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Marg Leehane of Great Bear Lodge tells us about her adventurous life floating in a wilderness paradise, and her passion to create an experience guests simply can't have on their own.
Marg Leehane follows me into a rustic café in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne; we’re miles away from her floating home near Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, Canada. I order a coffee, and she excitedly orders a white tea. “You can’t order white tea in North America”, she laughs; “You have to order black tea with milk”. We chat for a few minutes about the ‘little things’ you miss as an expat Australian living overseas, but hey, it’s a small price to pay to float on a houseboat in middle of a wilderness paradise.
More than a floating house, Marg and her husband Tom Rivest own Great Bear Lodge, one of the finest grizzly bear and wildlife viewing retreats in Canada. Situated within 16 million acres of Great Bear Rainforest, Great Bear Lodge floats peacefully in Smith Inlet on a sea of glass. “Port Hardy is the nearest town,” Marg explains, “And that’s 30-40 minutes by floatplane, so Great Bear is beautifully remote.” It seems a world away from the buzzing café we’re in.
She takes a sip of tea and tells me how it all began back in 1999. “My husband Tom had just graduated as a biologist and was working as a kayak guide. On his very first kayaking trip in BC, he got chatting with the water taxi driver. The driver was a local and knew the area, he said to Tom ‘I have a water taxi; you’re a biologist, why don’t we start a bear viewing company.’ And that’s literally how it started. It was complete serendipity.”
Fast-forward two years to a kayaking trip in Mexico. Tom and Marg meet, and the rest is history. “I quit my job and for the next three years we worked in Mexico during the winter and in BC for the summer running the bear tours. It was basically hobby business”. However, they knew if they wanted to get serious about the business, they would need to work on it year round, as well as invest money in marketing. “So we decided to stop doing day trips and stay overnight. I think day trips are such a rush, it’s so beautiful out there and you don’t get a chance to just take a breath and let it sink in.” So in 2004, Tom and Marg bought the very first Great Bear Lodge. She laughs, remembering, “We towed it over to Port Hardy from Vancouver Island one week before the season started!”
A new season.
So after nine years of accommodating ten guests, Marg and Tom have just put the final touches on a brand new lodge, where up to 16 guests can stay. Marg takes another sip of tea and I see her picturing the layout in her mind as she describes it to me. “Upstairs, guests stay in one of eight beautiful ensuite rooms, with the option of relaxing in the living area downstairs. With lots of natural light, all rooms have stunning views of the pristine surroundings”. Sounds perfect, when can I come?
Discovering the magic of the Great Bear Rainforest.
Surrounded with such beautiful scenery and wildlife, I’m guessing that surely good photography skills are a prerequisite for guests? “Not at all”, she tells me, “Many of our clients are avid photographers, while others are simply happy to ‘point and shoot’, enjoying the moment. We find that most guests have already experienced so much of ‘large Canada’. They’ve seen the big sights, so Great Bear Lodge is a wonderful way for them to stop, relax, and take a closer look at the wonder of this part of the world”.
And what a spectacular part of the world this is. In addition to the picturesque scenery, it’s the grizzly bears that draw up to 450 people to Great Bear Lodge each year. Between 40 and 60 bears call the valley home, and from May to October, guests can witness Tom and Marg’s ‘furry friends’ feast on salmon in preparation for a long winter of hibernation. Many of them have settled in to the area and quite enjoy being the stars of the show. “There are definitely a wide and varied cast of characters each season. Many of them are comfortable with humans, and around half of the bears are well known and have names.” She goes on to tell me, “We have a couple of brown bears, Michael and Roxanne, they love to play a lot and they’re very adventurous.” I’m picturing Marg and Tom as ‘the bear whisperers’ and I ask about any special friendships they have. “One of our bears, ‘Bo’, short for Bo-Diddley, we have known since he was four years old. He’s now eleven and because we’ve known him so long, he can get a bit cheeky. He feels safe around us, so he can just relax”.
Winding down in the wilderness.
I ask Marg if there’s anything that surprises people about Great Bear Lodge. “They can’t believe how far into the wilderness they are.” She tells me. “They’ve just travelled 30-40 minutes from Port Hardy, so when they arrive, they realize they are the only ones out there. It’s just them, the water and the Great Bear Rainforest.” She goes on, “The deck is another thing people love. As they begin to wind down, they love relaxing over the water and they’re amazed at the beauty surrounding them.” The food is another highlight, and their talented on-board chef quickly becomes a favourite among clients. “We love providing a menu of healthy and delicious food. The selection is simple and fresh, yet decadent.”
I’m starting to get hungry with all this food talk. Like a schoolchild listening to a story, I’ve been leaning in; hanging on Marg’s every word for most of the interview. My elbow rests on the table and my chin sits in the palm of my hand. I take the final sip of my latte and ask her if she has any advice she’d like to share with other adventurers. “Don’t judge your experience by the quality of your photo,” she warns. “It’s so easy to become obsessed with the ‘perfect picture’, but there are times when the silence and stillness of the moment are more impacting than a photo could ever be. So don’t spend too much time taking photos that you miss the moment.” Stopping to think, she continues, “Always take time to stop and just be ‘in’ the moment.” This is so true and something I actually need to learn to do more myself.
So what does a typical day at Great Bear Lodge look like?
7:15am Breakfast wakeup call by the chef
I ask Marg about her favourite time of the day. “In the mornings, it’s still and calm. There’s no wind, so you can hear the sounds echo forever. You can spot animals first thing in the morning too; it’s beautiful.” It seems many guests agree. “Most of them love getting up well before breakfast, when everything is still. The fog is low over the water and often they get to spot some animals on their own. It’s so magical.”
Despite loving the quiet life, there are many things Marg still loves about being in a big city. “I’m a city girl at heart, so I always love coming back to Melbourne. I love the simple things, like coffee, eating at good restaurants, and catching up with friends. And I miss good salads! I love eating quinoa salad when I’m here!” She also loves meeting new people. “When you come from a tiny town, you know everyone, so seeing people you don’t know is a rarity!”
Home is where the heart is.
After travelling extensively and living in many places around the world, this floating haven deep in the Great Bear Rainforest truly is home for Marg and Tom. “I remember in our first year at the lodge, we were in the boat driving up the estuary and I felt like I was in a National Geographic documentary, and I just had this moment.” Her eyes light up as she remembers. “All of a sudden, the beauty of the place overwhelmed me. I just marvelled at the surroundings, and I was just so amazed, thinking ‘I get to do this’. I get to help people have these incredible life-changing experiences everyday. And we’re thrilled people can come.”
Well I don’t know about you, but I’m sold. And this is just a glimpse of what people can experience when they visit Great Bear Lodge. All of a sudden I feel like I’ve had too much of a taste of adventure, and I think I’ll have to go and check this out myself. Hmmm, when’s the next flight to Vancouver?
Spectrum Holidays offers tours to Great Bear Lodge. Although nestled deep in the rainforest, far from all the hustle and bustle, it’s super easy to get to. Just a simple flight from Vancouver or private car to Port Hardy, followed by a floatplane and you’re there.
For more details or to include Great Bear Lodge in your Canada or Alaska itinerary please contact Spectrum Holidays on 1300 130 840 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.