The average American spends a third of their income on housing. Almost as much as the next two greatest expenses — food and transportation — combined. So, theoretically, if you just stopped paying for housing, you could earn a living working three days a week. Or two thirds of the year.
Today, we bring you a story about the pursuit of snow, world domination and cheap rent. It’s imperfect. It comes with inconveniences. Trade-offs. But, at the end of the day, what would you rather trade in? Convenience? Or time spent chasing down dry rock or fluffy snow?
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[Graphic by Walker Cahall]
Sailing around the world isn’t new. Historians recently learned that Chinese merchant ships in the latter 15th century, which were grander, faster, and better equipped than Spanish and Portuguese fleets (Magellan, Columbus, Gama, etc.), used trading routes that vary today only because of the Suez and Panama Canals. These canals eliminate the need to navigate the treacherous Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, respectively.
Today, we call these routes the “milk run.” When you start at X and sail to Y, there is a very sensible time of year to do it and a very sensible course to take advantage of winds and currents. This is true for all vessels of every size and type. To get away from the milk run takes a lot more effort, skill, patience, fortitude and, yes, imagination – which is, of course, why it’s worth it. It may be true that the oceans of the world have been mapped, but that doesn’t mean they have been properly explored.
[Above: Finding a barrel at the bottom of the world.]Enter the Cabrinha Quest. On a 14-year mission to find remote wind and waves on a series of blue-water kitesurfing and surfing expeditions – during which we’ve sailed around the world twice – I have taken considerable pride in escaping the milk run as often as possible, including rounding both of those notorious capes (where pride manifests in pain!). Our latest expedition, in partnership with Cabrinha Kites, launched in September 2012 – a five-year seafaring quest to explore the most remote corners of the globe.
In four previous crossings of the Pacific, a kaleidoscopic wistful throng of islands has captivated my imagination but they have always been just too far out of reach. To get there would require a longer crossing than I have ever sailed, nearly all of it in open ocean below 40 degrees south – a band of latitudes known as the “Roaring 40s” and “Screaming 50s” for the unhindered westerly winds that rake unending around Antarctica. It’s a cold, lonely, impossibly large and wild place with no hope of support if something goes wrong.
So this year we went. 5,000 miles. 28 days at sea. Three days with visible sun. Water temps down to 6 degrees Celsius. Not a single sighting of another boat. Not a single fish caught. But at the end of it all stretched the ultimate prize: 1,000 miles of granite peaks encased in ice and snow, uncountable uninhabited untouched islands, glaciers that descend to a dark ocean bustling with strange fish and sea creatures, fjords that wander for miles and miles in a never-ending maze of lushness and plenty, waterfalls cascading from gray clouds into heavy mist, virgin forests with pancake-shaped leaves the size of large trucks dripping with eternal rain hanging over crystal clear lattices of geothermal pools. Patagonia. Where God possibly imbibed in some supernatural LSD and applied his watercolors by hand instead of brush.
The decision to come here has been in the works for years but the tipping point was reached only very recently. In our efforts to operate the Cabrinha Quest in a sustainable manner we teamed up with the uber-eco-conscious Patagonia clothing company. Yvon Chouinard named his company Patagonia after he fell in love with the region during a climbing trip with Doug Tompkins in the ‘60s. It seemed only fitting to bring some of the Patagonia crew to the place where it all started. In a small twist, we’d be going by sea instead of land.
Yvon’s son Fletcher, FCD’s board shaper and kite and surf addict; Jason McCaffrey, Patagonia’s surf brand manager; and Patagonia ambassadors Reo Stevens and Jason Slezak arrive on the docks in Puerto Montt right on time for a planned 10-day push deep into the fjords where we hope to surf waves that had never been ridden. Distances are vast, and we must carefully plan all movement around the tides. They range more than four meters on springs and neaps and create currents that turn narrow passes into raging whitewater rivers, which makes traveling heedless of their strength quite ill advised.
I am anxious to get started immediately.
But only one set of bags has arrived. An ice storm in Dallas has sent the bags to airline purgatory and we are told they might arrive “mañana,” or “mañana mañana,” or possibly “mañana mañana mañana.” ¿Pero quien sabes? Indeed. Who knows?
