No man is an island, said poet John Donne, and even though our vessel sails among isolated islands, we are all connected to the web of life and the tragedy on the East Coast.
Upon return to Explorer in the afternoon, we learned - through the technology of satellite phones, CNN, and short wave radio - that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were destroyed by terrorists. When I think of victims and their families, their lovers, their friends, and how their lives have forever changed, all I can do is weep and grope awkwardly for understanding. On board, we share concerns: one of us has parents in New York, another business associates, and all have friends there. We're in shock and trying to process this as we continue our work.
It is in honor of the web of life that we have decided to go ahead with our work. From the natural world springs our origin, our nourishment, our resources, our sanity, and our healing. This wild slice of Canada, the Raincoast that I love so much, offers all of this, so we send our images and our words today in honor of what is good in people, in spite of unspeakable horrors.
Last night Ian and Karen McAllister, and Chris Darimont, wolf researcher extraordinaire, joined us for dinner. Over Bob's beef stew, salad, and dessert, we pestered Chris with questions. Ian and Karen, whom I met nine years ago when I joined them to map out what was left of the old growth forest, have dedicated their lives to saving the Great Bear Rainforest. In 1990 Peter, Ian, and Karen McAllister founded the Raincoast Conservation Society, which has done so much to initiate preservation of this last intact temperate rainforest.
"For the first time ever, scientists have the technology to study genetics and the movement of individual wolves through DNA drawn from scat. This is so much less invasive than trapping, darting, and putting heavy jewelry on them for tracking. We allow them to be wild, which is exactly how a wolf should be," Chris told us.
"We can study the differences between divergent populations on the coast through mitochondrial DNA sequences from scat and hair-just like O.J. Simpson's trial. We send the samples to process in a lab in UCLA. We have discovered much genetic variation in this isolated and pocketed coastline." With a sly smile, Chris added that the packages of scat are shipped overnight to UCLA labeled as "processed food."
Ian then described the importance of the findings of this research. "The coast of British Columbia," he said, "may have the densest wolf population on the entire planet."
"Tomorrow we'll take you out to a very special spot on Yeo Island with a den of six wolf cubs. It is a forty-five minute, cold boat ride," promised Ian.
Much to our total dismay, Ian points out that not a quarter mile from the wolf's den is the timber company's boat. In spite of Raincoast Conservation Society's recommendation and pleas, the timber company is rushing to clearcut a broad swatch just beyond the den. Even though Chris and Ian brought the company's chief engineer to see the new pups, explain the wolves' sensitivity to disturbance, and asked in writing for a two-kilometer radius protection buffer, the company plan remains unchanged.
We anchor on barnacle-covered, bowling ball sized rocks, whispering in order not to frighten the wolves. So as not to spook the animals, only two of our team can go with Ian to try to photograph the wolves by a salmon stream. Russell and Franklin, with digital cameras, tread ahead to get shots for the web site.
Natalie, Toby, Chris, and I are left behind in the drizzling rain. Even though Natalie is being a great sport about it, I can feel her disappointment as a fine natural history photographer. Toby, too, seems grimly resigned to wait, her digital recording equipment at the ready. Chris takes us to hide behind a huge old log in the increasing rain.
We have been blessed thus far on this trip with bright blue skies and visible wildlife, so this morning feels gloomy and sad. I cannot shake off a sullen, mournful feeling, so to cheer myself up, I sit at the ten-foot high tree root mass at the log's end and count over twenty plants which entwine out of it. Such hanging, colorful gardens attest to the amount of life, which springs from death. I count seven mosses, usnea and alectoria lichens, Oregon grape, ferns, and entire trees springing from this root wad.
Finally finding my own personal haven in a nest of western red cedar and deep peat moss, I write for an hour, then fall to sleep. While I slumber, Chris spots two of the pack's pups heading for Toby and Natalie. I sleep through it, faded into the underbrush, where Chris cannot find me.
"They are teens now, but their feet are still like dinner plates, too big for their body," Toby says, recounting the experience.
"They were nosing for food and feeding," she continues. "Curious about us, they came nearer and nearer. Natalie kept shooting photos. They were so beautiful, a wolf with red behind their ears and behind their shoulders. Ohhh, just wild! I can't believe we saw them so close, right here, while the guys tromped off into the bushes with their big cameras."
"I believe firmly in wolf karma," Chris says, smiling. "You must have patience and work hard, and suddenly they reveal themselves to you."
When Ian, Franklin, and Russell come back, they appear downtrodden; they saw a wolf, but from a distance too far to photograph. Toby tries to interview Russell concerning his feelings about missing an opportunity to photograph the wolves. "Terrible! I hate nature," he teases.
"Truthfully though," Russell says to Natalie, "it's a great reminder of how fortunate we've been so far, and how mysterious, serendipitous, and unpredictable nature photography can be." In a strange way, I am not disappointed at having not seen the wolves. It is enough for me to merely be in their presence.
The forest, which begins so suddenly just a few yards from the shore, is a solid wall of twisting, rotating, writhing, ghoulish vegetation. Everything is choked and covered with green moss and dripping lichens. Ferns arch over my head. Huge, graceful fallen roots create archways and cavities through which we crawl and climb like voles toward one-thousand-year-old trees. Soon all is dark. Suddenly, here is a wolf's den. We get down on our hands and knees and peer into a root hollow of a giant tree, to see daylight openings on the other side.
We continue to step upward over three-foot-high logs.
"Here, look! This is a wolf trail and here is where they have polished it bare by crossing," Chris explains exuberantly. "And here, this is several month old scat. You see where all the bones are left in it. They can swallow and pass quite sharp-ended bones."
"Ouch," I say, " I bet the bones twirl around in the bowels, wrapping and padding the sharp ends with hair."
"Exactly!" says Chris, pleased with his drenched, attentive student.
We gather at a gigantic old cedar, one thousand years old, twisted in many strands. From above, green light floods through a stained glass cathedral of feathery branches. Even our skin glows strangely verdant.
Ah, the essence of ancient forest: so dark and so light simultaneously.
"This old monster will be made into newspaper," says Ian, referring to the eminent clear cut of this island's ancient forest. So much for honoring the elders, I think.
On the way out, Ian shows us the posts and beams of an old long house, probably over one hundred and fifty years old. I gaze out on the lapping water, a green table set perpetually for an endless feast: shellfish, fish, deer, and bear. What beautiful real estate the Heiltsuk people had.
Out on shore, Ian prepares to call the wolves by howling. He is top dog at howling, quite a subtle skill, requiring volume and art at once. Toby extracts her digital microphone from raingear, and Russell aims his dripping lens.
Ian cups hands to his mouth, leans back, and a rough-textured, melodious moan merges into a higher, more intense "oooh-wooo-OOOH," crescendos with wavering moans, and plunge-slides back down to the beginning pitch. We wait.
In precisely two minutes, we hear the first distant howl.
Then another and another and another: subtle, melodious, eerie, plaintive, sad, communicative. The howls layer and pool upon one another like sheets of stained glass. They are strange as moon breath, shimmering in adjacent notes, wave after wave of longing, concern, and music so ancient it is the very bone marrow of music.
I feel tears welling up that something so profound still exists. This is life affirming, the antithesis of all the hatred and life destruction we would learn about upon return to Explorer. All humans should know the wolf's song, I think. It is what we would howl back to the moon in the darkest of moments.