Looking for Signs of Kermode Bears—and a Ferry Wreck

QR at Gribbell

Quoddy’s Run circumnavigates Gribbell Island

24 July 2012 Coughlan Anchorage, near Hartley Bay

We bid the Juneau kayakers farewell and left the hot springs of Bishop Bay. We headed north into Ursula Channel, which leads into Devastation Channel—one of two possible routes to Kitimat.  But we’d found that we were missing some charts—whoops!– so Kitimat was off of the list of stopping places.  Our new plan was to circle up Ursula and down Verney Channel towards Hartley Bay.  This would send us around the top and along both long sides of the triangle-shaped Gribbell Island, where one of every three bears is a Kermode or spirit bear. Marike had taken to singing out “I want to see a Kermode bear!” every half hour or so as we were underway, so this was our last and best chance to see one before we exited Kermode territory.

gulls on log

Gulls hitch a ride on passing driftwood

The landscape was exceedingly mountainous and steep, however—not ideal bear sighting terrain. With the exception of some shoals near the top the island, the waters were deep—no shallow grassy areas where we might drop the hook and watch into the afternoon.  Happily, we were visited by some Dall’s porpoises, who rode our bow wake for awhile and tossed arcs or “rooster tails” of water into the air.

gulls fly away

And they’re off!

The shoals at the north end of the island were full of small fishing boats trolling for salmon. Inspired, Marike rigged a flasher and hootchie to her line and tossed them out behind Quoddy’s Run.  Alas, the flasher spun in a wild spiral and the line snarled up, fetching nothing.

the first, happy moment

Marike tries trolling in Ursula Passage

As we turned the corner into Verney Channel, the wind stiffened.  There was a great deal to see, but no spirit bears standing on the peaks waving. (Really, what had we expected? This wasn’t a Disney cruise!) We gawked at the enormous expanses of rock above us, huge bald grey overhanging mountains and valleys and marked out shapes in the varnishing or mineral run-off on these faces—one looked like a painted thunderbird. Rotten snow tumbled into crevasses; the summer melt continued.


The flasher whirls in the air

By late afternoon, we reached across Douglas Channel—the main route to Kitimat—towards Hartley Bay. We  dropped the hook in Coughlan Anchorage, just off of Otter Shoal, in a spot where we might catch enough wind to avoid the flies.  This would be a staging point to time our trip up Grenville channel.

Hartley Bay is a permanent home to around 150 people of the Gitga’at First Nation, members of the Tsimshian cultural group.  In the middle of the night on 22 March 2006, the entire community responded to a distress call in Wright Sound and sent out its boats to rescue the shipwrecked passengers of the BC Ferry, Queen of the North, which had struck a rock on the north end of Gill Island and soon sank.  They successfully saved 99 of the 101 passengers and crew on that ferry. Then Governor General Michaëlle Jean issued the entire community a commendation for outstanding service to thank them for their  “initiative, selflessness and an extraordinary commitment to the well-being of others” in the rescue; the honour also cites the town’s “tremendous spirit and the remarkable example it has set”— quite unlike the example of those of the vessel’s crew who were not on watch when they should have been.

mountains in Verney Channel

Bare mountains in Verney Channel

Wright Sound is a complex spot, a place where seven flows of water gather, from Douglas Channel, Grenville Channel, Coughlan Channel, Whale Channel, Verney Passage, McKay Reach, and the Lewis and Cridge Passage from Squally Channel.  Where so many channels and reaches meet, one might expect chaotic currents and unusual waves in any kind of weather. It beggars belief that officers of a passenger vessel, while on watch and responsible for the lives of so many, would find Wright Sound or its approaches a reasonable place for a tryst on the bridge in the night.

We also find it astonishing that any government would think it reasonable to propose to send steady streams of ships laden with Alberta bitumen from the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline through these waters.  As so many observers who know the area and these seas have noted, it is not a question of if, but when disaster would strike once tankers began to export bitumen in these waters.  After 24 years, Prince William Sound in Alaska still has not recovered from the Exxon-Valdez disaster.  It is no surprise that a significant majority of British Columbians are opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline project.  They don’t want to risk damaging one of their most important natural resources, the health and beauty of the Inside Passage.  And as reports by the Coastal First Nations have made clear, a tanker spill would have many negative environmental and economic impacts on the waterways and lands of which they are the stewards.  This is why they have joined together to mount numerous legal challenges and an anti-oil tanker campaign.  Having traversed these waters, we stand firmly with them.

CCGS Gordon Reid

CCGS Gordon Reid in Coughlan Anchorage

The next morning we hailed nearby Coast Guard vessel, the Gordon Reid, which had also anchored in Coughlan Anchorage.  We were trying to understand how to time the tides in Grenville Channel.  Apparently, they split in the middle: the flood runs north from the bottom of the channel and south from the top.  The tidal flows apparently meet somewhere around Klewnuggit Inlet, although we were told that that point could vary.  According to our calculations, it looked as if we should wait out the morning until the tide began to flood north, then stop overnight in the middle of the Channel, in order to ride the ebb north the next day. We wanted to know if this made sense.

The officer who answered our radio call told us that the Coast Guard had been very busy that summer with search and rescue missions, including several rescues at sea in Hecate Strait, the infamously shallow waterway between the mainland and Haida Gwaii.  We asked who Gordon Reid was; why had their vessel been named after him?  It turns out he had been the first certified First Nations Master Mariner in these waters; he had helped to map out the north coast and his extensive knowledge informed the instructions to mariners in northern BC. We didn’t exactly get an answer to our question about tides and currents—larger, faster vessels don’t have to worry about a three knot current as much as we do, but the Coast Guard suggested that the flow of the tide split in Grenville Channel somewhere around Lowes Inlet.

And so we soon set off, into Wright Sound and then the Grenville Channel. Northward!

yes, fog...

Into Grenville Channel!


On the Gitga’at First Nation based in Hartley Bay http://www.gitgaat.net/index.html

Governor General’s commendation of the residents of Hartley Bay http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2006/04/28/ggawards-060428.html

BC Ferries report on the grounding http://www.bcferries.com/files/AboutBCF/815-06-01_DI_QON_Grounding.pdf

Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative Anti-Oil Tanker Campaign: http://www.coastalfirstnations.ca/programs/anti-oil-tanker-campaign

See also http://www.pipeupagainstenbridge.ca/and, on the impacts of an existing and ongoing spill of Bunker C from a shipwreck in Grenville Channel, http://www.thenorthernview.com/news/150038505.html

About Karin Cope

Karin Cope lives on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. She is a poet, sailor, photographer, scholar, rural activist, blogger and an Associate Professor at NSCAD University. Her publications include Passionate Collaborations: Learning to Live with Gertrude Stein, a poetry collection entitled What we're doing to stay afloat, and, since 2009, a photo/poetry blog entitled Visible Poetry: Aesthetic Acts in Progress. Over the course of the last decade, with her partner and collaborator Marike Finlay, Cope has sailed to and conducted fieldwork in a number of remote or marginal coastal communities in British Columbia and Mexico. Their joint writings range from activist journalism and travel and policy documents, to an illustrated popular material history of the Lunenburg Foundry entitled Casting a Legend, as well as their ongoing west coast travel blog, West By East.
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