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Sierra Magazine
Canada's Forgotten Coast

A trek among the islands and inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest is a return to a lost continent. But if logging companies have their way, British Columbia's temperate treasure is headed for oblivion.

By B.J. Bergman

It's a logy Saturday morning-too early for more than a strong dose of airport coffee-but it doesn't take a topo map to discern some faultlines in Canada's famously placid national psyche. The English, it seems, find Canadians a bloody bore, and The Globe and Mail's "In London" columnist is in a snit, albeit a mild one. Rallying to the defense of her homeland, she whips out her trump card, the incontrovertible proof of interestingness: "We are, after all, a country that has tamed the wilderness."


I'm mulling this curious boast when my plane starts its descent into Port Hardy, near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. On cue, the landscape comes into focus as a chain of clearcuts, gash upon gash of stumps that look like scars on the piney green flesh of the earth. Entering British Columbia the night before, Elyssa Rosen, a Sierra Club staffer from California, gingerly told the customs agent she was part of "a conservation group" planning to tour "the Great Bear Rainforest." The officer's posture of studied, half-hearted welcome fell away. "You're not protesting, are you?" she demanded. "Because we don't like that here."

Her fears, while not unfounded, were misplaced. The forest we are headed for is reachable only by boat or floatplane, far too remote for mass demonstrations. "Great Bear Rainforest" is the name conservationists have conferred upon an 8-million-acre expanse along 300 miles of British Columbia's north-central coast, the largest intact temperate rainforest left on the globe. "Intact," of course, is a relative term: many of the hundreds of watersheds here, like those to the south, have been chewed up by chainsaws, and timber companies have sewn up the logging rights to virtually the entire ecosystem.

Yet the Great Bear has a still-beating heart of some 50 virgin watersheds, most of them larger than 10,000 acres, and so sustains a wealth of wildlife, including one creature found nowhere else in the world: the white Kermode, or spirit bear, actually a black bear with a double-recessive gene that gives it a coat the color of vanilla custard. An estimated 230 bird species live here, bald eagles among them, as do 68 different mammals, including grizzlies and wolves, and all have coexisted for millennia with nine First Nations, the Canadian counterparts of Native American tribes.

But these residents are no match for timber executives intent on quarterly earnings, or government ministers for whom thousand-year-old cedars and 300-foot spruce are grandest on their way to the mill. The Great Bear Rainforest could soon become the next Vancouver Island, where only a handful of major watersheds remain unlogged. And that's precisely why we're here.

But we haven't come to protest, just to explore. And then, when we've had an eyeful, to make some noise back in the States, which consumes the bulk of British Columbia's old-growth timber and ought to know better. Compared to a forest, it turns out, a tamed wilderness isn't all that interesting.

The coastal village of Bella Bella is nearly desolate when we arrive; there's a funeral in progress, though we won't know whose for several days. Merran Smith, the B.C. Sierra Club's energetic forest organizer, and a few young accomplices shuttle our gear to the Sundown, a strikingly handsome 62-foot yacht that first saw service in 1924 as a floating hardware store. The ship's current owner and captain, Joseph Bettis, is equally striking, if not quite so handsome, a white-bearded, bib-overalled, Zen-spouting salt with a twang straight out of west Texas. After lunch he gives us the house rules and the nickel tour, then repairs to the wheelhouse and we're off. Everywhere the tree-lined hills rise and disappear into a preternatural mist.

I get my first real taste of rainforest after dinner. A half-dozen of us borrow a small motorcraft from the top deck of the Sundown, then traipse through a soggy patch of dense, fragrant forest until we reach Kisameet Lake. Merran, a Vancouverite with a perverse fondness for cold water, talks us into a swim. It's nearly dark and we wade in cautiously until there's no choice but total submersion. The water is frigid-even in late July-and I'm soon perched on a rock again, rubbing myself for warmth, bathed in mist and silence and the sweet smell of cedar. A bald eagle glides overhead, commanding and unmistakable in the lingering twilight.

In Indian culture, somebody says, eagles are messengers of the Creator. We are quiet a long time after that, trying to make out the message.

A handwritten sign taped to the door of the market says the proprietors will be back soon, a cheap irony. Namu is a ghost town. Only it's not a town so much as a glorified encampment, a turn-of-the-century cannery complex floating at the edge of the forest like a great barge. The place was still humming 30 years ago. Now the market is padlocked, but everything else seems to have been hurriedly abandoned, from ramshackle cottages to a gym with a beat-up parquet floor. Several of us take turns posing for snapshots at the decaying counter of the unlocked cafe, whose sign reads "Open."

Cannery workers are an indicator species. Namu is what happens when waterways teem with fish, and then they don't.

