All photos by Lia Chalifour except where stated otherwise.
I’m sitting in Calgary but my heart is back in Bella Bella, where I spent two months working with Raincoast’s bear research project. It is incredible how quickly the time passed, and how much we saw and experienced in such a short period. I’d like to share with you a glimpse of the experience that transformed me.
The long drive and overnight ferry ride alone excited me – finally I was embarking further north along BC’s outer coast than I had ever been. It felt so right, so meant to be, to travel along this remote coastline.
The welcome we have received is warmer than I would ever have anticipated. On our first real night in Bella Bella, we were part of a special dinner organized between students from the Hakai-Raincoast Lab , key community members, and hereditary chiefs of the Heiltsuk people. The food was abundant and impeccably done, and included many firsts for me: herring roe on hemlock branches, elk stew, eulachon grease in a seaweed soup.
There were also the timeless classics of salmon and halibut. But more remarkable to me than the bounty set before us were the welcome speeches from the community. We guests were thanked for taking the time to come here, to learn about the incredible culture and richness of this place. We were asked to take what we have seen here, and to share it with people who have never come, who don’t understand what’s at stake in this corner of the world.
Working as a part of Raincoast’s bear research team, I have had the opportunity to travel throughout much of the Heiltsuk territory, and have learned far more about this area than pertains to the bears. Stopping in front of a towering cliff, my coworkers Ayla and Howard pointed out ochre markings on the rocks.
These are ancient paintings, depicting territory boundaries and telling important stories. These symbols of ancient human inhabitance are everywhere, and the richness of Heiltsuk culture is evident all around us as we travel through the many fjords and channels.
Boating to our sites, we have had several encounters with wildlife, and have grown accustomed to passing clusters of rare birds like marbled murrelets. In Fitz Hugh Sound we observed humpback whales feeding below us. In Fisher we played with dolphins, watching them stare up at us from beneath the surface before leaping into the air.
Traveling to Goose Island, I had my breath taken away as we saw a coastal wolf on the white sand beach, and watched a sea otter float on its back in the setting sun. Even from our kitchen window we watched orcas swim past to feed in the bay.
To be here, as guests of the Heiltsuk Nation, I realize, is such a privilege. Giving thanks seems to be all that I am capable of at this moment, and also something that I cannot truly express to the depth with which I am feeling it.
I am so thankful for my time here. As the sun sets on this time in Bella Bella, this sampling season and this trip of a lifetime, I will remain thankful and hopeful. As our friend and colleague Howard Humchitt says, you should never say ‘goodbye’, only ‘until next time’.