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BC VOICES: Science week at Koeye Camp with Raincoast Conservation Foundation

BC VOICES: Science week at Koeye Camp with Raincoast Conservation Foundation

October 26, 2016

Campers paddle up the Koeye River in a gilwa hoping to do some bear watching in the estuary.


Whale watching aboard the Raincoast research vessel the ‘Achiever’.


Campers get ready to add food to the pit cook.


The big house on the shores of Koeye Bay.


The Achiever at anchor in Koeye Bay.

Science week at Koeye Camp with Raincoast Conservation Foundation
by Sara Wickham

The invitation couldn’t of come at a worse time – I had only been home from fieldwork on the central coast of British Columbia for four days when I received an email asking me if I would like to join the Raincoast Conservation Foundation crew on a trip back up to the Great Bear Rainforest. My recently completed 10-week long field season had been stormy, soggy, and frustrating. Spirits were low and there was little enthusiasm to leave my house so quickly. However, I’d heard from past participants that this opportunity was not to be missed –  some even described it as magical. So I quickly sucked up my bad attitude, grabbed my rubber boots, repacked my bags, and journeyed north.

I was headed to an annual event where Raincoast scientists (and wannabe Raincoast scientist such as myself) spend a week leading and participating in activities at Qqs Projects Society’s youth camp (fondly referred to as Koeye Camp and pronounced “Kway”). Koeye Camp is a Heiltsuk science and culture sleep-away camp that takes place every summer in the Koeye River watershed, located roughly 30 nautical miles south of Bella Bella. Qqs Project Society (pronounced “Cucks” and meaning “eye” in Heiltsuk), a local non-profit operating out of Bella Bella, offers the camp completely free of charge to children ages 8-15. Qqs also employs local young adults as camp counselors and local community members as cultural specialists, cooks, gardeners, maintenance staff, and caretakers. A brilliantly innovative program, the camp aims to integrate scientific learning and environmental stewardship with cultural rediscovery.

Integrating science, environment, and culture may sound like a lofty goal, especially when the attention spans of young children are involved. But at Koeye Camp it works seamlessly. The camps counselors and facilitators made campers and scientists alike feel infused with a sense of belonging. This in turn fostered a respectful and engaging environment quite unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

Each day we engaged in a flurry of planned and unplanned activities. Between rounds of beach games, ethnobotanist Fiona Hamersley Chambers had us all assist her in demonstrating how to pit cook – a traditional method of roasting food in over hot rocks dug into the ground. One morning, a fun ecology-based scavenger hunt turned into a fierce competition – first prize being the chance to take a dip in the cold ocean! And a sailing trip aboard the Raincoast research vessel the “Achiever”, turned into some of the most exhilarating whale watching I have ever witnessed. We spotted dozens of Humpback whales in Fitz High Channel and were fortunate to witness the whales sleeping, grunting, lunge feeding, pectoral slapping, and breeching in tandem. The kids and even the crew of the Achiever (seasoned whale watching vets that they are) were suitably awed.

The infectious energy, excitement, and inquisitiveness nature of the kids made every moment memorable and humorous. However, one of the most anticipated activities took place each night after dinner. At this time Koeye campers would happily retreat inside Dhadhixsistala – a magnificent traditional cedar bighouse on the shores of Koeye Bay. There in the sun-filtered darkness the campers practiced traditional Heiltsuk singing, drumming, and dancing. It was a formidable thing to observe. Soft spoken, giggly, and shy eight-year old girls transformed into serious and enchanting performers who thundered out mesmerizing lyrics in their language. And despite my not being able to understand the lyrics, their words and drumbeats reverberated satisfyingly in my head as I fell asleep each night.

Safe to say, that by then end of my week at Koeye Camp I was wholly enchanted. I was so grateful for the staff, who were teaching beautiful cultural and environmental values to the children with incredible patience. I was equally as grateful to have met the children, who were already tremendous stewards of their ancestral traditions and lands. And so, I have become a spellbound past camp participant who also describes my Koeye experience as “magical”.
You can find out more about Qqs Projects Society’s programs here and about Raincoast Conservation Foundation here. Please consider donating to these fine organizations.