Howe Sound 

Eco Tourism, Recovery and Understanding the Marine Environment

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  • Story by Rick Crosby
  • Howe Sound: Eco Tourism — Recovery and Understanding the Marine Environment

Bright red floatation suits hang along a rack on an outside deck at Sewell's Marina in Horseshoe Bay. Three orange 10-metre inflatable boats are tied up at a dock at the foot of a long wooden ramp. At 11 a.m. five of us climb into the suits and follow Eric Sewell, our guide, down to an inflatable.  

It was the outdoors that attracted Eric's great grandfather, Dan Sewell and his wife, Eva, to Horseshoe Bay in 1927.

"They were immigrants from the prairies," says Meghan Sewell, who along with Eric is a general manager of Sewell's Marina. "They came to Vancouver looking for new beginnings and heard that if you wanted to go fishing then Horseshoe Bay was the place to go."

In 1931 a friend sold a dock to the Sewells for a dollar.  

"They didn't know anything other than just having this passion," Meghan continues.  

A new era of weekend getaways in Howe Sound had already begun when Captain John Cates launched the S.S. Britannia in 1902. Summer picnics on Bowen Island were held by churches, companies and unions. There were balloon races and horseshoe throwing contests, or sometimes people just sat around reading. Cates went on to plant fruit trees, cleared land for a children's playground, built a store and cleared more land for cottages.

In Howe Sound there's always been a connection between recreation and enterprise and now eco-tourism is emerging as a driving force — that's as true today as it was in the early 1900s.

And, just as back then, industry was part of the mix. So it is today as well — a situation that can lead to confrontation between the two sometimes-opposing forces.

Favourite Howe Sound locations

As we head out under cloudy skies we are set to visit some of Eric's favourite spots — well, if the wind co-operates. The Deep Fjord Sea Safari will take us up the north shore of Howe Sound, across the water to the southern tip of Anvil Island, back down past Christie Island to the southern tip of Gambier Island and around Bowen into Horseshoe Bay.

"One more thing to add," Eric says as we leave the dock, "if you need me to stop the boat, if you see something, just raise your arm."     

The inflatable picks up speed. The first engines used by Sewell's were three horsepower, air-cooled engines taken out of washing machines and fitted into rowboats. The engines had to be warmed up at 6 a.m. so that Sewell's first customers could go fishing. Today the three rubber inflatables used for eco tours are each powered by twin 225 horsepower outboard engines. The inflatables have a top speed of 40 knots and a cruising speed of 26 knots. Each boat seats twelve passengers. These are the same vessels that are used by the military and coastguard around the world and are known for their stability.

"They're very, very capable boats," Eric assures us.  

There's a good, sharp salt tang in the air and it's the right time of year to spot eagles and seals. We bank sharply to the right towards shore, past red floats that mark the settings for spot prawn traps — now in season. Evergreen trees — fir and red cedar — grow impossibly out from rock cliffs right down to the waterline. Mountains rise sharply above homes, many with boat ramps. The inflatable "porpoises" in the light chop, and slows about one hundred yards offshore.

"This is where we gotta paddle back," Eric jokes and then asks, "any idea how deep the water is here?"

"One hundred and thirty metres," one passenger says.  

"It's actually two hundred and thirty metres deep here. It drops off really quickly."

At its deepest, Howe Sound is 270 metres deep between the north end of Bowen Island and the southeast tip of Gambier. Above us the highway is forged right into the landscape.

"Because it's so steep and rocky, we have landslides," Eric continues. "This past winter there was significant rainfall. One of the creeks was flowing right over the highway. There was 18 inches of water. A car hit the water and spun out of control into a barrier."

Up towards Lions Bay and Brunswick Beach, opulent homes have been built on the waterfront close to some of the creeks that flow down the mountains.

The inflatable slows suddenly.

"You see that white spot up in the trees, oh, it's diving!" Eric remarks. A bald eagle plunges towards the water. It spreads its talons, but misses its target and retreats back to a perch in a giant fir tree.

"The eagles in the Georgia Basin are healthy because of the herring that come through," Eric explains.

Ahead of us migrating surf scoters, heading up the west coast to the arctic, cover the water.

"It's not uncommon to see flocks of thousands and thousands of these birds," Eric tells us.

The west Lion mountain ridge comes into view, cloud-torn and snow-patched. Eric's voice takes on a more serious tone as he looks up at the mountains above Lions Bay. Dramatic avalanche tracks and boulders the size of houses seems to wait in suspended animation. "This area concerns me. It's material that has sloughed off the mountain in the last decade."

The Howe Sound corridor, stretching 42 kilometres from Horseshoe Bay to Squamish, has a long history of flooding and debris torrents. The thought of a catastrophic event is never far from residents' minds, but the lure of the dramatic scenery is almost irresistible and there are more and more people building homes here.  

