August 2016 — September 2016
STOPPING TIME IN THE GREAT BEAR RAINFOREST
Humans have been keeping time for thousands of years. We measure our lives by the minutes, hours, days, and weeks. Time has infiltrated the soul in unsettling ways: We constantly ask where the time has gone and lament the way time flies. But every so often, one experiences a moment that seems to stop the clock — a moment of bliss, humility, sorrow, or awe so powerful, it reawakens the part of us that has been lulled into numbness by inescapable awareness of the metre ticking down our lives.
That’s about as philosophical as my writing gets. But in all seriousness, the first time I was old enough to appreciate a moment like this, I was fresh out of journalism school at 21, chatting about Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals in a poda poda in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The conversation, company, and circumstance were all so extraordinary, so unlikely to ever happen again, it felt like a miracle had fallen into my lap. Without warning, mangoes had never tasted sweeter, sunset had never been more crimson, and the flicker of a candle as the generator turned off had never stirred my thoughts so deeply. It’s the closest feeling to serenity I know — having a heart so swollen with appreciation for life’s gifts, you forget that it is fleeting.
Five years later, I measure my life by these moments — the Rodgers and Hammerstein moments — and not in minutes, hours, days, and weeks. Now, imagine a place so raw, so utterly wild and beyond our reach, it seems to have escaped the clutches of time:
Welcome to the Great Bear Rainforest.
A HIGHLY-COVETED NATURAL TREASURE
The Great Bear Rainforest is the largest coastal temperate rainforest left on Earth. Stretching 64,000 square kilometres from the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to Alaska, it’s a region so remote, so dense and untouched, that most people have never heard of it, even in Canada. For thousands of years, it was known only to the Indigenous people who made their homes there — a population that today, consists of 26 distinct First Nations whose cultural and spiritual ties to the land reach back into time immemorial.
It’s one of the richest, most productive ecosystems on the planet — a rare biological community where each species still functions with one another as nature intended, largely undisrupted by the poisonous touch of human greed. It’s a place of overwhelming natural beauty: Glassy waters, mossy mountains, thundering waterfalls, misty fjords, and old-growth forests. Its lands are roamed by some of Canada’s most rare and majestic creatures, including grizzly bears, sea wolves, black bears, Sitka deer, and the elusive white-furred Spirit Bear, a predator found nowhere else in the world. Its seas are home to gentle giants like humpbacks, fin whales, orcas, and dolphins, and all five of Pacific Canada’s increasingly threatened salmon species.
CONFLICT LEADS TO CONSERVATION
But the rainforest has been marred by conflict. In the 1990s, heated protests broke out between First Nations and environmentalists vying for its protection, and logging companies that had been granted tenure there by the Government of British Columbia. Back then, the Great Bear Rainforest was legally known as ‘The Mid Coast Timber Supply Area,’ a reflection of its commodification rather than recognition as one of Earth’s greatest natural treasures.
The fierce negotiations for its conservation — defined as much by tears and insults as they were trust and innovation — lasted nearly 20 years. The story of the Great Bear Rainforest was born of colliding economic, political, environmental and social interests, and concluded in one of the most complex multi-stakeholder conservation agreements ever reached in North America. Today, 85 per cent of it remains off-limits to commercial logging, and the legislation enacted to protect, preserve and enhance its ecological richness, along with the cultural and economic resources of Indigenous communities, serves as a model for conflict resolution around the world.
I have written extensively about the rainforest, its conservation, and global significance for National Observer, an independent online media outlet that focuses on environmental issues and Canadian politics. It was my absolute privilege, after investing so much of my time in understanding the rainforest, to spend seven days on a boat sailing its still, silent waters, savouring the serenity of one of the wildest places left on Earth. It’s remote location makes it a pricey place to visit, but if you can string the cash together, it’s worth every dime.
Day One: Bella Bella, Salmon Bay, Rescue Bay
Our miraculous journey began on the docks of Bella Bella, the isolated island home of the Heiltsuk First Nation on British Columbia’s central coast. Rain had already begun to fall when the Island Odyssey arrived from the mist to pick us up — 10 tourists from across North America, many of whom had met for the very first time that day. We came from diverse professional backgrounds, ranging from investigative journalism to business and philanthropy. It was indeed a valuable networking opportunity, but after seven full days on the boat together (being sprayed by a humpback’s krill breath together, and scrubbing the smell of dead salmon off of our skin together), we left the rainforest as very good friends. It seemed inevitable, in retrospect, that these experiences would bond us.
The Odyssey was a beautiful ship, complete with eight cabins, two showers, a small kitchen, deck, and galley. She towed two small, inflatable Zodiac boats behind her, and stowed five kayaks above the glistening deckhouse. Her library was brimming with books on biology, coastal rainforests, bird-watching and the like, and a few of her cupboards stored surprises like board games, binoculars, art, and most importantly for a journalist — wine. It was a remarkable vessel, led by a crew of incredibly experienced and welcoming people: Captain Neil, First Mate Jesse, Naturalist Caroline, and Chef Claude.
FIRST GRIZZLY SIGHTING
Chum salmon, primed energetically for spawning in the days to come, leapt enthusiastically from the ocean as we left Bella Bella. It was a grey day, and a thick fog hung in the air over the rainforest’s vast network of islands. Our sailing was smooth through Salmon Bay, where our captain, Neil, called us up from the galley for our very first wildlife sighting. Cameras in hand, we scrambled onto the deck and followed his pointing finger to a young male grizzly (four to five years old by his estimation) wading in the water to catch salmon.
