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Rod’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 09 Sep 2010

Location: Bella Bella, Canada

MapHeiltsuk Territory – Central Coastal, British Columbia

Today is my second last day on Heiltsuk First Nation territory. Heiltsuk territory is a large chunk (16,800 sq km in fact) of coastal British Columbia, Canada, and a large chunk of one of the last great stands of coastal temperate rainforest left on the planet. It’s an amazingly beautiful place and it’s been the home of Heiltsuk for millennia. Awesome forests of red and yellow cedar, hemlock, spruce and fir draped with hanging moss, march across thick green carpets of sphagnum moss to the water’s edge. Bears and wolves are still pretty much in charge in most of these remote forests and the stupendously deep and productive waterways are full of whales, otters, seals and sea lions and the lifeblood of this ecosystem – the salmon. It’s a place where the weather can change several times in a day and it’s not called the raincoast for nothing with up to four metres of rain per year. I feel I’ve seen my share of rain but I’ve had many hot sunny days too.

The town of Bella Bella on Campbell Island is the major contemporary settlement for the Heiltsuk nation and has been my base for a foray into Heiltsuk territory. Bella Bella houses some 1400 people – predominantly Heiltsuk and has a community store, a hospital, first nation’s admin and some government offices - much like say Maningrida in the Northern Territory. Serviced by two plane flights a day, it’s also on major ferry route and every few days or so an enormous white BC Ferry cruises past. Less frequently, they actually stop and a handful (six including me as the only non-local when I arrived) of the many hundred ferry passengers on board get off. .

It’s my second visit here to Bella Bella as I spent a few days on this country in June on my way north to Alaska. Back in May, through a happenstance meeting at the International Society of Ethnobiology conference in May in Tofino (Vancouver Island), I was invited to attend the annual meeting of the Coastal Guardian Watchmens Network ( The CGWN parallels, in many ways, the saltwater country program I manage at NAILSMA and the meeting brought together over 40 First Nations and government reps from coastal BC to talk about Indigenous coastal and marine management. A key recent CGWN initiative is to develop a system to assist guardians to record data on patrol – again something very similar to our I-Tracker program ( So my visit (as much of my travels have been) was a pleasurable combination of work and play. The 3 day CGWN meeting was held at the Hakai Beach Institute (a former sports fishing lodge) purchased and converted by a Canadian philanthropist into a research institute. Hakai is extraordinarily well set up and appears to have a genuine interest in supporting Heiltsuk aspirations for management and research. Since this first visit I have been north to Alaska and crisscrossed Canada but my connection to the Heiltsuk was so strong I had to return.

My time on Heiltsuk country has been quite a profound experience - I have seen many of the things I came to Canada for, participated in many important cultural events, spent extended time on country in some very special places, gained deeper insights into First Nations culture than I thought possible, and made a bunch of new friends. Neither my pictures or words are really adequate to describe this place and on my roller coaster ride of new sights, sounds, smells, learnings and experiences I have often neglected to record all that I have seen and done. Tomorrow I leave and the prospect of saying goodbye to the Heiltsuk and their territory is crushingly sad. Before the 1710 Pacific Coastal flight wings me back to Vancouver I will attempt to capture in words some of what I have seen, done and learnt. The following reminisces provide an inadequate picture (in a vaguely chronological order) of my time on Heiltsuk territory.

First day
This morning three otters came calling. Rolling, snorting, snuffling and haggling like three sleek dark teenage boys recently endowed by the gods with Olympic swimming abilities, they made their way across the boat harbour and past the dock of my float house. A trail of bubbles marked their underwater passage through the still clear depths. The trio performed an aquatic modern ballet against a backdrop of rocky foreshore and assorted harbour flotsam and jetsam and old sunken boats. They spoke of Heiltsuk secrets of dark times and the splendour of the country but there was no time for questions – otters are busy beings. Unimpressed by the otters’ dance, bald eagles whistled and postured in nearby moss- draped pine trees. Regal, white headed adult eagles jostled with mottled brown juveniles for the best perch and all squabbled with dark melodious crows. The crows know they own the place and appear to have little time for narcissistic eagles.

