If you go down to the woods today...

Trip Start Sep 23, 2009
Trip End Oct 09, 2009

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Flag of Canada  , British Columbia,
Saturday, September 26, 2009

Get up, get packed, get into that car. A stiff breeze and a good dose of sunshine blew away any martini-induced cobwebs as we took the ferry to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.  The passage was beautiful as we cruised through Horseshoe Bay then out into the open water.  We found prime seating on the floor at the stern of the ferry; we sat out of the wind and enjoyed the ever-changing blue hues of the islands as we watched the city and the Lion's Gate Bridge fade into the distance. 

After visiting Jim's family in Coombes and Parksville, we headed north to Campbell River, and caught the ferry to Quathiaski Cove, on the island of Quadra.  We spent two nights at the Heriot's Bay Inn, an old place in a lovely location.  Attached to the Inn was the local pub, where people-watching was an enjoyable pastime.  On the morning of the 27th we explored the bay, poking around the water's edge at low tide, searching for crabs and shellfish whilst enjoying the glorious light.

The Georgia Straight was as flat as the surface of a mirror.  Barely a ripple stirred it.  We watched crabs scurrying around the tide line and saw crows dropping shellfish onto the rocks to smash them open.  The crows were as mischievous as their bigger Raven cousin; as soon as one succeeded in breaking open a mollusc, a cheeky relative would swoop down to steal the prize.

We took a drive round the island, exploring the area round Quathiaski Cove before we embarked on a trip to look for grizzly bears.  Passing a house, I spotted a family of deer.  The group consisted of two fauns, a doe, a young male and an adult buck.  The fauns and doe wandered round behind the house, out of sight, but the buck took a fancy to the windfalls under an apple tree, and stayed still to feast.  I was standing by the road, taking pictures, when the door of the house swung open and the fierce-looking owner of a very bushy beard peered from his front door.  I almost expected a rifle to follow, but he stared at me, then caught sight of the deer, and closed the door again without a word.  The deer looked up as the latch clicked, and made eye contact with my camera as I pressed the shutter.

We boarded the small boat that would take us to Bute Inlet, where chum salmon were running.  The journey down Discovery Passage was spectacular, as we weaved our way between pine-covered islands. We boarded the small boat that would take us to Bute Inlet, where chum salmon were running.  The journey down Discovery Passage was spectacular, as we weaved our way between pine-covered islands.

A rattly bus drove us from the dock along the bank of the Orford River.  From the bus we saw thick forest, and occasional glimpses of rivers tinged turquoise by melting glaciers.  We passed four viewing towers, slowing as we passed each empty river bank.  At the fifth, in the distance... there was a bear!  It followed the river, coming ever closer.  We tiptoed from the bus and entered the tower, locked inside what was hopefully a bear-proof metal fortress.  The grizzly was a young male, huge and shaggy.  He came right past us, ambling along the river until he dived in with an enormous splash, and emerged triumphant with a salmon in his jaws.  He carried it to the bank and tore it apart, as gulls and crows gathered to claim any scraps he chose to leave them.  Farther up the river, a bald eagle attracted similar interest as it feasted.  Eventually it flapped off, and the squabble for the leftovers was on.

The second grizzly we saw was bigger and more muscular.  This one was a female, and just like the first bear she followed the river upstream.  The young male moved away as she got close, leaving the well-chewed remains of his salmon to be claimed by the encroaching animal.  Not a problem; he swiftly sploshed in the water again and emerged with a second fish.  

The female gnawed the bones of the first carcass, dashing the hopes of the birds.  A salmon floated downstream, belly up.  It had spawned, and life was nearly done with it.  The female brought its existence to an end with a scoop and a crunch. The fish had completed a long journey from the sea.  They were nearly spent, they were there only to breed and die.  We watched them rub against the river bed as they laid eggs.  Some were active, others almost motionless.  They became food for the eagles, bears, gulls and crabs, whilst mergansers dived for the roe.  The grizzlies were magnificent creatures with huge claws and teeth.  They were certainly the most impressive creature we saw that day, but watching the salmon was equally fascinating.  They jumped out the water, chasing each other, sometimes dancing a mating ritual.  They had been carried a long way by the compulsion that drew them to return to the stream where they had begun their life.  Their final act was to ensure the continuity of their species.  Life rolls on.

Such was the bounty provided by the salmon that other animals could venture to the river in relative safety.  A stately elk came down to drink, regardless of the grizzlies near by.  A large creature with an impressive rack of antlers, it stopped to drink for a while, then forded the river and was lost again in the thick forest.

We spotted a grizzly gazing at the chum salmon from the bank, just beyond the fork where the rivers met.  He waded across the river then strolled up stream until he was opposite our hide. He sighted a tempting target and plunged into the water.  As the surface of the river exploded, we witnessed the terrifying speed and power of a grizzly hurtling towards us. The water settled, but the grizzly was left empty-clawed.  He seemed to gaze about with a slightly dazed expression, not quite able to comprehend how he missed, or where his prey went.  I was still awestruck by the power of the attack, but had to smile at his bemused air.  The bear then turned to stalk up river, in search of his next potential prey.

We stayed with the bears for a few hours, watching them going about their business, watching the salmon and the creatures that depended on them for life, watching the light change on the river and through the forest as the sun sunk behind the leafy covering. The air remained still as the boat carried us back to Quathiaski Cove.  As the sun bowed beyond the horizon, it cast a golden glow on the clouds and turned the mountains behind us a dusky pink.  The water gave us twice the glory as it mirrored the show.
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