Here we are sitting inside to have a break from the hot sun of the past few days. Jonty is frying up some Lingcod for dinner, and a warm wind is whistling down off the mountains of the Brooks Peninsula over our boat bobbing in Columbia Cove. We weren’t sure if we would be sailing around the Brooks today, as the forecast called for gale force winds when we listened to it from deep within sheltered Klaskino inlet last night. We had been seeing a pattern in the weather however, where it was calm in the morning and built throughout the day and into the evening. We guessed that if we left first thing in the morning, it would only take us about four hours and we would be there before the strongest winds built later in the afternoon. If we got out there and it was too much for us, we could hook into the nearby Klaskish inlet. When we woke in the morning we flew into action stowing everything securely, taking down the laundry pinned on the lifelines, clearing the cockpit, reefing the main and getting our foul weather gear and lifejackets ready for action. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky and brisk breeze was blowing as we left the inlet. The swell and wind built as we aimed out for Solander Island off the point of the peninsula. It was strong, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle. We charged steadily ahead, up and down over the swell. The forecast had called for stronger winds “south of the Brooks Peninsula”. We weren’t quite sure how far south of it they meant, so we were bracing for an intense sail after rounding the bend. What we found however, was clear blue skies and a wind that was strong but so warm as to be almost hot. We thought we had taken a wrong turn and ended up in the tropics. Layers of jackets and foul weather gear came off and we sailed up to anchor in the cove.
That day turned out to be uncharacteristically, scorching. Strong warm wind continued to pour over the high, sweeping and thickly forested mountains around us. The Brooks peninsula is one of few places on Vancouver Island that has never been actively logged. The emerald green forest stretches in a thick blanket of unbroken wilderness. Clear cold creeks flow from the mountains down to the sea. The coast alternates stretches of windswept white sand beach and jagged black cliff and caves. The sand of the estuaries is criss crossed by bear and wolf tracks, their claws making small sharp depressions ahead of the pads of their paws. The tops of the trees danced in the wind, the waves peeled smoothly along the shore and the sun beamed down and through the water of the creek casting golden threads over the stones. We followed the creek upstream until we came to a waterfall plunging into a deep pool. A freshwater swim was much appreciated as we were all very salty and hot. Walking back along the beach, we were about halfway along when we noticed a large black bear lumbering along the treeline parallel with us. She looked in our direction and sniffed the air, but didn’t run off into the forest until we started making noise. Several times I’ve had bears look blankly at me and seem to not see me, until I make a loud noise to alert them to my presence. I don’t believe their sight is very good at all. Their sense of smell however, is 30,000 times stronger than ours. I think that times I have snuck up on them it’s been because I was down wind of them.
After surfing the next day, we were surprised to see the distinct dark hump of the back of a whale in the shallows. It writhed slowly side to side, occasionally pointing a long flipper skyward. We all ran down the beach to get a closer look. Was it stuck? Were we going to have to un-beach a whale all of sudden? It was only in waist-deep water. I remembered someone telling me about grey whales rubbing themselves on the bottom in shallow water, and just as I had that thought it twisted and freed itself from the sandy shallows, diving smoothly back into the deep.
Despite it’s remoteness and apparent purity, there is one constant reminder of so-called civilization on the Brooks. The beaches of the peninsula collect a huge volume of plastic garbage from the open ocean. Styrofoam, from huge hulks to tiny fragments, plastic bottles from North America, China and Japan, shoes of all sizes and descriptions, toothbrush handles, combs, endless lengths of rope and fishing floats, small plastic fragments of all sizes colours and descriptions, litter the tide line and mingle with the driftwood. We decided this beach would be a good candidate for our first clean up effort. The group of us spent two whole days pulling plastic garbage out of the driftwood and filling the bags given to us by the Surfrider Foundation.
The effort was emotionally draining as well as physically. Before beginning the clean up, the presence of plastic was obvious, but the enormity of the problem didn’t become fully apparent until we started attempting to pick it up. There were so many tiny fragments of plastic that it was obviously impractical for us to try to pick it all up. We could only do what we could, focusing on larger pieces. It’s one thing to hear about plastic in the ocean, and another thing to be directly face to face with it. It was a stark and poignant contrast to have such close encounters with wild animals and raw wilderness, and then have to deal with the flippantly uncaring refuse of commercial society in the same place.
Adding to the gravity of the experience – smoke from wildfires in the interior of BC had drifted to the coast, causing the sun to cast an apocalyptic red glow through the haze. This created the odd sensation of sweeping the floor in a burning house. Not that I want to convey cynicism about it at all. I do think cleaning up beaches is helpful – and that perhaps if everyone who lives in counties that discard plastic tried cleaning up a beach like that they would think twice about the habits of their culture. It’s obvious that the problem needs to be addressed at the source and that the longer we wait to change our habits, the deeper we bury ourselves in our own refuse of convenience.
The Brooks peninsula is a spell-bindingly wild place. It remains so wild, in part because so few people actually visit it. The irony being that if more people actually saw it, they may feel more compelled to do what they can to protect it. As far removed as we may feel from wild places in cities around the world, what we do there directly affects the whales, bears, wolves, otters, mink, octopus, salmon, eagles and other living creatures that inhabit places like the Brooks Peninsula.