January 21, 2018 Features & Images » Feature Story

A many splendoured thing 

Ecology Week at Cassiar Cannery offers a top-to-bottom introduction to B.C.'s northern coastal ecosystems — and a chance to fall in love with nature

click to flip through (11) STORY AND PHOTOS BY LESLIE ANTHONY - A many splendoured thing - Ecology Week at Cassiar Cannery offers a top-to-bottom introduction to B.C.'s northern coastal ecosystems — and a chance to fall in love with nature
  • Story and photos by Leslie Anthony
  • A many splendoured thing - Ecology Week at Cassiar Cannery offers a top-to-bottom introduction to B.C.'s northern coastal ecosystems — and a chance to fall in love with nature

From a spruce tree, Dr. Darwyn Coxson plucks a wispy strand of Usnea — the lichen often referenced as old man's beard. Spreading it between his fingers like some forest-elf's game of Cat's Cradle, he notes how the environmentally sensitive organism was wiped out in Sweden by winds carrying the spoils of Europe's industrial revolution into Scandinavia. "Similarly," Coxson intones to the attentive group clustering around him, "any new, large, fossil-fuel burning project in Northern B.C. will threaten lichens for hundreds of kilometres in every direction."

It's a not-so-subtle allusion to a proposed LNG shipping terminal on nearby Lelu Island — not to mention the extensive gas fracking required to supply it. And though these days the since-cancelled project by Malaysian energy giant Petronas seems like the kind of hallucination it clearly was when then-Premier Christy Clark first swooned over what she considered the province's economic sugar-daddy, these words last May hammered home one of many effects the project would have had that no government or its lap-dog National Energy Board would ever mention.

Which was precisely why Coxson pointed it out. Ecology Week isn't just about learning the intricacies of coastal ecosystems, but ground-truthing their vulnerabilities. A chance for participants to see and hear how the environment actually works, firsthand, from the only experts that count — independent research scientists.

Back in 2010, Coxson was a vacationing botanist from the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) who'd rented a waterfront cabin at an odd little end-of-the-road place called Cassiar Cannery on Inverness Passage outside Prince Rupert. The last of the great salmon canneries to shutter on B.C.'s coast, the heritage buildings belonging to this 122-year-old institution were being incrementally restored by Justine Crawford and Mark Bell, a Vancouver couple who'd purchased the property while seeking a more adventurous life in the north.

Coxson liked the fastidiously appointed cottage, but he'd also liked that it fronted a unique, relatively unstudied ecosystem packed with organisms that piqued his interest — a spectacularly diverse estuarine salt marsh grading into temperate rainforest rich with lichens, fungi and mosses. Coxson began to return annually to conduct research, opening a new chapter in the cannery's revitalization. In 2016, Crawford had an idea to weave threads of Coxson's work with those of others in an "adventure education" tapestry she dubbed Ecology Week. The seven-day program would explore the Skeena River estuary and nearby Great Bear Rainforest by land, water and air, with experts in various fields who would lead participants through daily study modules — everything from understanding the biodiversity and importance of salt marshes, old-growth rainforest, tidal mudflats, and eel-grass beds, to the geological forces that shaped the landscape, how energy transfer works between freshwater, ocean and terrestrial environments, and the way First Nations once used and sustained the bounty associated with it all. Attendees would bunk in the cannery's restored cabins, eat in the restored dining hall, and have nightly presentations and workshops. The first Ecology Week was a raging success.

I joined the 2017 incarnation, interested in how a field course set in an historic milieu of fisheries exploitation went about presenting a story of longstanding human connection to the forest-estuary-ocean interface.

For Cassiar, repurposing infrastructure from a troubled resource industry in service of reversing the hubris that led to its demise had created a de facto ecological field station with much future potential; for participants, the experience was an opportunity to understand the intrinsic natural values of a region almost universally overlooked in conversations about the cost of resource development — a lesson that was now as clear to us as a strand of old man's beard.

