On board our 36' trimaran, we leave Victoria, BC, bound for the Great Bear Rainforest.
We make our first stop at Knight Inlet where a cluster of unlogged valleys dangle southward, making up a kind of tail on the Great Bear. We spot one grizzly bear walking along the river; another is heading out toward a spit. They seem to be moving toward each other, and we anticipate trouble. But they turn out to be friends, probably siblings. They feed on the riverside sedges and then wander off together.
The moment feels so natural that we have to remind ourselves of its significance. Fewer than a hundred years ago, grizzlies foraged for food at the water's edge of every coastal river between Mexico and Alaska. Now Knight Inlet represents the southern frontier of the coastal grizzly bear population of western North America. The grizzly has been displaced from 99 percent of its original habitat in the lower forty-eight states. Of the fourteen zones that once supported grizzlies in Canada, ten now list the species as extinct, vulnerable, or threatened. The Canadian plains grizzly is extinct.
The disappearance of the grizzly bear follows the disappearance of the great North American wilderness because the grizzly depends on wilderness to survive. Why the mightiest of North American predators should be so vulnerable to environmental degradation when its lesser cousin, the black bear, has proven so adaptable is something of a mystery, but it gives the grizzly special importance as an indicator species.
Because grizzlies once ranged over Europe and parts of Asia and northern Africa as well, we can plot the historic decline of natural wilderness throughout a sizable portion of the northern hemisphere. In North America, a disproportionately high number of grizzly survivors are squeezed into the narrow river valleys of the northern BC coast. Official BC government estimates place between 1,500 and 3,000 grizzly bears between Knight Inlet and the Alaska border, giving the Great Bear Rainforest some of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears-and some of the largest individual specimens-in North America.
Healthy grizzly populations confirm that the integrity of this coastal ecosystem, one of North America's few remnants of fully functioning rainforest wilderness, is intact and that the 230 bird species, 68 mammals, and thousands of insects and microorganisms that make their home in the old-growth forest are also healthy. If the grizzly numbers start to go down, we can be sure those other less visible values are declining, too. In this many-faceted relationship, the bear functions as the most profound symbol of what this ancient ecosystem is all about.
We finally reach the mouth of the Ahnuhati River, our destination for the day. River corridors such as the Ahta and the Ahnuhati are the lifeblood of the raincoast. Every year their waters come alive with Pacific salmon swarming upriver to spawn and die, nourishing these ancient forests and their understory vegetation, which provide habitat for bears and other wildlife. Only the Ahnuhati, the Ahta, the Kwalate, and upper Stafford have escaped logging.
Soon, we head north toward the core of the Great Bear Rainforest, across Queen Charlotte Sound. Once past Cape Caution we enter the waters that form the broad mouths of Smith and Rivers inlets, a landscape that is still a stronghold of coastal wildlife-including grizzly bears-despite an extensive history of development. These inlets hold a prominent place in local lore owing to the huge runs of highly prized sockeye salmon that once spawned in their headwaters.
Overfishing had something to do with the decline of the runs, but in 1968, eleven years after the last cannery closed, Rivers Inlet could still muster a healthy return of 3.2 million sockeye. The real collapse came after the government chose, over the protests of major fishery and First Nations organizations, to permit clearcut logging in the salmon-bearing watersheds around Owikeno Lake at the head of Rivers Inlet. After twenty-eight years of clearcutting, the Rivers Inlet sockeye run fell from over 3 million fish to 65 thousand.
Despite the long history of logging in the Rivers Inlet/Smith Inlet region, wild rivers such as the Waump, Smokehouse, Takush, Lockhart Gordon, Piper, Allard, Sandell, Johnston, and Dallery still survive the chain saw and give the area's fugitive wildlife some prime rainforest habitat. The Takush Valley, lying on the south side of the entrance to Smith Inlet is influenced by the wind and weather of the rugged outer coast, yet possesses all the qualities of a protected valley hiding away in the back of an inlet. A First Nations village site here was occupied by the Gwa'sala people until the 1960s.
Here on the mud flats we watch four wolves in a misty rain for five days. Each evening, they bound up the river into the forest, where they disappear for the night.
About 8,000 wolves remain in British Columbia, some of the highest concentrations occurring on the northern coast; on the large outer islands, wolves raise litters of six to nine pups at a time and prowl the forest fringe in packs of up to sixteen. Although an endangered species in the lower forty-eight states, they are legally hunted in BC.
On our last morning in the Takush, before we leave for the Smokehouse River, we watch the wolves one last time. A sudden loud booming shakes us all alert. The wolves stand up and look toward the valley where the sound still reverberates. Six Canada geese rise up honking. From where we sit, we can see signs of road building, the source of the dynamite blasts. Interfor will soon be logging the Takush. The trip to the Smokehouse is one we have put off for years. With camping gear piled high in leaky dry bags, we run the inflatable 40 kilometers to the back of Long Lake, an unrelenting sleet pelting the narrow slits of our eyes. Cliffs rear up before us, and water tumbles in chutes from peaks beyond our sight. Granite bluffs display blurred pictographs of fish, coppers, people's faces, and a dozen canoes making their way to the mouth of the river.
