Rainforest islands fly by beneath as we travel through squalls midair. Opportunity for a few days exploring with friends sometimes means a mad dash to the west coast. Even when you don’t have time to drop everything and go.
We free fall into timeless times; being present to soak in the rain, sandy shores, wolf tracks, and rugged coast. Days well spent; uplifted by a pack of humans who make you feel like this is what it’s all about.
The days are beginning to begin early again as the promise of summer looms somewhere out there on the horizon. Alarm clocks set to pre-dawn hours, breakfast cooked up to go, friends encouraging you from the warmth of shelter out into the morning chill. We just miss the wolves this morning; but fresh tracks carved by elusive paws never fail to send a thrill up my spine. The wolves are on dawn patrol, and so are we.
Trekking through ancient ecosystems, wisdom can be found in the moss and bark. Lessons of the connection between death and growth is discovered in the damp foliage that blankets everything. The pound of surf echoes through the rainforest long after we part from the rugged shore.
Living in a culture that promotes an excess of busy isn’t easy; the value placed on doing, as opposed to being, can leave us burnt. Perhaps both have their place – both being and doing fill up parts of ourselves that need to be nourished regularly. Striking a balance is something I am still tripping over. Time itself seems as elusive as the wolves we seek to catch a glimpse of.
But if I’m being honest with myself, there is always time for both.
I often try to trick myself into believing otherwise, letting priorities shift to make space for the urgent rather than the important. Doing rather than being. Deadlines and emails threaten to take the place of tapping into creative energy and exploring wild places. At times it feels like there is no time for anything besides the work that needs to be done to protect this planet.
While we cannot create time, we are inexplicably fortunate to be able to spend it largely how we choose. Whether we spend it deliberately, give it away freely, savour it in solitude, share it with friends, or maybe let it pass us by; it’s up to us to choose wisely.
I am learning there is always time, until there is not. Perhaps the key is to be fully present, no matter what you decide to spend it on.
The beaches seem infinite out west, especially when the tide is out. When you’re up at 5, the mornings have a timelessness to them that gives you a taste of freedom. By 8, you have already absorbed enough beauty to keep that spark in your eye ablaze for the rest of the week.
Good light and good friends, sharing space with the coastal wolves who know this place as home. Being here, now becomes a priority. Soaking up every drop of sun, splash of rain, grain of sand is the only intention.
Mornings shift into afternoons which burst into evenings. Frequent food quests fill transitions between beaches and rainforests, the sea and the sky. All of a sudden we are airborne – thanks to adventurous humans who fill these special places with character and facilitate exploration. @atleoair@krystlestel
The float plane leads us to hot springs trickling into the ocean. Piping hot waterfalls fall into pools that grow cooler as the water meanders its way to the sea, eventually mixing with the salted chill of the Pacific.
When I do take the time to make a mad dash for places like these to explore with friends like these, I remember that getting outside and immersing ourselves in wilderness may be the exact thing that does end up saving the planet. Appreciation sparks action. People will protect what they love.
The rain poured in buckets those few days, soaking into the forest, sea, rain jackets and bare skin. Smiles cracked faces in the best of ways and we all parted paths after a handful of time sprinkled out west.
For now, skinned knees and salty skin, pine needles stuck to the pads of my toes are all the reminders I need to carry on doing my best to protect this place.
But things like diesel, things like oil in the sea don’t just vanish.
The ocean is not a hazardous waste bin. It’s an ecosystem jam-packed with fish, ceteceans, invertebrates, shellfish, plankton, and creatures your wildest imagination can’t even dream up. Plus it even makes half the oxygen you breathe. The significant thing about the ocean is that we are all inextricably linked to it – with every lungful.
When we poison the ocean, we poison ourselves.
How many spills will it take to understand this concept?
Will we wait until they become normal, until the media loses interest because ‘it’s just another spill’?
Will we wait until the damage is done? Until our kids grow up knowing an ocean void of life? Will they think it is normal to see a surface unbroken by great blows of whale exhalations, black triangular dorsal fins rising up before plunging back down?
How many spills will it take before we ourselves forget the wilderness we sacrificed for the sake of fueling a culture of excess?
Will we wait until our life support system (the planet) is too sick to function?
