Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is typically viewed as a leisurely activity where people gently meander across lakes on modified surfboards, but one Canadian has thrown that perception to the wind. 44-year-old Norm Hann of Squamish, British Columbia, has paddled the waters of coastal B.C. for over 15 years, including the oil tanker routes associated with the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline featured in the 2013 documentary STAND. He also guides SUP expeditions around North America and teaches paddle surf courses.
THE CLYMB: You had a strong sporting background prior to your guiding career, right?
NORM HANN: I did. I played five years of basketball in university before playing at the national level for five years. I grew up playing sports my whole life, hockey to start with and then basketball. After that I transitioned to the teaching and coaching (in Ontario), but the “Call of the West” was always there.
THE CLYMB: Can you explain this “Call of the West” that lead you to moving out to British Columbia?
NORM HANN: From a very young age I’ve always been attracted to the ocean even though I’d never really spent any time on it. When I was teaching I spent two summers working for my uncle in Banff. That was pretty influential not only because of the climbing in the mountains and beauty of the Rockies, but also the mentality of people there and how they viewed life. It was more about passion-driven living and I think that’s a result of the power of the environment. It really changes your attitude on things when you’re in an environment that’s this humbling.
THE CLYMB: In recent years you have spent a lot of time guiding in the Great Bear Rainforest off the coast off B.C. What lead to you to that part of the West?
NORM HANN: I attended the Canadian Tourism College in Vancouver and took a one year program there, got my sea kayaking certification, first aid and natural history courses. I was in that class when the director of the program came in with a number and said “Hey, this lodge is looking for adventure guides.” I started working in the Great Bear Rainforest in 2000 and have basically been up there ever since.
THE CLYMB: You’ve been a an advocate for the Great Bear Rainforest for several years, paddling the proposed tanker route between Kitimat and Bella Bella and the length of the island of Haida Gwaii. When did you see yourself becoming more of an activist?
NORM HANN: I’ve always said once you get on your path everything works to support you on that path. I’d been up there for around six or seven years and I remember a moment when I was returning from a tour where we were viewing a spirit bear [a black bear with a recessive gene that gives it a white coat, commonly found in the region] and I realized how lucky I was to be there. I felt like I owed someone something but wasn’t sure how I would give back. I spent a year in Hartley Bay working for the Northwest Community College helping get young [First Nation] adults back into school or back into the workforce. Every Wednesday an elder from Hartley Bay would come in and talk to the kids about their culture and tradition. Throughout all of that she was talking about oil tankers that were going to start moving through treacherous waters from the port in Kitimat. It really got me interested with what was happening on that front and right around that time the Exxon Valdez oil spill came up again. I watched the documentary Black Wave: Legacy of the Exxon Valdez and it was just shocking to see what was happening there and what could happen right outside the window in Hartley Bay.
I started paddleboarding in 2008 and it was in 2009 when I thought of paddling the proposed tanker route from Kitimat to Bella Bella, which resulted in my first film Stand Up for Great Bear. I visited four First Nations communities along that route and for me that was really the start of me becoming a defender and educator for that area. I don’t view myself as an activist or an environmentalist, I just see myself as somebody who cares about that area and wants to look after it.
THE CLYMB: The relationship you built with First Nations in the area lead you to being adopted into the Raven Clan of the Gitga’at people. What significance did that have for you?
NORM HANN: I feel it’s one of the of the greatest honours you can receive because they are adopting you because of who you are and what you’ve done. That alone was powerful, but spending all that time up there, you get a chance to learn from a culture that still works within the environment. The amount of stuff I’ve learned from the people there and from the elders just talking is really amazing stuff. It’s one thing to want to protect the environment and a tree and bear, it’s another thing to do your best to try to give back.