Mist shrouded forests on the steep slopes of mountains along Knight inlet.
Shrouded in mist and carpeted in emerald green forests, the fjords and mountains of coastal British Columbia is home to some of the magnificent creatures that roam our planet today. These fjords are part of the Insular Mountain ranges that were formed by the violent collision of volcanic islands with the North American continent. During the last ice age these mountains were covered with glaciers that ground its way to the Pacific creating a complex network of deep channels and inlets. The Western slopes of Insular mountains receive very high rainfall (up to 300 cm/year in some areas) resulting in luxuriant growth of vegetation with trees that are moss-laden and epiphytes clinging to every branch. These temperate rainforests supports the growth of some of the world’s tallest trees such as the Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicate), Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Coast Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).
The Great Bear Rain Forest
The temperate rain forests that cloaks these mountains extends from Southern Alaska to Northern California. In the mid-90s several environmental groups campaigned to protect about 14,000 square kilometres of these pristine forests from clear cut logging. This region of the temperate rainforest that was earmarked for conservation was named the “Great Bear Rainorest. One of the magical creatures that roam certain areas of these forests is steeped in mythology and revered by the First Nations communities. According to one Tsimshian legend, Whe-Ghet the Raven, the creator of the world, decided to keep Moksgm’ol on earth to remind people of the times when the whole world was covered with ice and snow. Moksgm’ol is the Tsimshian word for a spirit-like, magical white black bear that is commonly known to us as the Spirit bear or the Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei). Spirit bears are born to regular black bears and are born white due to a recessive gene. Only 1 in 10 black bear cubs are born white and there are probably 300 to 1000 spirit bears in the Great bear rain forest today. The spirit bear represents a flagship species in conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest. However, there is one species that lies central to all the life in the forest. Beginning its life in the pristine fresh water pools in the mountain streams and rivers, they migrate down to the ocean only to return as adults to the exact spawning pools where they’re born to repeat the cycle. The Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.) has supported the people, the animals and the forests itself for eons. Each fall the whole forest waits for thousands of migrating salmon to arrive for spawning. The salmon and its eggs provide a feast for every creature that inhabits these forests. The rigour of migration and spawning takes a toll on their bodies and saps the life out of them.
A dead Chum Salmon in Gold stream river, Gold stream provincial park, Canada. (Note: Gold stream park is not part of the Great Bear Rainforest).
After spawning, the salmon die where they were born. Even in death salmon provide vital nutrients to the nearby forests. Squabbling sea gulls, eagles, bears, wolves and other creatures drag the dead and dying salmon deep into the forest where they decompose releasing essential nutrients rejuvenating the entire forest.
The Knight Inlet
At the Southern end of the Great Bear Rainforest lies one of the largest inlets in British Columbia, the Knight Inlet. Carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago, this beautiful inlet is one of the longest in British Columbia, with its sides lined with towering peaks. The mouth of the inlet opens into an area that abounds in marine life. Porpoises, dolphins, sea lions and seals roam these straits. But, one animal reigns supreme in these waters. The killer whales (Orcinus orca) travel in small groups known as “pods” hunting for fish, marine mammals and even sharks. Three races or types of killer whales have been identified along the west coast of Canada and the United States. The residents are the most common type found in the waters near Knight Inlet. These killer whales feed exclusively on fish and squids. The second type are the transients. They travel in smaller groups compared to that of residents and actively hunt marine mammals. Transients do not eat fish. The third and the least studied type of killer whale is the off-shore type. They are found in open waters and form large groups up to 200 individuals. The off-shore killer whales feed on fishes, mammals and have even been known to actively hunt sharks.
Transient killer whales in the waters of Knight Inlet near Telegraph Cove, Canada.
Birds abound these rich waters. Different species of sea gulls can be seen flying and floating lazily picking up scraps thrown out by fishermen and hunting for food when the opportunity arises. Apart from the sea gulls, these inlets harbour a wide variety of sea birds such as the Common Murre, Common loons, Rhinoceres auklets, Pigeon Guillemot and Cormorants to name a few.
A bald eagle on a perch in Glendale cove.
With a wingspan over six feet and talons like fish hooks, the Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a formidable hunter in these inlets.Even though they are partial to fish, these mighty birds are known to hunt a variety of other birds including birds as large as the beautiful Blue Heron.
The Blondes of the Glendale Cove
A mother grizzly and her cub on the banks of Glendale river, Glendale cove, Canada
Numerous glacier fed rivers and streams flow down into these inlets creating unique habitats that sustain one of the largest land carnivore in this planet. The grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) once roamed all of North America, but now they are confined in an ever shrinking habitat threatened by development and sports hunting. The inaccessible inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest remain one of the last bastion of this magnificent species. The Glendale Cove is part of one such inlet lying at the southern end of the rainforest boundary. The Glendale River empties into the cove creating an unique habitat that is dominated by Lyngby sedge (Carex lyngbyei). In early spring, the grizzlies move down from their hibernation dens in the mountains to the mouth of the Glendale River to feed on fresh sedges. These plants provide them with essential nutrients until the salmon run starts in the fall. In fact, almost 80 % of the grizzly’s diet is composed for sedges, berries and other plants.
Grizzly cubs at play in Glendale river, Glendale Cove, Canada.
Early spring is also when the female grizzly’s bring their cubs down to the estuary. The protective mothers keep the cubs at a very safe distance from big males while grazing on the sedges and foraging for sea-life on the shores. The cubs remain with their mothers for about two years before setting off on their own. The male cubs can grow to an average weight of about 400 to 790 pounds and occasionally some males can weigh as much as 1500 pounds. Females are much smaller and some females can weigh as little as 220 pounds. Grizzlies have vast home territories making them vulnerable to the Impact of forest fragmentation. Furthermore, sport hunting is also taking a toll of these majestic animals that once ruled most of North America.
Threats to the Rainforest
Clear cut logging is one of the most immediate threat to the Great Bear Rainforest. Even today large swathes of pristine old growth forest are being clear-cut with little concern to the impact that it has on the ecosystem. Recently, the Government of Canada has proposed to build an oil-pipeline that will traverse the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. A leak from these pipelines or an oil-tanker accident would destroy this unique ecosystem to irreparable levels. If immediate conservation measures are not taken we will lose these great forests forever.
Useful Links and Further Reading