By Paul Dickinson
A group of tour operators was all smiles Aug. 19, after a three-day tour package to local St'át'imc communities ended with a day-long tour of Whitecap Creek near Seton Portage.
As the train pulled out from Lillooet's station, the operators were exposed to stunning scenery, followed by hospitality from the Tsal'lh band upon their arrival at Whitecap Creek.
USLCES summer employee Thomas Terry captivated his audience with an explanation of Marriage Rock, just west of Lillooet, the history of pictographs, and several St'át'imc legends.
Brenda Ireland of USLCES was also on hand, providing an insight into the status of Aboriginal people in Canada both in a historical and contemporary context. Summer employee Natasha Billy also pointed out sights of importance to our group, and Tsal'lh community host Laura Terry added another friendly and knowledgeable guide to the tour.
The tours were organized by local bands and the Upper St'át'imc Language, Culture, and Education Society (USLCES).
The package of fam tours saw 15 tour operators from 12 companies make the journey to the Lillooet area last week. Guides from Xwsten, Tsal'lh, T't'q'et, Skw'el'was, and Ts'kw'aylaxw highlighted St'át'imc culture and history to encourage the growth of tourism in their communities.
"It's been a lot of fun," said Thomas Terry. "It's been really interesting researching tourism, as well as for the St'át'imc to come to a place where we can join tourism, where we know it will benefit our people.
"We're hoping (tourists) will see how the St'át'imc have survived and understand how far we've come to be who were are today."
The group was greeted at Whitecap Creek by Cliff Casper, Tsal'lh's economic development coordinator. He highlighted the band's plans for the area, which include a grill, a sweat lodge, and lean-to's with craft demonstrations.
Casper said funding has come from the Softwood Industry Community Economic Adjustment Initiative (SICEAI), as well as from Aboriginal Business Canada.
Another project, scheduled to be completed by Christmas 2005, is a s7tisken, or pit house, 50 feet in diameter, designed by Rob Tomm. The building will follow traditional design patterns and will be used for public gatherings and as a tourist attraction.
After a tour of the area, including a visit to the creek's scenic waterfall, the guests were greeted by Chief Garry John of the Tsal'lh band, as well as by several elders of the community. Tsal'lh cooks offered a feast of barbecued salmon, bannock, and xsum juice.
Elders regaled the guests with tales from their community about bears and the great slide that led to Tsal'lh forming a single band. Chief John played traditional songs, joined by Thomas Terry and William Alexander.
Chief John noted that the tourism initiative could be used as an economic base for the Tsal'lh community while keeping the environmental impact to a minimum.
"We don't have what you can call an economic base," he said. "Despite railway and hydro development (in the area), we still have a unique gem in the valley that is, in my opinion, marketable."
He added that the region would benefit from the tourism industry, as Tsal'lh ships its materials in from Lillooet.
"Hopefully everyone realizes the potential. We're hoping this will become one more drawing point for the area."
Mother Nature seemed to cooperate with the tour guides in their efforts to showcase the community during the return trip.
As the train rounded a corner just outside Tsal'lh, a juvenile black bear darted across the tracks on its way to the lake.
When the train reached the home stretch below T't'q'et, a herd of bighorn sheep forced a 30-second stop, as the animals ambled across the tracks less than 30 feet in front of the cars. Laura Terry noted that such herds are a regular occurrence along the train tracks.
Tour operator George Bell commented that a younger clientele would be thrilled by the sights of the area.
"It's an absolutely beautiful area, and the food was excellent," Bell said. "The people are so friendly, they have a wonderful sense of humour. If they can transmit that attitude to the tourists, it will work."
Bell added that cultural tours must take into consideration the sensitivity of the culture, a point which Ireland has stressed when organizing the initiative.
"We don't want to see the culture damaged in any way," Bell commented.
He also said he was "very interested" in developing a package for the cultural tours.
"The bands have to work out what they want for the future," he said. "They have lots to offer, it's just a question of finding a way to package the tours efficiently."
Bob Tuss, a tourism consultant from Vancouver, noted that the positive attitude of the fam tour organizers is the most important part of the initiative in its early development.
"Doing it and the willingness to take these steps is foremost at this juncture of the road," he commented. "The factors of logistics, and the rhythm of operating in the tourism medium, takes a little getting used to. (Coordinators are) well on their wayand (should) simply realize they have a brand new product to share as well as a cultural exchange that is marketable in my opinion."
Bridge River Lillooet News AUG 24th 2005.USLCES Home page.