|SUPing the Greatbear Rainforest. Photo: Derek Nixon
After a few days of packing gear, loading boards and buying food Jen and I departed for the 17-hour road trip to the northern coastal community of Prince Rupert. Clients would be meeting us there for our 2011 Greatbear Rainforest standup paddleboard expedition. This is the second year of running Mountain Surf Adventures commercial SUP expeditions up here. I have guided in this area for 12 years and my first SUP expedition took place in 2009 with Explore Magazine. Since then I completed the 2010 Stanudp4Greatbear Expedition, a paddle that took me 400km from Kitimat to Bella Bella to bring awareness to the threat of oil tankers on our coast. After overnighting in Smithers, my favorite northern community, and sleeping in the back of the Frontier under a tarp, we rolled into Prince Rupert early in the afternoon to meet the team.
|GBR Vet Jamie McVicar on a break at York Point. Photo: Norm Hann
By the time we got to Prince Rupert Sheila and John had already arrived by plane and were out exploring the area. Sheila Sovereign, from Vernon, is a very close friend of mine and is a great paddler and amazing person who has been at the forefront of SUP in the Okanagan. John Redpath, a soft spoken paddler, runner and video editor from Squamish has been training with Jen at her studio, Challenge By Choice, and has been knocking off running races, was well conditioned for the trip. Later that evening we were to meet my brother Brad, from Sudbury, who just celebrated his 40th birthday and was super stoked to be coming up. Personally I was really happy to have my little brother with me in a place that has been so important to me in my life. Also flying in was Jamie McVicar, from Canmore, now a GBR SUP veteran. Jamie, a Paddle Canada SUP Instructor was on our first commercial trip last year and has spent the past year exploring and pushing the sport on his new Surftech Bark Expedition that Kevin Obrien, from Kalavida Surf Shop lined him up with. It was great to have his experience and quick wit back with us this year. As a return client Jen lovingly nicknamed him “The Vulture” for his hovering food presence. Our fifth client was Derek Nixon. “Nix” and I grew up together in Coniston, Ontario, usually with Brad tagging along. Nix was my first friend and at 3 years of age we were lacing skates up together and stealing pennies from local water fountains so we could buy Black Cat gum at Toni’s Taxi. “Mr. SUP” as my brother likes to call him is an avid and passionate paddler who is also a certified Paddle Canada SUP Instructor. His generosity and care for those around him was a real pleasure for the team to have. Lastly, Aaron Teasdale, a talented freelance writer and photographer from Missoula, Montana had contacted me months ago about doing a feature for Sierra Magazine. Aaron had trained for the expedition on the rivers of Montana and had just completed a multiday bike trip with his family. He was excited to showcase an area he had heard much about and would help bring awareness to the issue of oil tankers on our coast. We had a fantastic paddling team but more importantly we had great people who were to make this week very enjoyable with lots of laughs.
|2011 GBR SUP Team
Day 1: Hartley Bay
After a restful sleep at the Inn on the Harbour, and a coffee from Starbucks (sorry Judson, Cowpacchinos was not open) our group headed down to the Tsimshian Storm, a ferry that would take us down to Hartley Bay, and loaded up for the 4 hour ride down the Inside Passage. The forecast was not looking good for the first few days. A gale was forecasted with the strength of it hitting on Tuesday. There was a lot of rain packed into this system as well. With the ferry loaded we made out way into the Greatbear.
By the time we arrived in Hartley Bay the rain was torrential. Shortly after arriving and getting settled in to Cam and Eva’s, we were out on the water with Cam harvesting Dungeness Crabs for dinner. The front end of the Gale hit while we were on the water and it felt more like The Deadliest Catch but it was all fun and everyone had smiles on their faces. We got more than enough crabs for the evening’s traditional dinner of crabs and clam chowder. Crabs are just one species that Cam and his family harvest from the ocean. Cam said he usually harvests between 1200-1800 crabs a year for his community. The rain did not let up at all for the rest of the day but we were all stoked to be in Hartley Bay and sharing traditional stories with the Hill family.