If we were in the tropics, not having bags would have very little impact. We have plenty of gear on board, surfboards and kites bulging out of every storage compartment on our 60-foot catamaran, Discovery. The fridge and freezer are stocked with every imaginable seafood delicacy compliments of the rich waters that surround Puerto Montt, the gateway port to Patagonia. But the water here hovers around 10 degrees Celsius. Without proper wetsuits, water activities will be considerably curtailed.
We study charts and Google Earth and come up with a plan B, and a Plan C, D, and E, depending on which mañana.
On an ebb tide we slide away from the docks at an absurd speed. With no wind and no sails we travel twice as fast as we should under power. The ocean is dark. I’m used to the translucent water of the tropics where reefs are as visible as billboards on the freeway. Here they lurk invisible in frigid water. At high tide they pass below our keels with plenty of room to spare. As the tide drops they rise above the surface like erupting volcanoes: dry, sharp, gnarled and twisted. They are a mirror of our surroundings.
We are near the winter solstice, which, this far south, means our days stretch impossibly long. Each morning we are enveloped in a dense still fog, but the sun eventually wins the battle for space and wet decks and chilly bodies are warmed generously. I can’t help but feel like this place is actually sucking in geological-sized breaths. Each day the forests and mountains take a huge inhalation, pulling in the fresh ocean air and sending a myriad of birds into the sky. Eventually, still waters and still air are whisked into strong laminar winds which we use to travel fast and far. As the sun sets, the mountains and streams and trees get their fill and they exhale, giving back to the ocean what they swept away so it can all begin again. The same pace sets in on board the boat. Why fight what Mother Nature has performed so perfectly?
We use the days without gear to wander up and down coastlines and bays, following the afternoon winds, seeking waves. The travels are stunning to be sure, but the odds are not in our favor. At one tide level we could sail right past a potential break that is totally flat, where no obvious wave exists, but in two hours, with a meter less water, it could be pumping. Persistence and considerable luck pay off when the bags arrive just in time for a solid WSW swell that comes to us from Antarctic waters and we are in position.
We settle into the same pace as our surroundings. Every living thing is taking in and using as much as it can. Light, water, food, air. We do the same but we add recreation. Yet even in this pursuit we are not alone. Boobie birds play and bathe in tidal pools; huge colonies of sea lions lounge in the sun without a care in the world and even surf some of the waves that we ride; terns soar cliff walls, using the sea breeze to stay aloft, clearly enjoying the freedom of flight just for the fun of it.
At first glance Patagonia seems to have escaped man’s incessant demands for resources. But look closer and the picture isn’t so rosy. Salmon aren’t native to Chile, but salmon farms are ubiquitous. The industry has been at the heart of fierce environmental opposition. They are ecologically filthy, pose a huge threat to native fish, and ultimately have been found to be a very unhealthy food source. Once-free-flowing, glacier-fed rivers that attracted paddlers from around the world have now been dammed to power mega-mines in the north.
When the swell dies we sail down Renihue Fjord to Parque Pumalin, in the heart of The Conservation Land Trust, created by Doug and Kristine Tompkins – now the largest in the world at over two million acres. The land has been set aside for conservation and their organization is teaching the locals that the economy in the long run will benefit more from leaving the land alone than exploiting it for short-term use. Beekeeping, ecological restoration, sustainable farming and fishing, and park creation are all part of the overarching goal: saving biodiversity.
No adjectives are descriptive enough to do this place justice. Powerful is the only one that comes close. Hungry? Grab a bucket and fill it in a minute with succulent mussels. Or grab a fly rod and land a fish from the sparkling river that runs through the property. An organic garden feeds all the staff. Chickens fertilize, bees pollinate, goats provide milk, and the cattle look like they’ve won the heifer lottery. Sustainability in action, all at the foot of one of the grandest and most picturesque places I’ve ever witnessed.
I’m traveling with people who, like me, are concerned about the state of the planet. This trip wasn’t necessary to change anyone’s mind. We are the choir, no preaching necessary. Call us liberal, or progressive, or tree-huggers or maybe something even less endearing, but regardless of where you stand and what you think of issues like global warming or our overburdened planet, you can’t come to a place like Patagonia and go home unchanged.
I notice this change in our final days. Everyone takes a little more time to himself or herself. Everyone is a little more contemplative. Everyone is taking a closer look around. Everyone’s eyes shine differently and are a little more alive than they were when they got on board. I can’t help but think that we, and by WE I mean all of humanity, are a reflection of our environment. In Patagonia, you start to really like what you see in the mirror. Time isn’t read on a watch, it’s logged by the passing of the sun and moon. Food isn’t processed and shipped, it’s caught or foraged and eaten fresh. Movement is dictated by the weather, not a schedule. Exercise dictates sleep instead of an alarm clock.