Eric starts the engines and the inflatable leaps ahead into the wind. We pass Brunswick Beach and the Ramp, an almost shear cleft on the backside of Mount Harvey that some climbers have done in winter, but won't touch in summer because of falling rock. All along this part of Howe Sound second growth timber has come up over flanks on the mountains that were logged more than 60 years ago. We drift six metres offshore past beautiful orange-barked arbutus trees and clumps of bright yellow broom that somehow manage to grow on the rocky shoreline. From the sanctuary of the inflatable, we watch spellbound as mountains rising to over 1,200 metres slip by in silent slow motion. Halfway above the shoreline on a narrow shelf of rock amongst a sparse growth of arbutus trees a clear plastic shelter comes into view.

"Squatter's shack," Eric remarks. "I see him walking along the highway."

Why anyone would want to live like that is beyond us. What would it be like in the middle of the night if all you had between you and one of Howe Sound's legendary rainstorms was a plastic tarp? There are no swimming beaches, just kilometre after kilometre of remote, rocky, barnacle-encrusted shoreline. Maybe the squatter just wants to be alone, or maybe he seeks his own sense of adventure.

"How are you guys doing?" Eric asks sensing our disquiet.

He brings the inflatable to a stand still near a small creek gurgling pleasantly out of a gorge between boulders and turns off the engines. This creek flows out from Deeks Lake about 900 metres above us. I mention that this past January there was only about half a metre of snow up at the lake where there should be three metres.

"That's interesting," Eric says and adds, "There's concern for salmon this year because of low snowpack."

The low snowpack has the community of Lions Bay on edge about water shortages as well. Residents depend on that snowpack for all their water needs including fire suppression.

Bricks and birds

We pick up speed as Eric swings the inflatable across Howe Sound towards Anvil Island. He slows the boat and talks about the Hanging Valley, visible on the east side of the Sound.

"Ten thousand years ago this whole area was filled with ice." says Eric.

A brick factory was once located on Anvil where glacial sediment was deemed good for brick work. Some of those bricks, each with a distinctive anvil stamped on the surface, can be seen in buildings in Vancouver's Gastown.

The brick factory was one of several industrial enterprises that carved out a place in Howe Sound. You can still see the remnants of a wooden dam built in 1910 to create Deeks Lake and provide water for the Deeks Sand and Gravel Company down by the highway. 

A few raindrops spatter us but nothing can dampen the spirit of adventure of being out here on the water. Halfway over to Anvil, we drift quietly past Christie Island, a private bird sanctuary. Two seagulls quarrel and tug over something on shore. Black birds with bright red feet perch precariously on sharp white chunks of granite. 

"I'm kind of a bird guy," Eric says.

He points out pigeon guillemots, black cormorants that can dive to 27 metres, oyster catchers and harlequin ducks. More than five species of birds nest here but it is the harp seals that steal our hearts. They watch with friendly doe eyes and smile knowingly like resigned hosts as we drift quietly by. We move through a small channel to Pam Rocks and more harp seals.

Howe Sound, British Columbia's southernmost fjord has a rich history of resource extraction. It's also rich in sea life. There are about 1,700 harp seals here.  

"These seals are going to be really stoked this summer when the salmon come back," Eric continues.

"Are there whales here?" a young woman from Surrey asks.

"Two humpbacks were seen last summer," Eric tells her.

"What are the best times to see whales?"


"What's the best area?"

"Along the southern edge of Gambier all the way up to the Squamish estuary." 

The Squamish wind

It's calm today and if there were any whales around, we would see them. Sometimes it's not calm at all.   

"A Squamish wind can howl through here," Eric continues. "When it's 40 or 50 knots and five below in Vancouver this is not the place to be."

Squamish winds mean something else for kite boarders who gather on the Spit where the Squamish River meets Howe Sound.  

"It's the only reason we're here," says Denham Trollip, general manager of the Squamish Wind Sports Society.

Kite boarders look for inflow winds of about 12 knots. Outflow winds in winter are too gusty for the sport.

"We have lots of tools to forecast when the winds are going to go in either direction and how strong it's going to be," Trollip explains. "For the inflow winds in summer, we will show up early at the Spit because we know it's going to happen."  

Kite boarding started in Squamish with about a dozen wind surfers in 1989. The sport really kicked in about 2000 or 2002. It was the consistent winds in summertime that drew kite boarders to the Spit.

"Last year we had 65 consecutive days of kiteable, sailable wind," Trollip recounts.

In 2014 there were 650 registered members of the Squamish Wind Sports Society. The Kite Clash Canadian National Championship in kite boarding freestyle held on B.C. Day in August will probably have 35 participants.

