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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 rainforestmost marketable timber is slated to be
logged within two decadesboth 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
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.