Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Adventures

Cedars Along the Coast

Friday, May 8, 2009

KayakerWe paddle the protected shallows of the emerald green islands of the Tribal Group located off the central coast of British Columbia. We have purposely planned a few days of exploration here, seeking a respite from the more exposed waters along our route back to Vancouver Island. Our adventure started a week ago from the ferry terminal for the coastal community of Bella Bella. Our self-supported, thirty day journey takes us through wild landscapes. We tour the temples and galleries of some of Mother Nature’s best work. By draping a strand of bull kelp across your deck to hold your position in the current created by the restrictions between the islands, you can peer over the side of your kayak into the clear water. Fronds of ribbon kelp, speckled with herring row undulate in the sun dappled surface. Slender kelp crabs scuttle across the fronds. As your eyes adjust, you can see juvenile painted greenling hover in the protection of the tentacles of white-spotted anemone. anemone imageThe opal squid floats by the ethereal opalescent nudibranch, vermilion star and peppered sea cucumber in this liquid heaven. Red sea urchins graze the kelp beds, their numbers held in check by the coastline’s jester, the sea otter. This whiskered wonder can eat up to fifteen pounds of food a day and is renowned for their tool use and other incredible adaptations. To see an otter pup cradled in its mother’s embrace assures the observer that everything is right in this world. The triad of kelp, urchin and otter create another example of woman on rocks imageNature’s perfectly tuned balance and cycles. This intertidal community is a partial glimpse into the vast and incredibly diverse underwater world most of us will never know.

The distinctive sound of mammalian exhale draws our attention off shore, where a mother gray whale and calf swim North to the nutrient rich waters of Alaska. Traveling up to eighty miles a day on their yearly thirteen thousand mile migration, these giants are one of the earth’s oldest mammals. Gray whales share this route with humpbacks as both species try to avoid encounters with their shared predator, the transient strain of the orca, which specializes in hunting their calves. The sound of the humpback’s song in the middle of the night as they pass by our camp is as evocative as you will ever hear.

The mist and rains of the temperate rain-forest that rises just beyondkayaker image the ribbons of sugar white sand beaches, create cathedrals of lofty, ancient cedar and fir. Run off follows the rugged terrain to create streams, home to among other things, North America’s only aquatic passerine, the american dipper or water ouzel. This songbird’s unique habits include it’s ability to walk underwater and forage in the swift currents of streams, prodding for invertebrates, fish and fish eggs. Some of those eggs could be from salmon, sacred to the First Nation peoples. The complicated life cycle of the salmon connects thousands of species of plant and animal, directly linking the domains of both salt and fresh water. Dead salmon provide up to eighty percent of the nitrogen for the trees that line salmon streams. The same trees that provide the shade and strainers that make perfect nurseries for the salmon’s eggs. Wolves and bears share the fondness for salmon eggs with the ouzel and will distribute the nitrogen from eggs and fish throughout the under-stories of these mystical forests. Eliminate just one component of this cycle and the system collapses.

I seldom feel more content, alive and at peace then when I’m woken by the sweet sing song call of the varied thrush, the soft light of morning and the heady, sensuous smell of spruce along the B.C. coast. Careful not to wake my tent-mate, confidant and co-instructor, Ms. Petzold, I quietly leave the warmth of my sleeping bag and enter into the sacred world, where ancient forest meets the luminescent sea. I brew a thermos of thick coffee and another thermos of chamomile tea, which I place inside the tent’s door. After checking for wind direction, with binoculars in hand and bear spray in my pocket, I walk the beach in search of early risers. The tide has been ebbing for a couple of hours now, retreating from it’s terminus. Sitka deer tracks and a series of wolf prints ramble up and down the beach, both set of tracks indicate relaxed gaits. Though both sets of tracks were made recently, the two species had visited apart from one another. beach imageBeaches are often busy with morning traffic, they provide an unfettered alternative to the thick, shrubby forest that rises abruptly at the beach’s storm tide line. These walks often bring sightings of mink, river otter, pine martin, ptarmigan, siskin and sometimes glimpses of migrating snow geese or sand-hill cranes following the coastline north to their nesting grounds.

I find myself at the north end of Indian Cove, where the sometimes gigantic Pacific swell trips over the shallow waters of Neck Ness. A light drizzle softens the sound of surf. I sip from my thermos and look back towards camp. A few others have stirred from their deep, undisturbed slumber. When our month long journey closes, we will talk of a sense of place, a place that pulls one in, envelops you with its rightness, its fullness. beach with sun imageAs a group we will have laughed, ate and lived together in ways and in intensities that do’t happen at home with even your closest friends. The morning banter pulls me back toward the community we have created that shares each day the beauty of wild places. Each of us celebrating the smell of coffee and the mist off of cedars. We stretch, greet the day, exchange morning hugs. No one wants to be anywhere else.