Field Notes: The Last Wilderness
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Outside magazine, August 1996
Field Notes: The Last Wilderness
Few places are left like British Columbia’s rainforest. But for how long?
Early July on the central coast of British Columbia was cold and wet. Clouds hovered over indistinct shorelines. A hazy spiral of bald eagles circled in the distance like buzzards. My ten-year-old son, Colin, and I were traveling by fishing boat up a saltwater channel that led into a fjord. On deck with us were my friend the writer Terry Tempest Williams and two local Heiltsuk
The 50-foot salmon trawler chugged up a narrow passage flanked by tall basalt cliffs. A faint line of barnacles marking the high-tide line ran across the rock a few feet above the dark water. Beyond this gray landscape of sea and stone loomed a dense forest of spruce, cedar, and hemlock–towering trees reaching up into a cloak of fog.
Suddenly, the older Indian, a thickset man wearing bifocals, threw up his arms and began to chant. Terry and I looked at each other, startled. The man was shouting some sort of song to the cliffs in a language I had never heard before.
In a minute it was over. An awkward silence settled on the boat. “Someone was buried up on that ledge,” the Indian quietly explained. He pointed to a spot high on the rock wall painted with ancient pictographs: circles, lines, and arcs of red dots. “I was pacifying the spirits of the dead.” He smiled. “I told them we’re just visiting.”
We leaned over the rail and looked down into the water. The man spoke again: “The ocean here is just crawling with life. It’s teeming.”
The man’s name was Ed Martin. He was a 63-year-old Heiltsuk elder from the nearby town of Bella Bella. The other Indian was his 20-year-old grandson, Benny. Though I didn’t know it at the time, we were all going to the same place: Ellerslie Lake, a 14-mile-long snake of freshwater that spilled into the head of the fjord. The lake was a holy spot to the Heiltsuk.
We were making this journey because I wanted to show my son one of the last great wildernesses in North America: the temperate rainforest of British Columbia’s central coast. This vast green expanse, carved into archipelagoes and fjords by the Pacific and crowned by immaculate snow and ice fields, stretches 500 miles from Knight Inlet north to the Alaskan panhandle–26 million
Unlike elsewhere in British Columbia, much of the forest of the central coast has escaped destruction by international timber companies, which have devastated the old-growth forests of the southern part of the province. But time is running out. Loggers have been moving north, cutting swaths out of the remote watersheds above Vancouver Island and Cape Caution, which contain the
North of Bella Bella, the inlets and passages of the fractured coastline intersected in a wide bay. I glassed a far shore, where a milky white beach denoted the clamshells of an ancient midden. Tall spruces grew along the beach, probably seeded by the timbers of the communal lodge that once stood there. A barnacle- and mussel-covered shoal materialized to starboard. I handed
Ed Martin gazed at the blank spot in the forest. “They’ve crucified the trees,” he said.
The clouds began to lift as we reached Spiller Channel and turned off to the east. Colin and Terry huddled at the rail, shouting into each other’s ears above the roar of the engines. We startled a black bear digging clams and sent him bolting into the brush. Terry spotted marbled murrelets dancing on our wake.
The trawler dropped anchor in a small saltwater bay at the foot of Ellerslie Lake. It had been hours since we’d seen any signs of human life–a couple of shrimp boats combing Spiller Channel. Now, like a mirage, figures dressed in blue and green raingear were emerging from the trees to meet us. They were students and instructors from Round River Conservation Studies, an
We exchanged greetings in the cold drizzle and started up a muddy trail to the lake. Ed Martin, who worked as an occasional guide and consultant for Round River, walked beside Colin, pointing out black bear tracks in the mud. From somewhere high above us came the trill of a solitary thrush. The lush transitional zone between coast and rainforest held us in its embrace. The
In about 20 minutes we emerged from the brush and stared out across an enormous lake. I bent over and tasted a palmful of fresh water. Ellerslie.