Is it a stretch to say that if we subject ourselves to traffic, pollution, unpronounceable food additives, poorly built homes, pesticides and the myriad of other “advancements” that have made our lives “better” that we are moving in the wrong direction? We don’t have this conversation on the boat, but this is what we’re all thinking about. And this is a stretch, but try if you can to imagine that our world, the world we all share, was once like Patagonia everywhere.
Gavin McClurg is the CEO of Offshore Odysseys and founder of The Best Odyssey and The Cabrinha Quest. He grew up on boats in the Pacific Northwest and commercially fished in the Bering Sea before getting into sailing in the mid ‘90s. You can keep up with Gavin and The Cabrinha Quest on Facebook and Instagram. Check out his previous post, “The Higher You Get, The Higher You Get – A Paragliding Journey in the Pioneer Mountains.”
Jody MacDonald is an award-winning adventure sport and documentary photographer. She says she's more comfortable snowboarding than wearing a dress and way happier surfing than going to the mall. You can follow her work and travels on Facebook, Instagram and JodyMacDonaldPhotography.com.
It’s been a month since DamNation made its world premiere at SXSW in Austin, Texas. First and foremost, we would like to thank all of the people who’ve come out to see our film. Your support is greatly appreciated. Moving forward, we have a bunch of news and some important action alerts to share, so let's get to it.
America’s Most Endangered Rivers 2014
When, as a young man, DamNation co-producer Matt Stoecker witnessed migrating steelhead jump at, and bounce off, Stanford University’s Searsville Dam on San Francisquito Creek, he recognized the destructive power a single dam can have on an entire watershed and beyond. Matt is now a fish biologist, who has since spearheaded the removal of more than a dozen such barriers to migration and is actively involved in efforts to dismantle several others. When he and Patagonia founder/owner Yvon Chouinard, a long-time “dam buster” who for years has supported groups working to tear down dams, decided to capture such efforts and their healing effects on film, and share them with the world, they teamed up with Felt Soul Media’s Ben Knight and Travis Rummel, and DamNation was born.
Today, American Rivers announced their annual list of America's 10 Most Endangered Rivers and we’re happy to see San Francisquito Creek and Searsville Dam coming in at number five. San Francisquito Creek is the only nominee with a problem dam to be recognized by American Rivers this year. Making the list of most endangered rivers certainly isn’t a cause for celebration, but it’s a big deal in the river community and should bring national and local attention to the efforts that are underway to remove Searsville Dam.
[Above: Searsville Dam on San Francisquito Creek, California. Stanford releases no flows downstream for fish and wildlife and the stagnant creek dries out and becomes lethal to the threatened steelhead that are blocked at the base of the concrete wall. Photo: Matt Stoecker]Unfortunately, it remains unclear whether Stanford University will remove their unneeded Searsville Dam and upgrade to a more reliable, sustainable and safer water system. The university is studying alternatives, including dam removal, and has promised to make a decision by the end of the year. Numerous examples throughout the country have proven that when a dam is removed, migratory fish quickly reestablish themselves above the barrier, often within weeks. Invasive species populations from the reservoirs are significantly reduced and water quality and habitat improve. Communities are made safer and the liability risk for dam owners is eliminated.
A pair of wild steelhead spawn below the impassable Searsville Dam in 2013. Multiple adult steelhead and their eggs died as upstream diversions and lack of access to perennial streams above the dam contributed to trapping these federally threatened fish in a dewatered creek. Watch a video of these two fish spawning. Photo: Doug Rundle
Streams merge in the headwaters of San Francisquito Creek where open space preserves have protected much of the watershed and provide ideal habitat conditions for steelhead and other native species to return to if only Stanford University would let them. Photo: Matt Stoecker
Running through downtown Palo Alto and Menlo Park, San Francisquito Creek harbors one of the last wild steelhead runs in the San Francisco Bay. However, Stanford's Searsville Dam blocks them from reaching critical year round streams, leaving the next generation to wonder who is responsible for the deaths of threatened steelhead in the creek. Photo: Mike Lanza
As a business member of the Beyond Searsvile Dam coalition, who is leading the charge, we urge Stanford to show leadership as environmental stewards and choose an alternative that will remove Searsville Dam, restoring this ecologically significant creek while protecting local residents from flooding and safety concerns.
