Eco lodge barely leaves a footprint

February 21, 2012
Amy Dove

Margaret Leehane knows isolation.

She knows what it means to be the only person for miles, surrounded by mountains, trees and wild animals. She also knows the privilege and responsibility of sharing this world.

The Royal Roads University student is a co-owner and operator of Great Bear Nature Tours, a business rich with sustainable opportunity. Based in an isolated fjord off British Columbia's coast, the company provides unique accommodations for people wanting to experience the natural world and the bears and other wildlife that live there.

"You can come out with us and we will get you closer to nature then you ever imagined possible," Leehane says. "I feel like I am living in a National Geographic piece."

Born in Australia, Leehane started out in the information technology sector, but ultimately she decided she wanted more adventure in life. She led sea kayak tours in Mexico and Canada before co-launching Great Bear Nature Tours eight years ago.

The business is based on a floating lodge comprised of four buildings. In the guest house, there are five guest rooms, each with an en suite, and an open concept kitchen and dining room. Leehane and her partner Tom Rivest have their own floating home where they live most of the year.

The comforts of home are primarily powered by solar, wind and micro-hydro energy. They do have a backup diesel generator, but this year, they will be searching the surrounding area for the best place to capture wind and solar energy, all in the hopes of becoming completely powered by renewable resources.

"As a business, you have a huge responsibility," Leehane says. "It is so critical that we operate in a way that brings people out, but also in a way that sees all of the policies in our company intertwined with our values. We are super-conscious about being environmentally friendly."

That means ensuring they make little impact outside of the lodge as well. Great Bear Nature Tours can accommodate up to 10 people - a number set with purpose. Tours don't go out with fewer than six for safety reasons, but they also aren't any larger than 10 to ensure the bears are not unduly impacted, Leehane says. Predictability is key and the company has strict timelines for where they go and when. The bears are very smart and they know the schedule, she adds.

Of course, it's not just bears that call the area home. Cougars, mink, otters, seals, eagles and waterfowl are in abundance. When the herring are running,humpback whales occasionally enter the fjord. There are wolves and deer, whose appearance varies along with the predator/prey cycle.

"There are only animals out there, there is not one other human. That's really powerful," she says. "I think it takes you to a place that everyone is seeking in meditation; it just takes you there naturally. You are very connected to everything in nature, the weather and the tides and what's happening to the trees."

That connection comes at the cost of isolation, and Leehane found herself looking for ways to connect with people and challenge herself intellectually. Her experience as a student in the MA in Tourism Management program at Royal Roads has brought profound change to the way she addresses her business.
"When you go to the program, there are like-minded people and you start to see how you can connect communities," she says. "I have a renewed sense of opportunity."

That opportunity comes from understanding the tourism industry as a whole, and the collective efforts of many people within it to be more eco-friendly. There are people in the program from across the tourism industry, ranging from niche businesses to hotel giants like Fairmont. That mixture of experience is what makes the learning environment so rich, says Geoff Bird, faculty member in the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management.

"You realize you are not alone (with your challenges) ... there are other people who thinking about what to do," he says. "What we try to do at Royal Roads is to empower people with solutions and tools to go forward and make a difference."
In tourism, sustainability can mean a lot of things, Bird says. It covers how a hotel or lodge operates internally, but also how it engages with the surrounding community and environment. To be successful, operators need to understand sustainability from a business, social and ethical perspective, he says, adding that is what Leehane excels at.

"This business is the real thing in terms of addressing all aspects of sustainability," he says. "It is providing an opportunity for people to connect with the environment through witnessing the magic of the wild and by learning about it, demystifying it. It results in a powerful connection for people."

Connection to environment is the key to protecting it, Leehane says, and through a respectful celebration of a virtually untouched ecosystem, Great Bear Nature Tours connects people to a world they can't help but want to protect.