Quest University Comes to the Great Bear Rainforest

This is the second year that I have brought the Quest University ecology class up to Hartley Bay. Quest is a private liberal arts and science school located in Squamish, B.C. This year we had 8 students come up from Squamish to experience the rainforest in September.

September 12: Quest students arrived on the ferry at noon where i met them and brought them up to the high school to have an official welcoming to the community by Cam Hill and Cam’s parents, Lynne and Ernie Hill. After the welcoming it was straight onto the boats and out onto the water to harvest crabs. Thanks to James for taking us out. We were very successful as two of the pots were loaded. After harvesting the crabs we then went out to see Cam and his father who were on their gill netting boat the Siim Haan. They were using nets to catch coho and the students were really excited as they got on board to watch Cam and his father food fishing, bringing in coho to smoke and supply the village with food for the winter. It was a glorious day on the water and just before we went back to the village we had a chance to watch a mother humpback and her calf cruising up whale channel in the sunlight.

September 13: The morning we spent listening to elder and community leader Helen Clifton, talk about the traditional way of life and the history and culture of the Gitga’at people. I always make sure that the class has a chance to talk with Helen. She is an incredible speaker and always enriches the experience of being in Hartley Bay. The afternoon was spent with Chris Bolton who took some of the students on a survey of the Queen of the North site. The Queen of the North was a BC ferry that sunk in 2006 just outside of Hartley Bay and is still leaking fuel and oil. Chris monitors the site everyday. The community has already had one maritime disaster in their back yard and we are all working together to try to keep oil tankers off our coastline for the threat of future spills.

September 14th: I was away at the iLCP press conference in Vancouver so the morning was spent with Chris again who took the rest of the students out to the site. Principal and Hereditary Eagle Chief Ernie Hill took the afternoon to teach the students some of the traditional language of the Gitga’at people. The Smalyax language is still taught in the high school with hopes of the students carrying the language into the future.

September 15: Mickey Reece who works for the band as a watchman in his territory took all of the students on a full day whale survey throughout the Gitga’at Territory. It was a really amazing way for the students to see the vastness of the lands and count Humpback Whales. In all, the students counted 37 Humpback Whales and saw rookeries of Stellar Sea Lions. These are the traditional feeding grounds of the Humpbacks and they come up to this area to feed on herring, pilchard and krill.

September 16: Today was an amazing day for the students as bear guide Marven Robinson took us in to a local river loaded with salmon to wait for the Quest Kermode bear to appear and to watch black bears. It didnt take long before a black bear made an appearance and walked right in front of the stands while he fed on pink salmon. Not too long later there was word of a Spirit Bear makings its way downriver towards us and sure enough a beautiful big Spirit Bear sauntered down the river taking its time and fishing right in front of the stunned Quest students. Seeing a Spirit Bear is a spiritual experience and one that can change your life. I was really happy for the students. They had come a long way to see this bear but the trip itself is much more than the bear and they were to experience that as the trip went on. The Spirit Bear disappeared for awhile and then made another appearance along with another black bear. We also observed Martens, Stellar Jays and Blue Herons all feeding in the salmon stream. Over 200 species depend on the salmon at this time of the year. It is why salmon are called keystone species, very important to the overall survival of the rainfores ecosystem. Just before we were leaving Marvin had mentioned that there was a second white bear up river but it never made its way down to our stands. We had an incredible and moving day in the salmon rivers with the bears. We then had a sunny boat ride down to the watchman cabin south of Hartley Bay where we were to spend the next three nights. As if the day couldn’t get any better we watched as a mother black bear and her white cub made their way along the shoreline and into the forest for a late night feeding at the river. Black bears can carry the recessive white gene which is why its important to protect all bears. Most excited of all of us i think was instructor Nobi. Another rare, powerful moment in the cove.

September 17: Today we woke up to a stunning morning in the Greatbear. We had a relaxing morning and then went over to see Janey at the Cetacea Lab/Whale Point research station. Coincidentally, Magdalena who was on the first trip last year to the GreatBear was at the lab volunteering her time with Hermann and Janey. Caroline from Quest was up earlier in the year. Caroline and Magdelana both found it hard to not return to the rainforest after their experience last year and donate their time to help at the lab. The students were enriched listening to Janey and learning about cetacea life and some of the risks for these whales. They all had lots of questions and you could see the wheels turning in these dynamic students. Thanks so much to Janey for educating the students and sharing your amazing passion with us.

September 18th: We awoke early to walk in to the local salmon stream. This is one of my most favorite things to do in the whole world and it was great to share this experience with the students. Watching thousands of salmon spawning at your feet is miraculous. Listening to the Ravens and seeing the eagles make this one of the noisiest salmon streams around. There is a lot going on here and i have some of the most memorable and powerful moments on the coast right in this small little river. We were hoping to see some bears from our perch on the river but instead of bears we were given another incredible gift. A young wolf pup came out to feed on an old dead salmon. I couldnt believe what i was seeing. This is very rare. To catch a glimpse of a wolf trotting away for seconds is something but to watch a wolf pup feed on a salmon for 20 minutes in front of you was something else. There was a second wolf pup that was a little too nervous to come fully out but we could see him hiding in the Sedge grass. The GreatBear Rainforest always continues to amaze me, surprise me and inspire me. This local river has an impressive combination of a large salmon run, white bears, black bears, deer, wolverine’s and coastal wolves. Over the years I have seen all of the above, sometimes feeding together but i have never seen a wolf pup here let alone two. I wondered where the parents were.

Later in the afternoon i hiked the students up the river to some huge old growth forest and to interpret the importance of old growth forest and why they call these majestic stands, Salmon Forests. We also had the chance to talk with Paul Nicklen a National Geographic Photographer who was on assignment doing a feature on the Spirit Bear. I had just recently worked with Paul on the GreatBear RAVE ilcp project. Paul is super talented and has done some amazing work in the polar regions and a now with the Spirit Bear. I am excited to see this article come out in National Geographic. That night we sat by a fire and shared our personal experiences with each other and how the GreatBear has affected us. It was moving and powerful and a great way to end our time her in at the watchman cabin.

September 19th: Well we got up early again to see if we could see any bears or wolves again. This morning a big black bear came out and we got a chance to watch him feed on salmon. He had a pretty successful method of just belly flopping on a pool of salmon an then grabbing whatever salmon he had pinned against the river bottom. We made our way back to the cabin for a late breakfast before Mick came back to pick us up and take us back to Hartley Bay. The rest of the day was spent in the village talking with community members, checking out Justin Clifton’s amazing hand carved jewellrey, playing with the students and taking in the last full day in Hartley Bay.

September 20th: After a great breakfast we headed over to the highschool to say good bye to everyone and to present Cam and the school with a picture from last years trip as a thank you to everyone. We hopped on the ferry at 1230 for our ride back to Rupert. Another really successful Quest trip in the Greatbear.

Thanks so much first of all to Cam and Eva, Rachel, Morgan and Brother Max who put all of us up at their place and provided so much incredible food and shared so much of their culture with us. Thanks to Helen Clifton, Lynne and Ernie Hill, James and Chris Clifton, Micky Reece, Richard Brown, Justin Clifton, Janey and of course Marven Robinson. Thanks again to the community for sharing your lives and enriching ours. Thanks as well to Nobi and the Quest students for coming up to the GreatBear Rainforest. I love sharing this world with those who are passionate and motivated. The area and the people are inspiring and i know you will find your own path and your own questions.


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