Tour Schedule & Screenings Update
A redesigned version of DamNationFilm.com was launched recently, and with it comes a full list of upcoming screenings. Newport, Rhode Island; Missoula, Montana; Portland, Oregon and Carbondale, Colorado will round out our film festival screenings in April. Looking ahead, the film will have its theatrical release on May 9 in New York at the IFC Center, followed by a release on May 16 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo 7. The theatrical release is coupled with a nine-city tour of one-night film premieres in select markets in April and May, and a nationwide screening event at all U.S. Patagonia retail stores on June 5.
Vimeo On Demand
DamNation is proud to be partnering with Vimeo On Demand to bring our film to your computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone. Preorders are being accepted now for DamNation’s digital release on June 6, 2014. And if you like DamNation, you’ll want to check out the Patagonia Collection at Vimeo On Demand. Curated by Patagonia and Vimeo, this collection of online films showcases Earth’s elegance, strength and fragility.
Visit Vimeo on Demand to see the Patagonia Collection and preorder your digital copy of DamNation.
Two Film Festivals, Two Awards for DamNation
We’re thrilled to announce that DamNation won the SXSW Film 2014 Audience Award in the Documentary Spotlight category, and the Documentary Award for Environmental Advocacy (and a $10,000 cash prize), at the 2014 Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. The filmmakers express their gratitude to festivalgoers for the positive reception, celebrating the news as a sign that the urgent issue of dam removal is resonating and will continue to build momentum as the film tours across the country.
“Premiering DamNation at SXSW was a dream come true for Travis and I, and a dream come true for the film,” said co-director Ben Knight. “I honestly can't even wrap my head around the fact that we won the audience award yet, it feels very surreal. I could feel an energy build during the film at our screenings in Austin; our audiences were just amazing.”
“After pouring ourselves into DamNation, it is incredible to see the film resonate so deeply with our audiences,” said co-director Travis Rummel. “We’re so appreciative to Patagonia for trusting us with the creative freedom needed to bring this critical story to life.”
“The health of our rivers impacts all of us, and we have too many degraded rivers with unnecessary and obsolete dams,” said co-producer Matt Stoecker. “It’s so encouraging to see audiences connect with our film and help us build momentum to free our rivers.”
Window detail and a peek inside Patagonia Austin. Photo: Jared Tennant
We had a packed house at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital, productive meetings with top policymakers and government officials about our Crack Down on Deadbeat Dams petition, and we won the Environmental Advocacy Award. Washington D.C. was good to us. Photo: Ben Knight
Iceland is a land of extremes – stark beauty within a harsh, unforgiving landscape and an equally daunting climate. Volcanoes are still erupting, earthquakes are nearly constant, yet the geothermal water provides Iceland with most of its energy needs and natural hot springs ease the cold of winter. Eleven percent of the country is covered with glaciers. Sighting of the aurora borealis is common. The coast is dotted with steep cliffs, overhung by glaciers and blasted by wind off the ocean. Yet over 300 species of birds nest in these cliffs, eider ducks (think eiderdown) float in the ocean and the fishery is Iceland’s largest source of income.
In such a stark and dramatic landscape, it is easy to imagine events being controlled by the Norse gods. In fact, on our quest for virgin ice climbs, we too felt their power – one in particular: Loki the trickster, deceiver, god of chaos.
[Above: Sunrise over the fjord. Photo: Kitty Calhoun]Upon arrival in Reykjavik, we proceeded straight to our rental car company, SAD cars. I thought I had reserved a large 4x4 to carry the four of us – Jay Smith, John Catto, Beth Goralski and myself – plus our eight 50-pound duffel bags, four 20-pound day packs, and two weeks of groceries – into the hinterland. There must have been some miscommunication and a small SUV made for city streets awaited us – the large off-road vehicles were not available. After much consternation, we loaded up an old 4WD Nissan wagon, whose front doors had been hammered loose by the formidable Icelandic wind. To muffle the roar of wind prying through, we slammed the doors on our towels, which proceeded to batter the roof as we cruised down the narrow road leading north.