We walk for a while, sticking close to Bristol Foster, a British Columbian biologist who points out the local flora-salal, skunk cabbage, sphagnum moss-and encourages us to sample the elderberries, thimbleberries, and juicy, heart-shaped salmonberries. He shows us the difference between Western red cedar and the more fragrant, droopier yellow cedar, which, until the bottom fell out of the market, commanded especially high prices in Japan. We find otter and wolf tracks, recent but not fresh. We visit a midden where an archaeological dig turned up evidence of 10,000 years of human habitation.

It's in Namu that we hook up with Merran's partner, filmmaker Mike Simpson, who ferries us in his motorized rubber Zodiac to the shallow mouth of the nearby Koeye River. This is serious bear country, a stunningly green estuary that seems, as we begin to hike, less forest than pasture, an enormous sedge meadow flecked with Indian paintbrush and ringed by tall trees and gun-metal hills. Then the meadow recedes, and soon we're half-bushwhacking along a whispery bear trail through dense underbrush and prickly devil's club, past "mark trees" on which bears, for reasons of their own, have scratched their graffiti and rubbed their fur into the bark, and "culturally modified trees," old-growth red cedars whose trunks were once chiseled by Native people for canoes or longhouses and then left to heal.

Amid the huge cedar and Sitka spruce are hemlocks and other small trees that have taken root in fallen nurse logs, testimony to the cyclical nature of things. Bristol identifies the whistle of the varied thrush, "the sound of the rainforest," and briefly flushes one out of hiding with distressed-bird calls. Moss covers everything from the canopy to the forest floor, and it is all dark and wet and wonderful, the living archetype of dreams and fairy tales.

Bristol stoops to sift a soggy handful of earth. Temperate rainforests, he tells us, are even richer in biomass than tropical ones, and can have as many as 10,000 species of bacteria in a cubic centimeter of soil. This statistic sings to me like a haiku. It gives shape to my sense of infinite vitality, of having entered a world beyond our capacity to fathom or control. We mess with it at our peril.

Yet it is being messed with. Worse, it is being cold-bloodedly hacked to pieces. British Columbia timber companies are clearcutting in valley bottoms and along fish-bearing streams, tearing up rainforest for roads into previously untouched watersheds. To the timber industry, a forest is a crop to be harvested when it's ripe and then replanted, like cabbage. Industry jargon for these ancient trees is "decadent." What's the use of a thousand-year-old tree?

Merran finds a salmon jaw, dropped by an eagle, possibly, or left behind by a griz. We hike until we reach some ancient bear tracks, and we follow (as have the bear themselves, for hundreds or thousands of years) in the creatures' prodigious footsteps. We fail to spot any bear, even after five hours on their trail. But it's only our first full day in the rainforest.

Back in Bella Bella, Merran and I find ourselves at the home of Don Vickers, an affable, soft-spoken man who used to work at the Namu cannery. This village is inhabited mainly by members of the Heiltsuk band, a First Nation that once lived fat off salmon-rich streams hereabouts and knows this spit as Waglisla. Vickers, a Heiltsuk hereditary chief, owns a small cabin in the Ingram-Mooto Lakes region to the north, where Western Forest Products is busy cutting a logging road. He describes how, a few months earlier, some 75 Heiltsuk-drummers, dancers, and chiefs in full regalia-staged a protest in the Ingram. The company agreed to suspend the operation, but was back blasting within weeks. "They've never had any respect before," Vickers says. "I guess they won't show any now."

The Heiltsuk, Vickers explains, have always depended on fish, and fish top the list of collateral damage in the buzz-saw barrage on the rainforest. Salmon stocks have plummeted as logging dumps silt into streams and roadbuilding wreaks havoc on spawning grounds, exacerbating the impacts of decades of commercial overfishing. Vickers says that with the band's survival at stake, many Heiltsuk would be open to logging, if only it meant jobs for their people. But it rarely does, and Vickers is increasingly unsure what the future holds. "What's going to be left for our grandchildren, the way things are going?" he wonders. "It makes me sick sometimes to think what they've taken out."

He is not alone. A group of ten hereditary chiefs has agreed to meet with us, which is something of an event; First Nations tend to regard environmentalists with suspicion. Our two groups, Natives and outlanders, muster at the church. Following introductions, Pauline Waterfall-the daughter of a chief who acquired her mellifluous surname by marrying an Englishman-leads us in a prayer. "O Great Spirit," it begins. "We thank you for the abundance you have given us. . . ."

But abundance, history shows, is not forever, especially if you're Indian. The Heiltsuk story is depressingly familiar: generations of children hijacked to "residential schools," tribal traditions outlawed, land stolen, resources destroyed. "We were traumatized as a people," Waterfall says in her calm, confident voice. "The miracle is that we have survived."

