In the pristine wilderness of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, Canada, the approach of May signals the time to tow the floating King Pacific Lodge to Princess Royal Island and moor it in the shelter of Barnard Harbour until October’s end of season.

There, the luxury eco-resort seems to blend right into the breathtaking natural beauty that surrounds it, a place that is named for the endangered Kermode bear that inhabits this forest – known locally as the white spirit bear.

One of the most unique resorts in the world, King Pacific Lodge is built of native pine, fir, cedar and stone on a 120 x 60 square foot barge and includes seventeen guest rooms and suites, great room, a wrap-around deck with spectacular views, luxury spa, and gourmet dining that offers regional seafood and organic produce paired with award-winning wines.

Personal service is paramount: thirty staff members attend to a maximum of twenty-eight guests, who are flown in by floatplane – the only way to get to Princess Royal Island, which has no permanent inhabitants or structures and remains completely isolated in the world’s largest remaining tract of temperate rainforest.

For centuries the Gitga’at First Nations people have revered the spirit bear as a symbol of the rainforest and their great respect for the land on which they live. In 2006, a coalition of Gitga’at, the British Columbian government and private enterprise placed these twenty-one million acres under protection from logging and development in one of the most significant examples of social responsibility in sustainable tourism. King Pacific Lodge played a pivotal role in the process of protecting this environmentally sensitive area, becoming the first private tourism operator to sign a working protocol with a First Nation in British Columbia that recognizes their rights and title to their traditional territory.

Since then, the lodge has continued to partner with the local Gitga’at community on a wide variety of programs such as student mentoring, joint educational initiatives and hospitality training. The lodge operates on what it calls a "triple bottom line" philosophy that emphasizes a deep respect for the land, for the people of the land, and an understanding that sustainable tourism in such a rare and special place can only flourish when guests from around the world share that same feeling.

"King Pacific Lodge has long been noted for its luxury and quality to be sure,” says Michael Uehara, President of the lodge. “But, we have paid particular attention to our role in creating social equity and conservation. More and more, the travelers of today want more and more: more knowledge, more connection to the places they visit, more authenticity and more opportunities to see a world they could have easily missed.”

That world is readily available in the unspoiled nature of the area; its forests, rivers and fjord-like coastline are home to a dizzying array of species, including whales, sea lions, bald eagles, timber wolves, deer and cougars. One of the biggest draws for guests, however, remains the mystical white bear, an animal that very few people in the world ever lay eyes on.

The Kermode is actually a member of the black bear family, but a rare recessive gene gives them their white coloring. Sighting of these elusive creatures is at its pinnacle in September, when the lodge offers special Spirit Bear packages. Wilderness guides conduct wildlife tours via hiking, heli-hiking, kayaking and fishing. Alongside the beautiful creatures, historical evidence from ten thousand years of native culture is everywhere.

Don’t mistake the adventure sports and great Canadian wild enveloping you for roughing-it facilities, however. At King Pacific Lodge, the accommodations are luxury all the way, from a Japanese-style spa with plunge pool and steam baths as well as a plethora of body treatments including in-room massages, to the down duvets and deep soaker tubs that are in every guest room. Four suites offer additional amenities such as a handmade driftwood bed, cascading waterfalls and a rock fireplace. And everything is done with the surrounding environment in mind. The building is equipped with low energy laundry appliances, energy-efficient lighting and low flush toilets, and uses an on-site filtration of glacial river water.

“I think our guests understand that we must be as aware of fish counts as we are of thread counts, and that a ten thousand year old culture can give them a new way of looking at the world,” says Uehara, “I truly believe that many of our guests may start off with a list of things they must see and end up with an experience they must feel. They too adopt a proprietary connection to the land as distant, honorary citizens of the Gitga’at."

Norm Hann, a certified outdoor guide who was hired in 2000 to start the lodge’s adventure program, feels this connection deeply and strives to take his guests on just such a journey, one he calls a Sense of Place. “The Great Bear Rainforest is a very special place, second to none in my mind, and King Pacific Lodge has become a great compliment to that,” says Hann. “It provides an example of how a tourism business should operate in such a magical environment.”

Hann was also instrumental in the development of the student mentor program, in which First Nations students are trained to work as guides or in guest services or administration; and just as important, to be ambassadors of their own land. Students are initially introduced to the opportunity through a tourism leadership course taught to seniors at the local Hartley Bay School.

