To Bear Witness

Oct 5, 2012

Author: Chris Darimont

Chris Darimont took his first trip into the Great Bear Rainforest in 2000, and in 2004 he started hauling a surfboard along while he did field work for his PhD, following coastal wolves from the toes of the Coast Mountains to the waveswept outer islands. "I got some strange looks [with a surfboard]," he says, "especially from my Heiltsuk friends." Chris now holds a professorship in the Geography department at UVic, and also works as the marine mammal ambassador and science director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Last fall, he was part of a crew that ventured into the Great Bear to shoot Groundswell, a soon-to-be-released short film about the unspoiled area's nature, culture and waves. From the Summer 2012 issue of SBC Surf, here's Chris's story about the trip.


i. Up a River and Back in Time

Under the boughs of a 500-year-old redcedar lies Chris Malloy. Belly down in damp moss, his Nordic beard covers a chinrest of intertwined fingers. From this concealed streamside vantage, his eyes follow an animal that, although gracing his state flag, has not lumbered through the remaining forests of California for over a century.

(intro photo: Jeremy Koreski)

The grizzly bear mother and her cubs go about their business on the opposite stream bank. Being mid-fall, it’s all business, her industry fishing for calories so they’ll have enough reserves to sleep the dark winter away. To sample multiple fishing holes, they occasionally vanish into the forest. There, they step rhythmically from one paw outline to another, burned out of riparian moss by generations of bears before them. Only a few hundred years ago, these forested grizzly bear highways would have stretched all the way to northern Mexico.

Chris’s brother, Dan, also on nature watch, gazes at a female pink salmon preparing her redd, an underwater nest of rocks. Not far behind her, two male pinks hold their position in moving water. Like any frenzied waterman, they await an opportunity to score—in this case, moving in as she releases her fertile eggs. This ancient act of renewal, once common in California, has largely been snuffed out, too. Spawning salmon are yet another victim of modernity, industry and gluttony in the Golden State.

As we take the Californian brothers up this ancient rainforest watershed and back in time, the Northern Hemisphere begins to growl. The leading edge of a groundswell assaults the shore just a few kilometres downstream, but it could be a 1,000 kilometres away as far as we’re concerned. Even Peter Devries, an icon of Canadian wilderness surfing, is off the industry clock. Earlier, our captain, Brian Falconer, had led him and Trevor Gordon within sniffing distance of another grizzly.

Later on, Lucky Lagers in hand, we reflect on the day as we sit aboard Achiever, our 70-foot steel-hulled sloop and research vessel. “That was the best day in nature I’ve ever had,” says Pete.

Like courtship gifts, the Great Bear Rainforest, a 60,000-square-kilometre swath of temperate rainforest on B.C.’s Central Mainland Coast, bestows upon its guests these kinds of magical days. Like I had years ago, our new surfer friends are falling madly in love with this remote and nearly roadless region. Well north of the relatively tame Vancouver Island, things in the Great Bear are raw, untamed and unspoiled. It was conservation science that originally beckoned me here, but surf exploration constantly renews my relationship with the place. For our guests, it’s the promise of wave discovery that entices, but the people and the wildlife of the coast will see them return. Little do they know that they’ll be coming back as allies to fight, side by side, with coastal people in a most beautiful battle.

For now, before us lies hundreds of kilometres of wild coastline and potentially dozens of undocumented waves. We have just 10 days to scratch the surface. After inspiration from Mama Grizz, we, too, feast on salmon tonight. Aboard Achiever we drift to sleep as wealthy men, dreaming of the waves and other wonders waiting when we awake.

ii. Play and Wonder

Pleasant morning dreams are curtailed by a violent wind slapping the halyard and causing Achiever to dance around her anchor chain. What unfolds is a most unusual surf day, one that speaks to the playful nature of the crew. We begin by slamming our way across open water into a protected channel. From there, it’s a 15-minute walk to a series of sloppy but predictable beachbreaks. My wife and I—and now our daughter—hit this area several times a year. With no small burden of insecurity, I share what I consider a family heirloom with the pros. What the heck will they think when they’re met with mountains of scrappy whitewater frosted by a 60 km/h cross-shore wind? To my delight, they want nothing more than to monkey around in the playground.

