Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


Travel Paradise Preserved: Schooner shows off natural treasure of Great Bear Rain Forest in BC

May 12, 2002

The tiny town of Bella Coola, British Columbia, lay at the end of our 700-mile drive north from Seattle and the bottom of a very long hill. As we crested the pass over the Coastal Range, we headed down a switchback dirt road that was an 18 percent grade for 20 miles. (Imagine the hill on South Negley Avenue for that distance.)

Bella Coola was definitely the end of the road. With our brakes smoking at the bottom, we headed for the small airstrip and an hourlong single-engine charter flight to the even smaller, island-bound village of Bella Bella, where we were scheduled to board a boat for a 10-day trip into the Great Bear Rain Forest. This is the largest remaining fully wild remnant of North America’s post-glacial coastal forests. It’s located along the Inside Passage on the north-central coast of British Columbia.

This trip qualified as a natural history expedition. The leader and captain of the 100-year-old two-masted schooner Maple Leaf, our home for those 10 days, was Brian Falconer. In addition to being a well-trained field biologist, experienced seaman and bush pilot, Falconer has been a central part of the two-decade movement to protect this extraordinary biological treasure.

Falconer also owns the Maple Leaf, which he personally refurbished some 20 years before. His first mate, a young woman named Heidi Krajewsky, was a marine biologist who had come up through the Canadian sea cadet program, as had the other male members of the crew. We were to be well guided on our expedition, both at sea and ashore.

Powered by sail and a sturdy diesel engine, the Maple Leaf carries nine passengers and a crew of four. On our voyage, it was fully occupied. Our gourmet meals included crabs we had caught ourselves, curries, soups and for dessert, real chocolate mousse and creme caramel renversee from scratch. There were snacks between meals and meals between snacks, always delicious.

Our days on the Maple Leaf were spent cruising between points of special interest, gliding along fjords with sheer walls of glacier-polished rock, surrounded by towering forested mountains. Everywhere were waterfalls, tumbling hundreds of feet from hanging valleys high above us.

It rained almost endlessly. We had about 8 inches of rain in the days we were there. But no one paid any attention to it. We all wore heavy rain gear and high rubber Wellington boots. After all, it is a rain forest.

Each day we would seek out an estuary, the biologically rich flood- plain/outlet of a stream, anchor the schooner off shore, hop into the Zodiacs (rubber motorboats) and go ashore for a hike into the forests.

There are no “people” trails in Great Bear, only bear trails. So we followed those through the underbrush and sometimes deep mud, and along the streams. Sometimes we would find a vantage point and stop and just sit silently for an hour or so.

We found the environment to be constantly fascinating, always something special to watch. Once, a large black bear lumbered out of the trees to fish at a favorite waterfall. Knowing full well we were there but caring not one whit, the bear snatched five salmon from the icy water while we watched from about 100 feet away.

Another time, as we sat, a wolf poked its head out of the forest across an open flood plain, looked around and then melted back into the shadows.

One afternoon as I sat on the boat’s stern, I saw a humpback whale leap entirely out of the water, all 35 feet of it.

Falconer gave us a short lecture on the feeding habits of these whales, and no sooner had he finished than we spotted a ring of sparkling bubbles off the port side, about 100 feet away.

It was another humpback, circling a school of herring, letting out a stream of bubbles, a so-called “bubble net.” As the herring swam away from the bubbles, into the center, suddenly the first whale’s partner burst up through the center, vaulting out of the water, huge wide-open mouth first, followed moments later by the first whale!

The two whales swam along for a couple of bounds, then arched up and sounded, their tale flukes flapping in the air. Several minutes later, they did the whole thing over again, changing places. We learned to tell the whales apart by the patterns on their flukes, so we knew they were swapping jobs. They did this 12 times in a row and then, apparently either full or tired of the sport, swam off.

We found this event so exciting, it took some simple horizon- watching just to calm down. The cook served us a delicious “between- meal snack” on the cabin roof.

The skies were vast, cloud-filled, glorious during scattered sunny breaks. Sea birds that are endangered species in the United States were in abundance up here. Now and then, someone would spot a school of porpoises racing to catch up with the boat. Crew and guests would scamper down in the rigging below the bowsprit and compete to try and touch one of the bolder ones, screaming with delight when they did.

These porpoises seemed to have infinite acceleration and fairly shoot ahead of us when they chose, darting back and forth inches ahead of the bow, usually just out of reach.

One special feature of the trip was the constant awareness of the central importance of salmon in the ecosystem. It was late September, and weeks of salmon run had already taken place. The water level had been exceptionally high, and salmon had actually swum up over the land surface from time to time.

When the water fell, the fish were trapped on land, and as we trudged through the estuaries, we were literally surrounded by dead fish. Live specimens crowded by the hundreds and thousands in the rivers and streams, giving their all to get to the highest possible gravel bed and spawn. Sated with salmon, the bear, wolves, ravens and bald eagles were eating the brains of many fish. It gave our wandering in the woods an added sense of safety to know the bear simply weren’t very hungry.

The high water levels had also uncovered previously spawned eggs from some areas, and the gulls were gorging themselves on this bounty. At one point, we stood up to our calves in a broad, shallow river watching an astonishing parade taking place on a long stretch of rapids.

Hundreds of Bonaparte gulls would fly up to the top of the rapids, land in the water and ride down, dining on the salmon caviar unearthed by the roiling water. When they reached the bottom of the rapids, they’d fly back up to the top for a repeat ride. Apparently this continued until the eggs were gone. But never fear, more salmon were lining up to restock the gravel beds. Nature’s abundance was mind- boggling.

Years ago, Edward Abbey said that “when you leave Yosemite, you should feel as if you’ve been on a pilgrimage.” Just by being there and being aware of its sublime character, the place would arouse a deep spirit of reverence. That is exactly how Great Bear was treated by our guides, and it felt totally appropriate.

That is not to imply this venture was solemn. We enjoyed wild step dancing on the deck in high rubber boots to warm up on cold afternoons. There was endless kidding among crew and guests, underscored by a sense of respectful camaraderie that was delightful. There was an excellent wine cellar and wine with every dinner.

One thing we have found on these kinds of ventures is that they’re somehow self-selective for special people. In our group of nine we had artists, doctors, nurses, geologists, hospital staff, psychologists — generally unusually sensitive and caring people. One guest was on board for her ninth time.

While Great Bear is a world-class wonder, it is far from safe from commercial exploitation by extractive industry. This area represents a tiny fraction of a once truly huge temperate coastal rain forest, far richer biologically than the Amazon.

Small patches have been protected by receiving special status from the Canadian government. But in other places, we could see the ugly swathes of clear cuts, the haul roads slashed directly across a watershed as if deliberately to permanently mar it and keep it from being declared wilderness.

Ian and Karen McAllister have devoted the last 10 years to documenting the biology and beauty of this area, publishing a book titled simply “The Great Bear Rainforest: Canada’s Forgotten Coast.” The wonder of our expedition is that in our 10 days, we were able to see and get a good feeling for the results of that 10-year effort.

You can check out the current status of efforts to save this area by going to their Web site, www.raincoast.org.

To get from Seattle through the wildly varied British Columbia geography to the starting point of our expedition, we used the book “Adventuring in British Columbia,” by Isabel Nanton and Mary Simpson. Both books are published by the Sierra Club.