Bears are not usually seen in Salmon Bay, Neil explained, which meant that this young grizzly had probably been displaced by a larger, dominant male. He was thin, and after an unsuccessful fishing trip by the shoreline, retreated into the tall grasses, where he threw a few dead branches around with his mouth, and jerked his head from side to side. Captain Neil, observing this erratic behaviour, determined it would not be safe for us to get closer. Over a week on the boat with him, we all developed an immense respect for his policy of not interfering with wildlife, and making our presence as invisible as possible so the animals could remain truly wild.
We had no idea then what was to come, and how much we would be spoiled by the rainforest’s gifts.
The Odyssey had barely sailed back into open water when someone spotted a fluke (a whale tail) breaking the surface of the deep, black ocean. In the Great Bear Rainforest, what goes down must come back up, and we waited patiently in the rain on deck for the whale to resurface for air. I had taped a grocery bag over my camera to keep it dry, ready for the long haul, when the telltale sound of a blowhole told us the creature was back. Its curved dorsal fin arched over the water, and the naturalist, Caroline, identified it right away as humpback. I was thrilled. Not 30 minutes later, we heard the spray of blowhole again. One, two, and possibly three — we couldn’t be sure how many whales there were. But one of them was working determinedly, said Caroline, at cornering fish against an underwater land mass, and we observed this magnificent creature surface over and over again as it partook in the unseen feeding frenzy below.
Quite suddenly, I heard a spectacular splash and the rapid-fire clicking of camera shutters. Our feeding whale, full of energy from a solid meal, had hurled its entire body out of the water in a social display called ‘breaching.’ It happened again, and again, and again — each leap seeming higher, more graceful, and more magical than the last. It was the kind of show many scientists wait six months to a year to observe in open water, and we had only been in the rainforest for a couple of hours.
Captain Neil tried his best to manage our expectations for the rest of the trip by emphasizing how rare these kinds of sightings were, and I accepted that we could very well go the next six days without seeing anything at all. We anchored for the night in Rescue Bay, and fell asleep to the gentle patter of rain on the ocean.
Day Two: Rescue Bay, Kynoch Falls, Mussel Inlet
Our deep slumber was halted abruptly by the sound of the power generator around 6 a.m. My dreams had been filled with bald eagles, harbour seals, whales, and white-winged scoters — all of the remarkable creatures we had seen the day before. We were still cradling our morning coffees when the naturalist, Caroline, came down to the galley and told us to ‘suit up’ for a science lesson. Bleary-eyed, we obliged, and within 20 minutes, had loaded ourselves into the Zodiac, covered head to toe in rain gear.
Our first mate, Jesse, steered us ashore. Barnacles, mussels and bright yellow kelp covered the beach during low tide, and tiny Dungeness crabs scurried below rocks to avoid our gum boots. Caroline led us to a rippling stream, where chum salmon fought gallantly against the current to return to the spawning grounds of their birth. I found myself both saddened and inspired by their plight — after all their hard work, once they had bred, they would swim back down this stream to die. Salmon may have brains the size of pecans, I thought, yet they tackled this stream more determinedly than most of us tackle our undergraduate degrees.
THE SALMON FOREST
Salmon are what scientists call a keystone species, said Caroline, which means the impact they have on the ecosystem exceeds what would be expected from an animal of their biomass. Bears, eagles, wolves, and other predators feed on them while they live, but their greatest gift to their environment is actually in their death.
Salmon carcasses are rich in nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and phosphorus, and when bears drag them into the forest, these nutrients find their way into everything they touch. They not only feed scavengers, birds and fish, she explained, but enrich the very soil the forest grows on. Isotopes originating from salmon have even been detected in the rainforest’s trees, proving how intricately the fish is connected to ecosystem. This interconnectedness is what makes the Great Bear Rainforest a “salmon forest,” said Caroline, a forest where everything from the moss to the huckleberries is somehow reliant upon, impacted or enhanced by the life cycle of the intrepid fish. It was a science lesson worth getting up for, I thought, having found new appreciation for why the species is so revered in coastal First Nations cultures.
A SWIM IN THE GREAT BEAR SEA
We sailed up the Mathieson Channel until we reached Kynoch Falls, where the captain told us we could jump in the water if we dared. The ocean was a frigid 13° C, and stinging moon and lion’s mane jellyfish were visible beneath the surface. I, along with four other brave and arguably foolish souls, changed into my bathing suit. Neil steered the Odyssey into the tip of the tumbling water, which soaked and froze us instantly. Once we were far enough from the jellies and undertow, on the count of three, we jumped.
It was over in a manner of minutes; the icy water had seized our muscles so intensely that swimming would have been impossible had we stayed in much longer. Jesse, the first mate, hosed us down with hot water, but it still took 20 minutes for my fingernails to return from blue to their normal shade of pink. It was one of those carpe diem kinds of things — I jumped just to say I did.
GRIZZLY BEAR FEEDING GROUNDS
We passed Poison Cove and a couple of sleeping harbour seals on our way to Mussel Inlet, where we had the best grizzly-viewing experience we could have hoped for. Even if we hadn’t seen any bears, the inlet would have been a standalone attraction: Deep greens, yellows and browns made up a diverse landscape of hundreds of plant species, including tall grasses, dripping mosses, and towering trees that housed eagles’ nests. Thousands of birds, including gulls, bald eagles and kingfishers, swooped around the shoreline to pick at the remains of decaying salmon carcasses under a layer of thick white fog that hung in between the grass and treetops. The entire inlet, bustling with animal activity, was sandwiched in between mountains whose waterfalls fed the streams below. Its radical aliveness was a sharp contrast to the ghostly, white bodies of dead salmon, which littered its waters by the thousands. It was a cruel irony indeed, I thought, that the salmon — arguably one of nature’s most industrious species — met such a cruel, unceremonious, and smelly end.
