Waterfall near Roberts Creek, photo by M. Woodbury
I have written a lot about the northern Pacific temperate rainforest, of which the Great Bear is a part. You can read my series here. But I am relatively new to Canada, having grown up in the United States (South and Midwest). I had known from a young age that the far northern coast of western Canada, before you hit Alaska, was beautiful with its deep coniferous woodlands, fjords, whales, birds, wolves, salmon, bears, and other wildlife and plants. I knew up there was a mystical woodland, the likes of which were ancient and somewhat isolated. This place was to me, as a child in Indiana, somewhere I would probably never go to. In college, one of my majors was cultural anthropology, and I remember studying about the potlatch, a tradition in the forest–the cultural possibility seemingly as far away as the great rainforest of British Columbia.
To be honest, when I married my husband, who lived in British Columbia, I still didn’t realize how close I could be to that wonderful forest. And even though I have lived here now as a resident for 5 years, the rainforest seems such a faraway place and impossible to get to. It still seems to be a fantasy, as much so as Tolkien’s Old Forest, an immense primordial woodland. When you are in Vancouver, you can look north to the foggy wilderness and catch a glimpse, at least in your imagination. To be sure, our city is part of the great rainforest, and we do get plenty of rain.
Not long ago, on a foggy winter day like today’s, we came home from a visit in Kamloops–where cold, white mountainous ranch country gave way to the valley’s green wonders and where in the summer it is dry and desert-like. During that visit we saw how the combination of hoar frost from fog two nights prior, and freezing rain from one night prior, had painted the trees with delicate twisty white magic, and it was mystical and made me stare in awe for hours. When we came home we headed toward the coastal rainforest.
Soon after leaving Kamloops we were in the Monashee Mountains, where tall peaks of white were punctuated by stately pines careening into a deep fog. We went on like this for an hour or more, snug in the cradle of the mountains with their frozen waterfalls and endless ranges. Then, as the drive went onward, we came through the avalanche tunnels and down into the coastal plateau, where it became dry and partially sunny, and very green–a hint at the rainforest. Toward the border, we can always view Mt. Baker, which I know from flying into and from the south coast is surrounded by alpine valleys and impossibly beautiful fjords. On the other side of the highway are the hills of the Coast Mountains.
My mother had expressed interest in going to the Great Bear Rainforest with me either in 2014 or 2015, and we finally settled for this summer on Bella Coola in late August; my mother-in-law is also coming. If you read the link above, you’ll realize that it is very possible that this coastal hinterland will become a major port for 225 supertankers a day coming in and going out as Canada expands its thick oil sands operations in Alberta to provide an Asian export.
I cannot think of much that is sadder–because I truly believe this rainforest is the last of its kind, certainly the largest of its kind–home to rare and endangered species as well as old cultures still relying on a healthy wilderness area surrounding them as a link to their livelihood. It is not as if no industry there exists already–it does, in places. But to me the newest resource offloading to Asia is impossible to justify considering this rainforest is in the same area as where twin pipelines would be laid and where oil would be shipped in such fantastical amounts. I can’t even fathom how it would work to bring supertankers in and out of the Kitimat port, which lies at the head of such rugged and unpredictable-weather-beaten channels.
Throughout our recent trip, I kept thinking about the forest. I decided last summer to create a book and film about it, but first knew that I would have to travel there, so I had been planning in my head a little, but over our short stay in Kamloops, I needed to depart from rich consumerism, and I began to strongly feel the call of the wild. I researched how to get to the place I wanted to go so that I could tell my mother, and she and I and my husband could begin to plan. I wanted to go to Kitimat, the actual port, but am not sure of how to get there, so settled on Bella Coola.
My feelings about this faraway area being so isolated are somewhat true. It would take over 15 hours to drive there, whereas if there were a highway straight up, we could be there in half the time. I don’t want there to be a highway straight there; I’m glad these wilderness areas are not developed much and that they are relatively inaccessible. You can find a small plane that would get you there in two hours–there being Bella Coola, which is near Tweedsmuir Park, a place well known for grizzly bear viewing and fjord and river trips, but the plane is the same price as it would be to fly thousands of miles further to see family. There are also a lot of expensive eco-tours (again, I cannot complain about the price–the area deserves to be preserved and would never be that way if it were easy to get to).
We will take a guided tour down the Bella Coola and Atnarko Rivers–a rafting tour that has a river guide and a biologist. If you go between August and October, the rivers are full of salmon, so seeing bears is likely. Not sure if we’d see a spirit bear, but really, everyone wants to see one and I am just fine if they don’t want to be seen!
My goal is to film, take photos, hopefully interview some locals, and just get immersed into this great area that is so threatened by the oil industry. What a shame to corrupt such wilderness with pipelines and supertankers. I just want to see it, document it, preserve it.