After that, the students go through an employment training which teaches them how to write a resume and interview for a job, giving them skills to be carried through life whether they end up working in the local tourism industry or not. Four students from that group are then chosen, based on their interest and school performance, for a three week internship at King Pacific Lodge, where each one is matched with an employee who mentors the new intern through the process. “It has been a very successful program and one that I am really proud of,” says Hann, who got so involved with the school he even coached their basketball teams. “As a result I was adopted into the community as a Raven and my Gitga’at name is T’aam Laan, Steerman of the Canoe.

Working with the Gitga’at has been very special to me.” He went on to start his own tour company, Tantalus Adventures, but still trains guides at King Pacific Lodge. King Pacific Lodge’s commitment to sustainable tourism was reinforced when they announced the Great Bear Rainforest Eco-Challenge in November 2008. The challenge aims to promote a deeper understanding of the culture and eco-system of the rainforest, while also generating donations for conservation and wildlife charities.

The Eco-Challenge provides a series of competitive adventures for guests, the completion of which “earns” donations to local organizations such as the Hartley Bay School, North Coast Cetacean Society and the Gitga’at Cultural Centre. For travelers looking for adventure and a completely unspoiled nature experience that sustains the environment rather than depleting it, the Eco-Challenge is a perfect mix of adrenaline and environmentalism. Among the challenges is a five-mile open water kayak circumnavigation of Ashdown Island, the catch and release of three salmon caught on self-tied flies, and summiting a nearby mountain to photograph three edible plant species.

Completion of each activity earns $100 Canadian for one of the local charities. Challenges aren’t restricted to die-hard adrenaline junkies, however. Other activities include a cultural tour on which the guest must master a Sm’algyax language guide of place and animal names, and a photographic trek for marine or land mammals. “The Eco-Challenge really is a reflection of what KPL has been doing since they opened their doors,” explains Hann. “Most guests have no idea of the type of environment they are in, and it has been the lodge’s responsibility to educate them. As a result the guests are left with an incredible experience that will never leave them, and is one of the reasons why guests continue to come back.” A special bonus of CDN$1,000 will be made to the Hartley Bay School on behalf of any guest who completes all seven activities. Guests who master three activities will receive a complimentary spa treatment, and all successful participants will receive a commemorative photograph and certificate as a memento of their contribution to the Great Bear Rainforest and its indigenous people. "We have long viewed King Pacific Lodge as our partners in business, conservation and social equity" says Ernie Hill, principal of the Hartley Bay School and Eagle Chief of the Gitga’at. "They are part of the community. They have stood beside the Gitga’at in so many ways. This new program allows their guests to be part of that – to belong in our territory." Indeed, belonging to one of the last corners of the earth to offer absolute wilderness – simply experiencing that silent, transcendental feeling of us as humans being once again a part of nature – is what the partners preserving this eco-system aim for every day. Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter of the North Coast Cetacean Society have developed a new program for 2009 that will allow guests to don lab coats and participate first hand in their research in the harbor and surrounding waters. During the “Whale of an Experience” outing, the new research assistants-for-a-day will receive an introduction to the acoustic vocalizations of orca and humpback whales, take ID photographs of the whales and take part in data gathering such as whale behavior, location and direction of travel. The research facility, Cetacealab, was built by Wray and Meuter on remote Gill Island in 2001, after orcas and humpback whales were put on the threatened wildlife list. The pair conduct year-round research using a network of hydrophone stations sixty to eighty feet underwater. “Our new program in partnership with King Pacific Lodge, which is so much more than just ‘whale watching,’ will forge an enduring association between guests to the lodge and this remarkable wilderness," says Wray. Progress reports and sightings of the whales studied will be sent regularly to guests upon their arrival home. Another initiative in the works is one between King Pacific Lodge and the Gitga’at Nation to build a no-dam hydro plant behind the property, generating carbon-free electricity for the lodge and a new stream of income for the tribe. And the lodge broke new ground in ecologically responsible tourism in March 2007, announcing that it would halve its carbon footprint over the next five years. The plan incorporates a first in the hospitality industry: not only offsetting the carbon emissions of all lodge operations and employee travel but also guests’ air travel to and from the lodge, creating a truly carbon-neutral vacation. “King Pacific Lodge continues to be a model for sustainability and ecotourism,” says Hann. “The Great Bear Rainforest is a magical place that, once experienced, never leaves your blood.”

For more information, visit: King Pacific Lodge – www.kingpacificlodge.com Great Bear Rainforest – www.raincoast.org Tantalus Adventures – http://tantalus-adventures.com Gitga’at Nation – www.gitgaat.net North Coast Cetacean Society – http://cetacealab.org

Luxury Eco-Lodge in the Land of the Spirit Bear