it’s not good enough.

If the flow of plastics into the ocean just continues unabated, if the fishing fleets continue to not care, all of our work won’t have made much of a difference. Something needs to be done—I dream of a future where no coastal cleanup is ever needed again.

I have the explorer gene, for sure. I’ve also spent the majority of my life exploring the secret little archipelagos and finding new waterfalls that most people haven’t been to. I have spent thousands of days in the Great Bear Rainforest, and still to this day, I make it a personal rule that on every trip I go to some brand-new place that I’ve never been to before.

In the almost 20 years since I first saw her, I think a lot about that mother grizzly bear. She was probably five years old when she lay down and nursed her cub in front of me. I have visited her many times since and seen her with other cubs over the years. She’s probably reached the end of her life now and it’s sad to contemplate the loss of such a friend. Yet her legacy is huge. Her trust impacted me that day, and it has impacted so many people over the years, who have gone on to fight for her and her home.

And I think about the resurging Coastal First Nations who will certainly lead all future decisions about the region. I think about the guests who see this coastline from our Maple Leaf ships. And I hope—no, I know—that some of those people will go on to fight for her and all the bears that come after.

Aislyn: That was Kevin Smith. We’ll link to his TED Talk in our show notes, as well as to Maple Leaf Adventures’ website. Their expedition season begins again in April and they have so many cool trips. I particularly love that their fleet of three ships are on the more intimate side—no more than 24 guests at a time on their largest ship. And fall is peak wildlife season, for what that’s worth. That’s when they do a lot of their Great Bear Rainforest trips. We’ll also link to their social media handles, though fair warning that they post incredible photos that make it really hard to resist the siren call of a visit.

Next week, we’ll be back with our last episode of the season: an interview with Jeff Jenkins, host of the Nat Geo show Never Say Never. Then we’ll be back in 2024: In January 2024 with our sister podcast, Unpacked, which helps you travel better—and smarter. And then in spring 2024 with season five of Travel Tales.

Ready for more Travel Tales? Visit afar.com/podcast, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and X. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Travel Tales by AFAR on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps us book amazing guests like the one you heard today, and it helps other travelers find it.

This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.

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