(above: Dan Malloy by Scott Soens)

Chris, Dan and Trevor pony up, barely able to hop on unstable legs as they suit up in the ferocious gusts. As Pete and I scurry our way around headlands and over barnacles to scout what we hope will be more manageable waves, we see the trio bobbing below in frothy water. Trevor submerges his board to then pop it out again, where the wind carries it aloft and into violent spins. Later, in a sheltered nook, he finds a way to ride his hull backwards through a rebound-formed barrel next to a little cliff in a foot of water. Farther south, Chris leads the happy bunch on a dash through a surge channel lined by prolific but potentially suit-shredding intertidal life. On the paddle back, buoyed by a following wind, Dan somehow nabs a massive, menacing left as they paddle over a reef. As I witness all this, I can’t help but smile and yell out hoots to them. These guys are clearly here for more than photo opportunities. As it always does for me, this place reveals their sense of play and wonder.

iii. Work?

The next morning gifts us a light northwest wind, a subdued morning sun and steam rising from fresh wolf tracks in the sand. The swell, now likewise muted, has swung around with more west in it. Still large for the main beach, it provides a workshop in which the pros can tinker. Dan finds the largest faces for what can only be described as his gentlemanly carving: a mature and resolute command of rail in water. Trevor, apprentice to the brothers Malloy, adds an artistic element to every wave. Out of the beachbreak chaos, he compresses his lanky frame to tuck into momentary barrels. And in between them, though at least a foot taller than his stubby board, he weaves together lines with the same nonchalance he applies to his beautiful sketchbook.

(above: Peter Devries by Jeremy Koreski)

Meanwhile, Pete is so delighted to venture north of Vancouver Island that he’s constantly ramping for a bird’s-eye view. The punchier sections give him his Cape Canaveral—to me, he rockets higher than physical principles should reasonably allow. From the shoulder, I witness this humble but focused athlete put a lot of graceful air between his board and the wave. (Chris would later thank him for putting on a 10-day clinic that displayed the portfolio that has granted our local lad a well-earned global celebrity.)

How does it feel sharing the ocean with these amazing watermen? Truth is, I’d fretted about getting in the way of magic photos or video sequences. I feel, for the first time in years, a sort of timid kookiness reserved for—and expected of—newbies. Though well at home in the water, I’m a scholar and conservationist, not a professional surfer. But I don’t need to feel that way. I’d read about the down-to-earth brothers Malloy, and heard about the considerate Devries. Nonetheless, as a scientist, I try to root out inauthenticity, and I detect none. And imagine the thrill—Chris constantly calls on me to jump in, reminding me I’m part of the team. Pete hoots me into set waves. I share some of my most precious places with these guys. In return, they share an experience I never would’ve imagined: camaraderie and a front row seat to their special work.

iv. A Defiant Groundswell

Our voyage transcends wildlife safaris and accomplished surfing. Instead, these activities provide an artistic backdrop to more serious matters. Like witnesses at potlatches, the cultural ceremonies of our coast’s aboriginal peoples, we all accept a solemn responsibility; we are to bear witness to the riches of the coast—its places, animals and people. In return, we vow to share ‘What’s at Stake.’

(above portraits: Jeremy Koreski)

A few years ago, a project of the same name involved five years of work and over 10,000 nautical miles at sea on the Achiever. Forecasting an oily industrial storm brewing, we set sail between 2004 and 2008. Scientists from our group, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, partnered with universities to log over 2,000 sightings of marine mammals and close to 15,000 marine bird observations along the B.C. coast: dozens of puke-filled crossings of Hecate Strait, up to nine months a year, and all on a shoestring.

