New adventures, old relationships

Education Coordinator, Pascale, recounts a week of whales, bears, and camp games at QQS Projects Society’s Koeye River Camp.

After a long journey from Vancouver, my colleague Persia Khan and I finally arrive in Port Hardy to meet Achiever. Captain Drew Graham is busy getting Raincoast’s 68 foot sailboat ready for tomorrow’s departure. Chef Meesh Coles is storing food in every nook and cranny of the ship. There is energy in the air ahead of our departure for Koeye Camp.

We are up at 5 am, getting ready to leave as soon as possible ahead of the oncoming windstorm. We have a long day ahead, sailing from Port Hardy, across Queen Charlotte Strait and into Fitz Hugh Sound, where we will find a spot to anchor for the night. We are heading for the Great Bear Rainforest, and I am excited to be in this incredible ecosystem for the first time. We start making our way north and a couple of humpback whales escort us through the fog. As we round Cape Caution and out from the protection of Vancouver Island, the wind and swell pick up. We pull up the sails and Achiever easily handles the 6 foot waves. 

After a few hours, we finally get shelter from the waves thanks to Calvert Island. As tummies settle, conversations flow. Folks on board reminisce about previous experiences at Koeye Camp. They share their memories and look forward to reconnecting with the youth. With the camp on hiatus due to COVID-19, it’s their first visit in 2 years and they look forward to seeing what the staff and youth have been up to. They tell me of the history of Koeye Camp and its importance and impact in the Heiltsuk community.

Koeye Camp

Koeye Camp is one of the central programs of Qqs Projects Society, a Bella Bella-based non-profit supporting Heiltsuk youth, culture, and environment. Since 1999, Koeye has been a place for families to get together and learn from each other and from the land. With different weekly themes, youth connect to their culture and to the environment with activities such as language classes, and canoeing. Since 2000, Raincoast has been participating in Science Week, where educators, students from Raincoast’s Applied Conservation Science lab at the University of Victoria, and Achiever converge on the Koeye estuary to incorporate our research into the programming. 

Landscape of mountainous region with fireweed flowers in the foreground.
Photo by Pascale Campagna-Slater.
Sailing vessel, Achiever, on a foggy day.
Photo by Mike Morash.

We arrive at camp the next day. We anchor in the little bay and head to shore, landing on the beach in front of the imposing Dhadhixsistala, the Bighouse. It is guarded by M̓áyáɫa and Kúsa, the enormous working dogs that detect bear presence and protect the kids and the camp. A short walk up, sitting atop of Koeye Point, we find the camp buildings in a little clearing. With views of the Koeye River and Fitz Hugh sound below, we see salmon jumping in the bay, swallows swirling above, and the distant blows of humpback whales.

Science week 

In the morning, we split into two groups. I join PhD student Lauren Eckert and Persia’s group in a bear science activity. Chris Darimont, long-time Raincoaster and Raincoast Chair and Professor at UVic, is joining us for the day. In partnership with the Heiltsuk and neighbouring nations, Chris and his graduate students have been studying bears and other wildlife throughout the Central Coast for two decades. This long-running project, which monitors grizzly and black bears, started right here in the Koeye estuary in 2006 by William Housty (now Chair of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department) and the Qqs Project Society.

As we make our way along the beach to a site slightly up the river, there is already evidence of large predator presence: we find fresh scat (poo)! With a little stick-poking, smelling and laughing, we identify it being from a wolf, which likely walked the beach early that very morning. Once we get to our site, Lauren and Persia tell us about the Bear Project, and the non-invasive research methods used to study bears. This time, it’s not poo we are looking for, but hair! They lead us through steps of setting up a non-invasive bear hair snag; locate a small site surrounded by trees, place an interesting smelling platter in the centre, and wrap barbed wire (or in our case, some rope) around the site at bear-shoulder height to snag some fur. Once the site is ready to be used, we test it ourselves. We walk around on all fours, stepping over the rope to explore the scent. Though this snag didn’t see any bears, we did later that day; from camp, we spotted a young grizzly bear walking on the beach below!

On day two, Drew and I lead the group on an excursion on Achiever to observe whales. The day starts off very foggy, not ideal conditions for spotting whales, so we instead attempt to listen for whales. The youth lower our hydrophone and listen carefully for orca clicks or humpback calls. Unlucky, we pull up the hydrophone and continue on our way. 

Humpback whale breaching.
Photo by Pascale Campagna-Slater.

As the fog finally lifts, we spot four humpback whales bubble net feeding! A cooperative feeding technique, the whales swim together while releasing a stream of bubbles, trapping and condensing schooling fish in their net of bubbles. All together, they lunge through the fish with their mouths wide open and take a big gulp of food, filtering water out through their baleen. We follow along at a respectful distance as they intermittently swim and feed. I chat with the youth about the whales and research techniques, while they tell me of their experiences with whales.

On our final evening, we are invited to the outdoor dinner at camp. Meesh helps the cooks in the kitchen, a final collaboration between Raincoast and Koeye Camp. We sit by the fire sharing our day, play camp games and watch one final sunset over the estuary. After a final goodbye the next morning, we lift anchor and set sail for Bella Bella, where Lauren, Persia and I will part ways with Achiever.

Until Next Year

On my return home, I reflect on this incredible week. I learned about ongoing bear research and the history of Raincoast’s partnerships with the Heiltsuk. I saw my first grizzly bear, and my first bubble netting humpback whales. I was introduced to Heilsuk culture, and learned about the important work Qqs is doing for the community of Bella Bella. I met inspiring people, like the former campers who are now youth leaders and role models for the next generation.

Most of all, I remember the experience of being back at summer camp. I think back to my excitement of going away to camp as a child, to the new adventures I experienced and the friends I made. Koeye Camp offers Heiltsuk youth a place to connect to nature, to their culture and their language, and also a place to laugh and play and be kids. What I’ll remember most of my time at Koeye is meeting and spending time with the kids, playing ultimate frisbee on the beach, eating smores by the campfire, and making friendship bracelets.

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Sam Scott and Peter Ross standing in front of the future mobile lab, which is a grey sprinter van.