We anchored the Odyssey just as a large, male grizzly bear lumbered down to the water for an evening meal. Within minutes, three young bears — probably two or three years old — followed behind him, maintaining a safe distance as they foraged for leftovers. We fired our cameras in excitement, waiting for the go ahead from Captain Neal to venture ashore. When the bears had wandered out of sight, we crept up silently in the Zodiacs, and stepped onto the gravelly beach.
The pungent smell of rotting salmon is an odour I will never forget. We walked through the grass quietly as a group, careful not to step in something unpleasant. We scanned the landscape and waited, and in an hour or so, the large male grizzly came back to yank salmon out to a little sand dune, where he gutted them ferociously. I don’t know how long we watched him, but he had easily devoured five or six fat fish before wandering off into the woods. Once he was gone, two of the three young grizzlies — probably brothers who had been abandoned by their mother — returned to the scene to fish on their own.
We followed them in the Zodiac with the engine power on low. Grizzly bears were fairly common in Mussel Inlet, our captain explained, and were likely accustomed to the occasional presence of humans. Though the two young bears knew we were there, they avoided making eye contact with us, which would normally be considered confrontational behaviour, he said. They monitored our movement from their peripherals instead, and beyond that, ignored us. We got close enough to watch them expertly peel the skin off of salmon, and Caroline told us this selective behaviour meant that they were well-fed bears: There was so much food in the inlet they could afford to be picky, and choose only the most fatty, nutritional parts of the fish. After a playful fight in the grass, standing at full height with teeth bared, the bears marched back into the trees to sleep off their meal.
We returned to the Odyssey in the evening, having delayed our dinner to spend more time with the bear brothers. Our pictures that day were a vast improvement from previous, rainy afternoon — taken within 20 feet of the young ones, and a probably a hundred feet away from the large male grizzly. It was a spectacular interaction that segued into a spectacular evening of wine, card games and conversations: ‘Did you see the two of them fighting?’ ‘Did you get a picture of the skinning process?’ ‘Did you see how big its feet were?’
The Great Bear Rainforest had delivered again, on the second day of our trip.
Day Three: Mussel Inlet, Carter Bay, Hiekish Narrows, Princess Royal Channel, Khutze Inlet
We returned to Mussel Inlet the following morning, just in case. None of us thought we could top the previous day’s experience, but when the large male grizzly came back for another flavourful batch of salmon, we were filled with hope and excitement. Spawning season is a treat for bears, Caroline told us, as the rest of the year their diet consists primarily of berries, roots, insects, plants, and other fish. They’ll even eat barnacles if they’re desperate, she added, so while salmon are plentiful, they stock up.
A GRIZZLY BEAR STANDOFF
When the dominant grizzly wandered off, once again, the two young brothers returned to the beach. It’s quite a sight to see these large animals in open water, but bears are quite proficient swimmers. Upon making their catch, they ate and ate until the big male grizzly returned to claim his feeding grounds.
There was a standoff.
First, the dominant male entered the water, forcing the brothers back onto shore. One of them, possibly the younger of the two, kept his distance in the grass, while the other tested his ideas of grandeur. He stood up on the bank before the fully-grown grizzly, looking first to the left, and then to the right to avoid eye contact with his opponent, as he had done with us the previous evening. He held his ground as the adult male swam a little bit closer, and while the naturalist did her best to interpret the behaviour for us, the true amount of tension, fear, or bravery in the scene before us was anybody’s guess. When it looked like the dominant bear was about to step out of the water, both brothers scampered into the woods. Evidently, the experimental young one had been bluffing, or toying with visions of dominance in his feeble attempt to claim Mussel Inlet as his own. We talked about this standoff for hours on the trip, which had raised the bar significantly: It was no longer enough just to see a bear, we noted, and now we that we had seen them hunting, swimming, fighting and running, we became much more choosy with our pictures.
KAYAKING IN CARTER BAY
We pulled up the anchor and made our way to Carter Bay, where we picked up two passengers who had been unable to join us in Bella Bella as a result of stormy weather. They arrived in style in a water taxi, which had travelled far into the rainforest to meet us, and I wondered privately how expensive the fare had been. We stayed in Carter Bay for the afternoon, exploring in kayaks during a rare moment of sunshine. I even drove the Zodiac, and got a few thrills by throttling out, and whipping the boat around to skid over the waves left in its wake.
After an hour or so, Captain Neil called us back for a short excursion on land. I gave the Zodiac up for a kayak, and nearly got stuck as the waters retreated during low tide. A feast of salal berries, huckleberries and liquorice root was waiting for us in the woods, and our first mate, Jesse, also found a giant banana slug whose slime, he told us, would make our tongues numb if we licked it. I wasn’t sure I believed him (how great of a story would it be back in Vancouver if he could tell his friends he convinced tourists to lick a slug?), but conceded to try it nevertheless. It didn’t work, and I immediately made a point of Googling his ‘science’ as soon as I had cell reception. It turns out he was telling the truth, and I simply hadn’t accumulated enough slime on my tongue to experience the full effect. I certainly wasn’t willing to give a second go, and to this day, I can’t believe I licked the crawler in the first place. Ah, peer pressure.
HUMPBACKS LOVE THE UKULELE
We travelled up Princess Royal Channel, where the captain, as per his tradition, asked us to observe 15 minutes of silence on deck. The time was set aside, he said, for true appreciation and absorption of our surroundings. The Great Bear Rainforest is, after all, a place few people have ever, and will ever visit. I sat on the bow and cleared my mind. The breeze was cool. The air was salty. It was quiet.