|Cameron Hill preparing Dungeness Crab dinner with Derek, Brad and Aaron. Photo: Norm Hann
Day 2: Stories from an Elder
We awoke to heavy rain but with this rain came the sustained gale force winds. We were supposed to be heading down to Cornwall Inlet today but the conditions would not allow us to travel far so we took advantage of the time. We went to visit matriarch and elder Helen Clifton who shared with our group what life was like growing up in the Hartley Bay, the importance of traditional foods and why we need to stop oil tankers and pipelines. We passed around ancient artifacts as the group sat enthralled listening to Helen, a natural storyteller and record keeper of traditions and culture. I always enjoy bringing friends, family and clients to meet with Granny. She is an inspiration and natural leader who opens her house to everyone and shares information freely which enlightens and educates those listening. After lunch and feeling a little restless Brad, Sheila, John and Jen portaged their boards up to the beautiful lake behind Hartley Bay for a paddle and Derek, Aaron and I headed out onto the ocean for a little surf training in the southerly gale. We ended the evening with another traditional dinner of smoked Sockeye, Black Cod and Seaweed. The Sockeye was from the Skeena River, the Black Cod from deep local waters and the Seaweed had been harvested off the low tide shores of Campania Island this past spring.
|Team with Gitga’at Elder Helen Clifton. Photo: Norm Hann
Day 3: Raven Territory
Although the rain was still heavy, the winds had dropped and that was the window we needed to load up Cam’s boat, the March Madness, and head to Cornwall Inlet. No sooner had we gotten on the boat that we headed around Promise Island and saw two Humpbacks Whales. Humpbacks are large mammals that are 40 feet long and weigh 1 ton per foot. These whales were not just travelling but were in a feeding pattern. They were in the process of surrounding herring by a technique called bubble net feeding where they dive down in the water column and on the way up blow a ring of bubbles to coral the small fish. On the surface of the water you can see a perfect ring of bubbles form where shortly afterwards the whale or whales will come up with their mouths wide open taking in huge amounts of water and herring. This process can go on for hours, days and months. The rich North Pacific waters are the traditional feeding grounds of Humpback Whales and their numbers here have been increasing steadily every year. We watched the Humpbacks feed for twenty minutes and then made our way to Cornwall Inlet. By the time we landed inside Cornwall Inlet and had lunch the rain finally stopped. After it was all said and done I heard reports of the area receiving 180 mm’s of rain over the last couple of days. Cornwall Inlet is just one of those magical places, it has power and spirit. We spent the afternoon paddling in Raven territory visiting culturally historical sites. With the clouds, mist and fog rising and moving through the inlet, Cornwall was as incredible as I have seen it. You cannot express how a place like this makes you feel, you have to experience it. A long fiord with towering granite walls funneled us to its headwaters. We made it to the back of the inlet and then explored a pristine salmon river looking for wolves and bears. Our night’s accommodation was at Raven longhouse that was built in 2000 to prevent logging in the area. The opening of the longhouse by Gitga’at hereditary chief Johnny Clifton, David Suzuki and Robert Kennedy Jr was a watershed moment for me and helped guide my path with the Gitga’at people, the Greatbear Rainforest and goals for conservation of this incredible place.
|Aaron paddling in Cornwall Inlet
|Raven Longhouse and first nights accommodation. Photo: John Redpath
Day 4: Call of the Wolves
Jen prepared a delicious breakfast for the group and afterwards we loaded up the Madness and drove to the mouth of the inlet where we dropped the boards and began our paddle down to Cameron Cove. We got our boards ready, and charted a course on top of an old traditional rock canoe slip site. This was an area the Gitga’at people used to pull up their large cedar canoes and wait for the tidal rapids to calm before entering the inlet to hunt and fish. As we were paddling away from Cornwall we heard one of the most haunting and powerful sounds in the forest. The wolves had begun their early morning calls and were not far away. We could only hear them under the heavy cloak of fog that was covering the northwest corner of Princess Royal Island. The area was well used by wolves. I had seen individuals many times and was even fortunate enough to see a wolf pack swimming across the inlet chasing a deer. Coastal wolves are a unique subspecies of wolves, genetically distinct from mainland wolves and well adapted to island life. These wolves are smaller and feed on salmon and seals, they use waterways to travel from island to island in search of food. In First Nations communities wolf culture and society are highly revered. They have a relationship linked through thousands of years of co-habitation. Ian McAllister’s book The Last Wild Wolves will give you incredible insight into the lives of coastal wolves through his intimate 17 year study. Paddling past a misplaced, headless salmon confirmed the recent presence of wolves. Maybe we had pushed the wolves off this kill and they were howling to express their discontent. We made our way to a small river where I had seen wolves before hoping the uplifting fog would reveal them but instead we hiked up the short salmon stream to a hidden set of falls with thousands of salmon pooled up below them. No signs of wolf or bears so we moved on for lunch. After lunch we loaded up again and travelled to a protected cove where we were to spend the next 3 nights at a Gitga’at watchman cabin in the heart of a prolific salmon stream with roaming white bears and coastal wolves. We dropped the boards off outside of the cove we headed in to the cabin and were greeted by a Black bear feeding on Sedge grass working his way into the salmon stream for some nighttime feeding. He was well fed and his belly hung close to the ground. We set up camp and hit the rack early for our paddle to the Cetacea Lab the following morning.
