For Canada's Sawridge Indians, Profits Flow From an Ancient Glacier

They call it the purest water in the world. It isn't mineral water. In fact, there are few, if any, minerals in it. The company that bottles it claims it is 99.9997 percent pure.

It is water from a glacier. On the label is the name, Spirit, and the logo - a painting of a prairie Indian riding his horse across the foot of a glacier.

The logo is there for a reason: The bottling company is part of one of the most successful groups of Indian entrepreneurs in Canada.

"This water has been filtered through the glacier for tens of thousands of years," says Walter Twinn, president of Sawridge Waters Ltd., the bottler of Spirit Water. Mr. Twinn is also chief of the Sawridge Indian band of Slave Lake, in northern Alberta.

The water comes from Knight's Inlet, a fjord up the coast from Vancouver on the way to Alaska. The glacier is leased from the British Columbia government.

"I had this idea about 10 years ago. I could see there was a growing demand in the world for pure water, so I set out to find the purest water possible," says Twinn.

He wanted glacier water, so he searched the Coastal Range of British Columbia, where glaciers drop down to the ocean and the water can be tapped.

He found his glacier near Mt. Kennedy. The snow at the bottom of the glacier melts and runs into Knight Inlet, just about opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

Glacier water tastes different from mineral water. Other bottled water has fallen to earth as rain and seeped through rocks to underground aquifers, picking up minerals on the way.

The water from the glacier fell as snow, maybe 10,000 years ago.

"It only touches granite, which is as chemically inert as glass," says Jerry McNab, who runs the bottling plant. "The water doesn't dissolve any minerals, and that is why it is so pure."

The only way to get in to the glacier is by float-plane or boat, and the only way to get the water out is by pipeline from the glacier to the ocean. Sawridge Waters has driven pipes into the bottom of the glacier at a cost of about $1 million.

The water then flows through the pipeline to a stainless steel barge, which is pulled back to Vancouver by another boat that also doubles as a water carrier. When the boat and barge arrive at the mooring at Annacis Island, 180,000 gallons of glacier water are transferred by a short pipeline to the bottling plant.

The Sawridge bought the bottling plant at a bargain price from a failed water company at Annacis Island.

Mr. McNab, a native of Arkansas who has 20-plus years of experience at Coca-Cola and other beverage firms, exudes a quiet pride as he walks through the 86,000-square-foot facility, the largest water bottling plant in Canada.

"We can produce three-and-a-half to four million cases a year," McNab says. "The big selling point is the chemical purity."

Right now 90 percent of the water is sold in the United States. Texas is the No. 1 destination, followed by Washington, Arizona, Illinois, and California. McNab says bottled glacier water makes up less than 1 percent of the North American bottled-water market. He hopes to crack more crowded parts of the world, especially Asia.

As of this month, Spirit Water is available on Air Canada flights to Asia. It is a big coup for the native-owned company to be selling water to the country's biggest airline.

And the airline says it isn't a public relations gesture, but pure business. "We picked Spirit because it was price competitive. They won against two other suppliers," says Ted D'Arcy, who buys products for use on Air Canada flights. There were image considerations as well. "It also means identifying with aboriginal people and encouraging suppliers in western Canada. But not at the expense of price."

The man who started Sawridge Waters is one of Canada's most successful native entrepreneurs. "I started logging in the bush with my father when I was 16," says Twinn. "Later we made money for the band working on oil rigs."

The Sawridge band worked hard, saved their money, and invested in businesses. They built two hotels in northern Alberta and one at Banff National Park near Calgary.

Only 100 members make up the Sawridge band, and they share the profits from their enterprises. Their success provides them with continuing employment and security.

"People need economic power and jobs. As chief, I've only done what a mayor might do for a city," Twinn says.

The Sawridge band is, in the words of their marketing man, "positioning" their product to take advantage of the image of native people as stewards of the environment and natural resources.

Twinn's success with his small band had been concentrated close to home at their 6,000-acre reserve in northern Alberta. Now, their water is available in Beijing, Australia, and Japan. His hope is that the business can keep his people self-sufficient.

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