"We had people from Europe last year, the U.S. and all over Canada," Trollip says. 

Trails and tribulations

The inflatable picks up speed and we leave this desolate, yet vibrant, part of the Sound.

Sparsely populated Gambier Island dominates this eastern part of the fjord. There are 21 islands in Howe Sound and Gambier is the largest. The 200 full-time and 1,000 part-time residents were relieved when in September, 2014, the B.C. provincial government announced that licenses to log two woodlots totalling 1,326 hectares on Crown Land would not be awarded pending consultations with First Nations. The residents of Gambier are working with Recreation BC Sites and Trails to establish a network of hiking trails on public property. There are more than 100 kilometres of hiking trails on the island.

"A lot of them radiate in and out of Gambier Lake, an established recreation site, which was right in the middle of one of the woodlots," Peter Scofield, a resident of Gambier says. "We have an initiative to establish trails on Crown land through the Recreation Sites of BC. That gives them a certain degree of protection and recognition." 

We round the south tip of Gambier and cross Hackett Bay. Across the Sound between Hutt Island and the northwest side of Bowen Island more flocks of birds, hundreds of them, take off in front of the inflatable. Just off Hutt, derelict pilings mark the place where a granite quarry was planned in 1960. The quarry never got approval, and like so many other sites in Howe Sound, the pilings mark a place where dreams either came true or perished.

Howe Sound has long been a region where resource extraction dominated.

Meghan Sewell believes there was a shift in Vancouver that triggered the potential for tourism. It happened around the time when the free Vancouver Sun Salmon Derby ended. That derby was a major event in Vancouver when hundreds of boats jammed Howe Sound, everyone trying to catch the biggest salmon and win a speedboat. The winning salmon was often caught off Anvil or McNab Creek. When the derby ended in 1984, Sewells realized that people from other places haven't necessarily grown up with the opportunity to experience the water.

"I think we really started to notice that there were people who wanted to be out on the water, but didn't feel comfortable taking their own boat," Meghan explains, "so we went, well, we can do that. We can take people and go and show them around."

Sewells started their eco-tourist business in 1997.   

"There was definitely a marine element, but the Sea Safari tours had a lot to do with historical storytelling," Meghan continues. "Over the last 15 years a lot of it has to do with the marine environment and how the ecosystem is unique."

In recovery

That Howe Sound is coming back from decades of industrial mismanagement struck home two years ago with a run of pink salmon.

"It was the first time I've ever seen commercial boats fishing for pink salmon in Howe Sound," Meghan recounts. "There was about 10 of them working with their nets transferring fish right onto a barge."

The recovery is good to see, but development and residential expansion will create challenges.

"I still think you can have a good balance between development and the environment," Meghan contends. "It just needs to be coordinated and done sustainably."

The Sea to Sky Marine Trail scheduled to open on June 14 at a ceremony in Squamish, and in lower Gibsons on June 28 in Winegarden Park is part of sustainable recreation.     

"A marine trail is a network of stopping sites for multi-day, self-propelled travel through a large body of water," Gordon McKeever, project manager, explains. "We're getting an opportunity to develop a major recreation amenity that really, compared to other coastal waters, has been much under-utilized." 

The trail idea began as a concept in 2005 and started to pick up speed about five years ago.

"Recreation Sites BC and Trails BC saw a need to develop more public recreation in Howe Sound," McKeever continues. "At the same time the Sea to Sky Trail Project, led by the Squamish Lillooet Regional District, had a need to connect with the rest of the Trans Canada Trail in West Vancouver."

McKeever is also involved with the Sea to Sky Trail that runs for about 180 kilometres from Squamish up through Whistler, Pemberton, Mt. Currie and up to D'Arcy. Heading south, the trail stops at Squamish and is picked up again in West Vancouver.

"The idea was to build a water route that would connect to the rest of the Trans Canada Trail," McKeever continues. "This process has already been established across the country with lakes and rivers that connect pieces of the land trail. This will be the first salt-water connection of the Trans Canada Tail."

The Marine Trail Network in Howe Sound is an important link in creating the longest trail network in the world linking Canada from sea to sea. This vision for Howe Sound includes one provincial park, two provincial marine parks and seven recreation sites. Public access points will be in Squamish, Horseshoe Bay, Snug Cove, Gibson's and McNair Creek Park. The recovery of Howe Sound is a big part of this vision but it's early days still.                

"The role has been to pull a partnership together from the various constituencies; provincial and regional governments and First Nations," Stephen Foster, a spokesperson for the Howe Sound Campaign with the David Suzuki Foundation explains. "The recovery is a visible signal that we've done something right, but it's early days still."

