Canada: Man versus mild

By Greg Dixon

The procedure sounded simple enough. In case of a bear, climb out of your bed and locate the small, wicker basket under one of the tent's night stands.

Said wicker basket contains: a flash light, to be used for the finding of one's way to and from the outside eco-dunny at night; mosquito coils to be used when the bugs are as thick as air; literature on why bears are dangerous, to be read carefully; an air horn.

In case of a bear, it is the air horn, rather than the literature, which is required. Having located it, one is to sound it. Twice. At a 15 second interval. Be sure to hold the air horn at arm's length, you don't want to go deaf just before you die.

John Caton, the imposing fellow who imparted this sage advice, paused. He was enjoying himself. His dozen or so guests were possibly not.

It's been only an hour since we arrived here from Vancouver by sea plane, touching down in one of the quiet, handsome heads of Clayoquot Sound, a series of deep fiords and high wooden hills at the southwestern end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. We had been greeted with alacrity and transported from the dock by a stage pulled by draught horses, "Pete and Poke". We had been handed delicious cocktails.

Until now, Caton's "ultra-luxurious eco-destination", the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort set beside the Bedwell River, had been persistent in its beauty, convincing in its civilised ways and doing its best to persuade me the wilderness in its name is held at an arm's length.

This little talk in the resort's games room was introducing reality, a reality which bites, scratches and mauls.

Black bears, unlike grizzlies, aren't necessarily predators - indeed there hasn't been a single bear versus guest incident at this resort. But if you encounter one and don't do the right thing, it will huff and puff, then clack its teeth, then charge, then ...

Hold on. Must concentrate. Caton - the self-proclaimed "fun director" - is still talking. In case of a bear, and having sounded one's air horn, the 11 dogs he and his family keep will make a dash for your tent. And - in the time it takes for a spry man in his 50s to get out of bed and find his gun - so will John Caton.

"I will use my rifle on whatever I can see," he deadpanned.

Although they're highly territorial, there are 40 naturally well-fed black bears in the first five miles of the Bedwell River valley around and above the resort, which is roughly one for every guest, when the 20-tent camp is at full capacity. With fewer than 20 paying guests right now, it's most likely two bears for every camper. Oh God ...

It's little wonder, after the talk was over and dinner had been had, that each of us buddied up before we walked nervously in the dark to our tents, carrying only flash lights and heads full of wild fear. Alone in our tents, having made very sure there was no food hidden in our bags, we retired to our beds, much as people must have always done in these woods, to listen for bears but hearing only the wind in the trees ...

I snapped awake. Dogs, though only a few of the 11 by the sound of it, were barking. There was enough light coming through the white canvas of my tent to see its folksy, frontier-style furniture, a replica dresser, table and chair, and gas-fired stove set to low. The wind-up clock told me it was 6am. I crawled out from under the bed's thick duvet, and padded across the rug and wooden floor, unzipped the door flap and peered out. My tent was among a group of four on an extended boardwalk built just above the water's edge. They looked back toward the resort's cookhouse, games room and some other guest tents beyond.

I gazed across to the resort. The cookhouse lights were on and smoke was rising from its chimney. An early morning mist was lying sound asleep on the water of the bay. I could see neither dogs nor bears. Just a piece of history remade.

The Great Camp, rather inevitably with all that wilderness to explore and enjoy, was made in America. During the second half of the 19th century the moneyed classes of New York bumped by stage and chugged by train up into the upper reaches of New York State and the northern Appalachians where, at first under canvas, but later in elaborate permanent camps, they summered in the wild - far from home but close to comfort.

"The best thing about living in a Great Camp is the same thing that's best about simple log cabins and lean-tos or camping on the shore of a lake," wrote one 19th century camper. "What makes it extra-special is ... being surrounded by a work of art that constantly pleases the senses." That and good grub served by plenty of servants.

The Great Camps of New York State are still there. But it was recreating that splendid isolation that Canadian John Caton and his wife Adele had in mind when they began a new life a decade ago.

It's hard to see it today - he dresses in an unchanging uniform of white cowboy hat, jeans and boots and wears a small tuft of hair under his bottom lip - but Caton used to be rock'n' roll. In the mid-1990s he owned his own music label. He was a success. But after indulging in the risky parts of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, and a subsequent heart attack, the Catons began looking for something else to do.