NATHAN E STEWART DIESEL SPILL – Heiltsuk Territory
Bearing witness to the diesel spill unfolding in Heiltsuk Territory last fall rattled me to my core. It was my role, along with filmmaking partner Tavish Campbell, to document the spill above and below water. Descending through a thick layer of diesel on the surface to dive on the sunken tug, I watched a school of juvenile herring circling the shipwreck. I saw endangered abalone cracked in half beneath the bow of the tugboat. In fact – the very reef itself was shattered by the impact of the tug.
Wolves I had photographed before the spill came down to the shores to feed in the intertidal zone on the beaches that framed the spill. Beaches that now stung your eyes and lungs with diesel fumes, inducing headaches and nausea as you walked along them even weeks after the initial spill.
But it wasn’t just these realities that tied knots in my stomach that will never come undone.
It was the way the spill response unfolded that still has me deeply unsettled. It didn’t matter how many boats were out on the water, how many Coast Guard ships, large foreign companies deploying millions of dollars of resources. It didn’t matter how many people gathered together to clean up the spill. The diesel continued to pour into the ocean.
Sporadic bouts of reporters and media coverage reported on the statistics of the spill. Empty numbers quickly filtered in and out of the public’s mind. Ministers travelled from eastern Canada to speak to the coastal community directly affected. Promises were made. Apologies were made. Assurances were being given out like cheap candy at a parade. It felt like a big show.
All the while, the diesel continued to spread.
I learned that there is no stopping the tide.
There is no halting storms rolling in and rendering any spill clean-up efforts useless. There is no calming massive swells that toss absorbent booms onto beaches like foam in the wind, breaking them open and releasing more pollution into the area. Spend as many millions as you like – it will never be good enough.
It will never be ‘before the spill.’
I am not suggesting we do not try and clean up spills. We must – and the budget should be limitless. This coast is priceless. Marine traffic will always exist on this coast, and spill response should be ready to do the best job possible at a moment’s notice.
I am suggesting that the best spill response will still never be as good as preventing spills in the first place. As the people of this coast, we cannot rest assured that spills will be cleaned up. From my time documenting the Nathan E Stewart spill near Bella Bella, I learned that they cannot be. The damage is done, and clean-up efforts only scrape a fraction of the damage from the surface. Transport Canada admits that it expects only 10-15% of a marine oil spill to ever be recovered from open water. It is clear that even Canada’s world-class spill response is not good enough.
As the people of this coast, we must make sure spills do not happen in the first place. That means saying no to projects that increase tanker traffic. It means heavily regulating how this coast is used and abused, and making sure it is worth the risk before we say yes to anything.
RECENT BROUGHTON ARCHIPELAGO FISH FARM SPILL – Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Territory
The recent spill from a fish farm in the Broughton Archipelago tied yet another knot in my gut.
For those of you who do not yet know – the Broughton is an incredibly rich area. It is alive. It is breathing. It is a hot spot for humpback whales, dolphins, orca, and marine life of all kinds. It is home to coastal communities. It is also being used to farm foreign Atlantic salmon. Fish farms are already leaking European disease into the ocean – harming wild Pacific salmon and threatening their very existence. Now they leak diesel and oil. Insult is added to serious injury. More harm is being done.
This coast is not a farm to grow resources. That is not the way the natural world works. If we listened – we would know. But it seems our culture is dead set on learning the hard way. I just hope we learn fast – before we have lost the very foundation all life requires for survival.
How much will we lose before we stop, look around, and feel the grief that comes with the death of a wild coast?
How much damage will we let happen before we stand together as the people of the coast to keep it wild?
Let it be no more.
Not one more spill. Not one more salmon farm.
Not one more drop of oil in our waters.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Get involved with the Broughton Archipelago fish farm spill:
Support the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Nation in the wake of the spill – they will be carrying out their own impact assessment of the spill in sensitive locations.
Contact John Horgan, MLA and ask him to go and see the spill on the ground. Spill response on this coast is an election issue.
It has come to my attention that the spill response for the Burdwood fish farm diesel spill, owned and operated by Cermaq Canada in Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw territory, was inadequate and centred around protecting the Atlantic salmon in the pens rather than protecting the sensitive natural areas around the farm, like the rich clam beaches of the area.