Obviously, if there was information available, we would not have headed to the North Central Peninsula. But this is a land of unknowns, a land of secrets. Not much of the ice has been discovered and our hunch was that the greatest concentration of hidden gems was in the heart of the steepest, most jagged mountains. Thus, after two days in the car, winding our way around every crease in the fjords, we arrived in Dalvík, the ski capital of Iceland. Armed with a half-dozen topo maps, we hoped that we might pry some secrets from local UIAGM mountain guide, JB. I closed my eyes and prayed as he called friends in each part of the country and, in Icelandic, asked for their permission to give us clues to where we might find the goods. We received their blessings but, to our chagrin, learned that ice climbs in this country do not form in the mountains, but rather on cliffs capped by a plateau. Deceived once again, we assumed positions in the SAD car and reset our sights on the Westfjords – the least visited region in all of Iceland.
It was precisely halfway along a snow-drifted section of road, in a white-out and three hours from the last town, that we found ourselves contemplating abandoning the SAD car in search of a more suitable bivouac.
“I’m sorry ya’ll, but there is no way we are going to make it,” I said in a defiant voice. Somebody had to speak up and as the most conservative, adamant member of our group, I volunteered.
I felt relieved when Jay, who had made a valiant attempt to ram through walls of snow, supported me. “Yeah, I’m sorry we have spent so many days in the car, but I don’t think we are going to make it either.” I felt bad because he was feeling responsible not only for getting photos, but also for ensuring a productive trip.
John, a veteran filmmaker for National Geographic, offered, “We might be able to get in that abandoned gas station we just left.”
“Yeah, if worse comes to worse, we can sleep in the car.” I looked over at Beth, a 5’8” lanky blonde who was always smiling. She had the least experience in the group but was up for anything.
“I’d rather not,” I said with a solemn face, which betrayed my satisfaction in feeling that I had made the right choice to invite Beth, even though I barely knew her.
I pulled out my cell phone and in a last ditch effort, called my friend Runar, on the other end of the Westfjords, for help. He explained that neither plows, nor planes, nor ferries operate on Saturdays. He was on his way to a party, to celebrate the Feast of Thor, featuring traditional Icelandic fare such as marinated shark and rams’ testes. After a few phone calls, he found a farmhouse a mile back, to which we could retreat. Holed up in this place of refuge, with a hot tub, I marveled at our circumstances. Ancient lore would have attributed them to Loki, who ensnared everyone in complicated problems, to which he always supplied a remedy – though his solution often engendered even greater troubles.
The following day, the storm relented and we ventured along the coast to Patreksfjörður, a small fishing town, where we met Valle, “gatekeeper” to the Westfjords ice climbs. Having been duly chastised by Runar for not warning us about the snowplow holiday, he more than made up for it by leading us over two more passes to the Land of Promise.
A single lane gravel road followed the shoreline. On one side of the road lay narrow, golden-sand beaches, lapped by long, smooth wave sets. Further out in the fjord, a research boat explored the sea, gathering data to determine its capacity for farmed salmon, most of which is sold to Whole Foods. On the other side of the road, a carpet of moss led to snow-covered slopes and small cirques or valleys lined with vertical black cliffs. Snowmelt on the plateau above generously provided so many frozen lines that we were awestruck.
For our first climbs, the four of us naively picked out two new routes that looked like good warm-ups – not too hard, maybe WI 4. I offered the first lead to Beth, as she was keen and I was feeling generous. However, I started wondering what the problem was as I observed increasing evidence of her getting pumped – hacking at the ice, long pauses when she rapidly alternated shaking out each arm, and she had placed every screw on the rack.
As I followed the pitch, I realized that we had been tricked again. This was far from being a warm-up. It was a difficult WI 5! I had forgotten that the warm winds sculpt and polish the ice until there is nothing left but hollowed out caves and overhanging faces, devoid of any sweet spots to place your tools, or grooves to stem. Jay and John experienced the same deception and we all went home that night feeling elated that we just climbed two new routes, but also reminded that all was not as it appeared.
The next morning, we set off to the same cirque to climb the next two hardest lines. At the base, Jay and John didn’t feel up for their route yet, so they decided to climb an easy pitch to get above and shoot me leading the hard route. As I waited on them to get into position, questions started to fill my head. Why am I doing this? Who even cares? Is it worth it? If I pump out before getting in a screw, the resulting fall could result in serious injury. How many years can a person keep redlining the stress meter before burning out? Will I ever be satisfied?
