Oil & Water
Waves, Untamed Wilderness, And Big Oil Intersect In Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest
A Coastline Fit for a Chief
On one of our last days out, we pulled in to check a hunch we had about a peninsula brave enough to poke out into the open Pacific. The charts looked good, but the view from sea was difficult in the heavy water. Brian tucked us into a sheltered hook, but he was antsy. The winds were going to pick up, and he wanted to reach Bella Bella by dark. Reluctantly, he granted us a precious two hours to explore.
Having seen few other souls all voyage, it was a shock to spot a gill-netter in the same anchorage. As we approached to say hello, the face that stared stoically back at us was defined by regal features, more Asian than Cherokee, which were only highlighted by the deep lines weathered by the constant assault of winds. This was a hereditary chief, a person empowered to lead his people by a responsibility handed down to him by a family member. We were reminded that these coastal people come from a lineage of warriors, of watermen equally as courageous as anything the North Shore pumps out.
We had entered a part of his family’s territory. With natural authority and a dash of suspicion, he asked us our intentions. We explained and asked for his family’s blessing before proceeding. We would bring him goods from the city on our next visit to his village. And he would likely fix us some tea.
Enbridge Inc. would find no such reciprocity. The modern beads they dangle in front of powerful men and women, like our new friend, the chief, are worthless. Increasingly empowered by growing moral and legal authority to manage their coastline and resources, these leaders represent aboriginal nations fiercely and unanimously opposed to Enbridge’s scheme. They already have riches with which a few jobs and royalties cannot compare. The wounds in Prince William Sound—where the Exxon Valdez spewed oil into the waters and bloodlines of their northern neighbors and relatives—are still raw. Whereas conservationists speak of the likely extinction of killer whale pod AT1, which has not yet reproduced after swimming through the sheen, these people remind us of human losses. Many from coastal communities in Prince William Sound are still—23 years later—impoverished, financially and otherwise, after having lost their coastal resources and way of life.
After saying goodbye to the chief, the booming and cracking sound of the ocean revealed the final discoveries of the trip before we even laid eyes upon them. A scramble across a steeply sloped beach gave us front row seats to a reef attached to a small island that formed a powerful right. Wowed by this display, it took us a few minutes to notice what else was before us. To our left, we saw a reefy A-frame spit spray out of both ends. We then noticed three more nuggets—large, scary beasts much farther down the beach.
Knowing we were out of time, but into great fortune, the group panicked. Pete climbed up a tree with binoculars. The next set confirmed the break’s quality, and he immediately ditched all but the basics and ran. The rest of the crew followed in hot pursuit. In an act of self-preservation, I ran in the opposite direction for the safety of yet another wave, a beachbreak a half-hour’s jog in the opposite direction.
I never did understand what transpired in our last frenetic hours on that island. A radio died. Watches must have died too. The Canadians and Americans missed each other on the mission, one group favoring an inland route, another along the barnacled rocks. Pete and company arrived, breathless, at the furthest slab with time for only a taste test before she went to sleep with the rising tide. Meanwhile, Dan and crew stumbled onto a similar example of powerful perfection. Only Dan, whose heavy-water Hawaii experiences granted him grace under pressure, paddled out into the bone-crushing, below-sea-level sucking beast. Photos tell the story of this second sister of the island’s slab triplets better than I ever will.
Failing to encounter one another again, and about two hours late, we all returned to Achiever with the same type of apology issued after blown curfews (it’s always worth it). Brian understood. After a 30-year career of avoiding places we’d specifically asked him to visit for the purposes of this 10- day voyage, he’d begun to appreciate what makes surfers tick.
With many miles to cover, we had plenty of time to go over and over what the hell had just happened—how, despite all we’d just experienced, we’d only witnessed a fraction of the wealth of this priceless place.
For more information, check out the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
—By Chris Darimont