This year our expedition and paddling team of six clients headed up to the Great Bear Rainforest a little early due to the future arrival of our baby on September 11th. Jen was disappointed that she had to stay home this year. Jen usually guides with me on the trip but she had more important things to look after. This year I hired Jessica Rando, a top sup racer and business owner from Mississauga, Ontario. I was really excited to have Jess out on short notice after an unfortunate injury to my guide Sheila Sovereign, Jess has always been a supporter of Standup4Greatbear and I was happy to take her into place she has been inspired by.
For this years expedition I went with the decision to use all inflatable sups for our trip. I had six Badfish MCIT’s and two Boardworks Shubus. Although they are not quite as efficient as a hard board I can’t tell you the ease of transporting these boards through the Great Bear. I put all eight into the back of my Tacoma for the ride to Prince Rupert then threw them onto the ferry for our ride down. The lightness, ease of transportation, stability and durability of these inflatable’s made them a logical choice. The Badfish MCIT’s have to be one of the most versatile inflatables out there and were fantastic on the expedition. We used Kialoa PuPu adjustable paddles for the trip and this seemed to be a really good combination. Having boards that can withstand the ruggedness of this coastal environment is critical in such a remote setting.
A beautiful 4-hour ferry ride took us into the Gitga’at community of Hartley Bay. I am fortunate to have been adopted into the community by Eva Hill. Our group stays with Cam, Eva and their family for the first and last nights of the trip. It’s always an incredible experience to share time with the Hill family. Cam and Eva share freely their home and lives in Hartley Bay and what it means to be Gitga’at. The afternoon was spent exploring the village, going for a short paddle to test gear and enjoying dinner with the Hill family. The weather looked promising for the next day.
Day 1: The Gray Whale and Birthdays
We awoke the next day to flat conditions and after loading up Cam’s “March Madness” we headed for Cornwall Inlet south of Hartley Bay. Cornwall is a beautiful, steep sided, and granite fiord with a Raven Longhouse we camp in at the back. Ferocious tidal rapids that need to be navigated during slack tide for a safe passage guard the inlet. The full moon was tonight and the size of the tides reflected the strong gravitational pull. This area of tidal rapids is rich in life as the strong, cold currents provide endless food for the ocean species.
On our approach to the rapids I was stunned to see the blow of a whale right in tight to the shoreline and very close to the bottleneck entrance of the inlet. I had never seen a whale in here before. Was it lost? Was it sick? As we got closer I could see that it wasn’t lost and it wasn’t sick. It was a Gray Whale. I know Gray Whales travel on our outer coast but I have been guiding up here for 15 years and I have never seen a Grey Whale before. I called Herman and Janey, whale researchers who have been here studying whales for about the same time and they had never seen one. I called Cam on the vhf and he and his dad saw one once, way out in Kitkatla. What a sighting. The whale waited for the tide in the rapids to go slack and then entered the inlet. After our glorious paddle through the fiord we ended up seeing it at the back of the inlet at the estuary feeding again. Cornwall never disappoints and during our paddle we enjoyed the calm waters, stunning scenery and incredible amount of jellyfish that seem to congregate in here. We visited an ancient Gitga’at burial site on our way to the longhouse. We arrived, settled in, explored and hiked a small river and enjoyed the sunset and full moon rise. It was a great way to not only celebrate my birthday but Dorothy’s as well. Most of my birthdays in the last decade have been spent guiding in the Great Bear. Time here is one of the greatest gifts anyone can receive.
Day 2: Rivers and Salmon
Dorothy and I got up for a morning paddle over to the river to watch the spawning salmon. We were rewarded with the sightings of two black bears that were in rivers looking to bulk up for the long winter season. I love watching bears in their natural habitat feeding in remote, lush river valleys. After breakfast we packed up and headed back out the rapids. I dropped the group off outside of the rapids and I accompanied them to our lunch spot close to a small salmon stream. After lunch a very short hike took us to a beautiful waterfall surrounded by lush, green, temperate rainforest. We spent the rest of the day exploring local rivers and checking out some of the salmon returns. One of the most amazing things to experience in the Great Bear is watching the return of the wild salmon to the exact rivers they were born in. After a day pushing through wet rainforest we headed south to one of my favorite places. A Gitga’at Watchman cabin here would be our base camp for the next three nights.
Day 3: Killer Whales
We awoke again to a beautiful morning of flat calm conditions and low-lying cloud and fog. Today we were heading over to see Herman and Janey at Whale Point. We did not have the tides with today so we had to use the terrain to navigate and to make our paddle more efficient. A large crossing took us to the south end of Gil Island and it was at that point where we saw three Killer Whales approaching us. It was a large bull male, a female and a baby. We made a call to Whale Point to inform them just as Hermann was getting on the water. It was exhilarating to have the apex ocean predator right in front of our group. I have seen a lot of Killer Whales but we have never had them this close to our sups before. We spent the next 45 minutes watching as four or five more Killer Whales joined the first group we saw. Hermann identified them as Transient Killer Whales. Transients feed on sea mammals such as sea lions, harbour seals, porpoises and even whales. Residents on the other hand are fish eaters and follow the salmon runs on our coast. Transients and Residents from what we know do not associate much with each other. Seeing a Killer Whale in the ocean is comparable to seeing a Grizzly Bear in a river, both are at the top of the food chain and still elicit that surge of adrenalin, the fight or flight response, remnants of time spent running away from sabre tooth tigers and hunting mastodons.