My thoughts were interrupted by Beth’s voice: “On belay.” John and Jay were ready to shoot. We were in an ice cave at the base of the steep ice. I looked around the column and up toward a large mushroom which blocked the entrance onto the smooth, slightly overhanging face above. Beth was apologizing for the big snarl we had just untangled from the double ropes. The thought, “Pride goeth before a fall,” entered my head.
I turned to Beth and said, “Don’t worry about it.” She smiled.
Then I took some deep breaths. Either my strength had to come from me – or else from God. I chose God. A calm confidence settled over me and that made all the difference. If it weren’t for this peace, I could have easily panicked when the ice continued to shatter as I tried to find a purchase for my tool over the mushroom. Panic tends to rapidly suck the remaining strength from throbbing forearms. The hand can no longer grip the tool enough to guide and accurate swing. As a last ditch effort, one starts to fumble for a screw, knowing there isn’t enough strength to place it. The mind races: What do I do? What do I do?
But the panic never came. Relaxing, trusting, and climbing precisely, I made it over the mushroom and up the gravity-defying face. Maybe climbing was an opportunity to test and to build trust. The ancient people believed that warriors trained in Valhalla for Ragnarok, the last great battle, the day of judgment.
After six days of climbing, we completed eight new routes and partially completed two others, most of which were two pitches long, WI4-5+. Of all my leads, the first one was the most difficult, the most complicated for me. That’s why I named it Loki.
By Patch Wilson
Growing up in Cornwall, in the UK, it’s easy to feel blessed when you’re young. I thought we had the best waves ever, and in some ways it’s true. When you’re a kid, the waves at home are all you really need. But quickly the realization sets in – as you get a bit bigger and aren’t so scared of what the ocean can throw at you – you want more.
I‘ve travelled to the other end of the planet to get my fix of heavier hollower waves. But over the last 10 years or so I have come to realize that what I’m really looking for is right on my doorstep.
Here are some photos from a trip I did earlier in the year around the UK and Ireland.
[Above: Scotland, in my opinion, has some of the best waves in Europe but it gets cold in the winter. Changing out of your wetsuit can literally be a race to get into your warm car as quickly as possible. All photos by Patch Wilson unless otherwise stated.]
This wave is 30 minutes away from where I grew up in Cornwall. On either side there are two other equally good waves on their day. It’s funny, when I’m traveling and I tell people where I am from their next question generally is, “Do you really get waves there?” To which I reply, “No, not really.”
Aileens last winter. We had a really good run of swell and offshore wind patterns late last winter which is pretty rare for the west coast of Ireland. We had some amazing late afternoon surfs with beautiful light. Photo: Al Mackinnon
Sunrise in Scotland. In winter, the sun only comes up for about eight hours max and it sits really low in the sky. This leads to some unbelievable sunrises – always a good way to start a freezing morning.
This is Crab Island on the west coast of Ireland. This wave is currently under threat from a pier development project that is definitely going to ruin the inside point at Doolin and could put backwash through the lineup at Crab Island. At the moment, things are really not looking good for this wave. You can keep track of what is happening at Save the Waves.
By Kira Hoffman
As I paddle out into the morning fog of Pruth Bay, I can’t imagine a better way to commute to work. Alongside me are my two research assistants, Julia and Owen, with big smiles on their faces. On days like this, work and fun are interchangeable, and we’re thankful for the one-hour kayak before a sweaty, bug-suited bushwhack up the side of a mountain to get to our office: The Bog.
The three of us are working in the Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy, located on Calvert Island in the heart of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. (You may have seen the Great Bear in Groundswell – it’s one of the areas threatened by the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project.) Established as a reserve almost twenty years ago, the Great Bear is home to wolves, grizzly and spirit bears, an amazing array of marine life and one of the largest remaining tracts of temperate rainforest in the world. The reserve extends from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaska Panhandle, and we’re right in the center of it.
