Meet down-to-earth outdoorsmen and entrepreneurs Fraser and Holly Koroluk, the owners of Bella Coola Mountain Lodge in British Columbia, and two people who’ve made sharing, protecting, and enjoying the outdoors their lives. Their lifestyle and business is right up the alley for many outdoor enthusiasts, and we wanted to find out what their story was (as well as get hear some good Grizzly Bear stories!) to get to this point.

What sets Fraser and Holly apart is that they live by creating an example: they run their lodge with sustainability behind every decision, they are two people who years later (its been 8 years since they began Bella Coola Lodge) are still off hiking trails and building things together, and they made their passion their business. 

They show us the way business can be done RIGHT in the outdoor industry, as well as the way two people can take the things they love and create a life around it. 

Holly and Fraser of Bella Coola

First up, give us the rundown on Bella Coola Mountain Lodge – where is it, what are you guys known for, and what is your philosophy in running your lodge specifically referring to things like your organic garden and eco-tours.

Bella Coola Valley is in the central coast region of British Columbia on Canada’s west coast, more commonly referred to these days as the Great Bear Rain Forest. It’s about a full day drive north of Vancouver, and accessible by ferry and plane as well, so travel to the region is your first adventure! Our lodge is situated in a farming and rural area of Bella Coola, nestled between the Coast Mountains and the rivers of the region. The coastal valley, with the Pacific Ocean, mountain peaks, clear rivers, wild salmon and grizzly bears, sheer granite walls and lush rain forests makes it the perfect spot for an adventure vacation holiday or just a relaxing outdoor destination.
Growing up here I was always involved in outdoor pursuits, from teaching myself to rock climb with some rusty pitons, a carpenter’s hammer and rope from my friends dad’s fishing boat to having the first mountain bike in the valley as a kid. When Holly and I met years later as biologists doing research in the area, we knew we struck the mix of location, personalities and opportunities to purchase the lodge (then a Bed and Breakfast) and start our tour company , Kynoch West Coast Adventures.
The focus of our tour company would be ecological interpretation, responsible tourism, and alternative activities. Our tag line is ‘unique wilderness, unique experiences’, and that is what we deliver. Following this ideology into the hospitality and guest service end of the lodge operation was also an obvious fit to embody the whole concept of responsible tourism and stewardship. Gardening is part of life in Bella Coola, as we are a remote costal village that only became connected via highway to the rest of the province just over 60 years ago. So fresh organic garden vegetables, seasonal fruit and garden fresh and wild berries have been part of the traditional landscape of locals, so we share that with visitors now.

Bella-Coola-Lodge

What did you do before you opened the Lodge? Have your careers always been outdoor related?

We have both always had very outdoor oriented careers and lifestyles. Holly grew up in Squamish BC, known as BC’s Adventure Capital, and a stones through from the slopes and trails of Whistler. Mountain biking and SCUBA diving became Holly’s passions and as she pursued her studies and training in fisheries and marine biology/ecology those skills allowed her to work in a hugely varied scope of projects from scientific diving to river and lake assessments. She also volunteered with the Coast Guard Auxilliary on the Sunshine Coast and was lucky enough to be chosen to go to RHIOT School in Bamfield, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, so she has a strong background in Marine Search & Rescue. Holly’s dad spent over 30 years with BC Parks, starting as a backcountry ranger doing horse patrol through the Rockies in the 1950’s and retiring as a District Superintendent. Holly and her family spent a lot of time in those parks all over BC with him, so parks and wilderness areas and the preservation of them was part of her upbringing.

Myself, I started guiding as a teenager for my father’s salmon and steelhead fishing outfit right here in Bella Coola. It was time on the river as a kid that interested me in fisheries biology and rafting. But I soon lost interest in the angling part and kept on with studies in biology, advanced guide training and ultimately became a fisheries biologist, with a focus on river ecology and fish habitat.

Holly and I met in 2000 on a 2-year project in the Bella Coola region, doing marine and lake surveys of fish habitat and on April 1 2004 ( eight years to the day I am writing this…) purchased what is now Bella Coola Mountain Lodge from my father. Selling our home in Vancouver we relocated to my old hometown, and the house I grew up in and started the lodge and tour company as our new venture. We still both do some biology consulting, but most of our focus is on bringing the ecology and biology of our pasts into the fold of the lodge and tours.

You’ve made sustainability and wilderness awareness a big part of the Bella Coola experience, and the list of how you’ve done this is quite extensive? In fact, many of these things people can do in their own homes. Give us the run down.