The fog was lifting and we headed for Gill Island to check out another creek. This creek, another of my favorites, was absolutely loaded with salmon, wall-to-wall thick. Large schools of Pink salmon swam underneath our boards as numerous Bald Eagles watched from the trees above. We worked our way up to a small waterfall and sat amazed observing the salmon swimming up the falls on their way to the distant reaches of the river. This river is one of the most prolific in the area and can hold in some of the best years close to a hundred thousand salmon. This was a banner year for Pink salmon evidenced by the commercial opening right here in Howe Sound. From Gil Creek we took a short paddle over to Whale point under a blazing hot sun and a dead flat ocean. It was great to see Herman and Janey as they shared their inspiring story, their research and some whale calls recorded from their network of hydrophones. I was happy to donate money from our trip and from donations received from Lance and Cara at Galileo Coffee Shop for Standup4Greatbear. Lance roasts Standup4Greatbear coffee and $5 from every bag gets donated back to Standup4Greatbear. After a wonderful afternoon we paddled back to our home in Cameron Cove.
Day 4: Harvesting camps and Sea Lions
Our fourth day on the water took our group on a day trip to Sea Lion Rock and to Hartley Bay’s spring harvesting camp, Kiel. We had an incredible experience with the sea lions and I have never seen their numbers so high. They were all around our boards and under our boards and having close to 50-75 large sea mammals coming up out of the water to have a really close look certainly made for some nervous paddling. While we were watching the sea lions a couple of humpbacks were passed us by. There was so much life around us that we did not even know where to look.
Surrounded by thick fog, I used my old navigational skills to get us across the channel and to Kiel. Cam and Eva recently built a cabin in Kiel and invited us over for dinner. Hartley Bay has used Kiel for centuries in the spring as a place to harvest seaweed, halibut, salmon and abalone. It’s an incredible place that comes alive during the month of May. All of the food harvested is brought back to the community for use during the fall and winter months. After a delicious dinner Jenny and James paddled back to our cabin while I took Jess and Tiffany into the river near the cabin to check out the salmon. Once the paddling crew got back to the cabin James spotted a black coastal wolf less than a hundred yards away from the cabin. He radioed me in the river and at the same time the wolf was approaching the river a couple of black bears were working their way out of the forest. It was an interesting interaction and the young bear which seemed nervous, headed back into the forest and gave way to the young playful wolf. Wolf packs are known to kill Grizzly’s and Black Bears if they encroach on their territory but this area is one place where I have seen bears and wolves interact. Years ago I saw a wolf and a bear on the same log looking in the water while they both fished meters away from each other. As dusk descended in the estuary, we made our way back to the cabin.
Day 5: A Refreshing Dip
This was our last day at the cabin and it was spent with more exploration. We saw another black bear walking the shoreline as we paddle away from the cabin. We tried to follow it on our sups but it was on a mission and disappeared into the forest quickly. A brief paddle took us to a picturesque river and I think everyone enjoyed the refreshing swim at the waterfall; it was a great way to end our time in this area. As a strong southeast wind was building we made our way back north for the hour boat ride to Hartley Bay. That evening was a traditional salmon dinner with seaweed at Cam and Eva’s. We swapped stories and pictures and enjoyed the company of the Hill family.
Day 6: Gitga’at Donuts
On our last morning we went over to Cam’s parents place for breakfast. Lynne, Ernie and Cam’s sister Jodi prepared fried bread and a traditional berry cocktail for us. I like to call the fried bread Gitga’at donuts and I like to eat a lot of them with maple syrup. Someone usually has to stop me or I will eat him or her all. Ernie Hill is the hereditary eagle chief in Hartley Bay and one of his favorite foods are seagull eggs that Cam and family harvest off outer island rocks in June. Mr. Hill shared one of his seagull eggs with the group and me. It was the first time I had ever had one. The egg was very good, just a bit larger and richer than a regular chicken egg. Breakfast at Lynne and Ernie’s is always a great way to finish off the trip. Jen and the baby were waiting for me at home so it was time to get on the ferry. I was excited to get home but I am always a little sad to leave the people and place that is the Great Bear.
I really want to thank Cam and Eva for sharing their home with us and for providing my guests with an intimate experience and what life is like being Gitga’at. Cam also looks after our safety while we are out on the water and I appreciate the use of, and his trust with his boat. We cannot do this trip without the March Madness. Thanks Lynne and Ernie Hill for the amazing breakfast. Thanks to Marven Robinson, and the Gitga’at community for the partnership in the territory. Thank you to Hermann and Janey at Whale Point for having us over. Big thanks to Ethan Dundas for catching two Coho salmon for us to eat during our expedition. Thanks to Jess Rando for doing such an amazing job with the food and as a guide and for helping me out last minute. Thanks you to James and Tiffany, Dorothy, Jenny and crew for coming on the trip and allowing me to be your guide. Thanks to Lance and Cara at Galileo Coffee for the amazing supply of Standup4Greatbear Coffee. Thanks to Jen who I know wanted to be on this trip with me but was looking after our baby and it’s imminent birth. Eva said our baby is going to born with the big tides in September.
Lastly, thanks to the Great Bear Rainforest.