[Above: There's real beauty to be found in the bog. Sphagnum rubellum and Sphagnum papillosum. All photos courtesy of Kira Hoffman]The studies I do are based out of the Hakai Beach Institute, a privately run research station on Calvert Island owned by Eric Peterson and Christina Munck. Born and raised on the B.C. coast, Eric was originally a research scientist, then, for many years, a technology entrepreneur, most notably in the field of medical imaging. In 2001, Eric and Christina formed the self-funded, non-profit Tula Foundation. One of the Foundation’s ventures was to turn a failing sportfishing lodge into the Hakai Beach Institute, molding it into a center for research, teaching and community leadership. The many scientists who work here now survey everything from the seafloor to the mountaintops, attempting to understand what’s happened here in the last 15,000 years and what might happen in the future as our coast faces a rapidly changing climate.
The thick fog blankets the bay and we hug the shore, knowing there isn’t much stopping us from making a wrong turn and ending up in Japan. We pass several eagles perched in cedar trees, watching and waiting for the fish to jump. The fog is cool and we hope it burns off so we get to experience a few hours of sun, a rare thing on this wet coast.
We arrive at a place called Wolf Beach, come ashore and store our kayaks for the day. It takes the three of us some time to carry our kayaks above the high tide line – the tides in this region average about 15 feet and you don’t want to a) see your kayak floating out to sea or, b) have to drag your kayak a mile across the mud of a drained-out bay.
With the boats safely stowed, we spend the better part of an hour hiking – and sometimes crawling – through deep ravines and scrub forest before breaking into an open bog up high. The bogs in this region are a mosaic of rolling marshy topography intermingled with bonsai-like trees and large, mossy hummocks. They’re generally not considered glamorous places – quite often the beauty is lost to swarming blackflies, the smell of rotting plants, and the threat of waist-deep soakers.
Despite the cold weather, we’re drenched in sweat from hiking in gumboots, rain pants and bug suits. We’ve almost perfected navigating with thin black veils covering our faces, but someone usually falls victim to a misjudged step, which means either slipping back down the hill or getting stuck in quicksand-like mud until one of your friends hauls you out. Or, even worse, walking into a branch that tears your bug suit – something I imagine is comparable to a leak in your spacesuit. Bad news.
No we don’t ride horses in the bog. Although it appears we are dressed like equestrian riders, the outfit functions to protect us from the bugs and our sticks help us measure plants. This one goes out to one great field assistant (Julia, right) and all our fun 2013 adventures in the Great Bear Rainforest!
Once we’re on site, we settle down to work after going through the morning checks: weather station still running (survived the 80 mph winds the night before), experiments still intact (we’re in a constant battle with the wolves who love pulling out our temperature sensors), and everyone accounted for (nobody fell in the quicksand, got lost in the featureless landscape or got distracted by salmonberry patches along the way).
Bogs are common in our area, but they’re globally rare and at-risk ecosystems, and our work involves trying to learn more about them and how they’ll respond to future climate change scenarios. They filter water, store carbon and are important habitats for birds and animals, and they’re at risk of disappearing before we know much about them. My fieldwork is based on manipulating drought in the bog to understand if plants that have adapted to living year-round in water can survive without it. The three-year experiments involve cutting out pieces of the bog and raising them above the water table, where they are not saturated throughout the year, and then observing how soils and plants adapt to different precipitation regimes. We also painstakingly measure every plant in the twenty separate plots, and analyze the soil to see how nutrients are used.
As we break for lunch, we feel the wind pick up and the sun finally breaks through the fog. We all sigh a bit of relief as we’re able to take the bug suits off long enough for a drink of water and a few bites of food. Just before we settle back in to work, we hear the sound of two humpback whales feeding in the bay – it’s such a quiet place here that we can hear them blowing even though they’re half a mile away. A few hours later, after an afternoon of measuring plants, we retreat downhill to the kayaks. The tide is high, and we’re happy to find that we don’t have to hike the kayaks far. By this time our stomachs are rumbling, and we’ve already started wagers on what will be for dinner tonight.
I’ve only been working here for two years, and at first I was out of my element on the coast – I didn't know how to drive a boat, and couldn't ever seem to find the right gear for day after day of endless torrential rain. Nevertheless, I'm learning, and I feel more and more that I've found a home. After a long day of tramping through the bog, it's always nice to get time to reflect on the paddle home before I share my thoughts of the day at the big dinner table. Mostly I think about how grateful I am for each day I get to spend in this place – and for all the wild places that still exist and the people who work to protect them.
Kira Hoffman is a community ecologist studying bog ecosystems in British Columbia’s very wet hypermaritime zone on the central coast. She studies interactions between plants and soil microbial communities and how above- and below- ground processes are affected by climate change.