Before the otters arrived my sleep had been broken by a cacophony of crows undergoing Olympic selection trials on my roof. Long jump, high jump and the running trials were underway and a loud cheerleader squad was there to acclaim every move. Others were practicing figure skating on the glass skylights – aware I guess that they had a gold medal winning tradition to hold up. Dark feathered bodies would slide down the glass as they sought a grip on the smooth surface, and coal black eyes would lock briefly with my sleep filled eyes before the bird toppled off the roof. It was an interesting way to wake.

The storms promised by a red dawn have not come and the rising sun has burnt away the last of the mist to reveal a china blue sky. Sea squirts begin to hunker down to survive the coming low tide, firing off water jets that glisten in the morning sun. Deep purple sea stars gather their limbs and push further into crevices and overhangs and wait the returning water. The falling tide conspires with the rock wall of the boat harbour to steal my mountain view but the tide will return soon and my float house will rise again.

Koeye Camp, salmon and bears
Koeye Camp on a picturesque bay on the mainland coast was a sportsfishing lodge before it was purchased by the Heiltsuk QQS Society ( Koeye is about a 2 hr boat trip from Bella Bella. Nowadays it’s a natural and cultural icon, a jewel in the Heiltsuk crown and most of the Heltsuik youth have spent at least one and usually several summer camps there. I arrived on feast day – the last day of summer camp and an armada of boats had arrived carrying over a hundred Heiltsuk people to attend the ceremony. The dancing and singing took place in the big house – an enormous traditional house built of cedar – and was followed by a feast.

Building culturally important structures such as remote cabins and big houses to host meetings and feasts has been a key part of the Heiltsuk strategy for cultural revival. The big house on Koeye is a magnificent example - a large square building some 25 by 25m with a back stage area and a central fire pit on a sand floor. Hard (!) wooden seats ring the walls seating housing over 200 people. The central section of the big house roof is raised to allow smoke to escape and for shafts of sunlight to illuminate the dance floor and dancers. Paintings of spirit animals guard the massive cedar doors.

The first half of the program was a more serious performance including sacred songs and dances rarely shown to uninitiated and particularly to outsiders. The second was more light hearted and featured dances and songs learnt and performed by summer camp participants. Heiltsuk are widely regarded as being amongst the best dancers and singer of the BC Coastal First Nations and they invest greatly in ensuring that future generations are trained to maintain their cultural traditions. Costumes were elaborate, the carved masks frightening in the intensity and ferocity, and the dancing alternately hypnotic and startling. Each dance told a story from the Heiltsuk cultural mythology and many related to the great cannibal spirit. The cannibal stories were ritual (not real I am assured) but that said the Heiltsuk where fierce warriors in early times and I wouldn’t want to piss them off.

The amazing thing about the strength of Heiltsuk culture is that it survives at all. Plagues of introduced diseases such as small pox reduced Heiltsuk numbers from around 10000 to less than 200 during the 1800s and successive oppressive government and missionary policies and actions further eroded the cultural Heiltsuk legacy. We think we are in more enlightened times now where cultural diversity and practice is valued, but its just a short time since our cultural stone age when Heiltsuk cultural artifacts were deliberately destroyed, cultural practices such as the potlatch were banned, and children were shipped off to the dreaded Residential Schools often to be abused, mistreated and ill-educated – paralleling the Australian Stolen Generation experience. The Heiltsuk experience (common to all Canadian First Nations) resonates with the Australian Indigenous experience, and the survival and indeed renaissance of Indigenous Canadian and Australian culture is a cause for common celebrations.

The summer also brings the salmon. I am mesmerized by salmon – and these sleek, tasty and awesome fish have become a major theme of my travels. Salmon drive the ecosystems and use to drive the economy in BC. Abandoned canneries stand on coastal shores – left behind as rotting eyesores when the salmon fisheries collapsed. Many Heiltsuk remain engaged in fisheries but it employs just a small fraction of the people who worked in the heydays of the canneries.

Migrating salmon effectively transfer massive quantities of deep sea nutrients back into the coastal ecosystems of BC. Their marathon effort to spawn kills them and their rotting bodies fertilise river systems miles inland. Bears, wolves and eagles further distribute the nutrients into the coastal rainforest in discarded carcases and faeces and recent research suggests the salmon carried nutrient may be essential to the rainforest. Salmon fry usually only spent a year or two in the rivers before heading out to sea where they feed, grow and accumulate the nutrients that will once more be returned to the forests.