Within a few minutes, the sun had peeked through the clouds, setting sections of the tree-covered islands aglow. Reflections of the magnificent landscape glistened in the water around us. The boat, and we, its passengers, seemed incredibly small and insignificant. This massive rainforest, surrounding us 360 degrees — more massive and infinite than anything I had ever seen, had looked just like this for millennia. To it, our presence was irrelevant: A drop in the ocean; a speck of dust. The word ‘majesty’ comes to mind when thinking about the Great Bear Rainforest — one of the last real examples of what the world looks like when it is left alone by humans. When 15 minutes of silence had passed, my colleague came out from the deckhouse with his ukulele.
Hans Christian Andersen once said, “Where words fail, music speaks,” and indeed, the rainforest’s magic seemed heightened by the very chords.
Out of nowhere, we heard the spray of a humpback’s blowhole, and Captain Neil told us that whales sometimes respond to music. Through his own experiments, he had learned that they seem particularly fond of Pink Floyd. Jorge however, was playing Paul Simon, and as soon as he stopped, the whale dove and we didn’t see it again that day. We anchored for the night in Khutze Inlet, amidst towering granite cliffs and snow-capped mountains.
Day Four: Khutze Inlet, Klekane Inlet, Princess Royal Channel, Home Bay, Bishop Bay
At this point in our ocean journey, we had been spoiled so much by wildlife, we assumed our luck had inevitably run out. As a journalist, I already had all the photos I ‘needed’ to leave satisfied, but as an animal lover, I was praying we might get one more really good interaction with a whale up close. I had seen plenty of big carnivores during my time in Africa, but the mysterious, hidden beasts of the sea were something very new to me. As it turns out, the rainforest had a few more surprises in store for us, and on the fourth day of our trip, in Klekane Inlet, a curious adult humpback whale decided to tango with the Odyssey.
RUBBING BELLIES WITH THE BEAST
Everyone was already on deck. We had seen five blowholes peak above the water — the largest group of humpbacks yet. The massive mammals, more than 40 feet in length, came up for air again and again, their small, curved dorsal fins breaking the surface, followed by massive flukes ranging in colour from pure white to greyish-black. They were diving, feeding and possibly playing. It was hard to tell what was going on beneath the surface, said Caroline, who was hoping we would see them ‘bubble net feeding’ — swimming in spirals up to the surface, creating a layer of bubbles that trap the fish in one place. What we did see was far more remarkable, however, and will go down in my books of extraordinary wildlife experiences, right next to being caught in the centre of a herd of hungry hippos in Uganda.
It started with a massive spray from the starboard side of the ship. The trenchant smell of rotting seafood filled our unsuspecting nostrils — the equivalent, I suppose, of what one could call ‘whale breath.’ The Odyssey’s engine was off, and we were stationary above the water. A humpback branched off from its group, and within minutes, was rocking the whole boat with his belly as he scratched away at whatever causes a humpback whale to itch. He stayed with us for more than an hour, moving from one side of the boat to the other, spraying us with eau de krill, and flipping his jagged fins, which were covered covered in invasive pink and white barnacles. He was really showing off.
We could see bumps on his chin and scratches on his fins from tussles with other marine life. We watched the water ripple off of his blubbery skin, and stared deep into his bright blue, saucer-sized eyes. He kept rolling over to look at us, and we followed him from port to starboard over and over, snapping pictures of his immense, but graceful dark grey body. He was flirting with us, it seemed — daring one of us to jump overboard and join him. The whale wasn’t quite within arm’s reach, but certainly less than eight feet away. By the time our finned friend left us, he had moved the boat’s trajectory by nearly 45 degrees.
Caroline, was glowing and Captain Neil said it was “arguably the best interactive humpback experience” he had ever had in more than 20 years on the water. We all looked at each other, wanting to say something, but none of us could find the words to articulate the experience. The ship sailed on, up Princess Royal Channel, through McKay Ridge, and eventually Whale Channel.
THE SCARS OF HUMAN GREED
It was in Home Bay, edging closer to the traditional territory of the Gitga’at First Nation, that we first saw evidence of logging in the Great Bear Rainforest. The ecosystem’s old-growth trees happen to make high-quality pulp and paper products, and for decades, timber companies had been clear-cutting freely and shipping the wood off to Europe and Asia. I could see the scars: Re-planted trees that were shorter, sparser, a different shade of green than the trees around them, and in some places, entire tracts of land that were barren, where no one had bothered to re-plant at all. I was flabbergasted — how could anyone come to the Great Bear Rainforest, a place so filled with splendour and life, and see only dollar bills?
We pulled into Home Bay in the Zodiac. The beach was covered in massive tree stumps that someone, sometime, had clearly cut down. Great strings of bull kelp had washed up on the sand, along with the shells of mussels and barnacles that had been picked clean by gulls and sandpipers. We followed paw prints onto a trail in the forest that had been beaten down over the years, not by people, but constant foot traffic from bears. We ate huckleberries from whatever bushes had not yet been cleared by these omnivores, and learned about marine and terrestrial plant life from Caroline. It was a short visit, and we rushed back to the Odyssey to avoid getting stuck during low tide.
A WOLF ON GRIBBELL ISLAND
The sun was warm and bright in late afternoon as we sailed through Burney Pass, cruising by several more humpback whales along the way. I wrote earlier about how quickly the bar had risen in the Great Bear Rainforest, and after dancing with our finned friend that morning, the sight of a blowhole or dorsal fin was no longer enough to bring people out on deck. If we couldn’t get an eye ball or half-tonne tongue in the picture, it wasn’t worth it. Crazy.
