“What’s going to happen this year?” That’s the question Orca Camp lead guide and noted documentary filmmaker, Ken Matheson asks himself at the beginning of each season.
In an environment as unpredictable and wild as Vancouver Island’s Johnstone Strait, unexpected adventure can unfold at any moment. For Matheson, that’s half the allure of returning to Orca Camp year after year.
“There’s always something different going on,” he says. “I’ve had whales breach in front of me, and (Orca) cows teaching their young how to fish in front of my kayak. I’ve seen a grizzly (bear) jump into the water from a cliff face, and just go for a swim. Every day there’s the promise of some new little thing that keeps me going back!”
First drawn into adventure guiding as a 12-year-old scout, in Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park, Matheson built a 20-year career with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in some of BC’s remote outposts, but it was the occasional excursions he did while deployed to the Kamloops detachment that rekindled his love of guiding.
“I was doing some part-time guiding while I was with the RCMP, leading hut-to-hut hiking, ski-touring and canoeing trips,” says Matheson, who notes it wasn’t too long before retirement that he thought adventure guiding might be his next career.
“When I got my 20 years in on the Force I was looking at retirement and wondering what I was going to do. I thought, what the heck, I might as well do what I enjoy so I went into guiding full time.”
Completing his outdoor leadership training at Strathcona Park Lodge Outdoor Education Centre was the first step in a journey that has taken Matheson from Canada to Nepal with stops in Central America along the way.
“I’ve guided trips down to Belize, ocean kayaking on the barrier reef. I guided trips to the Himalayas, to Nepal and Everest Base Camp. I’ve done a lot of guiding in Wells Gray Provincial Park and on the west coast of Vancouver Island at Nootka Sound,” says Matheson, who also teaches wilderness first aid and arctic survival courses.
At home in the seat of a kayak or hiking the coastal rainforest, Matheson admits the call of the wild stirs his soul. “I’ve always told people the outdoors is my religion, or my cathedral, that’s where I connect all the dots and find out who I am,” noting, “I don’t know if it’s the rhythm of the tides and the moon or being out in a place that’s just so alive, it’s a very peaceful place for me.”
Peaceful as it is, nothing gets your adrenaline running quite like seeing Orcas from the seat of a kayak. “On my first Orca Camp we were sitting (in our kayaks) in the Strait and a super pod came past us,” Matheson exclaims, the sound of his voice raised with excitement of a memory he’ll never forget. “We had 50 whales and it all happened right in front of me and until the day I die, that will be the highlight of my life.”
Matheson can easily recount hundreds of interactions with the Orcas, but what he finds equally rewarding is the opportunity to teach others about these magnificent creatures, helping them make their own connections to the natural world.
“One of the big themes I get (from guests of Orca Camp) is that they learn what a social animal the whales are, and how similar their social structure is to humans,” says Matheson. “People watch (the whales) at an aquarium or a sea park, but when they’re actually out there with them, witnessing the interactions they have within their pods, seeing how they move; there’s a connection that gets made. Without exception every guest I’ve ever had feels like they’ve made a connection to nature, to the whales and are very much more aware of environmental issues as a result of it.”
Matheson guides exclusively for Ecosummer Expeditions, but when he’s not leading Orca Camp you can find him behind the lens of his camera, mapping out storyboards, and editing the documentary films he produces.
Covering a wide range of subjects from Grizzly bears of Khutzeymateen Provincial Park to the Bowron Lakes canoe circuit or giving voice to our First Nation history, Matheson’s filmmaking work is a natural progression of his adventure-guiding career.
“They’re both about storytelling and at the end of the day…I want to tell stories.”
Ken Matheson is an adventure guide with Ecosummer Expedition’s Orca Camp. You can keep up with Matheson’s documentary film work on Facebook