CANADA

Backpacker - - Contents - By Ted Alvarez

An­cient hu­man his­tory and some of North Amer­ica’s most con­cen­trated wildlife meet in the Great Bear Rain­for­est.

IT RAINS 262 INCHES a year in the Great Bear Rain­for­est—that’s 22 feet, roughly the height of a gi­raffe. It rains for whole days and whole months, in mists and fogs and driz­zles and spits and down­pours. It comes in hur­ri­canes spun off like an­gry or­phans from Hawai­ian Pineap­ple Ex­presses and Siberian South­west­ers. A proper at­mo­spheric tantrum can up­root and pol­ish a Sitka spruce into a 200-foot-long tooth­pick. Some­times it rains 356 days out of the year.

Lies, I now sus­pect. At min­i­mum, I’m con­vinced it’s a clever smoke­screen to keep hordes away from a hid­den trop­i­cal par­adise, a bit of lo­cal hokum meant to keep San­dals Re­sort from set­ting up a far-north out­post. If the “sci­en­tists” are right, my five straight cloud­less days of kayak­ing through Caribbean-blue in­lets to ivory-sand beaches means I’ve taken al­most all the sun­shine for the year in one mid-Au­gust gulp. I have to dive into the 55°F wa­ter to re­mem­ber I’m not in Ber­muda.

But my guides are im­pres­sively com­mit­ted to keep­ing the tall tales alive. “Re­ally, this isn’t nor­mal,” one says. “They usu­ally call it ‘Fo­gust’ around here.”

On ev­ery wilder­ness trip, it’s im­por­tant to be pre­pared for un­ex­pected con­di­tions. But some­how I for­got to pack ex­tra sun­screen.

I’VE LONG BEEN DRAWN to the cen­tral Bri­tish Columbia coast, a name­less stretch of wild be­tween Van­cou­ver Is­land and Alaska. On a topo map, the maze of veiny pas­sages and dense peaks looks like crin­kled alu­minum foil. The re­gion har­bors a par­tic­u­larly huge, par­tic­u­larly dense patch of tem­per­ate rain­for­est—the largest re­main­ing swath in the world. Roughly the size of Ire­land and twice as green, this mossy Ama­zon is home to only about 20,000 peo­ple—and lots and lots of an­i­mals. A pro­fu­sion of griz­zly bears, crab-eat­ing wolves, cougars, ea­gles, and other wildlife live in den­si­ties higher here than al­most any­where else. Most oth­er­worldly is the Ker­mode bear: a rare, white-furred ver­sion of a black bear also known as a ‘spirit bear.’ Be­tween 100 and 400 live only here.

That’s just the life above the sur­face. Below, some of the fastest, most pow­er­ful tides in the world fire­hose nu­tri­ents into the wait­ing mouths of sea anemones, mus­sels, clams, scal­lops, sea stars, oc­topi, and fish. Whales and sea ot­ters and seals make fre­quent ap­pear­ances. There are too many things un­der the sea to name, but it’s hard to ar­gue that any­thing is more im­por­tant than salmon. There can be as many as 22 mil­lion sock­eye in a sin­gle spawn­ing sea­son, feed­ing ev­ery­thing from hu­man be­ings to 9,000-pound or­cas. In­land, bears leave the fish car­casses in the for­est, fu­el­ing gi­ant, 1,000-year-old trees with ni­tro­gen.

This all sounds like a clas­sic pris­tine wilder­ness, but, in fact, the Great Bear Rain­for­est has been in­hab­ited for a very long time. In 2015, sci­en­tists dis­cov­ered an­cient foot­prints buried in the sand of Calvert Is­land, de­tailed enough to make out arches and toes. They car­bon-dated those foot­prints to 13,000 years ago—among the old­est in North Amer­ica. The dis­cov­ery helped re­solve a long­stand­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mys­tery: Sci­en­tists had won­dered how hu­man be­ings had crossed ice-plas­tered Canada af­ter en­ter­ing the con­ti­nent via the Ber­ing Land Bridge. These

foot­prints showed that they’d hugged the coast, where the Great Bear re­mained ice-free, sus­tain­ing south­bound early hu­mans with its eco­log­i­cal bounty and tem­per­ate climes. And it ap­pears some of them dis­cov­ered what I had—that a sunny day here is worth 40 else­where—and their de­scen­dants be­came the Heilt­suk Na­tion, who still live here to­day.