|Through the fog. Photo: Norm Hann
|Deep in the Rainforest and end of the line for the salmon. Photo: Derek Nixon
Day 5: The Fog Horn Humpback
A stunning morning greeted us on the coast and after enjoying a delicious blend of Standup4Greatbear coffee brewed by Lance, a member of last years GBR team, we set out for Cetacea Lab to visit Herman and Janey. On our way out of the harbour we had a humpback whale pass about 50 yards away from us as I charted a course through the fog. On our way over we could hear the foghorn from a passing cruise ship, happy we had made the crossing. Before heading to cetacea lab we explored another salmon river on Gil Island for lunch. The Gitga’at people have used this river traditionally and proof was in the numerous CMT’s (culturally modified trees) and ancient stone fish traps used to harvest salmon in the fall. We left the river and stroked to Herman and Janey’s under flat calm, sunny and hot conditions. The Greatbear was serving up some stellar paddling conditions. I would realize later I in the month that these were the last days of summer. I was overdressed in my Gore-Tex and rubber boots but Bradley was on with board shorts and a t-shirt. The weather in the Greatbear never fails to impress me with its weather range. It can go from rainy, cool and windy to fog to flat calm, blue skies and hot all in the same tide cycle. Cetacea Lab as usual was great. Herman and Janey and I have pretty much grown up together here in the Greatbear, although they are permanent residents here. They are both adopted into the Hartley bay band and have built a life here studying cetaceans. I always enjoying bringing guests by to see their work and to listen to the calls of Humpback and Orca recorded from their own hydrophones. The walls of the lab are covered in charts and tail identification photos. On our paddle back to the cabin we heard another fog horn, but without fog I was confused. I looked behind to see where the boat was but there was no boat. At that point I heard the loudest sound I have ever experienced in the Greatbear Rainforest. The sound, which was like a ship’s fog horn echoed powerfully off the walls of the islands and fiords for miles and miles. Looking back again I could see a pod of 10 whales just south of Gil Island a few miles away from us. We realized that the sound was coming from the exhalation of one whale. I could not believe it. The fog horn I had heard early in the morning that I thought was a cruise ship in the fog was actually a humpback whale. I called Herman right away and he confirmed what we were hearing. It was another first in the Greatbear. You would have to hear this whale yourself to understand the power, magnitude and uniqueness of this whales blow. It remains one of the memorable highlights of the trip. Paddling our way home with the setting sun at our backs, I secretly hoped we would encounter this pod tomorrow. Upon arriving to our campsite a quick hike into the estuary to look for wildlife revealed the black bear we had seen the day before working his way into the river to fish for the night. The evening ended with the rise of the full moon and the northern lights dancing above. The northern lights on the coast are rare and I can count the times on one hand I have seen them up here in 12 summers. Aaron took advantage of this rarity and got some amazing time lapse photo. After a full day we were all ready for a restful sleep.
|Sheila with just one of the Humpbacks. Photo: Derek Nixon
Day 6: Riding Giants
An early morning in the estuary did not reveal any creatures, just the relentless, determination of spawning salmon and the many vocalizations of the Raven, Trickster and creator of the world. We put our day packs together, loaded our boards and caught the ebb current out of the harbour on our way to the Stellar Sea Lion rookery. 45 minutes in we spotted the big pod of Humpbacks on the east side of Ashdown Island. We moved quickly towards them as I tightened up our group. They were working together to bubble net feed as a group with all 10 whales organizing themselves into an interdependent team. They seemed to be moving away and after a local whale watching boat scattered the group we hunkered in along the shore of Ashdown Island as the 3knot current carried us to our destination. I was looking back for the pack and saw a Humpback blow a ways off and pointed to show the group the pod, unfortunately, had moved farther away. Just as the group looked back a large whale surprised us came up 30 feet from John, and then another surfaced, and then another until all 10 humpbacks came up beside us. It was one of those rare moments in life. We were riding giants and it was a very heavy experience. Experiencing 400 tones of whale so close and without the safety of a boat, at eye level, will be an experience I will remember forever. And as with all great experiences it was best shared. This feeding pod would be our company for the rest of the day. We made it to Sea Lion Rock and shared the water with hundreds of sea mammals that come back to the rock every year and use it as a base camp to give birth and to feed. It’s always thrilling to have 50 sea lions rush up on you trying to intimidate you, rolling and diving beneath your board. At close to 2000 pounds the big males are intimidating and are quite protective of their harems. Sea Lions and Harbour Seals will use these haul out rocks to protect themselves from predators like Transient Killer Whales, bears and Coastal Wolves. Transient Killer Whales will sneak up in stealth mode and pluck unaware sea lions from the rock while Coastal Wolves will swim over, downwind with hopes of grabbing some pups off the rock to feed their own family. From Sea Lion rock we ferried across a strong current to have lunch at Kiel, the traditional food harvesting spring camp of Hartley Bay. This is the location where the Gitga’at people have harvested seaweed and halibut for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. We ate lunch under a blazing sun as we watched the pod of Humpbacks, breaching and feeding from the midden beach. A quick paddle home using the back eddy of the current brought us to the cabin. That evening under the rise of the full moon we paddled into the forest to look for wildlife. The Ravens had gone silent and the estuary was quiet except for the running of salmon in the shallow water. Wolves had used this river for years but this season I had not seen any wolf killed salmon which was surprising but we still hopeful. Viewing wildlife at night is a much different experience than day time viewing. It is unnerving and I think we all felt good after we gathered the group to head back out onto the water to explore the estuary and phosphorescence at high tide. It was 1 am before we made it back to the cabin after a unique experience of becoming nocturnal animals ourselves.