This day, Coxson has already walked us up a transect from low tide line through the salt marsh, passing through different ecological communities every few metres. At this upper fringe where we now stand, one encounters the highest diversity of grasses, sedges, forbs and plants, like Pacific crabapple. It's a true apple, high in pectin, that keeps well whole or dried. Nootka rose also lines many salt marshes, providing rose hips for tea and jelly; squirrels, Coxson notes, will jam rose hips into the cracks of cottonwood bark where wind and sun dry them and they can be eaten all winter. Historical First Nations sites are often found on salt marshes, due to the proximity to the sea, of course, but also the high volume of edible plants there — though it's unknown whether the plants' proliferation at some sites means they were already there and attracted humans, or that occupation by humans increased their presence. Ecology can beg archaeological questions as well.

"I'm here because of Nina," says Crawford, explaining how she and Bell ended up owning an abandoned salmon cannery. She hadn't planned on leaving North Vancouver until her dog, Nina, beat up a neighbour's dog. Afterward, she required to keep it muzzled at all times, but when she got a ticket for having the dog unmuzzled in her car, she decided a less rule-burdened existence was in her future. Thus began a search for a new life in Prince Rupert. There was little of interest on the market until she and Bell saw the "For Sale" sign for Lot 44, site of the Cassiar Packing Company — Caspaco as it was known in its early 20th-century heyday — one of four salmon canneries lining Inverness Passage.

At first, the real estate agent didn't want to show it to them, claiming it was too far gone and that the seller was into a lot of criminal activity. But the pair persisted and took ownership, evicting some squatters in the process. Justine refers to the period between 1999 and 2006 as the cannery's "dark days" and speaks of "all the things you don't know when you buy a place at the end of the road."

To start, Nina was killed and another dog maimed by the train that ran through the property up to a dozen times a day. Then, cleaning the place up to make it even half presentable — let alone habitable — involved removing 250 metric tonnes of scrap metal. Initially, it was the property's commercial potential that interested them. Then, as they restored the still-standing managers' homes one by one, a touristic potential emerged. Soon, sport fishermen were occupying the cabins much of the summer. Programs like Women's Week and Ecology Week evolved organically from a desire to fill the shoulder periods as well as a growing interest in the North Coast environment, which remains little known in scientific circles.

Now the cannery's collection of five bright, colourful cabins overlook the twice-daily tides of the passage that reveal abandoned barges and rotting pilings. An expansive dock that used to house most of the old cannery is falling apart, but can be traversed on steel plates to where Bell, a shipwright by trade, ties up his boats. Crawford is considering making a marine laboratory out of the large remaining building left on the pier, though it's unknown how much work would be required to restore the pilings.

Stuff is always moving through the shallow channel on the tides, and many logs are just now coming down the Skeena on this year's late freshette, heading out to sea as the tide ebbs, then reversing as the tide flows back in. All this back-and-forthing affords Bell time to run out in his boat to inspect them, Beachcombers style. (In a nod to the antihero of the long-running CBC series, his company is named Relic Salvage.) By the time we leave, he's snagged a half-dozen decent cedars to be milled onsite for use in various building projects.

This is the real-life human ecology of a coastal existence. And while it's a lot of work, Ecology Week itself, with all its researchers and varied activities, brings a fun and interesting break. "Sometimes I think I organize these weeks just so I can do all these cool things," says Crawford.

Why not? The opportunity to create a life and job that's a continual learning experience doesn't come around often.

On a day out with Reo, a Swiss transplant and local bird expert, we identify robins, sparrows, thrushes, starlings, jays, flickers, geese, gulls, ducks and a welcome squadron of tree swallows dive-bombing the clouds of insects we attract.

Reo is a classic birder: a knowledgeable, passionate, somewhat awkward ambassador for these winged vertebrates. He has bird books a plenty, each as confusing as the next, but as amateur naturalists, everyone in the group has at least some familiarity with birds and is keen to learn more. Everyone but me is armed with binoculars, and when Reo suddenly issues a kingbird alert — a rarely seen Interior species suddenly more given to wandering by climate change — they all swivel right in unison, binos pressed to their faces, a comic sight. Watching people watch birds is at least as interesting as the birds themselves.

Birds are important agents of energy transfer between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and seabirds are more plentiful here in the winter as the climate is milder and food more abundant than inland. The North Coast bird fauna contains forms familiar elsewhere — such as blue herons and mergansers — and those specific to coastal environs, like auklets and murrelets.

