What can one of the world’s first ecolodges teach us about sustainability and growth? The alive team headed into the heart of BC’s Great Bear Rainforest to stay at Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort to find out.
At the base of Mount Stephens on BC’s mainland, just off the northern tip of Vancouver Island, a waterfall cascades into a stream that swiftly empties into a sheltered bay. One day in May of 1981, the bay’s still waters filled with ripples as a building was towed in and left to float there.
That floating lodge would become the heart of Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, one of the world’s first ecolodges. For nearly four decades, Nimmo Bay guests have woken up each day to the sound of the waterfall, the sight of mist snagged in shaggy conifers, and the smell of damp cedar. How they fill their days at Nimmo Bay has changed over the years, though, as successive generations of the resort’s founding family embrace new beginnings.
A lodge is born
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort was spawned by Craig and Deborah Murray’s dream: to found a fishing lodge on a remote edge of the Great Bear Rainforest.
“A number of people said, ‘Don’t do it. You’re crazy. It’s not going to work,’” says the couple’s eldest son, Fraser Murray.
The Great Bear Rainforest—an expanse larger than Ireland—houses bears, wolves, and thousand-year-old trees. Its waters hold whales, sea otters, and porpoises —then splinter into a dizzying maze of fjords and inlets where the Pacific Ocean meets the BC coast. Its rivers are full of salmon, trout, and steelhead.
It’s beautiful. But many parts are tough to reach—like Nimmo Bay, which is only accessible by air or water.
Fraser and his siblings had front-row seats to see if the dire predictions about their parent’s fishing lodge would come true. The young family was initially based at the lodge year-round. Fraser says they lived in “survival mode” with just one wood stove in the front room.
“There was no electricity, there was no running water—there was nothing,” he says of the days before his parents transformed the waterfall into a source of clean energy and drinking water.
It’s hard to square those beyond-rustic beginnings with the Nimmo Bay of today: a luxury resort where you’re greeted with warm, lavender-scented hand towels the moment you arrive (usually via a 20-minute floatplane ride from Port Hardy). You step from the plane onto a floating deck that fronts the main lodge. It’s still the original building pulled into place nearly 40 years ago.
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort has its own “theory of hospitality,” a riff on Einstein’s famous theory of special relativity. The formula stands for “Expectations Exceeded = Memories Created.”
A sustainable evolution
Nimmo Bay operated primarily as a heli-fishing lodge for years. Eventually, Fraser and his wife Becky took the reins as chief operators, and the family business evolved.
“I was never interested in taking over a fishing lodge,” says Fraser. While Nimmo Bay still offers catch-and-release fishing excursions, he has repositioned it as a place where people can experience untouched wilderness and wildlife. He has championed excursions where guests spot bears and whales, watch Pacific white-sided dolphins cavort in their boat’s wake, and listen to the barks of sea lions lounging and squabbling on sea-splashed rocks.
Like his parents before him, Fraser and Becky have brought their children along for the ride.
“My brother was serving when he was five years old and I was guiding when I was seven,” he says. By contrast, he says his own two young daughters roll up to the lodge’s bar and order their own “kid cocktails.” But there are similarities between their experiences: “They love fishing; they love being in the outdoors; they love turning rocks over.”
From humble beginnings
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort has been recognized as one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Whether guests prefer to explore by paddleboard, kayak, boat, or helicopter, the lodge has a formidable fleet and access to 32 million acres of wilderness.
Beyond carbon neutral
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort has measured its carbon emissions and discovered that travel makes up 55 percent of its total carbon footprint. That’s roughly equivalent to the emissions from 158 cars per year. Fraser Murray plans to offset this (and the resort’s other emissions) and make the resort carbon negative by 2025.
Bridging—and protecting—land and sea
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort has minimized its environmental footprint since day one.
The waterfall at its centre is still its source of clean energy. The cabins’ wooden siding is allowed to weather; no toxic chemicals are used to preserve the wood. As much found wood as possible is burned in fireplaces (instead of cutting down living trees). And the resort thoroughly treats its wastewater before sending it into the sea.
It’s not a large resort: its nine guest chalets have a capacity of 18 to 24 guests. And because most buildings are floating or built on a rocky outcrop, straddling land and sea, the resort has had little effect on the dense forest habitat at the base of Mount Stephens.