I have swum with salmon. I have watched them leap and splash in coastal bays in their thousands, and fight and leap up creeks and rivers. I’ve seen them fill entire small streams and turn the water black with their umbers. I’ve caught them on a line and in Alaska watched river banks lined with fishermen competing for salmon – so called ‘combat fishing’. As they fish enter freshwater they no longer feed and people effectively jag them. The regulations on catching salmon in Alaska are many and complex especially for the King Salmon (or Springs as Canadians know them). In the Copper River you must hook a fish in the mouth – hook it anywhere else and it’s a foul hook and you must release it. The skill and artifice required to drag your line thru the water so it snags the mouth and not elsewhere (and doesn’t exit the water and hit you in the face at high velocity!) is quite remarkable.

I’ve eaten salmon in a multitude of ways, smoked, dried, fried and baked. I’ve learnt about the careful ministrations of Heiltsuk fisheries managers to monitor streams and raise brood stock – playing god to ensure salmon are in Heiltsuk territory to ensure Heiltsuk food security into the future. Just last year the Heiltsuk hatchery in 'Qelc Bay (McLoughlin Bay) released some 1.9 million inch long fry of chum salmon and 80000 fry of the handsome Coho salmon. At the stream near the hatchery I saw enormous Chum salmon beginning their transformation to a hook jawed, flashily-coloured swimming gonad. If you ever want to see the drive to reproduce at all costs – come watch the salmon! Decades of research as yielded a massive database on salmon, their stocks, diet, movements, growth rates, egg production etc etc but funnily enough nobody really knows why this years salmon run in the Fraser River (the largest run in BC) way exceeds predictions and is in fact the largest since 1911. Salmon are still a mystery.

When I arrived at Koeye Bay it is chock full of leaping salmon waiting for good summer rains so they can move upriver on the rising water to spawn. The water is very cold at around 10 C and most people use dry suits. But it’s not cold enough to deter intrepid Australians intent on swimming with salmon. Clutching my borrowed mask and snorkel I plunged into the water. Once I stopped aching the salmon come into focus, large dark schools made slightly fuzzy by algae in the water and the mixing at the thermocline but salmon no doubt. They were awesome - enormous, sleek and beautiful. Each fish would be a meal for many and prize for a king and there are just bloody hundreds of them. But that’s not all. As the salmon move out of view I look down and see crabs and flounders and soles everywhere – it’s astounding to see so much life. It’s this productivity combined with the fruits and products of the forest and the miracle of multi-purpose red cedar that allowed coastal first nations to become the largest non-agricultural populations on the planet -- before colonization.

The salmon in turn attract the bears - another obsession for my trip. From a sea kayak I’ve seen a black bear climb a cliff in Alaska; I’ve watched them scoot across the road in the Skeena. I’ve read all the bear awareness booklets and watched the videos – I’ve even carried bear spray for two weeks in Alaska. I knew a lot but nothing prepared me for the adrenalin rush of meeting one face to face.

The salmon were gathering at Koeye Harbour but had not yet moved upstream into the shallow waters where the bears can get them. The bears are pretty much sick of their diet of berries and grass and their keenness to get fish is bringing them closer to the camp. A mother black bear and two cubs has been stalking the lodge and had to be regularly chased away. Early one morning the mother swam out to a boat, drawn by the smell of dead fish kept as crab bait. I watched her pull herself bodily into the steep sided boat (an impressive feat for a 400lb bear) before our approaching punt and loud yells and banging scared her away. A “fed bear is a dead bear” is the saying as bears rapidly learn to harass humans for food and the death penalty is often the only option for repeated threats to human welfare and indeed life.

Next time I saw them it wasn’t from the safety of the boat. Later that day I was walking a track just a few hundred metres from the lodge when the dogs on bear alert duty went nuts. Seconds later one of the cubs ran across the road just metres in front of me. This wasn’t good. In fact I distinctly remember thinking as the beer nearly trod on my toes that it’s the most common scenario for bear attacks according to the warning pamphlet.
Fortunately it turns out the cub ran toward her mother and I (shaken but intact) made my way back to the building. Next to the building the bears had grouped and were keeping a wary eye on the barking dogs and yelling humans. I joined humans – I figured I could outrun at least half the people there.