We all piled into canoes. Terry, Colin, and I shoved off, with Terry in the bow and me in the stern. The wind picked up as we paddled out into open water. I skirted a point of land to the south and then turned and made for the western shore, where Round River had its seasonal camp.
“What’s that?” asked Terry. We stopped paddling and listened.
“I think it’s wolves,” she said. A faint, high-pitched cry drifted toward us through the mist. We heard it again.
We sat for a moment in silence, looking out across the lake, which seemed to go on forever. This was what I had come for–the wide open spaces of Canada’s westernmost province. British Columbia has always occupied a special place in my imagination.
During the decades I was growing up, only western Canada seemed the real wilderness beyond the frontier. Alaska, the Sierra Nevada, even the Canadian tundra and shield country–all had been traveled, if not tamed. But British Columbia was immense beyond belief, its own universe. It was the last great place on the continent, complete with forests, fjords, islands, ocean,
But the destruction was equally astounding. Nearly 25 percent of the 22 million acres of temperate rainforest that once blanketed British Columbia’s coast and inland waterways has disappeared, most of it in the last 20 years. Vancouver Island has been the hardest hit.
This rampant destruction is largely due to the fact that Canada has little by way of environmental policy. There are no endangered-species protection laws and few requirements for environmental impact statements. The Ministry of Forests, established in 1912 to oversee Canada’s national woodlands, is widely viewed as nothing more than a function of the timber industry–an even
The provincial government is a direct beneficiary of this wealth. In 1993 it purchased $35 million worth of shares in MacMillan Bloedel, making it the company’s largest single stockholder. For this reason, the provincial courts and legislature rarely interfere with the Ministry of Forests, whose efforts to police the timber industry are weak at best. When the ministry does
“It’s like getting caught selling a bag of coke and being able to sell the coke to pay the fine,” says David R. Boyd, an attorney with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, which represents grassroots Canadian environmental organizations in suits against corporations and the government. “Each time a tree is cut down, money goes into the provincial government’s pocket. The cronyism
“We call it Talk and Log,” says Jill Thomas of the Vancouver-based Canadian Rainforest Network. “Everyone sits around a table with industry big cheeses and the process slows to a crawl. The ministry refuses to listen to anything anyone has to say, and the logging keeps going on.”
Despite all of this, there have been conservation victories. In the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Haida Indians won a battle in the late eighties to set aside a 50-mile-long sacred archipelago. This capped nearly 20 years of tribal challenges to the logging industry, complete with blockades. And in 1994, 800,000 acres of the Kitlope watershed on the central coast–ancestral
We reached the north shore of the lake and landed the canoe on a shoal of polished bedrock grooved with glacial striations. A pair of river otters appeared, their lustrous coats curling against the calm surface of the water. They rolled and frolicked, diving for cutthroat trout.
Beyond us lay a beach framed by two tiny islands of bedrock. Scattered across the white sand were a handful of small tents, their bright colors vibrant against the dense forest behind them. A big white cook tent stood off to the side. This was the farthest outpost of the tiny army assembled in the fight to save Ellerslie.
We pitched our tents and crawled into our sleeping bags, listening to the sounds of the forest–thrushes, loons, and the who-cooks-for-you hoots of a barred owl. Though it was ten in the evening, there was still light. I read while Colin methodically wrote in the journal Terry had given him, punctuating his distinctive scrawl with sketches of what he had seen during the day. He
In the morning, we all gathered in the big tent for breakfast. Afterward, Colin ran off with Dennis Sizemore’s son Paul to herd up tadpoles in the lake. The rest of the staff and crew dispersed to survey areas. Dennis began Round River in 1989, leading small groups of undergraduates on ecological surveys of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Most of Round River’s field projects are
The claim was filed in 1993 by the Heiltsuk tribal council in Bella Bella, a muddy fishing town on the northwest corner of tiny Campbell Island, 25 miles from the lake. About 1,500 Indians live in Bella Bella, along with some white fishermen, a few teachers, and the ubiquitous patrons of the native poor–missionaries, government agents, anthropologists. As in many other native
“When I first got married, Bella Bella was a different place,” said Ed Martin as we walked along the shore. “I had $18,000 in my pocket, and I didn’t know what to do with it. When I bought my first fishing boats, I paid cash. We were self-sufficient until progress and booze caught up to us.”
