In the forward cabin, I awake to the pounding of Verney Falls about two hundred feet off the bow of Explorer. Last night, we arrived having heard that sockeye salmon were leaping up through white water. No luck. A fisheries biologist has told us that the high flow from rain preceding our trip is washing fish out of the streams. Will we find any fish at all? No fish means no bears by rivers where we could see them.
As we cruise south through the narrow channel between the mainland and Gribbell Island, a silver passage opens in the dark fog soup. A hidden sun burnishes the water to white light. Mountainous islands jut out, one after another, grading from deep cobalt to lighter blue until they become ghosts in the fog. We sail into a Chinese scroll painting.
"Humpback 11:00!" Richard steers Explorer quietly near, but he is careful never to cause whales to alter their behavior. These thirty-ton, fifty-foot-long leviathans too often are harassed by close boats. This is a cow and her calf, rising straight up to feed on herring and needlefish, pausing to allow water to drain from their accordion-pleated throats before disappearing. Suddenly, long black backs curve above water followed by a graceful flash of tail fin.
The white phase of the black bear, called spirit bear by native people, is found only in a small segment of remote British Columbia. A recessive gene causes the white color phase. With only five hundred left in the world, will we find one?
Our bear search begins with advice from our guide, Gitga'at Marvin Robinson. He spent yesterday with a spirit bear on a remote stream pouring into the sea, so today Explorer slides noiselessly into the same place. This demure, yet roaring stream has cut a tunnel back through solid rock and thick alder. I skim my binoculars along the edge-effect of a small clearcut, a twenty-foot-wide swath of dead, standing trees.
After two hours of watching, I tell Russell that black bear sows claim territories of three to ten square miles; males often possess three times that amount, and they all move constantly to new feeding locations. The bear most likely has moved on.
Bearless, we later join Marvin on Joseph Bettis' vessel, Shadow, then tuck around Green Spit in Khutze Inlet and anchor for the night. Green Spit is the terminal moraine of one of the immense valley glaciers that poured down from the Cordilleran Ice Sheet in the last Ice Age. All day long we have cruised past hundred-foot waterfalls or thousand-foot cascades from hanging valleys.
Marvin is an articulate and intelligent young man who makes his living guiding, working for his band -- the Tsimshians of Hartley Bay -- and surveying culturally modified cedar trees to document proof of his people's long presence in this land. At dinner, he shares a treasure of tales of western red cedar, data collection, computers, ecotourism, helicopter logging, and archeology.
The next morning over French toast, we have an intense discussion about the next two days. During a scouting trip up the fjord, we've located salmon. Natalie tells us that the weather and their behavior means that they might not be there tomorrow; it's her advice, based on 10 years of shooting salmon, that we photograph fish now, hunt bear later.
Natalie is dying to photograph fish. Franklin wants to video underwater. Toby needs to record natural sounds. Russell wants to pull on his dry suit so badly it is palpable, yet he must also produce today's dispatch. I want birds, bears - the whole ecosystem -- yet need time to write. Richard wants to photograph, but must maintain the infrastructure, which keeps us afloat.
We want do it ALL, and we want it NOW.
But if we've been handed fish...
Because the tide is out, we must line the skiffs over the cobble. Forced to dock on a muddy bank, the underwater photographers must walk in their dry suits a quarter of a mile through grizzly territory to reach the spawning area. In order to write this dispatch, I must return five miles to the ship.
"But I won't get to watch you go in the river," I whine; I have to leave the others to write this dispatch.
"Here, I'll show you what it looks like," she says, then flops down on her belly and buries her face in the tall wetland grass.
Meanwhile, Russell spends a half hour in the bear meadow photographing a beautiful combination of orange silverweed, purple aster, and the flowing grasses.
As Joseph drives me back to Explorer, I drape across the inflatable's bow to stare at the world upside-down. A blue glacier looms at five thousand feet, turquoise visible in its crevasses. A cool wind sweeps down from the ice. The dark, still fjord perfectly reflects three thousand-foot mountains in infinite shades of green.
Across the dark malachites slice Bonaparte gulls, so white they seem not to be of this world. Eagles line the shore. Abundant chum carcasses are strewn clear up into the trees. Tens of thousands of pink salmon run far up the river to spawn. As strings of common mergansers fly up the fjord, red necked grebes, Wilson's phalaropes, great blue heron, pigeon guillemots, and marbled murrelets add their music.
This, I think, is what nature was like three centuries ago, before we began industrial-scale canning and cutting. This is what nature is supposed to be!