A first grizzly bear in the Kitlope

After arriving in Triumph Bay, our first anchorage, we visited Killtuish Inlet. It was so quiet. A few minutes later, after entering the estuary, we came across a grizzly, the first I’ve ever seen.

A stunning field of Lupin is framed by the epic mountains of the Kitlope.

Lupine in the Kitlope. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation, 2019.

Just days before being asked to go on a last-minute week-long trip to the Kitlope I had been glued to the pages of Cecil Paul and Briony Penn’s new book, Stories From the Magic Canoe. I was invited to visit as a guest aboard Maple Leaf, to capture visuals, to help with fundraising and awareness raising for the next commercial trophy hunting tenure Raincoast is hoping to acquire, – the Kitlope tenure, Haisla territory.

We left Kitimat, on a late May afternoon and headed down Devastation Channel towards the Kitlope. Cecil Paul, Xenaksiala Hereditary Chief, was the last person born in the Kitlope. Stories From the Magic Canoe is written in Cecil’s vernacular and is a collection of stories that give a glimpse into his life. He was forced to attend residential school in Port Alberni. He was also largely responsible for protecting the Kitlope – the largest untouched temperate rainforest in the world. Cecil’s stories were collected and organized by Briony Penn, who was our naturalist on the trip to the Kitlope, who not only knows the ecology of the land, but also its deep history and significance to conservation on BC’s coast.

After arriving in Triumph Bay, our first anchorage, we visited Killtuish Inlet. It was so quiet. A few minutes later, after entering the estuary, we came across a grizzly, the first I’ve ever seen. We turned off the motor and I watched him in awe as he munched away on sedge grass. A couple minutes into drifting and watching him go about his day, with a mouth full of grass, his nose tipped up as though he was smelling something and then he looked straight at us, mouth still full of grass. It was such a precious moment that still makes me giggle.

Grizzly bear stands on the shore of the Great bear Rainforest.

Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation, 2019.

Over the next few days, we continued toward our destination – Kitlope Lake. We were taught about the history of the land along the way, stopping at old village sites and canneries, waterfalls, inlets and estuaries. We learned about the significance of rice root, a native flower who’s root looks like grains of rice. We saw holes that grizzlies had made to dig up the rice root. The lupine was in full bloom, adding purple to the vibrant blues and greens of the estuaries. Bear tracks, moose tracks, marbled murrelets, golden eye, eagles, gulls, mergansers and more provided the natural history and showed us how rich the place is.

“On the way we visited Cecil’s birthplace, saw the Stone Hunter, and heard its important teachings of listening to our elders. We ended up in, what Cecil calls, the Cathedral, or Kitlope Lake. Truly a place of magnificence.”  Tweet This!

On day four we winded up the Kitlope River’s sprawling course. The river was running high so we were able to make it all the way up to the lake, something that doesn’t happen often. On the way we visited Cecil’s birthplace, saw the Stone Hunter, and heard its important teachings of listening to our elders. We ended up in, what Cecil calls, the Cathedral, or Kitlope Lake. Truly a place of magnificence.

On the way out we visited, with his permission, Cecil’s family’s grave site. We saw the original Gps’golox pole which was stolen from the Xenaksiala, and taken to a Swedish museum for years and later returned to the Xenaksiala where it’s now returning to the earth, as it was intended to (another epic tale in Stories From the Magic Canoe).

Upon arriving back in Kitimat, Cecil and Gerald and Gail Amos joined us for dinner aboard Maple Leaf who gifted myself and Raincoast the trip. This brought the experience full circle and gave us further opportunity to listen to the elders of this place. Cecil and Gerald spent the night reminiscing and sharing their stories with us. Briony and I planned for a couple extra days in Kitimat to spend time with Cecil and attend his book launch. His book launch was packed with people attentively listening, tears is their eyes and a long line quickly formed to get him to sign the book at the end. Cecil allowed us to record some of his stories on camera, which was a huge privilege. His stories are a gift.

Aerial photo of a forest in the Kitlope.

Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation, 2019.

It was incredible to witness such beauty, stories and history tied to a place that is safe from logging and most other extractive industries, however it’s heartbreaking to know that trophy hunting still happens in this place – offsetting the natural balance of the ecosystem. Raincoast is currently working in collaboration with the Haisla and Xenaksiala Nations, who banned the killing of grizzly bears in Kitlope over 20 years ago, to purchase the commercial hunting rights throughout the Kitlope and surrounding area. Buying this tenure will permanently end the hunting of black bears, wolves, cougars and wolverines.

The area is 5,300 km2 that includes the entire Kitlope Conservancy and almost double that in the surrounding area. Raincoast has until July 30th to secure the $100,000 needed for the deposit. With the support of many, Raincoast is working towards the goal to permanently end the trophy hunting of coastal carnivores in the Great Bear Rainforest.

We will be sharing more of this place and this campaign over the coming weeks. I hope these words, pictures and story can help secure permanent protections for the animals like the first grizzly I ever saw, respecting an ancient relationship that has long been in place.

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