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Canoes launch economic opportunity

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PORT ALBERNI, British Columbia - An inviting name has welcomed guests to enjoy the hospitality of the Hupacasath First Nation for the last two years. Now the tiny reservation has garnered the attention of the tourism and business community of British Columbia's Vancouver Island.

Through the island's central waterways, Choo Kwa Ventures offers canoe trips coupled with interpretative stories and traditional dances back on dry land. Meaning "come here", Choo Kwa has attracted more than 3,000 visitors for its daily packages in an area known more for its forestry, rather than tourism, as the economic stimulus.

Chief Councilor Judith Sayers, who's in her ninth year heading the 230-member band, shares the excitement about how this enterprise benefits both her people and the surrounding area.

"Choo Kwa allows Port Alberni to have a tourist draw because this gives people something to do and stay here instead of whipping off to the west coast (the Pacific Ocean)," Sayers, who also serves on the city's Chamber of Commerce, stated.

Besides the continued compliments of satisfied tourists, Hupacasath has now received the accolades of a larger audience. With just this moderate success, Choo Kwa Ventures is one of three finalists for the Business of the Year in the hospitality/tourism category during the fourth annual Vancouver Island Business Excellence Awards on Jan. 22.

Choo Kwa's competition is quite decorated. Mount Washington Alpine Resort records some of the highest snow bases on the continent and has quietly earned a reputation among skiing enthusiasts. Tigh Na Mara Resort and Spa is a half-century old establishment with more than 200 rooms.

Hupacasath's Executive Director Trevor Jones noted how the band, after questioning itself on how to expand its economic base, determined eco-tourism was an untapped market in the Alberni Valley. He appreciates how a First Nation owned and operated business can be accepted in such a short period of time.

"This is a feather in the cap for the community and to be included with those two other reputable companies is a real honor," Jones said about the awards ceremony as 750,000 people live on Vancouver Island. "The business community has recognized the attempts by First Nations to modernize their economies and become more self-reliant."

After receiving grants from the tribal council as well as federal and provincial branches of the government Choo Kwa launched two canoes in July 2002. Holding up to 11 passengers each, the fiberglass boats replace the traditional hand-carved wooden canoes though with good reason. At half the weight, only one paddler is required at the stern (back) to steer a group for the 90-minute ride along the Somass River or the longer two-and-a-half hour trek into Sproat Lake.

"Having those two canoes is a great start and even though they're fiberglass, they show who we are," said sixth-year councilor Peter Tatoosh, mentioning the historical importance of water-based transportation for his tribe.

Port Alberni, with a population of 30,000 is in the middle of Vancouver Island and for travelers the town is on the way to the rugged, isolated and untamed west coast. Recently Pacific Rim National Park has become a haven for cold-water surfers and winter storm watchers yet, during this tourist boom, passersby easily overlook the Alberni Valley.

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The natural beauty surrounding the Hupacasath was however the attraction upon which the band wanted to capitalize. The town is recognized as the "Salmon Capital of the World" and has the earliest upstream run of sockeye beginning in May lasting through December. Besides the frenzy of hundreds of thousands of fish thrashing about before their spawning cycle, the region contains black bears and bald eagles that gorge upon the protein-rich salmon.

Through the five months of spring and summer, Choo Kwa averages about 10 trips per week and at an average of $25 per person, the company has grossed about $75,000 in its first two seasons. Between the first and second year, Jones mentioned there weren't too many changes in the program but instead there was more of an attempt to polish the existing services.

What was additionally offered were barbequed salmon dinners, a cultural component of the Hupacasath that became its own attraction.

"They would stop, try the fish and the next thing was they were on the tour. It was a great opportunity (the salmon) to introduce them into the culture," Jones noted.

"It's nice to see the fish on the stakes, the old way," Tatoosh said.

Jones pointed out the importance of this tour as a venue to share with the general public the oral history of the Hupacasath. As tourists have been able to learn from their guides, it's been Choo Kwa that have revitalized parts of the culture because the performances of songs and dances had to be taught to the younger generations from the few elders still remaining. Councilor Tatoosh has noticed there has been a renewed energy in the community's children in the quest to learn more about their history and traditions that had been suppressed for most of the century.

The canoes have also become symbolic for Port Alberni and chief councilor Sayers attests to how these objects have become a conduit towards improved relations between the tribe and the city.

"It's allowed people the ability to hear about the Hupacasath and they are welcome on the reserve to learn about our history that they've never known before," she said.

When the first cruise ship recently docked in Port Alberni, the canoes were on hand to greet those larger boats while the canoes have also delivered thousands of signed petitions to the provincial legislature in Victoria during a local protest.

"The community has wanted the canoes as a makeup of Port Alberni so if there are important events, we've requested to be a part of that," Sayers said.

Future plans by Choo Kwa Ventures include offering longer wilderness trips into the heart of the Vancouver Island and the remote basins around Great Central Lake.