I dragged a few shipmates up from the galley for a game of Scrabble. The breeze was magnificent and the water was sparkling sapphire, as opposed to its usual navy-black. The rainforest looked very different in the sunlight. It was quiet apart from the rumbling of the engine, and the illuminated mountains performed a visual symphony that filled my soul with silent music. It was then that I had my Rodgers and Hammerstein moment: a freeze in the passage of time defined by a truly overwhelming appreciation for the remarkable circumstances that had brought me there. I couldn’t believe I was sitting on a boat, playing Scrabble — of all things — in one of the wildest, most remote places on Earth. Had the chips in my life fallen any number of other ways, it wouldn’t have happened. That knowledge, that euphoria, is a sensation no amount of money can buy.
As the sun set that evening, we ran into another ship of tourists, who through the radio, told us they had seen a sea wolf on the edge of Gribbell Island. Straining through binoculars, I spotted the sandy red creature jogging solo on the port side of the Odyssey. It may have been scouting for food, ready to howl for its pack nearby, or preparing to make the incredibly long swim across the channel. Caroline told us the Great Bear’s wolves have adapted so well to coastal life that they often hunt prey in the water for miles. This predator was watching us closely however, and Captain Neil worried that our presence would displace it and prompt it to abandon its usual activities. He steered the boat away from the island, and continued to our final destination that night: A hot spring in Bishop Bay.
SOAKING IN STARDUST
The wolf sighting had put us behind schedule, and it was 10 p.m. before we put on our swim suits for a night-time soak in the hot spring. The boiling mountain water was natural phenomenon, but tumbled into a man-made tub where visitors before us had left chimes and carvings to mark their own incredible rainforest journeys. We made our way carefully up the slippery boardwalk using flashlights, and settled into the sheltered wood and concrete pool. I had just settled into the glorious hot water (for many us, the first hot water ‘shower’ of the trip), when our first mate, Jesse, asked if anyone wanted to jump into the freezing ocean to observe the nighttime phosphorescence. If you’ve ever heard of bioluminescence — species that emit their own natural light — this was the kind of anomaly he was talking about.
I climbed back down the slippery path and jumped into the water, creating a brilliant neon splash in my wake. Ocean phosphorescence is most commonly seen in the dark from plankton, which respond to disturbance of motion by emitting a brief, bright glow. I swirled my hands along the ocean’s surface, delighted by the glowing trail that followed my fingertips. It looked like stardust. The water was the universe, and there I was, blazing through it like a comet with my own tail of shimmering glitter. It was the stuff of movies and drug-induced hallucinations, but totally real — one more piece of magic that made the Great Bear Rainforest one of the most precious, best-kept secrets on Earth.
We anchored that night in the middle of a rainstorm, and while everyone else was asleep, I pried open my cabin window to look out onto the ocean. Every drop twinkled brilliantly upon hitting its surface, illuminating the otherwise pitch-black water. How dazzling. How extraordinary.
Day Five: Bishop Bay, Gribbell Island, Cameron Cove
We were back at Gribbell Island by the time we rose the following morning. Today was the day that if we were lucky, we would see Spirit Bears — a rare kind of black bear that is not albino, but carries an exceptional set of recessive genes that give it stark white fur. It’s a bear found nowhere else in the world, and while observers estimate there could be as many as 400 in the Great Bear Rainforest, nobody really knows for sure. In fact, a great part of the Spirit Bear’s mystique is that for many years, nobody beyond the Indigenous elders of the rainforest even knew it existed. These wise leaders kept the creature a secret so it wouldn’t be hunted, left in peace to roam the forests of Gribbell and Princess Royal Island.
It started as a legend of the Gitga’at, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, and Tsimshian peoples. Looking down upon a world of green, the Creator — the Raven — decided to create a reminder of when the Earth was covered in ice and snow, so he flew among the black and brown bears and turned every tenth one white. The Spirit Bear became known locally as Moksgm’ol, revered by First Nations until 1905, when it was ‘discovered’ by an American naturalist who renamed it the Kermode Bear after renowned zoologist Francis Kermode. The Spirit Bear has since been appropriated as a symbol of tourism for the Government of British Columbia, and through its fame, contributed to the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest.
ENTER ‘THE BOSS’
We waited by a creek on Gribbell Island. It was not a place we could roam around and explore — the island lies in the heart of Gitga’at territory, and the First Nation’s guardians exercise strict control over visitors in an effort to preserve the region’s sanctity. But to make guests more comfortable, they had built a small wooden structure for us to sit under as we prayed for a glimpse of The Boss, the island’s dominant male Spirit Bear, and the most well-photographed member of his species.
The creek was full of spawning pink salmon. Every now and then, a little pine martin scurried out from the brush, picked away at the grass, and scurried back in. For the first time on our journey, we weren’t alone — a group of Swedish tourists, clad head to toe in camouflage and mosquito netting — had come with $10,000-worth of camera gear each to take pictures of great Canadian wildlife. While many of us dozed off, read books or played card games, they remained incredibly vigilant.
We had only been waiting an hour or two when a tiny black bear cub wandered into the creek. He was so small I could have carried him in my arms, and Captain Neil assured me that his mother was likely not too far away. His mother could very well have been a Spirit Bear, I thought, who mated with a black bear and produced a cub with the dominant black gene. We never found out and the little cub crossed the river in a panic as soon as he realized we were occupying the other side. Despite his nerves, he came back to cross the river twice more, and it’s possible he was on the move, said Neil, because The Boss was nearby, and neither he nor his mother, fancied an early morning confrontation.
Our hope began to dwindle around midday. We had waited four hours already, and while our Gitga’at guardians told us they had seen The Boss lounging around a nearby waterfall, the Great Bear Rainforest wasn’t a zoo — if he didn’t wander this way on his own terms, nobody was going to force him. Many of us, at this point, had made our peace with the fact that we wouldn’t see a Spirit Bear, and comforted ourselves with pictures of all of the amazing creatures we had seen so far.