Ed, himself a struggling alcoholic, had lost two of his 11 children to suicide. Like many Heiltsuk, he’d decided he’d had enough of the mixed blessing of industrial culture and viewed the land claim as a way for his tribe to revive fading traditions.
But many Heiltsuk have forgotten the old ways of the forest and are unfamiliar with the destructive consequences of logging. In fact, few in Bella Bella have a grip on the scale of industrial clear-cutting and the speed with which it proceeds. And so the village is divided. Some, like Ed, want the timber companies out. Others, particularly the younger tribe members, view
“The Heiltsuk are going to have an increasing say in how their land is managed,” says Dan Jepson, manager of aboriginal affairs and environment for Western Forest Products. “We’re offering jobs related to fish habitat assessment, tree planting, stream clearing. It’s our attempt to work with them, to show them how to manage their resources.”
“It’s nothing short of scandalous,” counters Ian McAllister of the Raincoast Conservation Society, a Victoria-based organization that conducts biological surveys of British Columbia’s rainforests. “Western Forest Products’s intentions are to cut all the trees they can and get out of there. They’re not interested in sustainable forestry, though they’ll say they are. All they’re
Among the most facile of our modern illusions is that native people hold the key to solving our environmental problems. It’s true that the root of these problems is the loss of ethical conduct and a usable tradition of behavior–knowledge that seems to continue to thrive among native cultures. At the same time, indigenous people from Asia to the Amazon have behaved as
The Heiltsuk claim, now mired in the British Columbia provincial court system, is unlikely to be resolved for at least five more years. In the meantime, the logging continues, sparking talk among some traditional Heiltsuk of blockades. “There’s nothing planned yet, but there are murmurings,” says Mary Vickers, whose family is establishing a wilderness camp at Ellerslie for
That night the students kindled a fire on the beach. We huddled around it, listening to Ed tell stories and sing songs in Heiltsuk. Only in recent decades had he retrieved his native tongue, suppressed since boyhood by missionaries and boarding schools. He told us about Ellerslie, how the lake was a place of healing and great power. The Heiltsuk didn’t come to the lake much
Days passed. a summer high-pressure system settled over the mountains; the weather was great. Each morning, Colin, Terry, and I climbed into a canoe and explored the lake. Twice we paddled 12 miles to the mouth and hiked down cascading waterfalls to the bay below. We fished for sole using hand lines and jigs I had fashioned from loon feathers we’d found along the shore. At
Colin and I packed our tent and gear and paddled east. Northwestern salamanders and small fish, probably cutthroat trout or kokanee salmon, darted in the shallows. We passed more pictographs painted on the white granite walls of the lake–patterns of red dots and one humpbacked wolverine. High on the ledges above, mountain goats grazed.
As we paddled, I thought about Ellerslie, about British Columbia, about the other magnificent and untamed places I’d seen in my life. If we can’t save it all–and clearly we can’t–what criteria can be used to list priorities for conservation battles? In terms of ecological significance, the Ellerslie area probably isn’t as rich as the Kitlope or the forests on Vancouver
Two days later, paul sizemore celebrated his 16th birthday. Ed wrote a song for him in Heiltsuk and presented Paul and Colin with Heiltsuk names, which translated to Alder and Pond. He then began to sing and dance in the gentle surf of the lake, wearing rubber boots and cut-off Notre Dame sweats one of the Round River students had given him–his first pair of shorts in 60
Ed finished his song, and we sat in silence. The calls of loons and an occasional eagle drifted across the quiet water. A deep hush lay over the surrounding forest. As far as the eye could see, there was not a sign of the hand of man.
Doug Peacock is the author of Grizzly Years.