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Creative natives in Clayoquot Sound

Gisele Martin, owner of Tla-ook Cultural Adventures in Tofino, leading a nature walk at Tofino Botanical Gardens.  Photo by Lee Gass.

Sometimes creativity is an individual thing, but it also runs in families.  It can also run in whole communities and cultures.  Last fall, during a fascinating 2-day meeting in Tofino, I learned about several local creative initiatives and I want to tell you about one of them here. 

The meeting itself was a gathering of three groups.  One group was the Resilience Alliance, an international research consortium in which biologists, social scientists, anthropologists, economists, etc. study how complex systems of all kinds survive shocks and persist, in spite of the buffeting.  They study lakes, forests, oceans, swamps and other natural systems, sectors of the economy, political and educational systems, communities - - the range is enormous.  For the Alliance, the Tofino meeting was an opportunity to learn about something several of the researchers had been studying in many places around the world: the resilience of aboriginal communities in the face of development and resource use. I was there as a guest of the Resilience Alliance.

A second group was Ecotrust Canada, a nonprofit organization promoting and financing conservation-based development along this coast; the so-called “green economy”.  The trust supports both community-based and private enterprise-based initiatives, including many in the Tofino area. Native-owned forestry and fisheries companies. The Nu-chah-nulth Central Regional First Nations in Clayoquot Sound.  A local airline. Ecotrust Canada was represented at the meeting by its entire Tofino office as well as by the President and several other principals from the head office in Vancouver.

Several representatives of the Nu-chah-nulth First Nation were the third group. Elder Levi Martin welcomed us into Tla-o-qui-aht traditional territory, offered prayers for each of our sessions, and told interesting and relevant stories about Nu-chah-nulth history and ecology. A day-long workshop featured Eli Enns and the management team of Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks initiative.  That initiative links federal Pacific Rim National Park land, provincial crown land outside the National Park, Tla-o-qui-aht land, and land owned and managed by private forest companies into a large block - - most of the Kennedy Lake watershed, which is enormous.  Joe Martin talked about his experiences running a whale-watching business, carving canoes, and serving as an ambassador for his people in France, England, Germany, and other foreign lands.

After lunch on the second day, we went on a nature walk at the Tofino Botanical Gardens (an absolutely top-class garden), guided by Gisele Martin.  She runs Tla-ook Cultural Adventures, an ecotourism company based in Tofino.  The story I want to tell you here is about Gisele.

In the summer of her 13th year, Gisele Martin’s father Joe took her on a boat ride to a small island in Clayoquat Sound.  They stayed overnight there together, then Joe left, promising to return the next day. After surviving her first night alone in nature, Gisele decided to stay another night, and another, and before it was over she had spent the entire summer there alone, except for frequent visits from her father.  For her it was an incredible, life-changing and life-determining experience.

When Gisele and Joe first told me this story, of course from their own separate perspectives, I thought it was one of the most wonderful things I had ever heard.  In a long paper on my website, I described my own early experiences in nature, and much later taking students out for brief, 3-hour solitary retreats in the forest.  I am convinced that my childhood experiences of nature were absolutely pivotal in my life, and I believe this is true of Gisele as well.  I certainly got that impression from talking with her, and from talking with Joe.

Unfortunately, vanishingly few people in our society have spent even as much as 3 hours alone in nature, let alone an entire summer.  Nor do we know very much about nature, about living in nature, or about the people who lived in Clayoquot Sound before Europeans first visited this coast.  There are many reasons to believe that as individuals, as families, and as a society, we need this kind of contact with the ecosystems that support us.  We all need it, whether we live in small rural communities or the big city, and whether we are young or old. 

Few of us understand very deeply what we are really losing when species, ecosystems, and communities disappear around us, partly because we don’t experience ourselves as part of it.  Gisele Martin’s ecotourism company, Tlaook Cultural Adventures, can do a lot to connect you, or reconnect you, with nature.  At the same time, spending a day with Gisele will certainly connect you with the Tla-o-qui-aht people, and through her, to the elders, the ancestors, and the traditions of her people.

As an educator and a biologist, I was extremely impressed by the quality of the tour Gisele led.  She was right there with us, in the moment, responding enthusiastically and well to the barrage of questions we asked her, and her prepared remarks wove rich, accurate information into a tapestry of engaging stories.  She certainly knows her stuff, in terms of the natural history of the area, and she knows as much about traditional uses of the land as anyone I’ve met.  Her personal style is very engaging.  I highly recommend her.

The Botanical Garden tour was a special event.  Here is how it usually works at Tla-ook Cultural Adventures.  Using dugout canoes carved by Joe Martin and his brothers, parties paddle into Clayoquot Sound from Tofino, stopping to investigate intertidal areas, the rainforest, and culturally important sites, and lunching on traditional food.  At each stop and along the way, Gisele provides the sound track, and as I’ve tried to indicate, the sound track is superb.

Reserve your trip with Tla-ook now.


Sculptor Lee Gass is represented by Petley Jones Gallery in Vancouver.

View his sculptures at

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