After the inadequate spill response of the Nathan E Stewart diesel spill in Bella Bella in October/November 2016, and now this poor response to this fish farm diesel spill, it is clear British Columbia does not have the response capabilities to handle future spills from the marine traffic and aquaculture operations already in existence on the coast.
The proposal of expanding marine traffic on this coast (tankers, Kinder Morgan, LNG, etc.) should not be considered when BC cannot manage to adequately clean-up relatively small diesel spills that create lasting environmental, cultural, and economic damage to the coast.
Spill response in British Columbia should be a critical issue to address in the I am asking you travel to the spill site in the Broughton Archipelago to witness firsthand the damage this spill has caused, and speak to local first nations and coastal communities about how we can prevent this from happening in the future and better protect our valuable coastal resources.
Please make spill response on the BC coast a significant issue in this upcoming election.
Elected Chief, Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis email@example.com
Share everything you can about the spill on social media. Ask your friends and family to take action.
Ask your local media channels to cover it the spill and spill response on the coast.
Stay informed from local news sources like CoastCast, in addition to mainstream media.
Vote for a political party who will make keeping this coast wild a priority, preventing against spills and improving spill response on the coast for existing marine traffic.
Support the Heiltsuk Nation in the aftermath of the Nathan E Stewart Spill
Send a donation by cheque to the Heiltsuk Tribal Council to help support clean up costs and the Nation’s losses in the wake of the spill:
Heiltsuk Tribal Council
c/o Nathan E Stewart Spill Fund
226 Wabalisla Street
Bella Bella, BC
• Stay informed on the aftermath of the spill. It is not over – the Heiltsuk are still dealing with significant impacts in their community. Follow the Heiltsuk Tribal Council for updates.
I’ve gotten to know a few out-of-the-way places as home base since starting down a path in wildlife photography. I have dive gear, camera gear, and various belongings scattered among a handful of islands up and down the coast.
Sometimes that can leave you feeling, well, scattered.
Perhaps it is a tangible way of keeping ties with each place, always maintaining an excuse to return. I’ve felt torn between islands for a while now; ones I am immediately enchanted by, ones I call home, ones I’ve yet to meet. The pull is always present.
Recently the time came when I was once again ‘between islands.’ I couldn’t quite imagine the next one. A desire for all my gear to be in one place without losing the ability to go from island to island began to grow.
A week ago I found myself in Nimmo Bay looking at a small sailboat tied to the dock of the remote wilderness resort tucked away in the Broughton Archipelago.
She’s a 27′ Catalina sailboat and has just become my home base.
From Nimmo, fellow wildlife photographer/filmmaker Tavish Campbell (also conveniently one of the most knowledgable captains on the coast) joined me to sail the boat south.
Crossing Queen Charlotte Strait in February, we were fortunate with the conditions. The first of the ‘herring weather’ this spring was with us. Squalls rolled down over top of us bringing indigo layers low on the horizon. The passing squalls were complete with rain, sleet, snow, rainbows, and bursts of sun that you can feel on your cheekbones.
Periods of glassy calm were interrupted sporadically by passing breaths of wind. Herring season brings stunning light, along with the wildlife that moves in for the annual spring feast. This is my favourite time of year on the coast.
We anchored in Boat Bay that night after a full days travel out of the narrow channels and tidal passages from Nimmo Bay.
Map painted by Tavish’s sister, Farlyn Campbell.
Coming into Johnstone Strait, a westerly wind of 15-20 knots gave us our first real sail on Capricorn. We travelled down the long, narrow stretch of water that is well known for tricky conditions when the wind and tides are not smiling in your favour. The wind helped us buck an ebb tide as we made our way down the strait, and hot cups of coffee helped keep the February chill at bay.
We sailed the second day ’til dark when we lost the wind. Motoring down the back eddies along the shore at dusk, we watched eagles fish and current twirl as it passed us in the opposite direction. We looked forward to riding the flood tide in the morning.
I got an initial feel for how Capricorn handles under sail, and I was grateful for some fantastic winds to learn the ropes in.
