Tofino Profile: Stephanie Hughes
by Shirley Langer, Tofino
You see a woman around who is young, who has a young child, and would never imagine she could have racked up the amount of varied and complex experiences that Stephanie has.
Like many dyed-in-the-fleece Tofitians, Stephanie was born and raised somewhere else, in her case, in rural south-western Ontario. From an early age, she made the outdoors her favourite place to be, mostly in trees, later working around horses, later still working on tall ships, eventually making a living in tall trees, and today, enjoying the elements driving boat for whale watch and bear watch excursions.
Stephanie considers her work/travel experiences on a tall ship those that most shaped her life. She was seventeen when she applied to Operation Raleigh, a Britain-based community service organization offering adventure programs for youth between the ages of 17-24. The selection process was grueling — a test of mind and body — and Stephanie made the cut. Once accepted, she had to raise $2400 any way she could, which she did by canvassing local businesses.
She could have chosen a land experience, such as building a school in Indonesia, but Stephanie waited two years so she could crew on a tall ship which was circumnavigating the globe, duplicating a voyage by that great mariner and explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh. The only Canadian among a youth crew of twenty-four, she boarded the zebu after flying to the Seychelles Islands. The zebu, a square-rigged Brigantine, was originally a Baltic trader, converted to a training vessel in the 1940s. Crossing the Indian Ocean to the final destination of South Africa, Stephanie spent four months learning the ropes on the high seas. She was scared half the time, she says. Her first time aloft was in a rolling sea in wind and rain. The only way she got through it, she says, was by "swearing her way both up and down". When her feet hit the deck again, her legs were jelly. The Captain, a very proper Brit, informed her that he couldn't imagine such shocking language emerging from the mouth of such a nice young lady.
That 4-month experience had many facets, including a self-organized stint by the crew volunteering work in a polio clinic for kids in Mombassa, Kenya. Weathering storms, chronic sea sickness, malaria acquired in Africa, and having her eyes opened to the hardships experienced by other cultures, as well as witnessing the joy some cultures manage despite hardships, all served to expand Stephanie's sense of her capacities. Just nineteen, she felt empowered and capable of doing anything. Stephanie has worked on tall ships several times since the zebu, including in the Queen Charlottes, where she was naturalist on board, running educational trips.
It was on the zebu that Stephanie met the person who would eventually become her husband, her business partner, and father of their child, Nuala. Tall ships gave way to tall trees. For thirteen years, Stephanie worked full time as a professional climber. She and her then-husband formed Arbornaut Access (they coined the word as a take on Astronaut). They accepted work dedicated to independentlyÐ funded conservation biology projects. Translate that into designing and building low impact canopy platform and walkway systems, and doing research and education around the world, including the u.s., Australia, West Africa, Malaysia and Samoa. For the Samoa platform and walkway, they gathered and shipped seven tons of materials. Swinging harnessed in the canopy of a tropical forest in boiling heat, and pregnant with Nuala, the project was built with hand tools since the power tools were stolen along the way. Now picture this. Nuala's pre-toddler months were spent suspended in a hammock near her working mother. When Nuala learned to open a carabiner, and started dropping tools off the platforms, Stephanie knew it was time to come down out of the trees. That's when she returned full-time to Tofino.
She had been here previously when she was part of a four-person team doing independent research in the Megin area of Clayoquot Sound on Marbled Murrelets, the land-nesting sea birds. The team's work on nesting density was published, and their study technique has become the protocol for Marbled Murrelet research. Stephanie described this as a "proud moment". Another proud moment was when the exquisite Carmanah forest was finally designated a provincial park following vigorous protests and blockades. Stephanie got involved in the battle to protect Carmanah when she was hired as a research assistant in the Walbran of Carmanah, spending two years getting a platform and walkway system up and running. "Canopy biology research was in its infancy then," she explains. "Many researchers wanted the information we were gathering, but at the same time, the forest was being destroyed. That's when I became a political activist. I felt on fire with indignation." Stephanie explains a scientific term to me — Centilenean extinction. It means extinction of a discovered species before it is even described and named. "Humans are good at that, she says ruefully.
Back on the ground, Stephanie studied body work in Australia, then did it for four years. She continues to do body work, but has been driving a boat for tourist excursions for several months. Puzzled as to why, she explains, "I needed to be outside. I needed to be using my knowledge to educate people."
Into this mix, add that Stephanie has a Fine Arts degree from the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and a degree in Biology from UVic. And she has learned a few languages. "Does this sound like I'm a dilettante?" she asks, then thinking about it, she answers her own question. "Anything I ever undertook stemmed from a passionate desire to know how to do it. I was fortunate that I was also able to earn a living doing things I learned to do."
Stephanie Hughes: all of the above, plus feminist, activist and admitted "princess". Princess? I ask. "I like to wear a tiara on my birthday, and dress up, even when I'm walking through the forest," she says. Nuala, by the way, thinks Stephanie is also a pretty great Mom.
Shirley Langer describes herself as a woman about town with a well developed civic consciousness.