Grizzly Bears are even bigger than Black Bears but curiously are less of a threat because they are top predators. Sure they will kill and eat you as prey but that is rare; and yep you don’t want to get between them and their cubs or startle them, but generally people who know bears prefer to have grizzlies around. After my second snorkel with salmon, blue with cold and my testicles residing in my arm pits, I made my way up the beach to find a warm patch in the sun. Interestingly, a mother grizzly and two (adorable) 1 yr old cubs where already there enjoying the sun. We eyeballed at about 40 m and I froze – my testicles, wisely perhaps, stayed where they were. I backtracked and began to make my way back to the lodge. But the possibility of watching bears up close on their own ground was too much to resist. I retraced my steps to where I could watch her from an appropriately respectful distance. She kept an eye on me but remained relaxed eating grass and keeping her cubs within a few feet of her. I relaxed, sat on a log and spent the most amazing 10 minutes watching her and the cubs through my binoculars. She was enormous, huge round broad face, the typical grizzly hump and had paws, claws and jaws capable of dismembering me with ease. It was THE moment and all I could hear was the enormously loud noise of my heart beating. It as peaceful, quiet and beautiful and totally awesome. The cubs were adorable and just played around their mum as she sat and munched on grass and kept an eye on me. I had my camera but didn’t take a single photo. Soon she ambled out of sight and I found myself breathing again.

Goose Island, halibut, houlicans and plant surveys

Goose Island is on the outer edge of the BC coast some 2.5 hrs from Bella Bella and on the other side of a very deep channel. The waters in the channel can get very rough but fortunately were relatively calm on the damp foggy morning we crossed. There were over 30 of us in a flotilla of boats (including a large war canoe) and it was the last event of the summer camp season. A number of activities were going on including a Youth Life Skills development program and the TNC funded summer science interns program. I was there (ostensibly) to do vegetation surveys (and I suspect to provide some curiosity value to the happy campers).

Like much of the BC coast, the rocky shores and occasional sandy beaches of Goose Island are covered in large beach washed trees and logs that form a tangled mass above the high tide mark. So much that they form a distinct ecosystem used by small mammals and birds. Often the logs are escapees from logging operations and still have chains or metal bars where they were once attached to together in booms. Walk one step off the beach and you are into thick, dark forest. Moss covers everything and the ground is often a maze of fallen slowly rotting logs on which other plants have taken root – s called “nursery trees”. Its quite impossibly beautiful, quiet and old - a very, very different forest to the savanna woodlands of northern Australia. Moving inland is the ‘Transition forest’ of shorter trees and shrubs where wetter soil conditions prevent the trees growing large buts not wet enough for the true muskeg (moss and lichen dominated boggy habitat) to develop.

A detailed biological survey had been undertaken on Goose Island in 1953 and nothing since. Heiltsuk had obtained the original report and data and were repeating many of the surveys to look at long term landscape change. Since 1953 deer had been released on the island significantly increasing grazing impacts, wolf (formerly occasional visitors) were probably permanently established and the muskeg (boggy, wet moss –dominated habitat) appeared to have diminished as trees had become to dominate in ecosystem transition. The plant surveys were focused on the muskeg and were supposed to replicate the precise methods of the 1953 survey – no mean feat as the methods described in the report used archaic measurements and were largely undecipherable.

One of my goals for Canada was to catch a Halibut. There fish are like a large flounder on steroids. They grow to over 150 pounds and live in very deep water and taste great. Catching one involves dropping anything up to 200 m of line over the side with a large heavy silver lure attached and jerking it up and down regularly to entice the fish to bite. Catching a large one is like fighting a large animated door as you slowly drag it to the surface and hundreds of photos are taken each year along the BC and Alaskan coastlines of daring and intrepid types who have successfully mastered very large specimens (see for a photo of one that was a bit bigger then mine). Mine was comparatively small at 28 pounds but it was on a hand line and a lot of fun to pull in. I was stoked. For the record I also caught an 18lb rock cod and lost of smaller ones – the fishing was quite remarkable. Surveys of rock cod populations are a regular component of the Heiltsuk resource monitoring strategy although our trips were more about provisioning camp than gaining scientific data.