Vancouver Island was rooted to the west of us all the way down the Strait. Her natural beauty and her industrial fate mingled to create a bittersweet frame for our travels. A landscape scarred with expansive clearcuts; with low snow dusting the remaining forests and recovering patches of young trees.
Growing up on Vancouver Island in a smaller mill town, the logging industry helped put food on the table during my childhood. Coming to know wild places and the vital importance of healthy, intact ecosystems plus the priceless nature of old-growth forests has given me another perspective.
What does it mean to cut down a forest to fuel our current culture of excess?
Balancing human needs and a way to sustainably meet those needs without succumbing to the lure of excess at nature’s expense is a tricky line to walk. It is an all-important balance to figure out if we want to continue living and breathing on this planet.
We anchored in Knox Bay the second night, before stopping in at Sonora Island (Tavish’s home base) to give the boat some TLC. The wood stove roared to keep out the frost threatening to creep in that night. The stars seem brighter from the sailboat. We celebrated my quarter century mark on this earth aboard Capricorn. Quite a fitting way to kick off the next quarter century – if I’m lucky enough to experience another 25 years exploring the coast.
One of the main pulls to being sailboat based is the way in which life unfolds when you’re at sea. Being on the water is being present. It is being in tune with the natural rhythm of the planet. It is reading the water, the weather, the tides, and knowing you are not separate from anything that surrounds you. It is also a gateway to the islands of my dreams and memories.
Most significantly, it is knowing this whole coast as home, and doing all I can to keep it wild.
i had seen glimpses of her
held her in my hands, even
for just a moment
despite the slippery nature
of her scales.
i had heard her voice
once or twice,
but didn’t speak her language;
her intangible tongue
made sounds so –
i could whistle;
but not like her –
the wind through cedar boughs
in the dead of night.
fleeting glimpses of her
between walls and
among a sea of faces
priorities tangled and
i am knowing her
the way she welcomes me,
with darkness interrupted
by only her starlight
igniting a perspective
in the blinding glow of cityscapes.
i am knowing her touch
filling my lungs
that ever existed
as the time i take
i know her
as shelter –
as trees reconfigured into a roof,
her decades of growth
thaw me; embrace
so death must wait
and i know her
as my bones –
as the oxygen in my lungs,
all of this body
i call my own –
and i learn;
from the sound of her
meeting the shore
with a thunder
that warns me the winds
are dancing out there,
and well –
all of this knowledge
i call my own –
and as i come to know
i wonder why
was ever a stranger to begin with?
You close your eyes, and you find yourself suspended in cool water, mask on, eye to eye with a fish. This is the sweet spot in a river snorkelling adventure. But how do you get there? All you need is appropiate thermal protection for the water temperature, a mask, a pair of fins, a river, and a sense of adventure. It helps to know when to go, and to learn about the fish who live in that river system. Then you dive in. I set aside a few weeks each year to return to my home river when the salmon do. In autumn, I spend my days between the banks of the Campbell River, the artery my home town is build around. Over the years I began to bring a camera, which has grown in size, and this past autumn I returned with the aim to share the salmon’s journey through photographs. The ultimate purpose of the images is to inspire action for us all to care for our home waters. In my experience, nothing inspires caring about rivers, lakes, estuaries, and oceans like seeing eye to eye with the creatures who call these places home.
The Finned Migration
The fish pass by overhead like birds blacking out the sky; a great migration of the finned. But whether feathers or scales flying overhead, the abundance of life driven by such purpose is a truly moving sight. After completing the great migration from ocean to home river, female pink salmon lay eggs in a nest dug in the gravel of the riverbed. She will guard her nest of eggs until she dies. Once the eggs hatch, the next generation of salmon swim to the ocean where they grow up in the saltwater. The fish live out their lives for about 18 months before beginning the journey back to their home river to spawn and die. Pink salmon have an average life cycle of 2 years. After death, the salmon’s decomposing bodies continue to give life to the river, surrounding forest, bears, birds, wolves, other wildlife, and us humans too. It’s all connected.
The Underwater World
Morning rays and keen eyes reach into the deep pools where the wild salmon gather and hold. A single breath accompanies you to explore the river, and your limits. Wilderness continues, and blossoms, below the surface. It always feels like a magic little discovery shared between those who have broken the barrier; there aren’t really words to sum up the depths but when you finally resurface, you both know you’ve just seen something special.