Around 4 p.m. however, after eight hours of sitting quietly on the boards, we heard the rapid fire shutter of the Swedes’ cameras. I instantly popped the cap off of my own lens (muscle memory at this point), and aimed it at the part of the forest where the bushes were moving. Within seconds, The Boss popped his head out of the trees and plodded his way towards the creek. The afternoon sunshine revealed tints of orange in parts of his otherwise, bright white fur — this bear was clearly king of the forest, I thought, and it looked to me like he knew it. Despite the clicking sound of our cameras and the commotion of fumbling for different lenses, he paid us no mind at all. In fact, there was a certain dismissiveness in the way he swiped haphazardly at salmon in the creek, lapped up water, and slipped clumsily — or lazily — on the rocks as he made his way through the stream. This was one part of the Great Bear Rainforest where the bears, particularly The Boss, said Captain Neil, were quite used to people, and while it may have looked like The Boss had written us off, it was only because he knew we wouldn’t cross the creek onto his side of the forest. If we did, he would defend it fiercely, just like any other dominant bear.
SHOOTING VERSUS SHOOTING
We took several hundred photos each. The clouds had parted and the sun was shining — we had not only been blessed by the presence of a Spirit Bear, but a magnificent afternoon light with which to view him. The Boss wandered back into the creek once or twice before disappearing into the woods for good. After eight hours of waiting, it had all been over so quickly, and for some reason, none of us had much to say about the elusive Spirit Bear. Captain Neil was a bit surprised — for people who had just laid eyes on one of the rarest animals in the world, our lack of vocal “awe” was unusual. Perhaps, someone pointed out, it was because the experience had felt much more contrived than our other wildlife encounters, and somewhere between the wooden benches, the camo-clad Swedes, and the habituated behaviour of The Boss, the magic had been slightly lost. My own take on it was that the humpback whale in Klekane Inlet, which all but came up on deck to cuddle, had simply raised the bar too high.
At the end of the trip, we had a lengthy discussion about the difference in behaviour we had seen between the dominant male grizzly, the two young brothers, the skinny erratic male, the black bear cub, and The Boss. Caroline said one of the most common realizations her passengers had upon visiting the Great Bear Rainforest was how much they had underestimated the intention and complexity of bear behaviour. I agreed, and after a week, it was very clear to me that the life of bears went far beyond eat, sleep, poop, and mate. You could really see the wheels spinning in their brains as they sized us up, went head to head with each other, and tried desperately to catch runaway fish.
“It adds a lot to the discussion about what type of bear-viewing is appropriate, and very specifically, whether or not those animals should be hunted,” said Captain Neil.
Every time we came to close to them — no matter how silent and non-invasive we were — we left an impression, he explained, an impression that taught them humans were not a threat. And while this interaction makes bear-viewing much easier for tourists, it also means that if a hunter shows up in a week or two, the bears will have no reason to run before it’s too late.
Regrettably, trophy hunting is still legal in many parts of the Great Bear Rainforest. While coastal First Nations in the northern region have banned it under their tribal laws, as of 2016, the Government of British Columbia still issues tickets for grizzlies and black bears in the area. It has always been illegal to kill Spirit Bears, but it’s important to note that any black bear shot and killed could carry the recessive genes that produce a Spirit Bear, so the practice indirectly keeps their numbers at bay. Grizzlies, on the other hand, are the second-slowest reproducing mammal in North America, and have already been hunted to extinction in the wild in many parts of the continent, yet continue to be shot for sport in Canada despite recent polls showing more than 90 per cent of British Columbians oppose the trophy hunt. It baffled me: Where was the glory in shooting a bear on the beach that was more likely to trip over its own feet than it was to maul you? The only shooting that should ever be permitted in the Great Bear Rainforest is with cameras, I decided.
Day Six: Cameron Cove, Gil Island, Whale Point, Laredo Sound
We spent the morning in Cameron Cove, where we had docked the previous evening. Some of our group kayaked, while I tried to learn the ukulele on deck in between editing thousands of photos. We had reached a turning point in our trip, and from this point onward, would be travelling south toward our point of origin, Bella Bella. After a short while, we pulled up the anchor and made our way to Gil Island for another morning science lesson with Caroline.
THE INTERTIDAL ZONE
Dr. Caroline Fox is a remarkable woman. Not only is she a wealth of marine and terrestrial knowledge, but a fantastic storyteller who speaks about seaweed with the same intensity and passion that she uses to talk about killer whales shredding up sea lions. Every creature, big and small, seems to fascinate her and her enthusiasm for all members of the rainforest’s ecosystem is completely infectious.
We steered towards the shoreline cautiously in the Zodiac. Five or six humpback whales were lunge feeding in the bright blue water nearby, thrashing their tails around to trap swarms of krill so thick, they looked like blood-red blobs in the ocean. We pulled up to a cluster of rocks, whose crevices offered shelter to thousands of squishy starfish, including Pacific blood stars, leathers, and purple and orange ochre sea stars. They housed mussels, clams and barnacles; turnicates, abalones and limpids. Sea cucumbers inched along the ocean floor, along with red, green and purple urchins, snaking in between sea asparagus, rockweed, and coralline algae to feed on plants and other decaying matter. Caroline let us hold some of these tiny troopers, and explained their symbiotic relationship in the rough, unforgiving intertidal zone. I was secretly glad we had already seen whales, grizzlies and a Spirit Bear that week, as it left our minds free and open to appreciate all these little details. We wouldn’t have found sea snails so fascinating if we had still been pining for a humpback, and at the end of the trip, many of us ranked the intertidal adventure as one of our favourite Great Bear Rainforest experiences.