It was in the late 1990s that the couple fetched up in Clayoquot Sound - which has subsequently become a Unesco biosphere reserve - buying land and, at first, building and operating a floating resort in nearby Quait Bay (it has now been mothballed), before beginning construction on this resort, the Bedwell River Outpost.

The couple and their extended family (their two adult sons and their families have long since joined them in the business, which has 50-odd staff) live here all year round. The outpost is open for business for paying guests - some illustrious, like John Travolta (it's rumoured) - from May to October. What the Catons offer has rightly been called "rusticating luxury".

The cookhouse is the outpost's centre, and its nourishing heart. It has a dozen or so tables, an open bar and a double-sided fireplace - which can be enjoyed inside and out - that always seems to be lit.

The kitchen, run by Tim May, delivers cuisine of rare quality morning, noon and night, with the evening meal a five-course affair with wine matches. At one sitting we are treated to leek and potato soup with truffle oil and fresh thyme, a seared scallop salad, an organic Bartlett pear sorbet, a prosciutto-wrapped wild Pacific halibut fillet with wilted organic spinach and tomato nectarine broth, followed by a yam chiffon cheese cake with apple cinnamon ice cream. We had the succulent local Dungeness crab, which never leaves the menu, as a side.

Fortunately there's plenty of what Caton calls "soft adventure" to work off the excellent, rich fare available from May's kitchen.

In my three days at Bedwell, I became pleasantly tired, hungry and bow-legged from a three-hour ride up the wooden river valley on a horse called Cuff. I also found myself pleasantly tired, hungry and sore from kayaking (tender shoulders), fishing for salmon that did not bite (bruised ego; sore beer elbow) and attempted clay pigeon shooting (ego and shoulder again).

The most physical adventure, however, was the day-long trip to Flores Island, an isle of cedars and volcanic shorelines roughly the size of Great Barrier that rests near the head of Clayoquot Sound.

Flores is home to the Ahousaht First Nations tribe and, at the end of a long afternoon hike involving bush, sand and sun, we visited the tribe's village, Nuu-Chah-Nulth.

We were struck by the poverty as well as the tiny community's single, cheering attraction, a traditional canoe - bearing a terrific representation of a stylised killer whale metamorphosing into a timber wolf - which sat in the long grass at the edge of the water.

Flores Island left us feeling bold as well as hungry. However, it's what made me peer carefully out my tent flap that first morning, it's what could bite and kill, that puts the "wild" in the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort.

When I finally spotted my first bear I could barely breathe.

It hadn't come for me in the night. It had, as black bears do, come out of the trees and walked down across the rocky beach to the sea as the tide receded. On our way to Flores, the skipper of our rigid-hulled inflatable spotted my bear and in a slow, sweeping arc turned the boat toward the shore and cut the motor.

We had to be quiet, very quiet, though I couldn't believe the bear hadn't heard our boat's motor - or wasn't being dazzled by our bright survival kit. We were dressed like so many death row prisoners in orange jumpsuits - to protect us if we happened to end up in the water, which felt icy even in late summer.

I held my breath. As the boat drifted slowly toward the shore, the bear ambled amiably, stopping to sniff the air. I took a picture. It flipped over a rock. I took another picture. It peered carefully. It was searching for soft-shell crabs, not for me.
Greg Dixon travelled to Clayoquot Wilderness Resort courtesy of Air New Zealand and Tourism British Columbia.

HOW TO GET THERE: Air New Zealand flies direct to Vancouver. More information at www.airnewzealand.co.nz

WHERE TO STAY: A Clayoquot Wilderness Resort package includes a Vancouver-Outpost return float plane fare, accommodation, all meals, snacks, alcohol, unguided activities (kayaking, canoeing, hiking, mountain biking, fishing) and guided activities (including horseback riding, ocean and fresh water fishing, whale and bear watching, day trekking, skeet shooting, fly-tying clinics, kayaking and canoeing and mountain biking). Each package includes a one-hour massage at the resort's spa.

WHAT YOU'LL PAY: Three-night packages are CA$4750, May 15-June 21 and August 28-October 2. Between June 22 and August 27 the price is CA$5500.

MORE INFORMATION: www.wildretreat.com

- NZ Herald

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