I remember the moment it occurred to me, a few years back, when I first started visiting the fish. I closely resemble a seal when I don my black wetsuit and slip below the surface. Funny, I felt like a fish when I would propel myself underwater with my faux fins and breath held. I wondered how to convey the message to the salmon who scattered at the sight of me. Fish are friends, not food! But I catch fish to eat, so maybe I am more seal than scales. Or perhaps I should simply resign myself to being a human who teeters on the edge of both land and sea, not quite fitting fully into either element. But right then I was only interested in taking their photo, not their flesh.
Something about salmon are so captivating to me, and I wonder if it has to do with the way they helped build my body as I grew up, or how they continue to warm my belly and sustain me through the long west coast winters. The relationship between predator and prey seems a complex and intimate dance. I find myself needing to be a predator of salmon, but simultaneously wanting to be a part of their incredible world for a moment or two.
The Lost Sockeye
You never know what lessons the river will teach you. Photographing a strong run of pink salmon, I wasn’t expecting to look over my shoulder and find myself face-to-face with a brilliant red sockeye salmon. But there he was, a lone red amongst thousands of pink. He weaved aimlessly through the bustling school, standing out quite remarkably. Soon after, I watched him grow weak and drift like a fallen leaf to the river bottom. The algae-coated rocks became his final resting place as his body slowly began to lose its brilliant red, his emerald head faded to grey, and his golden eyes lost their life. Crayfish crawled from the dark spaces between the rocks to tug on his lifeless fins. I learned quickly that his body would not be wasted. Each day I came back and watched his remains slowly become a part of multiple other creatures. It was incredible seeing the sockeye decompose over many weeks. This was a season of learning about life and death at the salmon river.
Connecting the Seasons
Autumn rains greet and join the river as we slip into damp wetsuits and join the salmon below. It’s tough to untangle these colours, the underwater blues and topside golds, from the fall season. Freshly rusted leaves tumble from trees above; sinking into the periphery as we watch the fish stream by. It’s like the seasons are listening to the fish; waiting for a cue to shift. As if in celebration of this momentous return of life, the trees turn gold to pay their respects to the spawn. The salmon make their way up river for the first and final time, passing beneath over-hanging branches stretched out like arms cheering them on. Soon these very salmon below will feed these very trees above. When the seasons eventually shift to spring, the bodies of these fish will help replace these fallen leaves.
In Six Inches of Water
There’s a little creek nearby. It bears a few chum salmon in the fall, but it’s the heart of winter now. The salmon are out at sea, growing. They say ‘where there is water, there is life.’ So we head out in search of life at the creek, drysuits donned and underwater cameras in hand. We trekked upstream and found a pool just deep enough to submerge our faces in. We quickly spotted juvenile cutthroat trout. Though well camouflaged, these young fish were brilliantly coloured. With eyes like gems, they gathered below tiny waterfalls. We watched and photographed the tiny trout with fascination. I still marvel at the adventure that can be had in six inches of water.
Layers of Life
These two juvenile cutthroat trout live in a small creek nestled within a large temperate rainforest. A forest where moss blankets everything; even cushions the feet of wolves and bears. These young trout in the creek in the forest are contained on an island within an archipelago of rainforest islands off the coast of British Columbia. There are layers upon layers of life unfolding in places within places. Opening our eyes to that life, and the connection between it all, reignites a dying sense of wonder.
BACKYARD ADVENTURES POST II
03•01•2017 view original piece on the Sitka blog.
You blink. The days of beating the heat with a splash into your local lake are gone again. Seasons pass. Now skin is sheltered from the elements, and new forms of adventure take shape.
The crisp leaves of fall are now blanketed with snow that crunches beneath your boots. Frozen dew drops replace the plump berries of summer. The lake you knew months ago is barely recognizable as you walk onto its frozen surface. Layers of wool keep you warm while layers of ice keep you from that refreshing plunge of days past. The only things you are stripping off now are your gumboots; replacing them with ice-skates.
Fishing is an all-seasons adventure that looks different each time you drop your line. But the trout taste just as good, if not better, when caught by frozen fingers. Fresh food in the winter is a hot commodity.