Under siege from logging operations, the Heiltsuk are by no means of one mind about how to respond; indeed, the crisis has created tensions within the community. The elected tribal council, for example, has been sympathetic to the timber companies, while the hereditary council, the Hemas, has been resistant. But even the hereditary leaders stress that they are not flatly opposed to logging. What they want is a one-year moratorium on roadbuilding and clearcutting. "When people want to come here to harvest our resources we need to have something to say about it," asserts Harvey Humchitt, a traditional chief and the spokesman for the Hemas council. "We've been here a long time."

After two hours, Waterfall brings the meeting to a close. "The Creator always provides opportunities for growth amid chaos," she observes, adding: "You're a human being first. When you look at it that way, it gives us a way to work together." As if to prove her point, waiting for us at the dock is Larry Jorgenson, a cigar-chewing social worker who married into the Heiltsuk a quarter-century ago. His adopted people, he insists, are "an integral part of the ecosystem." The Heiltsuk's future, like their past, is one with the rainforest.

Over the next 24 hours, Jorgenson shows us just what he means. He takes us first to a Heiltsuk winter residence abandoned perhaps 150 years ago; a husky Sitka spruce has taken root around a cedar beam that formed the foundation of the longhouse. Then we motor through The Gate up to Deer Pass, where Jorgenson is overseeing construction of a family-style cabin, part of a project to provide job skills to Heiltsuk youth and restore ancient connections within the community at large. "The sad thing in the last twenty years is the loss of fish, and the loss of ties to the land," he says.

With smaller salmon streams drying up, Native people are forced to resort to deeper, more dangerous spots like Purple Bluff, where, he reports-solving the mystery of that funeral in Bella Bella-two Heiltsuk drowned just a few days earlier fishing for sockeye. "They never used to fish there," Jorgenson says.Next day we visit the base of an ancient Heiltsuk burial cairn, which Jorgenson found only a month before. It is near a series of pictographs, which Jorgenson believes indicate burial sites throughout the rainforest. How much more of the Heiltsuk's cultural history is yet undiscovered? Nobody knows. And that, Jorgenson says, is why it's imperative that we "stop the logging insanity."

As we snake our way up the coast, the hillside clearcuts visible from the Sundown are relatively small, a few acres usually, and alder is coming in where cedar used to be. The Ingram valley is more disturbing. Despite the pleas of the Heiltsuk, despite the slump in timber prices, Western Forest Products is plunging ahead with a major logging road here in the Great Bear's core, one of 40 key ecological areas identified by forest activists.

In May, stepped-up public opposition to logging forced International Forest Products, or Interfor, to abort a road it was gouging into the Johnston watershed, south of the Koeye River. In Europe, an important market for B.C. timber, retailers have been hammered by a high-profile consumer campaign led by Greenpeace, and now the noose is tightening closer to home. Western apparently figures the percentage play is to get in while it can.

Western's security squad is busy when we arrive unannounced at the logging camp. But not on our account. A British television reporter is being choppered in, a prime opportunity for the timber giant to export a favorite domestic theme: the industry regrets its past mistakes, and is now logging responsibly and sustainably. The foreman warily grants us permission to look around.

The six of us head out along a dirt road the width of a two-lane highway. It's an uphill hike, and in just a few minutes I'm aware of an odd sensation: it's hot. There's no canopy, no shade. We trudge past idled earth-movers and leveled trees lined up like guardrails alongside the road. After a while we spot a cluster of humans, some in bright-orange hard hats. Among them is Zoe Stephenson, who's conducting research for a BBC program on Canadian logging.

We insinuate ourselves into the cluster, and before long Merran has thoroughly upstaged the company tour guides, explaining to the attentive researcher why the industry's trumpeted forestry reforms are a hoax and describing how current practices imperil the rainforest. This is pure theater, really; Stephenson is scheduled to meet with Sierra Club staff in Vancouver in a day or two. But the company reps don't know this, and they stand around helplessly, glancing at their watches, until we move on up the road.

The Ingram valley is surpassingly lovely, all the more because it is vanishing under our noses. As we approach the crystalline lake we hear a blast of explosives, the first in a series, and we know the BBC has left the site.

With just three days to reach the town of Prince Rupert, near the Alaska border, Captain Joseph picks up the pace; the coast takes on a dreamlike quality, an ethereal image of green glacial water moving through unending forested mountainsides. The dream, however, is punctuated by happy accidents. One afternoon a group of us hop in the Zodiac for a quick impromptu trip to the mouth of Kynoch Inlet and wind up navigating its entire length, pulled along by spectacular, Yosemite-like views of sheer granite cliffs and stark, glorious solitude. Later, while the rest of the group takes in the scenery from the deck of the Sundown, several of us motor to Roderick Island, expecting to find an active logging camp. When we arrive, though, it resembles Namu, abandoned but for a lone caretaker. He allows that the operation was shut down a week earlier, a casualty of the depressed timber market.

