It was June 1980 when our little boat entered Kenneth Pass on the approach to Mackenzie Sound, deep in the coastal wilderness. The thick fog overcame us as we approached the mouth of the bay. At my request, the hum of the motor was shut off so I could listen for the waterfall I had only heard stories of. And there it was, the sweet sound of rushing water. We landed on the beach and as soon as I saw it, I knew I was meant to be here. Water is the essence of life and before me was the heart of Nimmo Bay, water to drink, water for power and the natural beauty of a waterfall. This was the future of my young family. We were about to sail away from convention to start a life amongst this wild corner of the West Coast.
Hailing from Ontario, Craig Murray moved to Vancouver Island in 1973 nurturing a dream of building a boat and sailing around the world. When the bus dropped him off in Port McNeill, the sight of the small coastal town instantly took hold of his heart. Over the next few years, however busy with work and learning the art of boat building, Craig was always on the watch for new faces, in particular, a woman who might be interested in sailing around the world with him.
In 1976, Deborah Davis arrived in town and started working at the Dalewood Hotel, Craig’s local haunt. As she served him that first cup of coffee, neither of them had any idea of the grand adventure that lay ahead. In May 1977, they were married at Black Creek Village in Toronto, and as a wedding gift, Craig gave Deborah a grey kitten named Haywire. “Haywire describes everything that is less than perfect that happens on the coast and with life in general,” Craig explains. Haywire would be a term that would surface often as the young couple embarked on their new life together.
At that time, most jobs were found in the logging or commercial fishing industry which required Craig to travel for work and left Deborah and their two young sons back at home. Craig realized that he needed to create a life that would support his family and keep them together. In 1980, Craig’s dream to start a family-run fishing lodge, catering to guests intent on catching ocean-run salmon, was born.
On April 30th, 1981, their newly acquired float house was towed by tugboat across Queen Charlotte Strait to Nimmo Bay at the base of mighty Mount Stephens. “There were 150 million things that could go wrong, and most of them did at some time or another, but we managed,” says Craig. As he thinks back to their first group of six guests, he agrees it was a basic, no-frills resort. “The boats and motors were new, the food was great, everyone caught salmon, and they all slept like logs each night,” says Craig. “And the wonder of it all was that they booked another trip for the next year!”
After the first season, it was time to get the small hydro system into place. Craig recalls climbing the 800-foot slope hundreds of times before determining the route of the pipeline that would carry the swift water down to the Pelton wheel, a water-driven turbine. Not the least of the tasks was to get the two-tonne turbine to Nimmo Bay and into position, an undertaking that took three very long and tiring days to execute. After months of hard work and determination, all that was required was to get water coming down the pipe through the turbine and they would have 36 kilowatts of ‘green’ power. On May 27th, 1982, appreciation for the waterfall flowed as the hydro system was christened and natural power become a Nimmo Bay reality. Craig recalls that the “champagne, supplied by generous boaters in the area, never tasted so sweet!”
The second season was spent looking after guests, catching fish, and with the children, swimming and exploring the coast and forest they now called home. In the beginning, the family lived year-round in the rooms above the lodge. Deborah would do the cooking, while Craig served and entertained the guests. Craig figured there just had to be a better angling odyssey than dragging a line from the back of the boat and he was continually contemplating how to create an enhanced fishing experience for their guests. He wanted an experience that went beyond their expectations.
In November 1983, Peter Barratt, a Port McNeill-based pilot with Okanagan Helicopters, now co-owner of West Coast Helicopters, took Craig to a secret river where he claimed there was plenty of steelhead. “Within 20 minutes of landing in this remote area, we caught and released two of those legendary fish,” declares Craig. “The light went on, this was the beyond expectations fishing trip I had been looking for – that special feature that would make Nimmo Bay unique. If we could use helicopters to fly guests into isolated, wild fishing spots, we could also fly them in for river-rafting, take them to centuries-old glaciers, alpine meadows, and many other wilderness adventures.”
In 1984, their fourth season, Craig and Peter promoted the idea as the “most unbelievable sport fishing adventure of a lifetime.” Guests who had booked saltwater fishing trips were offered the opportunity to purchase a full or half-day helicopter fishing, freshwater experience. The first heli-fishing guests were beside themselves, as the abundance of fish in the rivers were indeed beyond expectation. Realizing this, Craig immediately implemented their own catch-and-release program to ensure that the angling experience would remain for future guests and generations.