Attendance at the first Howe Sound Aquatic Forum held at Fury Creek in April, 2014, determined that a comprehensive plan was needed for the land base and marine sector before industrial and residential projects go ahead. At this point there is still a lot of anxiety that is tied to history and the recovery.  

"In the late '70s there was this idea that Howe Sound was a dead place," Foster continues. "There was this sense that we'd killed the marine environment and done a lot of damage to the air."

Even though the area took a terrible hit, and the response to repair the damage was slow, there's a feeling that a challenge has been met. The focus of the Howe Sound Campaign is on the marine environment.

"We've set the conditions in motion for a recovery to happen, and we're seeing early signs of that with the return of the herring, large mammals and dolphins," Foster continues.  

The continued recovery needs to be protected and integrated into industry, recreation and tourism. There's fear that history will repeat itself; that an LNG plant, or a ski resort or large residential developments will go ahead with economics as the driving force rather than sustainability.

"I think that those of us who argue for planning say, look, what planning does is give us resonance," Foster says. "You get a feeling that OK, we sat down, we hammered this out, and we did the trade-off we had to do."

There's a sense that a course has been set for the future and that the anxiety that prevails as new projects keep appearing can be relaxed. The small communities in Howe Sound, though, have many complex issues to deal with.  

"All of us have trouble when these large proposals land on us," Foster concedes. "You look at the George Hotel debate that's happening in Gibsons, the National Park on Bowen and LNG up in Squamish. It's the scale that really throws these communities into turmoil."

The George Hotel proposal and what it could mean for Gibsons is particularly controversial. (This is a proposal to build a world-class hotel that would draw a projected 32,000 visitors to the area and transform the Gibsons waterfront, creating a new social and cultural hub for the community.)

"It's an extremely divisive local issue," Donna McMahon, executive director with the Gibsons Chamber of Commerce says. "There's extreme points of view on either side." 

People living in these communities can align themselves around planning to assert a different kind of vision for Howe Sound.

"It's not an anti-industry vision," Foster cautions, "it's just really starting to look at what makes sense here and then to at least have that discussion."

For Foster, it's been about building relationships and working with First Nations and all the partners.

"The Suzuki Foundation, the Vancouver Aquarium and other partners are configuring a proposal where we might work in partnership with Squamish Nation," Foster continues.  "It's not clear yet that that's the way Squamish Nation would like to proceed."

Planning options were reviewed at the first session of the Aquatic Forum.

"That was a large calling together," Foster recounts. "It was really a way to address the challenges of understanding the marine environment."  

The second forum on March 29 at the Vancouver Aquarium galvanized people around marine issues and the understanding that it is the marine issues that are most misunderstood. Two summers ago a humpback whale breeched off Gambier Island. Research done by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans shows that pink salmon are showing up in Howe Sound and feeding for four to six months before going out to open water. These two developments don't positively mean that Howe Sound is recovering.

"The herring are coming back, and we've seen large sea stars dying and other species continue to decline," Foster points out. "So is that a good thing? Is it a bad thing? We just don't have fundamental questions answered about the marine environment overall."

Will the future be smooth sailing?

Historically Howe Sound was viewed as a place that would look after itself, a place to work — but not for the most part to live.

"Because it was so thoroughly decimated we don't have baseline data of any form," Foster continues. "How did it function when it was healthy and what's realistic in terms of the restoration we may be able to accomplish?"

The provincial government recently signed the MaPP, a marine planning partnership for the North Pacific Coast involving 18 First Nations. Of the four zones that were created, it is just one small southwest corner of the Lower Mainland that doesn't have some form of marine planning in place.  

"Here we've got this well-defined ecosystem in Howe Sound, and we've got tremendous motivation," Foster says. "Let's get on with it."      

Meghan believes that getting out into nature is more important now than ever.

"I think people's lives are too busy," she says. "I see it with our guests. Even if they've only been out for an hour or two they come back looking like they've had a full day off."

Out on the water the northwesterly blowing down Georgia Strait has picked up.

"It may be a little bumpy here," Eric says as we accelerate around Bowen.

The small swells soon turn into metre-high waves as we bound into the wind. The inflatable rocks back and forth, rears up like a prancing horse and surges ahead as we round Cape Roger Curtis into exposed water towards Point Cowan.

"I love hitting the waves," Megan Saddler from North Vancouver says. "It's so awesome!"

Washed by spray, we cross open water between Bowen and Passage Island. The inflatable slows as we approach the most southern shoreline of the Sound and more opulent homes built on some of the most-expensive real estate in Canada. The inflatable picks up speed. Wind-blown and exhilarated, we whirl around a last rock outcropping back into the sanctuary of Horseshoe Bay.


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