Sustainability is a huge thing to us, but we are realistic and understand it is a process to achieve, not just a quick buzzword to throw around and feel good about. Sustainability to us cannot mean a complete zero-footprint, simply owing to our remote location and need to draw and attract visitors to our region for our business and to sustain our local economy and community; however, we try in every way to reduce that footprint. This region was for years a resource extraction area; logging and fishing were the main industries for decades. With declines in those sectors, tourism has stepped in to fill those roles and we hope to lead tourism towards a sustainableand vibrant future in our wilderness paradise.
Bella-Coola-GardenSustainability needs to incorporate the aspects of the community as well as the environment, this is the interaction we try to achieve by engaging the community in a variety of forums and working groups such as watershed conservation, bear aware, search and rescue, etc. those are the hours spent volunteering and contributing to the community to keep that part of our commitment, and those are the hardest parts of sustainability in our minds.
The more traditionally ideas of sustainability are typically finding alternative energy, solar, wind, etc. and reducing reusing and recycling. We are engaged in those around the lodge to the best of our abilities in a remote region. However, often the latest technologies are not available, so we resort back to the basics; keep it simple, build with salvaged or recovered materials, re-use what you have on hand, plant and grow your own food and don’t waste anything. Really, just getting back to the basics.
Even on our tours we try to only use one tour van for river drifting tours, with the guide riding a bicycle back to the launch site to retrieve the van after the river float, reducing the need for a second vehicle on the trip. Guests get a kick out of that, and it cuts our fuel consumption by half.
Other regional sustainability issues on the coast of BC are reducing wildlife interactions, including removing attractants from around our property to stop bears and other animals from coming into unwanted contact with people and property. This means electric or physical fences around compost, fruit trees and gardens, and securing garbage and foodwaste in an appropriate storage area. These are big topics these days in remote areas. We promote what we refer to as a ‘predator friendly’ menu at our lodge, buying locally only from those suppliers/farmers that practice similar methods as us. Similarly with our salmon and seafood, we try to source it locally from the fishermen in our region. We are fortunate to have these regional business associations that provide world class products locally.

Grizzly Bear Tours… Got some exciting stories for us? Any close calls, for instance?

BC-BearsThe grizzly bear tours are by far our most popular and requested activities, and I am very pleased to say there have been no close calls! The bear tours we offer are very unique, as we use river rafts and drift dories to drift silently down the rivers where the grizzly bears are feeding on the spawning salmon. These tours allow a close and intimate experience with the bears at river-level, as opposed to viewing platforms or tree blinds used in other areas.

Because our tours operate in a predominantly wilderness area, where many of the bears we see have not had negative experiences with humans, the bears are very tolerant and allow us to view them from mere meters away at times. This type of viewing requires a certain trust from the bears that you are going to behave in a way that they can predict and will tolerate. This leads back to sustainability, behaving properly so the bears will not run away, or potentially worse…
All of our guides have undergone very specific bear viewing and ecological training, and we abide by regional and provincial standards that we helped set for ourselves, including small guide to client ratios, numbers and times that boats can drift certain areas, eliminating attractants from tour boats, and explaining the appropriate behavior that guests should conduct themselves with on the tours. Because we have been doing these tours for such a long time (with my father starting them in the 1980s during fishing trips) our boats are part of the background to the bears, and as long as we do not alter our behavior, the bears are content to tolerate us.

Embarrassingly as a guide, the one eventful moment I did have with a large male grizzly bear was when we altered our behavior. Our group was on-shore watching the bear from the opposite bank, when my empty raft became dislodged from the rocks I pulled up on and floated downstream with no one aboard. The bear we were watching was an animal we saw almost daily in that region. Remarkably only when the bear realized the boat was empty and drifting did he react to us, leaving his fishing grounds and retreating to the forest on the opposite bank to tentatively watch. Only when Holly and I walked down to recover the raft from the sandbar 100 m or so downstream did the bear re-emerge and continue fishing, sensing now that this was back-to-normal. Bears are incredibly observant and intelligent animals, and I have no-doubt that this bear knew something was not right with an empty raft, and wanted nothing to do with this situation.

You told us that it’s a balancing act between keeping your rates at reasonable travel value while simultaneously taking on the extra costs of lessening your footprint. Tell us a little bit about this and how you keep it balanced?

The best part of this equation is that the things we do to lessen our footprint sell themselves! People want to come to our lodge for the very reasons we have been discussing, so our occupancy remains relatively high, even during shoulder and low seasons. We have diversified our activities and lodging options to the right balance of attracting new visitors for every available season in Bella Coola. Our typical year starts in January with Heli Ski guests on the Big Mountain Heli package offered by our colleagues at Bella Coola Heli Sports, then as the winter and spring seasons transform we target anglers looking for catch and release searun trout fishing. With early spring trout runs and phenomenal fly fishing, this season again sells itself. Summer and Fall months are busy with rafting, hiking and incredible bear viewing tours, then we have a few quiet months in the winter before we start the season again.
We offer 14 rooms and suites with a total lodge and dining capacity of ~40 guests, so It is not necessarily about volume on any given day, that is not our objective, we are always looking for ideas that will increase the length of the visitor stay and the tourism season in our area, so more people can experience what we offer, without big crowds.