Why? The work aboard our research vessel provided answers to never-before-asked who, when and where questions. We documented congregations of endangered seabirds in Hecate Strait during the breeding season, hot spots of recovering but vulnerable humpback whales in Douglas Channel, and much more. The information we gathered mounts a compelling argument and describes an impossible long-term relationship between the coast’s marine life and oil tanker traffic. Here is a difficult fact: in the long run, we can only have one or the other. History tells us that we cannot have both.

What if the B.C. coast were to meet the same fate as Prince William Sound in Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez spewed oil and where coastal communities are still—23 years later—desperately impoverished, both financially and otherwise, from losing their resources and way of life? What if our children one day suffer what children of the Gulf states will endure over the next several decades in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe? What if our own waterways become spoiled, like Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, into which oil gushed from a poorly maintained Enbridge pipeline?

Why the nightmare scenarios? As many know, Enbridge, an Alberta-based oil and energy transportation corporation, has dead reckoned for our coast. As media headlines blare each week, the company’s proposal for the Northern Gateway pipeline project integrates many elements of contemporary political debate—emboldened governments, the influence of Big Oil, gooey geopolitics, the spectre of environmental disaster and rapidly increasing First Nations authority to manage their territories (again).

Enbridge either ignores or capitalizes on each of these contexts. Their plan involves squeezing what scientists have described as the world’s most carbon-intensive and environmentally destructive oil from the Alberta tar sands to the B.C. coast. En route, some 1,100 kilometres of pipeline would cross more than 500 fish-bearing waterways and two mountain ranges. Each week, two to three of the world’s largest oil tankers (very large crude containers, or VLCCs) would leave a terminal at the port of Kitimat, bound for Asia or the U.S.

Like a drunk on a unicycle, catastrophe looms. The length of three football fields, and about as maneuverable, these impossibly large ships would squeeze down narrow channels, skirt around rocks and brave our wicked seas. Bound for voracious overseas markets, this risky business puts one of the planet’s last unspoiled coastlines at risk.

But against powerful opponents, a coast stands defiant. Even empowered by a well-oiled government, Big Oil is no match for the people of the ocean. I draw my own strength from a duty to provide for my young daughter. Our girl, Maëlle, has ventured into the heart of Heiltsuk Territory, just a day’s travel by spilled oil from the proposed tanker routes in a northwesterly gale. Gambling on the Northern Gateway could mean the end to the tide pools of her future, the taste of wild salmon and the other rich opportunities that await her along this priceless coast. What kind of provider would I be if I stood back and considered the pipeline proposal as someone else’s problem?

No one knows about this duty more than coastal First Nations people, as leaving a legacy for future generations reigns supreme in their culture. William, a Heiltsuk friend and colleague from Bella Bella, raises a boy about Maëlle’s age. Many years ago, his greatgrandfather, a hereditary chief of high ranking, had shared with William a warning. He cautioned that a great battle was coming (again). Just as those who remain from the first battle rebuild and revitalize their societies and cultures, outsiders are again threatening their way of life.

Young leaders like William, however, act as modern-day chiefs and warriors. Now increasingly empowered by moral and legal authority to manage their territories (again), they’re armed with ever-increasing planning, communication and an administrative capacity to do just that. In fact, legal scholars suspect that Supreme Court challenges by First Nations could constipate the progress of the Gateway pipeline to tar-like consistency. I hope they’re correct.

Gracious as always, aboriginal leaders have welcomed allies like Chris and the crew to their coast. Partnering with Raincoast, Patagonia and some of Canada’s top photo talent—Jeremy Koreski and Dean Azim—the elder Malloy has a documentary on his mind. The short film about this trip will be released this fall as Groundswell, a lovely metaphor that characterizes the evergrowing opposition to the Northern Gateway.

