A new book called Great Bear Wild is about a photographer’s exploration of one of Earth’s last great hideaways (Ian McAllister of www.pacificwild.org)
When photographer and author Ian McAllister left Victoria for the Great Bear Rainforest, he sailed to a place governments hadn’t even bothered to name.
IAN MCALLISTER, FROM GREAT BEAR WILD: DISPATCHES FROM A NORTHERN RAINFOREST, PUBLISHED BY GREYSTONE BOOKSA mother black bear teaches two of her cubs, one of them a Kermode bear, to fish in a Great Bear Rainforest river.It was 25 years ago and McAllister said back then government and
the timber industry wouldn’t even entertain questions about the area except to deny its existence: “There is no such thing as ‘the Great Bear Rainforest.’ ”
Moreover, then-premier Glen Clark called conservationists like McAllister “enemies of B.C.” for taking on the forest industry. Pundits huffed at the presumption of anyone who would dare “unilaterally christen a huge chunk of the mid-Coast.”
McAllister is unrepentant: “We came up with the name because when we first went up there it was just known as ‘The Mid-Coast Timber Supply Area.’ ”
“Now, there is a physical, ecological rationale for the name [the Great Bear Rainforest],” he said in a telephone interview last week. “And I don’t apologize for that.” McAllister has completed several books on the area and its wildlife, The Last Wild
Wolves and The Great Bear Rainforest and his most recent, Great Bear Wild. He is on a speaking tour with his newest book and will be in Victoria on Wednesday.
While home to grizzly and black bears, the Great Bear Rainforest is notable for being home to the cream-coloured, near-white Kermode bear, or Spirit Bear, as First Nations people call them. These animals are the result of a genetic quirk of black bears living there and nowhere else. The Great Bear Rainforest is about 6.4 million hectares of coastal forests stretching from Discovery Passage in the south to the B.C.-Alaska border. It also includes the offshore islands and islets, excepting Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island.
When McAllister left Victoria on a sailboat to find and photograph what was then the near-mythic bear, he was accompanied by a few friends, including a special one named Karen. It was supposed to be a week-long trip. He and Karen never left.
Now, more than 20 years, three sailboats and two children later, Ian and Karen remain together. They make their home, along with children Callum, 11, and eight-year-old Lucy, on a tiny islet, total population 70 people, near Bella Bella.
The two kids are mostly home-schooled but attend a one-room schoolhouse with about 10 other children.
Ian has spent the decades exploring, diving, documenting and photographing the area, which he has come to see as more than just forest. For him, the area will always be a marriage of ocean and landscape.
Wolves in the area, for example, forage for food along the coast. They prey on seal pups. They swim from islet to islet looking for beached whale carcasses. They even eat herring roe.
“It’s a relationship of a terrestrial animal [wolves] with the marine environment,” McAllister said. “This is a very old relationship and it’s been little studied and is little understood.”
Even the Kermode bear comes with a theory of modern science illustrating the link between ocean and forest.
One modern biological explanation for the persistence of the genetic variant suggests the bear’s light colour makes it less visible when viewed against the sky by a salmon looking up from a stream. So the light colour provides a fishing advantage.
And this theory also introduces the salmon to the Great Bear Rainforest. The fish is what McAllister calls the area’s “foundation species,” spawning in the tens of thousands of streams found in the area.
“Salmon as a species are so powerful and have so much influence on the land, that they can actually change the colour of a terrestrial bear,” McAllister said.
The salmon is also an animal of both forest streams and open oceans. It’s life lends resonance to McAllister’s own impression of the area, one in which land and sea come together to make something unique.
“It just constantly brings us back to the influence of the ocean over the rainforest and vice versa, how the rainforest is in many ways nourishing the ocean environment,” he said.
Since McAllister’s first foray, the area has become known worldwide. It has been examined, discussed and recognized as a place worthy of recognition and conservation. It has also earned its name. Governments, the public and industry now call it “the Great Bear Rainforest” in the same way they might mention other natural marvels like the Great Barrier Reef or the Serengeti.
In 2006, after years of discussions, the B.C. government, 27 First Nations, wilderness campaigners (like McAllister) and industry agreed to a comprehensive proposal for the area in which most of it will be protected.
And McAllister said in the time he has been there he has noticed an increase in marine wildlife. For example, fin whales, an animal he first encountered rarely, are now common visitors to that section of the coast. Visits by humpback whales are up more than 10 times.
Meanwhile, the push to export oil and gas from B.C. is also envisioning an enormous increase in tanker traffic and coastal development to the coast. “The B.C. coast, unlike some other coastlines on the planet, is seeing a return of species that have been gone for some years,” McAllister said.
“But none of this [wildlife rebound] is brought into the debate about whether we should be building pipelines or introducing supertankers to the…. www.timescolonist.com