In the in­ter­ven­ing cen­turies, the re­gion’s wealth didn’t go un­no­ticed by log­ging, fish­ing, and other ex­trac­tive in­ter­ests. But in 2016, a move­ment led by Canada’s First Na­tions and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists suc­ceeded in con­vinc­ing the Bri­tish Columbian govern­ment to pro­tect 85 per­cent of the Great Bear Rain­for­est. Be­cause of that ef­fort, ex­plor­ing the Great Bear still means see­ing North Amer­ica as the very first im­mi­grants did.

There’s re­ally only one way to trace that jour­ney, and that’s by wa­ter. That’s what I’m do­ing in Au­gust, on a week­long jour­ney with Spirit of the West Ad­ven­tures, a Van­cou­ver Is­land-based out­fit­ter. Thick clouds fol­low us on the wa­ter taxi from the out­post of Bella Bella, a First Na­tions town where I count seven bald ea­gles fight­ing 12 ravens for rot­ting salmon on the rocks by the dock.

The co-cap­tain of our wa­ter taxi is a burly Heilt­suk named Rus­sell Wind­sor, who wears a bright-red sweat­shirt, flip-flops, and shorts. “Wel­come to the Heilt­suk Na­tion,” he booms. “Two things to know: no fish farms, and no pipe­lines.” This is a point of pride for the Heilt­suk: For the en­tirety of their his­tory, they’ve had to fight to pro­tect the spoils of their land, first from Haida raiders, then colonists, then in­dus­tri­al­ists. The es­tab­lish­ment of the Great Bear Rain­for­est and the foil­ing of the En­bridge pipe­line and its mil­lions of gal­lons of tar-sands oil are the lat­est vic­to­ries.

The wa­ter taxi de­posits me on Snipe Is­land with 10 other guests and hun­dreds of pounds of gear and food. The clouds have evap­o­rated and a late af­ter­noon sun bathes our camp in golden light. “I’ve led trips here and had 10 straight days of rain,” says Daniel Nam­mour, our tall, blonde guide from Texas who writes Western film scripts on the side. “Doesn’t mat­ter. It’s still my fa­vorite place on Earth.”

We sink our feet into sand the color and tex­ture of vanilla bean ice cream. A mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion means we’re one tent short, so I tarp it al fresco on a lonely stretch of beach and hope to see the Pleiades me­teor shower, which peaks tonight. Black clouds roll in to blot out the stars, but when I look down, my foot­steps sparkle: Bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent plank­ton must have washed in with the last high tide. Our group of fit, ad­ven­tur­ous re­tirees has al­ready gone to bed, but I stay up late skip­ping, trac­ing words in the glow­ing sand, and danc­ing in my own pri­vate “Bil­lie Jean” mu­sic video.

It doesn’t take long for the wildlife to come say hello. Our first day of proper pad­dling takes us through fields of kelp and eel­grass fring­ing a bony, drift­wood-choked coast. About the time we tire of count­ing bald ea­gles, Leah Chan­dler, Daniel’s col­league, spots a sea lion cruis­ing un­der our boats. It bursts out of the wa­ter about a foot away. I can see the hulk­ing pin­niped’s eyes go car­toon-char­ac­ter wide as it star­tles and abruptly som­er­saults away with a splash.

Af­ter five hours on the wa­ter, we pull up to camp num­ber two at the north end of Goose Is­land, near a di­lap­i­dated long­house with a fire pit. Heilt­suk kids gather here for youth camps, ex­plor­ing the is­land’s 1,000-year-old bent cedars and huck­le­berry thick­ets to re­con­nect with their land.

Fresh wolf tracks freckle the beach. When a dead sea lion washes up about 25 yards from my tarp, Daniel goes into nat­u­ral­ist mode to ex­plain that wolves here rely on dead things to sur­vive, and that nat­u­rally makes them cu­ri­ous about any­thing ly­ing on the beach. “Don’t be sur­prised if they come by to tug at the foot of your sleep­ing bag,” he says. He bids us good­night, and I won­der if he’s jok­ing—about the wolves, the rain, ev­ery­thing.

