Sunday, November 11, 2012

An Adventure into the Great Bear Rainforest (Part 2)

This trip into the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR) was rich in learning. It would be impossible to describe all the knowledge and experiences gained through it. Two experiences stand out in my mind and may help me illustrate.The first experience was the opportunity to observe wild life in the GBR environment. I had mentioned the many encounters with whales in my previous post. But this time we were on land in a stand overlooking a creek. We were fortunate enough to see a number of black bears hunting fish in preparation of their hibernation.[All photos courtesy of Mike Robbins].

One of the three black bears that we were able to observe was an older one, getting slow and less successful in catching fish. It fed on the leftovers of the other bears. It was not certain to survive the coming winter. Watching it was sad but reminded me of the immutable realities of life.

The ultimate experience was to be able to see the very rare Spirit Bear and to observe it for over half an hour relatively close. The Spirit bear was the most successful in catching fish. Apparently he has an advantage because of its white fur; fish don't get alarmed as much as with black bears. Another amazing fact I learned from our guide is that bears artificially constipate themselves ahead of hibernation by eating sand with the fish. In spring they then consume a specific plant that gets them normalized again. In the first photo below you can see the Spirit Bear looking for the fish hiding under a tree fallen into the creek .

In the second photo you can see the Spirit Bear finishing a large fish it caught a minute earlier.

Until very recently Gitga'at people were forbidden to speak about any sightings of Spirit Bears in order to protect them from hunters. But with support from Tides Canada the Gitga'at people have set up a watch program that has significantly reduced hunting and poaching in their territory, though not completely eliminated them.

The second experience that marked my memory of this trip was the visit to Whale Point. We landed on the southern tip of Gil island at a rugged rocky coast (no docks of any kind) and climbed a steep hillside of slippery black rocks. There we found two wooden buildings. A house in a small clearing and at the cliff overlooking the sea, a barrack. It turns out these are the home and workplace for Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter for the last 11 years! The house was built without cutting a single tree, using mostly drift wood, we were told. Power is generated through 2 banks of solar cells, one tree-top wind generator, and a run-of-the-river generator all charging a bank of 12 volt batteries. The batteries in turn feed a DC/AC inverter that provides 110V AC for the house and the barrack.

The barrack houses a lab (part of what Janie and Hermann call their Cetacea Lab) with electronic gear to listen and record whale signals from hydrophone (underwater microphones) placed at strategic points around Whale Point. Over the years Janie and Hermann have not only accumulated an extraordinary collection of recorded whales vocalizations but gained amazing insights into the whale songs construction. Janie told us about their observation of a whale adding a "sonnet" or segment to the pod's song, which then gets picked up by the rest of the pod. They also developed a number of catalogs for the different whales observed in the region.

 You can learn more about this amazing story of commitment at where you can read about Janie and Hermann work and even try to listen live to whale signals.

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Monday, November 05, 2012

An Adventure into the Great Bear Rainforest (Part 1)

In the last week of September I had the opportunity to visit a rare corner of BC, the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR). Getting to Vancouver and attending the prep briefing went all as planned. The next morning we were supposed to leave very early through a chartered flight to Bella Bella where we would switch into a smaller amphibian plane (Goose) for transport to a lodge reachable only by air or waterways.

Due to heavy fog at destination our take off was repeatedly delayed until it was decided to change the plan and fly us to Terrace. From there we made our way by bus to Kitimat (about 1.5 hours) where  boats would be waiting for our group. The boats turned out to be two speedy launches with covered cabin and one open boat for the luggage.

The final leg of the travel started around 3:30 pm making for a long day of travel. Fortunately, the weather was reasonable (cold but no rain). The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. In one spot I saw an area without any vegetation that looked odd. It turns out that's what a logged area looks like.

 We were also lucky to encounter two pods of Orca whales on the way to the lodge that made us forget the long day of travel. They are such majestic and graceful animals. It's not easy to capture the whales on a photo with a point-and-shoot camera on a wobbly boat, but I did see them come up and blow and dive again less than 20 yards away. The blow noise from a near distance sounds almost human (a giant swimmer coming up for breath).  I did capture one at the tail-end of diving (literally!).

We finally arrived at the lodge, which turned out to be quite a luxurious and interesting operation. Here is a view from the air (coming back from a helicopter exploration of the surroundings). The actual lodge is to the right. The building on the left houses all staff and personnel.

The lodge operates within the Gitga'at First Nation Reserve and hires at least one third of its personnel from the local community. I was very impressed with the level of knowledge and environmental commitment of all the lodge staff. I was told that their CEO speaks to staff every year about the Triple Bottom Line concept. To what extent that commitment went, I couldn't have guessed.

As I discovered later both buildings are actually on floating barges. I was told that the lodge was built on a retired Navy crane barge. At the end of the season (mid September usually) two tug boats tow the buildings, the docks, and all the rest to Prince Rupert Island, where the barges are maintained in sea worthy condition. Nothing is left on site. The barge has it on-board power generators, 3-stage drink water filtering system, and a gray water processing. You can see the barge carrying the lodge and some mooring cables on the right in the picture below.

Click here for the official  King Pacific Lodge site.In the next installment of this blog, I'll be writing about my visit to Hartley Bay and Whale Point, two interesting and learning rich visits on the same trip.

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