A VISIT TO CETACEA LAB
We cruised around Gil Island until we reached Whale Point, home of Cetacea Lab, a non-profit research station dedicated to the study and protection of whales along the B.C. coast. Its volunteers come from all corners of the globe to listen to whale songs through underwater hydrophones and catalogue their remarkable behaviour. The goal is to amass enough data to justify a ‘critical habitat’ designation for the Great Bear’s waters, which are home to endangered Southern Resident killer whales and a growing population of endangered fin whales. The team there has numbered most of “the regulars” by their flukes and dorsal fins, which all contain distinct shapes, colours, scars, and barnacle growth.
Cetacea Lab is an impressive research station indeed; its grand wooden laboratory is built into the rocks and has an ocean view that would fetch millions of dollars if the property ever went up for sale. Hydrophone speakers are hooked up to the trees near the camping tents and cabins to alert staff of whale activity, and the balconies are equipped with telescopes to identify the creatures from afar. I take my hat off to whoever built the station’s wooden elliptical and tree-trunk barbells, and mounted an actual copper bath tub over an outdoor fire pit to create a rustic hot tub with sea view. Not a bad gig, I thought, hoping that some day, my work would take me back there.
We spent an hour or so with Janie Wray, the station’s lead researcher and co-founder. She played recordings of the eerie, bizarre, and at times, belch-like songs of bowheads, humpbacks and orcas, and told us about the sophisticated communication between these gentle giants. We learned that whales, for reasons unknown to scientists, often teach their songs to other members of their species, and in some cases, a single melody has travelled from as far north as Alaska to the southern United States. We also learned that killer whales respond aggressively when their own songs are played back to them underwater, and that humpback songs appear to have distinct verses and choruses.
FIRE AND FIN WHALES
After bidding adieu to our friends at Whale Point, we continued south through Laredo Sound, past a colony of 100 very fat and noisy sea lions. They sunbathed, slept, and honked at each other, fighting clumsily for the best spot on the rocks, only to abandon them seconds later in favour of a swim. What horrible sounds they produced — like a symphony of farts, I thought. When nobody could stand the orchestra any longer, we moved on, sailing through the sprays of humpback whales into a glorious sunset of orange, pink, blue and purple.
All was quiet aboard the Odyssey when Caroline called everyone up on deck. In the distance, a pair of fin whales had surfaced, immediately distinguishable by the shape of their dorsals, the height of their sprays, and the incredible speed at which they swam. We didn’t see them up close, but could tell they were truly formidable beasts: Fin whales are the second largest animal on Earth, reaching up to 75 feet in length and weighing more than 130 tonnes (the equivalent of roughly 20 bull elephants). Even I could tell they weren’t humpbacks — their long flat backs didn’t arch the same way as they dove, and their flukes had a much sharper, more triangular shape.
The excitement wound down into a very pleasant evening. Captain Neil found us a small, barren island with a big enough beach for a campfire, and Jorge pulled out his ukulele and guitar. We sang, roasted marshmallows, and reminisced about the incredible things we had seen, from the breaching humpback on Day One to the Pacific blood stars on Day Six. Our list contained no fewer than unique 43 terrestrial and marine species — it was more in a week than I had seen in an entire year of living in African safari country. Ten points to Canada.
Day Seven: Quigley Creek, Meyers Passage, Klemtu, Oscar Passage
It was our last full day on the Odyssey. We had seen everything we came to see, which meant that as long as we kept moving towards Bella Bella, what we spent the day doing was really up to us. I, along with a few others, accompanied Captain Neil into a forest by Quigley Creek, where we went for a long walk just to see what we could see.
A JOURNEY BACK IN TIME
Apart from our day on Gribbell Island, this was the longest period of time we spent on land and certainly the deepest we had ever gone into a forest itself. We followed the creek quietly in single file, taking note of the different kinds of fish, plants, scat, and empty crab shells we found along the way. We passed the paw prints of sea wolves (unfortunately, we didn’t see any), and eventually, were brought to a halt by Captain Neil, who pointed to an unusual collection of large rocks in the creek.
It was more than coincidence, he told us, that these rocks had created little coves in the trickling water, and it was likely an ancient fishing technique of Indigenous tribes who had occupied the island (or at least hunted there) hundreds of years ago. So remote and scarcely populated was the Great Bear Rainforest however, that an ancient structure like this still stood. Time does indeed, seem to have left this part of the world in peace, I thought, as we made our way deeper into the woods, serenaded by the calls of stellar jays.
After observing another 15 minutes of silence crouching in the salal berry bushes, we made our way back to the ship. I had wanted to go fishing since the start of the trip, and hopped into the Zodiac with Jesse and Ian, hoping to catch a salmon for dinner, or at least, through catch-and-release, get a better sense of what lurked beneath the Great Bear Sea. It was a grey and cloudy day with fog so thick, we lost sight of the Odyssey within minutes. But the fishing signs around us were promising: Salmon leapt out of the water, harbour seals dove for food, and sea birds picked away at grub below the surface. We dropped our lines straight to the bottom and jigged. Jesse caught a poisonous rockfish, which we threw back into the ocean, and while Ian’s line had a few bites, everything got away.
Once we set sail for Meyers Passage however, the disappointment of our fishing trip evaporated. The Great Bear Rainforest dropped a final, magnificent gift into our laps once more.
A SEA OF BLACK AND WHITE
The weather had cleared by early afternoon, giving way to sunlight. For the first time on the entire trip, I fell asleep during daylight hours while editing photos in the deckhouse next to Caroline. The wake-up call was shrill: “Porpoises!” she shouted beside me, pointing starboard. Within seconds, I was on my feet and clutching my camera, and it wasn’t until I was out on deck that I even realized I was awake.
