Nature’s bounty on coastal British Columbia

British Columbia (BC) stretches 965 kms from the US border in the south, to the southern tip of the Alaskan panhandle in the north, but fiords, inlets and 40,000 islands give it an estimated 27,000 kilometres of coastline.

The coast is rich with wildlife and protected coastal inlets provide tranquil conditions where kayakers may see porpoises, seals, and sea lions basking on the rocks. Sometimes bears are seen, too. Whale-watching tours from Vancouver and Vancouver Island provide opportunities to spot majestic humpbacks, grey whales, minke whales and beautiful orcas (killer whales). Whale watching is best from May to October – be sure to take binoculars and a camera. With good underwater visibility all year there is plenty for scuba divers to see, too – soft corals, huge red sea fans, cloud sponges and giant Pacific octopuses. Dive sites include natural reefs clad in colourful marine life, as well as shipwrecks. The Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia has sunk an additional eight ships for divers to explore – and last year added a Boeing 747!

Sport fishing is a significant component of BC’s tourism industry. Rivers and lakes are home to around 80 different freshwater sport fish, while the coastal waters host five species of Pacific salmon, plus halibut, lingcod, sablefish (black cod) and 36 species of rockfish. Fishing lodges, from rustic to luxury, abound on rivers, coastal inlets and islands. Lost amongst the majestic beauty of the coast, many are accessible only by boat or float plane. Lodges offer ‘catch and cook’ services enabling guests to dine on their day’s catch prepared by the restaurant chefs. At small airports, departing passengers may be seen with large boxes of fish packed in ice; many lodges process fish enabling North American tourists to take home their catch ready for the freezer.

Kayakers explore a reef off Checkaklis Island, British Columbia (Photo: Daniel Bruce Lacy / Shutterstock)
Kayakers explore a reef off Checkaklis Island, British Columbia (Photo: Daniel Bruce Lacy / Shutterstock)

Restaurants in Vancouver, Victoria, and coastal resorts serve a bounty for seafood lovers: salmon, halibut, oysters, crab, scallops, sea urchin, razor clams, chitons, mussels, geoducks, cockles, and octopus. Coastal environments also provide sea asparagus (samphire) and nutrient-rich edible seaweeds which can easily be harvested by hand.

Seafood remains an important part of the diet of First Nations peoples of coastal BC, supplemented by foods foraged from the dense coastal rain forests.

In Vancouver’s only First Nations restaurant, Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro, the contemporary menu includes candied salmon, BBQ Salmon Mousse, wild boar and game burgers made from bison or elk. Visitors to Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands) can sample traditional Haida foods at Keenawaii’s Kitchen, where Roberta Olson (Haida name Keenawaii) offers lunch or dinner in her home. At $60 it is not inexpensive but it makes for an interesting meal. Appetisers of sguu (dried seaweed), gilgii (dried salmon) and dried k’aaw (herring eggs on kelp) are served on a scallop shell, the latter bursting in your mouth like a savoury version of popping candy. Salad of sea asparagus and crab follows, then the main dish of smoked salmon, halibut, ling cod, venison with wild cranberries, chanterelle mushrooms, wild rice, tomatoes, carrots, and sweet potato, finishing with a pie of foraged mixed berries. Keenawaii harvests the seafood and seaweeds from the waters and shore in front of her house and, like many Haida, smokes the fish in her own smokehouse.

Tourists wishing to experience the joys of foraging should hire a knowledgeable local guide who can distinguish between what is safe to eat and what is poisonous. On Vancouver Island guests at Long Beach Lodge Resort in Tofino can join chefs as they forage for mushrooms, while in the Cowichan Valley chef and mycologist Bill Jones offers ‘wild food experiences’: foraging trips, monthly dinners and cooking classes at Deerholme Farm. In Vancouver, diners can seek out restaurants such as Forage and Botanist where chefs use food stuffs supplied by local producers and professional foragers to create imaginative and delicious meals showcasing BC’s natural bounty.

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