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Be immersed in an ancient forest at this new exhibition in North Vancouver

360-degree virtual reality experience takes viewers deep into the heart of a forest that has existed since the last ice age

“It's hard to appreciate what's at stake without seeing it for yourself,” says T’uy’t’tanat, Cease Wyss, referring to the Sunshine Coast’s Dakota Bowl ancient forest.

That’s why she, and fellow creatives Damien Gillis and Olivier Leroux, came together to create a 360-degree virtual reality experience that takes viewers deep into the heart of the forest that has existed since the last ice age and is now under threat.

The immersive experience, titled Sanctuary: The Dakota Bear Ancient Forest Experience, is soon to be on show as part of North Van Arts latest exhibition Stalkaya – Ḵ’elhmáy̓/X̱ápay̓ay.

The exhibition title refers to the name of the area of one such ancient forest (Stalkaya) followed by the two words for yellow and red cedar.

Inside a geodesic dome, built within CityScape Community ArtSpace in North Vancouver, viewers will be able to experience a 15-minute auditory mix of music and nature sounds, with a wraparound view of the ancient forest, states North Van Arts.

After years of environmental groups campaigning to stop logging in the area, in March this year (2021) the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) and the Province of B.C. came to a new agreement to ensure the long-term protection of 70.9 hectares of ancient forest in the Dakota Watershed on the Sunshine Coast.

The cutblock, known as BC Timber Sales Licence A87126, and nicknamed Dakota Bear Sanctuary, was removed from the BC Timber Sales operating schedule in September 2020, after 77 culturally modified trees were added to the Provincial Heritage Register, following a nearly 10-year battle for the landmarks to be recognized. 

The March agreement means the area is now off the auction block for timber harvesting entirely. 

In an interview earlier this year, Squamish Nation councillor and spokesperson Syeta’xtn, also known as Chris Lewis, told the Coast Reporter that the agreement was a decade in the making. 

The Dakota Bowl area is significant to the Squamish Nation, he said, because it’s one of the last untouched areas in their territory. Not only are there culturally modified trees that indicate the Squamish Nations’ longstanding use of the area, but old growth yellow cedar, which is particularly valuable to the Squamish Nation for its traditional use in making canoes, paddles and other items.

The alpine area, Lewis added, is also important for gathering and harvesting not only the cedar, but berries and other culturally important plants. It also serves as a wildlife habitat. Just below the cutblock, Lewis said, you can see the impact logging has had on the second- and third-growth areas. 

Feel like you're in the ancient forest 

Wyss, an artist, ethnobotanist, educator and activist of Skwxwú7mesh, Stó:lō, Hawaiian and Swiss descent, said the transporting experience takes viewers deep in the forest inside hollow trunks, where black bears make their winter dens, to the precipice of a waterfall and other magical places, and offers the thrill of true immersion.

Wyss said many people hadn’t had an opportunity to venture into an ancient forest as accessibility was often a challenge, and this experience allowed them to do so.

“We wanted to share this special place with the public, especially members of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nation, in whose traditional territory it lies,” she said.

“So, we used unique virtual reality technology to help people experience it viscerally, in a way that’s hard to convey even through conventional photography and film. We wanted to achieve a sensory exploration of this place, to bring people as close as we can to the feeling of being there, without actually being there.”

Gillis, a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker and environmental journalist, shared that the key theme they wanted to resonate throughout the Sanctuary forest experience was “family.”

“This forest is all about family,” he explained. “Families of trees, families of bears, families of humans.

“The mother trees give of themselves to raise the next generation of trees; they also become homes for bears as they begin to die from the inside out; and their bark is carefully harvested by Indigenous peoples to clothe and shelter their own families.”

The Sanctuary exhibition launched during the Push Festival last February and has since evolved to explore more of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people’s way of life.

Alongside the immersive adventure are artworks by Tsawaysia Spukwus and Sesemiya, Tracy Williams, a fifth-generation cedar weaver and member of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw. The collection of work, curated by Wyss, explores Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people’s relationship to cedar and to the ancient forests that house the sacred trees.

The Stalkaya – Ḵ’elhmáy̓/X̱ápay̓ay exhibition is on from July 24 to Sep. 4 at CityScape Community ArtSpace at 335 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver.

The exhibition is free, but attendees are asked to book a 15-minute slot on the North Van Arts website for up to six people to view the film, following COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The Sanctuary experience is also playing at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., until Sept. 26. 

-- With files from Keili Bartlett, Coast Reporter 

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.