The whole place gives the impression it’s a natural outgrowth of its surroundings. The red-roofed chalets on stilts gently arc toward the bay, as if being pulled by a low tide. Two cedar hot tubs are tucked next to the waterfall, their warmth the perfect contrast to the tumbling water’s cool spray. Wooden walkways connect the floating buildings and those in the forest’s periphery and on the pebbled beach.
Nimmo Bay’s version of sustainable tourism is the result of following a clear vision of sustainability: “We strive to live a life in balance, explore mindfully, tread lightly, and give more than we take.”
“Tourism is not perfect. You can over-tourism anything and be worse than any other industry,” says Fraser. “But I think tourism done properly can be of real benefit to the area.”
Over the last few years, the resort has offered freediving experiences (diving on a single breath with no breathing apparatus). And just this year, it began testing a heli-biking program. It has also taken its spa and dining offerings to a new level.
Wild Within Wellness Experience
The alive team was the first to experience and photograph Nimmo Bay’s new wellness retreat: a restorative, gently paced day with plenty of space to meditate and reflect. The day began at a secluded floating sauna and included an outdoor rain shower, energy work, and intuitive guidance with massage and wellness therapist Cheryl Davidson.
“This place is amazingly healing just being here,” says Davidson. “This is a powerful spot.”
A chef from afar
New to the lodge this year, English-born Chef David Hassell plans to run the dining room as a world-class restaurant—one that happens to be floating in the middle of the wilderness.
“I’m hoping what we can do is something akin to a city restaurant, but out here,” he says.
As an alum of the much vaunted Eden restaurant in Banff who has also wowed diners in remote ski lodges, he has the CV. The real proof is in the inventive dishes on offer, like smoked, melt-in-your-mouth leek prepared over hay (and served on a bed of the sweet-smelling stuff, too).
Still, Hassell is the first to say he’s only beginning to understand all the local ingredients at his new post, like sea cucumber, bracken fern, and fireweed shoots. That’s where working closely with experienced foragers and tapping into local knowledge comes in.
“The depth of medicinal properties of these herbs and plants, the cooking properties, the seasonality of them, foraging for all of them … The longer I spend here, the more I realize how much I have to learn,” says Hassell. “The support I’ve received, especially from the First Nations communities in the area, and the amount of knowledge there is something that’s so inspirational.”
That support goes two ways: Nimmo Bay partners with local First Nations, “supporting their businesses and their traditional territory and recognizing that,” says Fraser.
In addition to a longstanding partnership with Sea Wolf Adventures, Nimmo Bay recently partnered with a new guiding outfit, Raven Adventures, run by Hemajlas Deedames Willie and Thomas Peter Moon of the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation.
“The main goal is to create employment for our people,” says Willie about starting Raven Adventures and working with Nimmo Bay. “This is to open the door to tourism to the village, and we hope and pray that others will step up and say, ‘Look, I want to do a business as well.’”
A boat ride with Raven Adventures reveals an even wilder side of the coast. Highlights include bobbing beneath a cliff painting by renowned Dzawada’enuxw artist Marianne Nicolson, racing up the green-watered, lushly overgrown Kingcome River, and walking through the village of Gwayi—Kingcome Inlet with its two Bighouses: one old, one new. Near the centre of the village, a weather-greyed totem pole is being allowed to return to the earth. A young sapling has begun to grow out of it.
In December 2017, the BC government announced it would no longer allow non-First Nations grizzly bear hunting in the province. It was a decision celebrated by the Nimmo Bay team.
For several years leading up to the ban, the resort ran a program called “Bullets for Binos” through which hunters with a grizzly bear hunting licence could trade their tag for a stay at Nimmo Bay and a wilderness experience (in other words, trade their bullets for a pair of binoculars).
Fraser Murray says despite the new legislation, there’s still work to be done. The Nimmo Bay team is currently figuring out how to adapt the program.
“It’s going to be focused on other carnivores that don’t have the limelight like grizzly bears would have, like black bears and wolves,” he says.
Nimmo Bay works with Sea to Cedar, a conservation-focused foundation Fraser and Becky Murray helped create. As part of the Sea to Cedar Coastal Carnivores Project, Nimmo Bay guests can participate by checking non-invasive hair snagging stations and wildlife cameras. This monitoring builds better understanding of where carnivores like bears, wolves, and cougars roam, what they eat, and how they behave … which can help build a case for protecting them.