From Habitat's Deck: A Cook's View of the Great Bear Rainforest

Jun 20, 2018
Pacific Wild

Ian McAllister’s catamaran, Habitat, is anchored in a bay in the Great Bear Rainforest, but somehow the anchor is still being dragged by an angry onslaught of hurricane-force winds. Haley Crozier, Habitat’s capable deck hand, reassures me. She’s seen worse winds, she says. We’ll be fine, she adds, followed by ‘maybe put a life jacket on?’

Hundreds of thousands of dollars of camera equipment is stashed in the cabin. I look around nervously, and consider what sort of survival kit I could put into a watertight bag if I had to swim to shore. I overhear McAllister tell the crew, who are safe on the beach, that we’re fine. It’s “a little windy.” The tumultuous weather is literally and figuratively in his wheelhouse.  

McAllister comes to life at the helm, excitedly pushing full throttle toward each gust of wind. A window crashes in on one such gust he estimates in excess of 70 knots. When I make my way outside to assist Crozier, I hear him say “why aren’t you two filming this?” Crozier grabs a camera. It was all I could do to keep my breakfast down.

“Find me some coffee.” He says.

Just another day in the Great Bear Rainforest. 

I’ve come here as part of a five-person crew to capture the stunning natural phenomenon of the herring spawn, a multi-week event that happens once a year. As a camera assistant and cook, I’m excited to be part of a crew chasing an event paramount to every piece of life in an ocean surrounding one of the world’s most preserved old-growth forests—the herring migration. The thing is, we almost missed it.

Because no one knows precisely when or where—or even for how long—the spawn will happen, it’s best to stay on the boat, scouring the island shores, long before the milt dyes the tides a milky green.

We were late. The herring eggs that normally should cover miles of coastline by now, were hard to come by. There were suggestions that maybe the herring biomass simply was not there, decades of unsustainable fishing? Others thought the herring were spawning at lower depths than normal. The temperature has to be just right. The ocean is just a little warmer than it should be near the surface. This was an equally frightening idea for McAllister, the Great Bear Rainforest local and IMAX film director. McAllister knows how many of those who live on land will be affected by an inability to harvest herring eggs: the bears, the wolves, even the humans. Nervous talk of First Nations families losing portions of their yearly subsistence and income dominates conversation at port.

Over the two weeks at sea, we experienced a remarkable array of emotion: fear, frustration, and, on this dreary morning, cabin fever. As I waited for the coffee to percolate, I began to wonder, genuinely, why McAllister sacrifices his time and energy to the enormous stress of this project. Perhaps I was beginning to understand of how much of oneself must be given to create a film of this magnitude.

The cabin filled with the smell of fresh coffee and the sun peeked out. It had been days since we’d seen it. I shrugged off the cold and the damp of the deck, grabbed the binoculars, and took my tired body onto the deck.

Sun rays shine through the fog as it wrapped around the hemlock trees on the hillside. A few sea otters floated near the boat, bellies up, ready to welcome the warm sun. I looked into the slate grey of the ocean, wondering where the nearest whale might be singing under the water. The hum of the generator vibrated beneath my feet. The birds shared their morning calls, and the gentle waves lapped against the vessel’s multiple hulls. Salt in the crisp air mixed with the forest’s rich scent, and the melange reminded me of the way herring eggs tasted, when we ate them in the traditional Heiltsuk nation fashion, with hemlock needles.

The scene allowed imagination to run free: packs of wolves with their pups, slinking along the rocks, devouring the eggs. Sea lions, seals, whales, orcas, and herring, all swimming gracefully in the calm water. I saw every starfish, every bright anemone, each mollusk clinging to the shoreline. Countless birds. And I could just about picture the bears, who would be waking up from their seasonal slumber soon. So much space for life in this grand, little corner of the world.

As I became present there on the deck, looking out into the ancient forest surrounding the bay, I couldn’t help but feel comfort. Why was I here? It became impossible to question the heavy effort being made to share the story of this land—this place where everything lives and breathes and thrives in harmony. — Jordan Jacobs

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