Part of our marine surveys also included a trip to the local sea lion colony. Many readers will have seen sea lions but I doubt you would have smelt their breath. It was pretty overpowering and I don’t think I have ever been that close to so many. They greeted our arrival very enthusiastically and I was sure were a few times that we were going to see a few on board. Once in the water these awkward lumbering behemoths became sleek and agile capable of propelling themselves a long way up above the surface (often called spy hopping) to see what we were doing and probably to remind us that if we fell out of the boat we were toast. I am assured that smoked sea lion is delicious but unfortunately I never got to taste it.

I did get to taste the famous Eulachon. The Eulachon or smelt is a small fish about 10 15 cm long that appears in enormous schools in BC costal waterway as it prepares to enter freshwater streams to breed. It’s full of oil – so much that if you light the tail of dried fish it burns like a candle - and first nations collected it in huge numbers. Dried for food or rendered for oil it was a major part of the diet and people traded the Eulachon grease hundreds of miles inland – along the so-called grease trail. Sadly today it is but a remnant of the previous uncountable schools - a familiar global story, but is still coveted, collected and traded by coastal nations as a traditional food. Dried and roasted on open fire and eaten whole they are delicious. Sitting around an open fire roasting and gorging on dried Eulachons remains one of my favourite memories of Goose Island.

Our vegetation surveys were pursued with more passion than success. We tramped (or rather thrashed, ducked and weaved) through thick vegetation for ages but never found the extensive muskeg mapped in the 1953 surveys. I can only assume that the transition type forest we saw – stunted trees and thick brush has slowly been overtaking the muskeg. This is a natural process as more and more organic material is deposited raising the surface of the muskeg. Trees struggle to grow in Muskeg as root growth is inhibited by the wet anoxic conditions but it’s possible that the climate had been drier at Goose Island for the last few decades reducing the water table and contributing to increased tree growth. We completed a number of transects, identified a bunch of plants, ate lots of berries and slept in the sun beside a beautiful sunlit lake. I can get to like plant surveys.

On day 3 of the camp a Rufous Hummingbird came to visit. It flew in hovered in front of my face for a few moments its iridescent orange throat shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Weighing in at just 3g, the Rufous in one of the most feisty of the hummingbirds and it regularly sees off competing birds twice it size. It has one of the longest migration routes of all species, wintering in Mexico or Panama and breeding in the summer in northern BC and even Alaska. Most hummingbirds are thought to live only 3-4 years although banded specimens are known to have lived for at least 12 years. Either way on a points-for-age scale my visitor was well ahead of me on frequent flyer points. Within seconds it was gone – too busy to waste precious rain free summer time eyeballing smelly unshaven Australians.

Accommodation at Goose Island was mostly in tents. A large communal cabin also had bunks but was mostly for cooking and meetings. The wood stove in the cabin had long died so it had an open fire pit in the centre. Unfortunately the roof had yet been modified to accommodate open fires and often the smoke I the cabin was unbearable. This was okay for the first few days as it was fine and everyone sat outside but it rained pretty much non-stop for the last 4 days and the cabin was the only dry place to cook and spend the day. Did I say it rained? Well it did as only the raincoast can. Tents were soon swimming pools; my few clothes (I had packed for 2 days and was there for a week) were going mildew and the lush green (and formerly dry) sphagnum carpet on which I camped, turned into a wet sponge. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Our departure from Goose Island was an adventure in itself. We were up and packed by 6am in the pouring rain - no mean feat given there were nearly 20 people to coordinate - and on our way. One crew was to paddle the canoe home – some 9hr trip while the motor boat took the gear and shepherded the canoe. Outside the sheltered waters of the island it became clear that it was not the morning for a canoe trip and we turned back. Meanwhile back in Bella Bella (the day before) the local RCMP and coastguard had been advised as part of the safety precautions that we were attempting the canoe trip. At 9am as we huddled around a fire watching the thickening mist and the rising sea, both vessels anchored off Goose Island. It was a much faster and warmer trip home to Bella Bella than I had anticipated.