They were riding the bow of the Odyssey, leaping from the water, and zigzagging beneath us to swim on either side of the boat. Dall’s porpoises, the largest of all porpoises, are extremely active, and can reach speeds of up to 55 kilometres per hour — almost as fast as a killer whale. These were spritely specimens indeed; their black and white bodies moved so quickly I could barely get one of them in frame. They blew great big bubbles under water, and just as soon as I had captured them on camera, abandoned us for something better. According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Dall’s porpoises “actively seek” large, fast-moving vessels, but will quickly give up on a boat travelling less than 20 kilometres per hour. Evidently, the Odyssey was too slow or too boring.
A pod of killer whales came next. We were approaching Klemtu, home of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation, when we saw three straight, black dorsal fins cut through the waves — two adults and one baby, judging by their size. They were fast and hard to keep track of, diving for 10 minutes at a time and resurfacing somewhere else. We lost sight of them twice, only to catch up with them further down Meyers Pass. It’s possible they were following us, as they seemed to enjoy swimming in between the shore and the Odyssey, particularly while Jorge played the ukulele.
It was the cherry on top of the cake: Two new species on our last full day in the rainforest. The Odyssey sailed further south through the Oscar Passage, and then the treacherous Reid Passage before docking at Blair Anchorage for the night.
Day Eight: Seaforth Channel, Bella Bella, Denny Island
The ship was already on the move by the time we rose on the very last day. It was a cloudy, drizzly morning, and people wandered about the galley quietly, packing their bags, searching for lost lens caps, and enjoying the last of the bottomless coffee, gourmet tea and hot chocolate. At this point, we had run out of water for showers and clean clothes — it was definitely time to go home.
We sailed down the Seaforth Channel on our way to Bella Bella, where the Odyssey would wait until we had all left on our respective flights. I alone would remain in the rainforest overnight, having been unable to squeeze myself onto any of the planes departing that day. Claude, our cook, prepared a light breakfast of fruit and granola — our first ‘relief’ from the heavy, but fabulous gourmet food we had enjoyed three meals a day for the last week. Truthfully, Claude’s cooking is worth mentioning — every single day, she prepared a luxurious smorgasbord of salmon steak, ling cod, pecan salad, artichoke dip, ginger cake and other tasty treats made from the finest ingredients. We had been treated VERY well by the crew during our trip, and I take my hat off to Bluewater Adventures for arranging everything.
As we neared our final destination, Captain Neil called us into the deckhouse. He pulled out a large, beaded eagle feather — another one of his traditions — to be passed around as we each shared our reflections from the week. Voices quavered as they attempted to describe the magic of the rainforest, and I’m almost certain I saw a tear or two well up in someone’s eyes. The rainforest affects everyone in very distinct and deeply personal ways, but all of us were first and foremost, overcome with gratitude.
Few people on Earth have been to the Great Bear Rainforest. If its remoteness weren’t a factor, the cost certainly would be, and I’m lucky that most of my trip had been generously sponsored. We were grateful for the opportunity to be there, in one of the rarest, most beautiful natural places on the planet, and grateful to the crew of the Odyssey for working tirelessly to give us the best possible experience. We were also grateful to one another, for making seven straight days on a boat not only tolerable, but profoundly memorable and enjoyable.
These gifts, one after the other, drew us all to one conclusion: Places like this need to be protected, not only for the wildlife and Indigenous people who call them home, but for the very sake of our humanity.
A BEACON OF HOPE FOR THE WORLD
We anchored in Bella Bella just before lunch. Our crowd grew thinner as people left in twos and threes to catch their flights back to Vancouver, New York and Washington, and when there was nobody left on the boat but me, Captain Neil took the Odyssey to Denny Island, which had a hotel and restaurant that could accommodate me overnight.
The place was just as quiet and sparsely populated as Bella Bella. Apart from the Shearwater Resort and Marina, which had a gift shop, bar, laundromat, and grocery store, there really wasn’t much to it. I checked into the Whisky Cove B&B, a few kilometres away from the commercial centre, and was thrilled to find myself in an immaculately furnished log cabin complete with an ocean view, outdoor hot tub, and whiny resident tabby cat. The place smelled of coffee and cedar, and I was alone for the first time in a week of sleeping with a roommate in a cabin the size of a large refrigerator. I celebrated my privacy by jumping on the king-size bed, and taking a long, hot shower.
I grabbed a map from the coffee table, and jogged the few kilometres back to Shearwater, where I found Neil, Caroline, Claude, and Jesse prepping the Odyssey for the next group of passengers. We had a beer together and said our final goodbyes, and I headed to the Fisherman’s Bar & Grill, where I wrote the very first sentence of this blog: Humans have been keeping time for thousands of years.
Time has worn away at our cities and landscapes, leaving scars in the form of roads no longer used, plots unreclaimed by industry, and human encroachment on natural habitats. It has confined us to schedules and meetings between nine and five, and has begun ticking at a pace that few among us can keep. Life is only precious because it is short, yet time is among our greatest enemies. Not enough time, too much time, a little too late — it makes humans do strange, wonderful, and terrible things.
The Great Bear Rainforest, with few exceptions, is a place that time has left unspoiled. Far from the ticking clock, the ring of a cell phone, or the ping of an email — its remarkable creatures live free from the greed and destruction spawned from our desire to produce, own, and accomplish as much as we can in the time that is given to us. It’s absolutely critical that it stay that way, and gives us a reason to stop and think before we build that pipeline, authorize that new dam, or cut down a forest to make room for townhouses. There really are wild places left, and if we slow down enough to appreciate their splendour and ecological significance, we too, can stop time in its tracks.