Over the years, it became apparent that the resort was gaining a reputation and that word was out about Nimmo Bay. Guests were returning year after year and the lodge and its offerings were expanding. Craig was busy fine-tuning the experience and the family involvement, now with three children, Fraser, Clifton and Georgia, added to the pleasure of the guests. Craig accounts humour, music, and detail for their success and they overflowed in all three of those elements. These were the magic ingredients that transformed Nimmo Bay into a live theatre. After dinner and a long day on the water, Craig would take out his guitar and sing and share stories with the guests. “Music is the universal language, and it’s all around us in nature,” explains Craig. Songs by John Prine, Stan Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot and Simon and Garfunkle would sound through the lodge, as Georgia and Clifton would join their Dad with his seemingly endless repertoire of music, captivating groups late into the evening.
“Our guests are the stars and Mother Nature our scriptwriter. Our grand finale will challenge the master poets and playwrights. The encore is your return,” read a promotional brochure from the time.
Hospitality has always been and still is, a way of life at Nimmo Bay. In 1999, on a family trip to Newfoundland to enjoy the millennium’s first sunrise at the easternmost point of North America, the Murrays discovered their own “Theory of Hospitality.” On the plane was a Time magazine with the “Man of the Century,” Albert Einstein, on the cover featuring his Theory of Relativity (E = mc2). Craig felt that the tourism industry was in need of a new theory and after a family brainstorming session, their philosophy was conceived: Expectations Exceeded = Memories Created (E2 = MC). “Creating memories to last a lifetime is something we live by at Nimmo Bay,” Craig explains. “If we exceed our guests’ expectations, it not only brings them back but also gets them to share their experience with others.”
From the beginning, the Murrays have practiced sustainability and eco-system management, striving to match ongoing environmental practices with sustainable business ethics. They have been stewards of sustainability while inspiring others to do the same. Water has been the key to the resort’s existence. It is basic to its identity and to every sustainable decision that the Murrays have made over the years, from their hydro system to their catch-and-release fishery to their state-of-the-art waste management system. Sustainability has always been part of their vocabulary. “Nothing goes back into the environment,” Craig says proudly, and the floating resort and inter-tidal chalets, have been designed with minimal impact on the surrounding forest and habitat. The helicopter has allowed adventure seekers and anglers to access the wilderness in a safe and secure manner and to depart taking nothing but moments to live by and remember.
Today, Craig watches as his grandchildren, Fauna and River, are now growing up at Nimmo Bay – the next generation. He wants them to understand how delicate nature is and the importance of being Mother Nature’s protector. His hope for them is to “catch a wild fish, marvel at the majesty of a huge cedar tree, swim in a clear, coastal freshwater river and watch a mother grizzly suckle her cub on the banks of a lightly silted glacial stream.” He shares with them that “what their Poppa did for their Daddy, back in 1980, he also did for them. Their Mommy and Daddy must continue to preserve the family unit, and on and on it goes. Fauna and River must now learn to love and hold dear that which will give them life: water, wilderness, and family.”
Sharing and exploring this wild paradise, educating about the complexity and stewardship of the land, creating memories, and exceeding expectations, have been Craig’s driving ambitions. Nimmo Bay’s mission statement, a product of his creative mind, really says it all: “To Fly is Human … To Hover, Divine.” It has been said that going to Nimmo Bay feels like going home, no matter how far one travels to get there, and what a home this man has shaped and crafted over the years. “Craig is a man that defies the odds and creates his own world. He is unwavering in pursuit of his convictions and dreams,” reflects Clifton. He was determined to make his pioneering lifestyle a reality while raising a family, and growing a business. Nimmo Bay has Craig’s hardworking fingerprints and steadfast passion all over it. It is not a lodge owned by a family, it is the family, and at the heart of it, a waterfall. Blessed are those that capture a bit of its magical elixir.
“Nature is a magnificent artist and her sculptures and creations defy replication but can be viewed through the creative artistry of the Nimmo Bay wilderness adventures.” – Craig Murray
Words: Caitlin Hedley
Photos: Murray Family Archives and Jeremy Koreski