The Smokehouse is in flood, making it appear Amazonianly vast. Sitka spruce, more than 2 meters in diameter, rise all around us like cathedral spires. From the tall ridges surrounding the head of Long Lake, we look down into the Smokehouse and Canoe rivers, the Waump to the south and the Piper and Rhind rivers to the north. These river valleys form the southern terminus of a large contiguous central section of the Great Bear Rainforest that extends 200 kilometers north all the way to the Kitlope Valley-far on the other side of Bella Coola. The Waump watershed, which is just a short hike over the mountain from where we perch in the Smokehouse, actually empties into Alison Sound in the next inlet system down the coast, a circuitous 150-kilometer boat trip to the south.
We continue up Rivers Inlet to the community of Oweekeno (pop. 60), which sits on the edge of the Wannock River separating Owikeno Lake and Rivers Inlet. We tie up at the village dock that floats in front of Oweekeno's one street. We meet Frank Hanuse Sr., one of the band councilors and fisheries wardens for the village.
"I want to go south this winter and get my conservation officer's ticket," Frank says. "Then I can spend more time on the problems facing our bears back up the lake." He nods upriver. "They just found another subadult grizzly with its parts ripped out. The hunters fly in and fly out, and we are left with nothing but dead bears."
At that moment a fully loaded logging truck rumbles through the edge of the village. Frank looks up at it, and then over to the river where some salmon pool up. "That is our history and our future being stolen from us," he says. "The government considers us a third party in decision making, and we are left beggars in our own land."
The refreshingly intact Dallery River is located about ten miles from Oweekeno Village on Owikeno Lake. When we first arrive, we find five young bears standing in the creek. We are struck by one of the grizzlies in particular, a dark male with long silver patches along his back who turns up stones and gravel, looking for beds of freshly laid eggs in this sockeye spawning ground. We nickname him Silversides. Eventually the other four bears leave. Silversides takes over one of the vacated fishing spots. He stands so still that the only motion we detect is a barely perceptible sniffing, then he springs into action; quicker than an eye blink, he has a salmon in his mouth.
His eating frenzy is simply an instinctive preparation for the long winter ahead. Sometimes he consumes every last part of the fish; sometimes he lets it wriggle around for a few seconds and then drops it back in the water. But mostly when he bites down on a fish, he sends streams of pink eggs flying most delightfully into the air, then fastidiously licks up every wayward egg from nearby rocks. He is very much in his own world here, and we can only hope that he has a full life ahead of him.
Our last stop is sixty kilometers west of Vancouver Island where treeless Triangle Island juts out of the Pacific like the dorsal fin of a giant shark. Of all British Columbia's outer islands, this one withstands some of the most extreme weather conditions, yet the precipitous green slopes are one massive nesting ground with a density of birds unmatched, for some species, anywhere else in the world. Some one million birds nest here in the course of a year, largely because Triangle is nearly free of natural predators. Thirty thousand pairs of tufted puffins, a million Cassin's auklets (about 40 percent of the world's population), 84,000 rhinoceros auklets, and more than 10,000 common murres are among them. The biologists working on the island tell us that five pairs of rare Peale's peregrine falcons live there.
Pods of sea lions occupy every beach and rock. Cliffs encrusted with brilliant orange lichen tower over a bed of false lily-of-the-valley. A tagged fox sparrow buzzes by and some seals play peek-a-boo from the water's edge. Gazing upward, we see six sandhill cranes soaring high on the thermals above the island. Just then, a small falcon flies toward the cranes, knocking one of them out of formation. The crane falls in a mess of feathers, then regains its composure and rejoins the others as they fly higher, away from the island. The pelagic cormorants are beginning to build their nests, and the gulls seem to coexist peacefully among all the nations of birds. The tide pools are rich in anemones and the starfish are decorated in a multitude of shimmering capes and shiny ribbons of seaweed.
Here, far from grizzlies, we gaze on abundance directly tied to the health of the grizzlies' home, The Great Bear Rainforest. We have not yet begun to understand how we, too, are connected to the grizzly and the rainforest, but, if we can protect this ancient heritage long enough, perhaps we'll find out.
Since this story was created British Columbia has implemented a one-to two-year ban on mining and logging in 1.7 million acres of the coastal Great Bear Rainforest. The ban is a move toward permanent land-use plan that would ensure the protection of such wildlife as eagles, grizzlies and the rare white Kermode, or spirit bear.
The Raincoast Conservation Society
Founded in 1990 by Ian & Karen McAllister, the Raincoast Conservation Society is a non-profit research and public education organization dedicated to the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest. The intact primary watersheds of this coastal region of British Columbia constitute one of the planet's rarest forest types and represent the largest portion of ancient temperate rainforest remaining on earth. Their mission is to ensure the long term survival of coastal bears, wild salmon and the interdependent life forms that define the ancient temperate rainforest. www.raincoast.org