IAWAKE WITH all my toes, and af­ter break­ing camp we drag our boats into the ocean. We clus­ter to­gether to cross Golby Pas­sage, an open-wa­ter chan­nel dot­ted with hid­den, wave-mak­ing rocks called “boomers.” We’re sur­rounded by fog, but the sun fol­lows us above like a spot­light and the fog burns off by the time we reach a set of tiny is­lands where buoy­ant sea ot­ters pin­ball be­tween mats of brown-green kelp. Below, rock­fish dart in the blue-green canyons, and jel­ly­fish with bells the size of beach balls drift be­tween stream­ers of bull kelp.

The wa­ter shal­lows and clears un­til I’m look­ing at a reef as if through glass. Crabs and sculpins skit­ter un­der my pad­dle as we pull ashore in low tide, and jaws drop at tonight’s camp: A white-sand beach ex­tends in an isth­mus to a smat­ter­ing of tiny, RV-size is­lands mo­hawked with wind-bent ev­er­greens. If you ig­nored the snowy peaks in the far dis­tance, you could mis­take this for

Turks and Caicos. We spend the af­ter­noon do­ing what comes nat­u­rally: tan­ning, swim­ming, read­ing.

Va­ca­tion ends the next day on 12 or so nau­ti­cal miles of pad­dling to Su­per­sti­tion Point. The trop­i­cal weather holds, but the group frac­tures un­der the gru­el­ing dis­tance. Ev­ery­one is strug­gling, and pho­tog­ra­pher Te­gra Nuess gives voice to the mood. “I think I hate kayak­ing,” she says. “I’m not get­ting stronger—I’m get­ting ten­donitis.”

We lunch (and re­cover) near a his­toric Heilt­suk beach. In fact, al­most all the few-and-far-be­tween land­ing spots on this rocky coast are tra­di­tional First Na­tions sites, with an abun­dance of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains. The hills around this beach are ac­tu­ally mid­den piles (cen­turies of clam shells and pre­his­toric garbage, ba­si­cally). We snack on salmon salad sand­wiches and pick briny sea as­para­gus from the ground. As wild and empty as this place looks, nearly ev­ery­where we step is a na­tive gar­den, ev­ery chan­nel we pad­dle is a buf­fet ta­ble for an an­cient way of life that still per­sists. This abun­dance fu­els the pot­latch, a mas­sive tra­di­tional feast and elab­o­rate gift-giv­ing cer­e­mony his­tor­i­cally used to cel­e­brate sea­sonal tran­si­tions, mark spe­cial oc­ca­sions, and even re­solve dis­putes. Ba­si­cally, if you were feud­ing with your neigh­bors, you might sad­dle up your toughest bros into a burly, 30-per­son ocean-go­ing war ca­noe, load it with na­ture’s gro­ceries, and try to feed your foes into sub­mis­sion.

De­spite our high-tech kayaks, I’m sure a Heilt­suk crew would crush us on the wa­ter. We struggle into Su­per­sti­tion camp in the early evening, hag­gard and bent and sore. But we’re reen­er­gized by the sight of a hump­back lazily sur­fac­ing in the pink­ing light. Its mas­sive back looks ser­pen­tine and makes it easy to be­lieve in sea mon­sters.

OUR ARMS GET A BREAK the next day, with a mel­low open-wa­ter cross­ing to reach the Ser­pent Group. If there’s a heart to this ar­chi­pel­ago, this is it: a clus­ter of steep-walled gran­ite bar­rier is­lands furred with salal, ferns, and berry bushes and crowned with an im­pen­e­tra­ble for­est. Daniel weaves around a head­land and ducks into a key­hole en­trance to a tongue of ivory sand with a small patch for camp­ing . . . and three tents al­ready on it. With noth­ing but empty beaches to our­selves un­til now, this is a shock. I can hear Daniel say “What the—” un­der his breath.