|Brother Brad at Sea Lion Rock on the Lambrecht Cedar Board. Photo: John Redpath
|Cetacea Lab with Hermann and Janey
Day 7: Outflows and Fried Bread
Our last morning looking for bears and wolves without luck brought us back to the cabin to pack up for our trip back to Hartley Bay. We had a challenging boat ride back to Hartley Bay in a building and vicious northerly outflow wind. Cam’s boat March Madness handled the water well but Aaron, Derek and Jamie had to pay the price up front. I should have travelled on the west side of Gill Island where the outflow winds would have been a lot less. Another lesson the Greatbear has provided for me. We were all happy to see the dock and made out way to Cam’s parents house for fried bread, coffee and fruit. This has become a tradition for our trip and John Redpath set a new record by throwing down 10 pieces. He made Brad and I look light we were on a diet with his impressive display. The “Gitga’at donunts” did not have a chance with our hungry SUP crew. After thanking Lynne and Ernie we boarded the ferry to Prince Rupert. By the time we made it to Grenville Chanel most of us were horizontal, catching up on sleep and reminiscing about the incredible experiences of the past week.
|One of the Great Bears
|Bear killed salmon. Photo: John Redpath
From me, a special thanks to John, Brad, Derek, Jamie, Sheila and Aaron for committing to the trip and giving me the opportunity to guide you through the Greatbear Rainforest. Jen and i really enjoyed spending the week with you. From our group, thanks Cam, Eva, Max, Rachel, Morgan, Ernie and Lynne for sharing your home and traditional food with our group. Thanks to Helen Clifton for sharing your stories with us and thank you to the community of Hartley Bay for welcoming us into your community. Thanks to Herman and Janey for your time at Cetacea Lab and to Marvin Robinson for your guidance and support throughout the territory. Finally a big thank you to Jen for doing a great job on the food and coming up here to co guide with me. This is our 3rd GBR SUP Expedition together and it gets better every year.
|Jen on the beautiful Rogue Drifter. Photo: John Redpath
Big thanks to Danny B from WhiskeyJack Paddles for the beautiful SUP paddles. Thanks to Joe from Ryders Sunglasses for the much needed polarized shades, love those Rockslides. Everyone on the trip thanks Lance and Cara for the huge supply of Standup4Greatbear Coffee from Galileo Coffee. To Gord from MEC thanks for the waterproof bags, tents and lifejacket. Amazing gear for the expedition and everyone asks about the waterproof bags. The coastal environment of the Greatbear Rainforest is one of the most best places for testing gear in the world. If it can last here it and keep you dry, it can last anywhere. Your gear is GBR certified. Jen and i also got our gear ready by treating it with Nixwax products provided by Kelsey Hulse. Nikwax has an amazing line of waterproofing products that has really helped keep our wet weather gear ready for the rainforest. Finally thanks to everyone who has supported Standup4Greatbear this year. Your financial support has helped me complete the Standup4Greatbear Film which will be showcased this year and will be online soon.
For more information about the GBR SUP trips and to find out about next years dates email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also contact me if your interested in buying Roy Vickers SU4GB hats, hoodies, tshirts and Galileo SU4GB coffee to help support Standup4Greatbear.
|Sheila and I waiting for wildlife- Jen Segger Photo
|Geared Up. Photo: Norm Hann