On a B&B forum someone hastily posted about offering organic food at your Lodge by saying, “As for going organic, you are basically inviting every weird, neurotic fussy eater into your home who will demand soy milk and then not use it”. (Someone is a bit judgmental, ey? 😉 What type of customers do you actually see at the lodge?

Most of our clients are well traveled, discerning, but not necessarily demanding, couples that set out for a destination wilderness holiday, and understand they are travelling to a remote location. The international context of our clientele does require that we are able to meet a variety of dietary requirements, but we also find that people are very understanding if we have to get creative to meet those, based on our location and sometimes limited availability of certain ingredients or products.
We haven’t run into the client described in the B&B post yet!

What are 4 of the greatest challenges and 4 of the greatest rewards you get out of running your own lodge?

The greatest challenge for both of us, and I think it is typical of any small business owner, is to remember to take time for ourselves.
Next is finding the right team to staff and service the lodge, as we require a very diverse skill set that changes season to season.
Third is the remote area and lack of readily accessible solutions to simple problems – a broken window or kitchen appliance can take weeks to service or repair.
Fourth, keeping our ideas and market presence fresh, with all of the social media, various market places, and ever-growing unique travel products and destinations become known, we have to keep flipping stones to keep our business at the top of the destination list.

The greatest reward is knowing we have a world class product that people come from all over the world to see and take part in.
Next is the lifestyle of being our own bosses and working together as a team to shape our own business destiny.
Third, meeting new people and learning and sharing new experiences, more than once we have looked up past guests of ours during our own vacations abroad and visited people from around the world in their own homes, often years after they visited us.

Last but not least, we enjoy time off in the winter! We go to Nicaragua every chance we get, where we are building a little hill-top getaway overlooking the beach (just for ourselves at the moment… but we will keep you posted!).

Together you and Holly built a Greenhouse from entirely recycled materials as seen on this article from EcoFriend.com. What were the various components that you reused to build it? Have you always been something of a builder? What’s your philosophy on craftsmanship?

Bella-Coola-GreenhouseHolly and I built the greenhouse out of necessity, as we needed a proper greenhouse to squeeze the most we could out of our growing season here in the rain forest. The materials were predominantly left over building supplies from previous renovations and upgrades to the lodge, including a dozen or so old cedar-frame wooden windows probably dating back 80 to 100 years, to relatively modern glass-sliding doors we replaced ourselves the year we built the green house. The rafters are re-claimed Douglas fir floor joists from a major reno on the lodge and the cedar log poles were salvaged from a friends farm when he cleared some land for a building site. Interior shelves and planting boxes were old cedar decking we re-claimed from a friend during their deck replacement and were still perfectly good for the purpose we needed them for. Essentially the whole building was built from re-purposed materials at little or no cost, or need for resources, other than our time.

Both Holly and I have been involved in all of the renovations and upgrades to the lodge over the last 8 years so we have gained considerable building and remodeling experience. And as any self-respecting outdoor guide can appreciate, I have swung a hammer for a pay cheque at times in my earlier life… Building is something I enjoy very much, but it always tends to be an abstract project or unique challenge to use something I have been saving for years. Holly usually moves in for the finishing touches, such as the furnishings and fittings, much of which she makes herself as well.

Tell us about your salmon snorkeling excursions.

The salmon snorkel trip was Holly’s idea going back to her years SCUBA diving and working as a Dive Master and Instructor teaching diving and leading dives. As fisheries biologists we both did lots of snorkel surveys in rivers to assess habitat and inventory fish populations. This trip really exposes guests to how much activity there is under the water of a coastal river. We show guests the juvenile salmon fry, trout, resident fish, and when the season reaches its peak, we get to see the schools of sometimes thousands of adult salmon migrating through the river to the spawning grounds. It really puts the ecological cycle of the river into perspective for our guests.
We are also fortunate that the river we do this activity on is lake fed, meaning the water is clear and relatively warm for this region. We still provide wet suits and booties for our guests comfort, and the trip is raft assisted, so we can take a lunch, hot tea and the cameras!

Tell us where we can visit you guys on the web and get in touch?!

Bella Coola Mountain Lodge website for lodging and tour activities is www.bcmountainlodge.com which will give you information on the region, the lodge, tours, and on-line booking and e-mail info (info@bcmountainlodge.com)

We also Tweet about our regional activities and ideas at @bellacoolalodge and of course have a Face Book page. We are physically located in the community of Hagensborg in the Bella Coola Valley, at 1900 Mackenzie Hwy, Box 160 Hagensborg BC, V0T 1H0.

By phone we can be reached locally at 250-982-2298, or Toll Free across North America at 1-866-982-2298.

 

About The Author

Lauren Rains is the editor at large of Outdoor Minded Mag. She is struck by wanderlust, and spends most waking hours of her life either exploring the outdoors around the globe or working on various passion projects be it film to microadventures to cooking chili. You can read about her adventures in life, biz and travel on her blog TheMadToLive.com, and catch up with her on Twitter at @LaurRAINS.