It doesn’t mat­ter: With its pad­dle-up pri­vate tide­pool and a nearby canyon where the sea flumes through at high tide, the spot feels like an oceanic rob­ber’s roost, a Pi­rates of the

Caribbean hide­out. We take the pot­latch ap­proach and make fast friends with our rivals, who share space with us on the small beach. Steve Nagode, a Seat­tle res­i­dent who once owned a kayak­ing shop, has been com­ing to the Great Bear to fish for 25 years. He al­most never sees other kayak­ers, and he never re­peats routes.

Steve butch­ers a fat aqua-blue ling­cod on a drift­wood cut­ting board. Af­ter, he and his son Alex join me and Te­gra to scram­ble up a nar­row gran­ite chim­ney and skirt a grippy cliff edge, 25 feet above the churn­ing tide. We reach the outer is­land in time to watch the sun­set over the open ocean. A lazy hump­back plows into the bay be­tween us and the next is­land; it looks like a gray-black school bus breach­ing in slow mo­tion.

“I think it’s sleep­ing,” says Steve, just be­fore its tail slaps wa­ter al­ready twin­kling with starlight.

When we leave the Ser­pent Group, we tackle our hard­est cross­ing of the jour­ney: Hakai Pas­sage, where we are most sus­cep­ti­ble to large swells com­ing off the Pa­cific.

“Here, there’s noth­ing be­tween us and Ja­pan,” Daniel says. We stop at a bar­ren out­crop of is­lands to plan and prep.

Just then, a jet of wa­ter in the dis­tance shoots three sto­ries high: an­other whale. A few min­utes pass and it blows again, closer. There could be more than one. Ev­ery­one is ex­hil­a­rated ex­cept Daniel. He’d rather see killer whales out there.

“Killer whales no­tice you. They’re smart and can ma­neu­ver and don’t re­ally want to get close,” he says. “A hump­back is just not aware. It doesn’t care—we might as well be a piece of drift­wood to them. One could plow into us like a semi.”

Hakai feels like the raw, open ocean. The sun is blaz­ing, the winds are steady but calm, and still the swell comes in rolling, 3-foot hills. We try to stick to­gether, but in­evitably dis­ap­pear into deep, blue troughs. Chop spills over my bow

when I crest them. We might be feet from each other, but in the bot­tom of the trough, with the full Pa­cific bear­ing down on you like an of­fice build­ing made of wa­ter, you are purely alone.

Fight­ing the swells, I won­der what drove the first Amer­i­cans to con­tinue. Why for­sake the bounty of one set of is­lands for the un­known prom­ise of an­other? Was it bare cu­rios­ity or raw ne­ces­sity that pushed them across the next chan­nel, the next in­tim­i­dat­ing set of waves? I pad­dle harder.

When we land on Calvert Is­land, we’re sad­dle sore and salted through like brined turkeys. Our fi­nal camp is on Wolf Beach, our big­gest stretch of sand yet—a mile or so of soft Hawai­ian stuff. Ev­ery­one drains their last drops of wine or whiskey as we gather at the far side of Wolf to watch the sun melt into the hori­zon, a hal­lu­cino­genic set of or­anges and pur­ples.

I’ve spent more than a decade seek­ing out re­mote places, and this is one of the most iso­lated spots I’ve been—among the wildest cor­ners of the Earth. And yet here on this is­land, hu­mans have been walk­ing for 13,000 years. It’s hard not to feel hum­bled by the un­bro­ken line of hu­man his­tory and sur­vival in the Great Bear, to rec­og­nize the jour­ney of those an­ces­tral Heilt­suk wasn’t so dif­fer­ent from the one we just took. And to be a part of this mil­len­nia-old tra­di­tion, all you have to do is pick up a pad­dle. And don’t for­get the sun­screen, no mat­ter what they tell you.

North­west Field Ed­i­tor Ted Alvarez wrote about prim­i­tive sur­vival skills in the Oc­to­ber is­sue. He says grilled salmon is way bet­ter than charred mouse.

Land­ing on a hid­den beach in the Ser­pent Group

Clock­wise from top: Beaches like this one in the Ser­pent Group make for easy en­try into the wa­ter; pad­dling with or­cas; a spirit bear (though none were seen on this trip, since the is­lands are not good habi­tat); a bald ea­gle vis­its camp in the McMullin Group.

The sun burns off the fog as guide Daniel Nam­mour pad­dles on day seven.

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