Though it's not a birding trip per se, when we join guides April and Chris that afternoon in a First Nations ocean-going canoe to circumnavigate Lelu Island, we see plenty: Around every corner mergansers peel across the water, and clouds of gulls rise from stark, rocky outcrops where the yellow flowers of salt-spray-tolerant villous cinquefoil seem oddly decorative.

Passing banners and protest encampments, we learn how peer-reviewed science has shown that more juvenile salmon use Lelu Island's Flora Bank at the mouth of the Skeena than anywhere on the North Coast. A sand deposit dumped after the last Ice Age, it's clear from what we see that Flora Bank is a unique, delicate and unlikely ecosystem that, in theory, should have long-since eroded away. Instead it has been held in place by tides, waves, river input, and currents to become a fortuitous key to the Skeena's salmon productivity. A suspension bridge to the proposed LNG terminal on Lelu would have disrupted this balance, leading to erosion and disappearance of the salmon nursery habitat, which could never rejuvenate in the absence of sand. In addition to physical disruption, constant noise and light from industrial processes would threaten even after construction, as well as spills of fuel and other toxicants on the bank. In short, it was clear how an LNG terminal here would have devastating consequences for B.C.'s second largest salmon river — a $110-million-per-year economic hit to an otherwise sustainable sector of the region's fragile economy.

Doubtless, everyone who attended Ecology Week breathed a sigh of relief when it was cancelled.

In an impactful landscape, you often find yourself reaching for the right superlatives; on the North Coast, such landscapes are of such abundance, and so many adjectives might apply, that you find yourself discarding superlatives to reach the right ones. On a jet-boat trip up the pristine Kasiks River, we enter a glacial topography of sheer cliffs and distant peaks reminiscent of a Norwegian fjord, with dozens of icy waterfalls — Rapunzel's silver braids let down over 1,000-metre faces everywhere.

As we wind upstream, harlequin ducks tuck into the bank and sandpipers skitter over — naturally — sandbars. Stopping on a large bar, we find old grizzly tracks and a moose skeleton in the shallows; on others can be seen bear, wolf and beaver tracks. And the Kasiks is only one of hundreds of such rivers and streams running into the Skeena.

The Skeena is an enormous 54,000-km2 watershed, with an average flow of 1,760 m3/s. The sediments brought from the Interior create the ecosystem of the Inverness passage, where two to three metres have accumulated over 5,000 years or so. This sediment — OK, mud — sees our next ecological spotlight shone on marine invertebrate ecology. UNBC's Dr. Travis Gerwing, a.k.a. Dr. Worm, gives us a sense of the relative health of mudflats on the North Coast despite the footprint of development and introduced species. He also notes how canneries that played a role in the collapse of salmon runs are also playing a positive role in their recovery — the abundant waste of canneries historically fertilized areas like Flora Bank on which young salmon transition from fresh to saltwater.

Intertidal mudflats are the most dynamic portion of the coast, and we learn that it's wave energy which differentiates sand and mud; where silt and sand are held in solution, and only sand can settle out of high-energy water, you get beaches; where energy is lower you get mudflats. The intertidal zone is a world of extremes: high tide offers a constant environment where aquatic predators are the only concern to most organisms, but during low tide there are the hazards of hypoxia, desiccation, thermal stress, and terrestrial predators like birds and bears to contend with. "Flats" is actually a misnomer, says Gerwing, as mud is a three-dimensional world dominated by competition for food and space that falls within a limiting suite of parameters. "Meifauna" (stuff that lives in the sediments) are indicator species that tend to die off due to any disturbance, and are thus canaries in the coal mine for animals higher up the food chain like salmon. Though the Skeena is understudied with regard to meifauna, biodiversity here is shockingly rich — some 40 species where 10 would be considered a high number.

As Gerwing leads us out onto the flats, the big challenge is striking a gait that keeps boots from sticking in the mud; I adopt a tip-toe method with my heels free of the suction they seem to attract. Gerwing shows how marine biologists conduct random substrate sampling by pushing a tin into the muck, whose contents are then sieved to reveal tiny mollusks and a few crustaceans. Closer to the water, the dwelling tubes of polychaete worms (marine relatives of terrestrial earthworms) protrude from the silt. Elsewhere, we turn rocks to find young crabs and gunnions, small eel-like fish that attract great blue herons to this shoreline. A couple of days later, Travis will dig up a 30-centimetre polychaete that has never been recorded on the North Coast, showing how much is left to be discovered. "How can any proposed industrial project here get an adequate environmental assessment when the baseline data for the area is so poor? Who knows what's out there to be impacted? Who knows what already has been negatively impacted or even disappeared?"