After several days of flukishly clear skies, the customary overcast returns on Thursday. Most of us are just having our breakfast as we cruise past Princess Royal Island, principal habitat of the spirit bear. We're peering hopefully out the galley windows when somebody calls us to the forward deck, where eight Dall's porpoises are playfully escorting the Sundown northward, hamming it up with synchronized rolls under the bow. A bit later we spot a pod of orcas about 50 yards from the ship. We watch as the killer whales herd salmon in the shallow water, the fish tracing silver arcs as they try to make their getaways.

Then the whales, too, disappear, and Mike takes us in shifts to the mouth of the waterfall-fed Khutze River, where we set off on foot along the estuary. We find bald eagles perched on overhanging branches, marbled murrelets diving under the water. There are bear and wolf tracks, and divots where bear have pulled up rice roots and angelica, and a cozy lair in a cedar stump. But we don't see any bear, spirit or otherwise.

It's not till our last full day that we glimpse the true spirit of the Great Bear Rainforest. Only it's not bear, I realize. It's salmon. Near Lowe Inlet we note a profusion of sockeye, and we trail them to what looks like a Class IV rapid, the kind that gives fits to rafters going downriver. The salmon are swimming upstream, into the whitewater wall. I sit on a rock beside the cataract for an hour, watching as one fish after another vaults determinedly into the foam, usually to be knocked fin over teakettle and deposited back at the bottom.

It's an amazing display of unalloyed will, and each time a fish clears the hurdle it's cause for rejoicing, one small but crucial victory in the survival Olympics. Significant levels of the "salmon signature," the N15 nitrogen isotope, have been found in the cellulose of trees, indicating that when bears drag salmon into the forest the remains feed not only other wild creatures but the cedar and spruce themselves; Ian McAllister, a founder of the Raincoast Conservation Society, likes to say that the trees here are really "salmon trees," the bear "salmon bear." Everything, in a way, depends on salmon. And it's going the way of the buffalo.

But the Globe and Mail columnist got it wrong. For the moment, at least, Canada has not tamed its wilderness. The Great Bear Rainforest survives, and with it the Heiltsuk people, the spirit bear, the grizzly, the wolf, the bald eagle, a remnant of time that seemed to have been lost forever. And maybe that, after all, was the eagle's message in the twilight at Kisameet Lake: the Creator is here, still. For the moment.


Want Change? Shop Smart

BRITISH COLUMBIA'S timber industry may not see the need to preserve the Great Bear Rainforest, but it does understand the bottom line. And it's showing clear-cut signs of vulnerability to consumers, who are sending the message that they don't want the last stands of priceless rainforest destroyed to make telephone books and toilet paper.

Last September, all the major B.C. timber companies agreed to a yearlong moratorium on logging in 40 key watersheds. That decision followed the announcement by MacMillan Bloedel, which owns the rights to log in four Great Bear watersheds, that it would phase out clearcutting. While neither development eliminates the threat to the rainforest—most marketable timber is slated to be logged within two decades—both are positive steps.

The engine of all this movement is stepped-up consumer pressure. A European campaign led by Greenpeace has given a big black eye to retailers of wood products from B.C.'s rainforest. For the B.C. timber industry, the idea of a similar trend on this side of the Atlantic is a nightmare, since the United States consumes over half its old-growth harvest.

"We are the problem, but the solution is in our hands as well," says Dan Seligman, the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade director in Washington, D.C. The Club's focus is on "selective purchasing legislation," which requires states and municipalities to buy only wood thatıs received a green seal of approval from the Forest Stewardship Council. (See "How Green Is My Forest?" July/August 1998.) Susan Holmes, a former Sierra Club director who is working to push a model bill through the New York City Council, says that the market impact of such laws would be significant. Moreover, efforts to pass them nationwide will help awaken Americans to their power to save ancient forests.

Meanwhile, there's nothing to stop U.S. consumers from holding corporations accountable. The Coastal Rainforest Coalition, for example, recently won promises from two dozen companies not to buy wood from the Great Bear. They and others, including the Club, are also turning up the heat on large wood-product retailers.

"Without a market, Canada's timber companies will have to either change or die," says Merran Smith, the Club's B.C. forest organizer. "American consumers hold the key." —B.J.B.

For a comprehensive look at this endangered ecosystem, see The Great Bear Rainforest by Ian and Karen McAllister with Cameron Young (Sierra Club Books, 1998). For more on the Club's campaign, call our B.C. office, (250) 386-5255, or see our Web site at www.sierraclub.org/trade.


B. J. Bergman is Sierra's writer/editor.

Photos: A kayaker explores Ellerslie Lake, at the center of a tangle of creeks, inlets, channels, and sister lakes, Ingram and Mooto.

The Intrepid Sundown, a strikingly handsome 62-foot yacht that first saw service in 1924 as a floating hardware store.

Photos © Ian McAllister


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