Whether it’s a whopping spring salmon you can barely extend your arms far enough apart to illustrate, or a decent-sized little cutthroat trout to warm your belly in the winter, it doesn’t much matter. Catching a fish never fails to ignite a round of legendary smiles.
An axe might not seem like a necessary tool for fishing, but these days it sees more ice than firewood.
The kids don’t have a sense of it yet. Not consciously at least. The salmon are caught down the channel and the trout are jigged from the lake they are learning to both swim in and skate on. These fish are building their bones; they are becoming a part of them.
Providing supper and a connection to the land is something lakes, rivers, and oceans do best; frozen or otherwise. These adventures are nurturing worldviews that expand exponentially with each day spent outdoors.
One evergreen truth that remains year round: any excuse to get a crackling fire going in the evening is a good one. A fresh catch just might be the best excuse to gather dry wood and good friends.
The thing about getting out in your backyard here on the coast is that it’s got everything you need to survive, and then some. Three of the most delicious cutthroat trout warmed several bellies around the fire that evening. Four-legged companions are always hungry for adventures that include fire-crisped fish skins.
It is one thing to be aware of the luck we share by knowing this wilderness as our backyard. But it is another to become compelled to ensure the good fortune of a wild backyard is kept safe. Not simply for the sake of future adventures. Kept safe for the survival of our furred, finned, feathered, and human neighbours alike. The ones who know an irreplaceable relationship with the land, yourself included.
The more seasons you get to know in the wild places you go, the more rooted you become in the landscape. Getting to know these mountains, lakes, rivers, and oceans in your backyard is what gives you the sense of belonging to the land.
Belonging to the land, and not the other way around, is that thing – that thing that you’re looking for but can’t quite find in the supermarket or on sidewalks. It is that primary relationship with the places that give you air, water, and life. It is a relationship largely lost within the bounds of an insatiable culture of excess. It is a relationship that needs rebuilding.
So you rebuild. Cupping a freshly roasted cutthroat trout in your palms, you peel hot meat from her bones and savour the taste. As you pass the fish around the fire to share, you find it is hard not to connect to this place that holds you. You find you belong to the lake, and to the fish, for the night.
One by one, backyard adventures turn into a lifetime of vivid memories in places tangibly rooted in your bones. Something special happens when you belong to the land. The fresh air, water, wildlife, and moments absorbed inextricably link you to these places. Your relationship with the land grows whether your adventure lasts for an afternoon, a night or two in a tent, or the rest of your life.
And the beautiful thing about relationships is that they go both ways. Those places you belong to, you will want to protect. So as surely as the seasons shape your adventures, let them too spark action for the places you go.
A short video from last year skating on the lake with friends and dogs:
This past fall I began crossing paths with a doe-eyed grouse who I quickly realized I was sharing the ‘neighbourhood’ with. The predatory instincts in me knew her curiosity would be the death of her sooner rather than later. I would nearly stumble on her while walking down the trail in the morning, and with an arrogance that is profoundly human I would roll my eyes and tell her she was lucky I wasn’t hungry. A fondness began to grow as she proved me wrong week after week – still alive, still curious.
In the winter I would hear her thrumming nearby. She would seek shelter from the rain on the branch of the cedar tree just outside the window. Raindrops on the roof, a crackling wood stove, and a gentle cooing became the soundtrack to my quiet days in the cabin.
In the spring I began to look forward to a morning routine of sipping coffee perched in the window sill, where I would watch the grouse delicately plucking buds from the apple tree. She was methodical and focused as she wobbled on the weaker limbs of the tree, pushing her luck to reach the plump apple buds.
It’s midsummer now, and yesterday morning right after rising, I stumbled onto the porch to walk half-awake down the trail to the outhouse. My heart leapt into my throat as a thunderous flapping of wings greeted me on the other side of the door. The apple blossom grouse had been resting on the porch. I apologized for startling her as I laughed at my own thumping heart.
I was happy to discover the apple-blossom grouse was not only still alive and well, but had become a momma bird to three peeping chicks. As her young explored the world with a familiar curiosity, momma-grouse flapped noisily up to her perch on the cedar branch outside my window. She stayed there for hours, gently thrumming as I sipped coffee and put pen to paper.