Another day, Dr. Carla Burton discusses the traditional use of some 200 medicinal, edible and spiritual plants. She speaks of traditional ecological knowledge — a body of expertise held in Indigenous communities that represents information, advice and wisdom that has evolved over centuries of living as part of the environment — and the materials traded along the grease trails of northern B.C.: fur, obsidian, yew wood, soapberries, huckleberries, berry cakes, and various medicines.

Burton is joined by her good friend, Alice Azak, a Nisga'a Nation matriarch of 90 years. Azak has had 11 children, losing three. Her husband died of cancer at 36 and she raised the remaining eight kids herself. Warm and generous, offering stories of foraging, harvesting and medicine making, Azak leads us in creating a salve from devil's club, a large understory shrub. First, we strip the spines off then peel the bark down to the green stuff, shredding this into a crockpot and adding an equal amount of coconut oil (traditionally, eulachon oil or bear grease would have been used) and slow-cooking for a day or so. In another exercise, boiling up blueberries with a little sugar added, we let the mixture thicken and cool then spread it on skunk cabbage leaves to dry and become fruit leather. After a few days, you peel it off and roll it up.

That evening we're joined by Grace Hamilton, a skilled cedar weaver of preternatural talent who introduces us to the practice. Soaked coils of the inner bark of a red cedar are cut variously into long flat strips and narrower ones like stout cord, which we will attempt to weave into baskets. It's damningly difficult, requiring nimble fingers and consummate patience; the basket starts flat, with alternating light and dark strips (back and front of the bark), then a similar arrangement is woven through them; a cedar cord is pulled around the entire square to lock in the bottom of the basket. While many give up and go to bed, I get some help from a sympathetic staff member, stick it out and come away with a hard-won — albeit wonky — prize.

As a wrap to the week, we see how all the elements of estuary ecology fit together in the world-renowned grizzly bear sanctuary of Khutzeymateen Inlet. Khutzeymateen (K'tzim-a-deen or "Valley at the Head of the Inlet" in Coast Tsimshian) is a short 40-km hop from Prince Rupert in a floatplane through a pass hemmed by soaring rock walls. In an eye-blink we land on the mirror-still inlet beside Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge, whose recent high-end makeover by owner Jamie Hahn has created a crucible of classic coastal sensibilities and modern rustic chic. We lunch on monster sandwiches and chili, then take to an aluminum viewing boat. Through binoculars, we watch a bear digging clams in the bay directly across from us. Her name, says Hahn — who knows them all — is Hot Chocolate, and she has apparently mated with three different males this spring. In the next bay over, one of these Romeos munches sedges by himself. A kilometre north, gliding with an electric motor, Hahn is able to manoeuvre close to a large female and three cubs doing the same, abiding by strict rules of engagement for not disturbing them.

Grazing is only a warm-up for the big show in a few weeks time, when salmon will show up to breed in the inlet's streams. As a keystone species, grizzlies depend on a healthy, fully functioning ecosystem to support a variety of animals, fish and native plants. As they have for millennia, Coast Tsimshian First Nations also depend on this area for social, economic and cultural prosperity.

The Khutzeymateen's protected areas are home to some 50 to 60 grizzlies — possibly the species' highest concentration in Canada. As we head up the estuary, we encounter bear after bear — 11 in total — one of which, while we watch, bemused, tires of turning rocks for crabs and lies splayed out, belly down, on the beach for a snooze. Seeing bears like this is startling, intimate, a privilege. We all come away with a singular feeling: that the Khutzeymateen is an adventure learning experience extraordinaire, and an ecotourism model for the future. As the linchpin of Cassiar Cannery's week of ecological insight, it couldn't have been more appropriate.

Ecology Week 2018 runs May 29–June 6. For information, visit casiarcannery.com

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