Interview with Norm Hann: SUP guide and defender of the Great Bear Rainforest

Norm Hann
Norm Hann stand­ing up for the Great Bear Rain­for­est. Pho­to by Nico­las Teichrob/nicolasteichrob.com

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.

Norm paddling into the Cornwall Inlet, British Columbia. Photo by Taylor Kennedy/taylorkennedyphotography.com
Norm pad­dling into the Corn­wall Inlet, British Colum­bia. Pho­to by Tay­lor Kennedy/taylorkennedyphotography.com

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.