The Kitlope: A place that changes you

Valeria Vergara recounts her trip into the Kitlope, in the Great Bear Rainforest.

The foggy breeze feels damp, soft, alive. A colossal Sitka spruce is enveloped by it, dances with it. Mosses and lichens glisten in infinite shades of green. A bear trail meanders its way through this ancient temperate rainforest, inviting us to follow along. 

I close my eyes and I am still there. I have recently returned from one of those memorable forays into the wilderness that are powerful reminders of what really matters. I was invited to join the crew of the Maple Leaf Adventures on their Great Bear Rainforest spring trip aboard the Maple Leaf, a 118-year-old schooner, as a Raincoast scientist/naturalist. As I reflect about this unforgettable journey, I lose count of all the wildlife we encountered along the way. Rich in biodiversity, the world’s largest expanse of coastal temperate rainforest is home to a multitude of species, with salmon as the backbone of this perfectly functioning ecosystem. 

I browse through my photographs and am reminded of the humpbacks that we sighted on one of the many fjords that we traveled, likely feeding at depth judging from the fluking and prolonged dives. I chuckle at the memory of the playful sea lions that were visibly enjoying a waterfall as much as one would. I rejoice all over again at those energetic Dall’s porpoises bow-riding on the Maple Leaf. I am in awe at the ability of a mountain goat to navigate practically vertical rock cliffs. I am still amazed at our good fortune to catch a fleeting glimpse of a Spirit bear on the shores of Gribbell Island. These iconic bears – also known as Kermode bears, a rare, white-coated morph of the black bear – are incredibly elusive, and even more so this time of the year! 

Boat in the sunset.
Photo by Valeria Vergara.
Eagle sitting on a root of a fallen tree.
Photo by Valeria Vergara.

But the best was yet to come. 

Little did I know that we would travel all the way from Bella Bella to one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever experienced, a jewel of the Great Bear Rainforest, the Kitlope, Xenaksiala territory. Sacred to the Haisla and known as Xesdu’wäxw (Huschduwaschdu), which means “blue, milky, glacial water”, the Kitlope is the largest contiguous tract of protected temperate rainforest on the planet. 

It is also the place of birth of Wa’xaid (the good river), also known as Cecil Paul, a respected elder and hereditary chief of the Killer Whale Clan of the Xenaksiala, who in the early 1990s  spearheaded the movement to protect the Kitlope from industrial logging. When Wa’xaid returned to his homestead and discovered that an old-growth red cedar along the river-bank had been flagged with survey markers, he knew logging was coming. He invited not only his own community but the whole world to come on board his magic canoe and paddle with him to fight for the protection of this stunningly beautiful land. And he succeeded! In 1994, 325,000 hectares of coastal temperate rainforest were declared off-limits to logging.

Waterfall in the Kitlope.
Photo by Valeria Vergara.

In his wonderful book Stories from the Magic Canoe, he remarks:“I think if you experience something when we get there, our people say that you will not leave the place unchanged. You cannot leave the way that you went in. Something touches you. Something grabs within you that you never identified as yours, but something in there reveals a little of who we are.” And it was so.  

Standing there on the shores of the Kitlope, next to the very same red cedar to which survey markers had been tied, I was overcome with both hope and a profound sadness for all that was wild and lost to us. I felt a renewed resolve to continue to dedicate my life to the understanding and protection of wild places and wild animals. I wish I had had the honour to have walked with and learned from Wa’xaid before he passed away, the way some of my colleagues at Raincoast have (Brian Falconer’s beautiful passage pays homage to Wa’xaid’s life infinitely better than I ever could). And yet I somehow feel that he was there with us all, standing by that red cedar, beckoning us to join him in his magic canoe.

Grizzly bear in a river.
Photo by Valeria Vergara.
The Maple leaf sailing boat anchored with mountains in the background.
Photo by Valeria Vergara.

It was on the shores of the Kitlope River that we spotted a handsome grizzly bear that seemed unafraid of us. We watched him respectfully from the boat, as he patrolled his bear trail, took a cooling dip in the waters of a small tributary creek, and even rubbed his back vigorously on a rub tree – presumably to leave his scent. We observed him, mesmerized, until he disappeared into the rainforest. It is so good to know that this magnificent bear need not fear a horrendous and undeserved ending as someone’s ‘trophy’. In 2020, Raincoast, working closely with First Nations partners, secured the 5300 km2 Kitlope commercial hunting tenure in the Haisla and Xenaksiala homeland. 

This is part of a bold move initiated in 2005 to end commercial trophy hunting of bears, wolves and other coastal carnivores for entertainment and profit, and to help respect the stewardship of First Nation communities that view trophy hunting as profoundly inconsistent with their teachings and values. Raincoast has thus far bought out the commercial hunting rights in five tenures, effectively protecting carnivores from trophy hunting, along with the protection of dozens of other species, in more than 38,000 km2 of the BC coast!  Our ambitious long-term goal? To stop commercial trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest. Let’s paddle together to achieve this! 

Zodiac boat pulled up on a beach.
Photo by Valeria Vergara.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.