Think Malloy’s film will be a product of a bunch of pie-in-the-sky dolphin-huggers? Think again. And yes, we are confronting the oily hypocrisy that coats our daily lives, including our voyage. This neither-black-nor-white nuance reflects the culture of the crew. On board, Chris and I swap stories about hunting to feed our families. Pete and I compare the MPGs of our trucks. Our goal for the film is to inform and inspire, not to direct or preach. But, on a personal level, we are absolutists on one issue: no economic argument could compensate for the risks posed by oil tanker traffic on this irreplaceable coast.


v. Underwater Pebbles

The senior Malloy is not only documenting our voyage but also providing his power surfing to the project. At the mellower waves, he abandons videographer Scott Soens for brief spells. Rocking a 6mm camouflage spear-hunting wetsuit, trucker cap and no gloves, Chris rams a beater foam longboard through the shorebreak. Nabbing a few must release inspiration, as he often repositions the camera on his return to shore. These shenanigans stop, however, when we discover a couple of heavy water spots—especially a meaty rivermouth left. The river, crazed with cedar-stained runoff, wages war with a relentless army of incoming waves. Beauty, however, is born from this rage: long, steep black walls and beer-coloured stand-up barrels. Chris thrives, calmly exploiting the hollows of the trip’s deepest tubes.

(above: Chris Malloy by Dean Azim)

When I daydream about this spot, it’s not the barrels I revisit. Instead, I think about outwitting the tumultuous current and snagging a cruisey backside ride, then being rewarded with a riverine conveyor belt back into the lineup. But the real focus of my reverie is the sound of dancing pebbles we all heard as we immersed ourselves under river-bound waves on our way back out into the bay. Dragged around in the current, the stones got busy creating some serious underwater symphony. This was surely the soundtrack of the voyage for me, and a reminder of our aquatic kinship with marine mammals.

vi. No Pipeline!

Chris isn’t the only one to seek cover under heavy water. Toward the end of the trip, we stumble upon incredible luck in the form of a trio of slabs. Dan braves the middle sister. After a few bails that would surely cripple lesser men, he has lots of room to spare under the right of the trip. Drawing on his deep creative spirit, Dan piles on multiple layers of irony to christen the slab ‘No Pipeline!’ In all seriousness, though, this wave—and this trip—changes the way Dan thinks about the potential of Canadian surf.


vii. A Beautiful Battle

My experience on this unique voyage also changes the way I think about the struggle ahead. One night, this becomes clear. Brian, our charismatic captain and fellow Raincoaster, mesmerizes us with some recent history. Over peaty Scotch, he speaks of an impossible victory in which he did battle. A decade and a half ago, hungry timber barons, easily dwarfing a ragamuffin band of environmentalists and First Nations, wanted to ravage a watershed in which a culture was born.

(main photo above: Bear tracks by Dean Azim)

In the end, though, defiance won the day: folks mobilized, Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard contributed resources. But more importantly, people of the coast stood up in what a Henaaksiala elder, and adopted brother to Brian, described as “a beautiful battle.” His people, in his words, were willing to spill their blood on the rivermouth sand. Their resolve created Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees—the Kitlope Heritage Conservancy—which remains the largest intact temperate rainforest on the planet.

The Kitlope lies at the toes of the Coast Mountains, down the Gardner Canal and approximately 100 nautical miles from the proposed approach of tankers in the Douglas Channel. Freshwater melt follows this same course out to sea. Pulses of Pacific wave energy bound for land intercept this energy. Inspired by their interaction, a groundswell of opposition grows.

Juxtaposed against a VLCC 1,300 feet in length, a 6’2” shortboard doesn’t seem like much. But throw in a flotilla of locally owned salmon boats; a fleet of ecotour operators; Achiever; hundreds of aboriginal children lobbying for field trips into the best classroom imaginable; lawyers before the Supreme Court arguing for First Nations rights and title; and an army of other allies, including the spirits of a million ancestors aboard dug-out canoes carved from rainforest cedar.

A beautiful battle indeed.

For more about Groundswell and the Great Bear Rainforest, see


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