The Great Bear Rainforest, along BC’s north and central coast, is a Canadian treasure, and without question one that also holds immense global significance. The nutrient rich waters of the Great Bear Sea support a thriving abundance that sustains an equally diverse terrestrial ecosystem. Together, this perfect interface between land and sea has created one of our planet’s richest biological incubators, kind of like an “Amazon North”, but for temperate species. There are the wolves of the Great Bear, a population that is known to be genetically and behaviourally distinct from their inland cousins, a population that has uniquely learned to fish; there are the herring and salmon, both cornerstone species in the food web and nutrient cycle that drive the entire ecosystem, including, believe it or not, the diverse plant community within the forest itself; there are the humpbacks and orcas, the seals and sea lions, the bald eagles, ravens, and seabirds, the grizzlies and black bears, and of course the iconic Spirit Bear, the white-coated black bear that has become a foundation for the indigenous cultures that call the Great Bear home. Biological and genetic hotspots such as the Great Bear will undoubtedly become central pieces in the puzzle as we learn to live on a planet undergoing unprecedented rapid change. So imagine being presented with the unique opportunity to quite literally immerse yourself in the wonder of the Great Bear, and truly experience it from a perspective that few others will ever get the chance to do.
Early on the morning of July 11th, 2016, three close friends and lifelong swimmers – myself, Jill Yoneda, and Susan Simmons – along with an amazing support team of kayakers, safety personnel, and a film crew, boarded the ferry in Port Hardy to sail six hours north through the lower Inside Passage, destined for the Heiltsuk First Nation town of Bella Bella. We were going armed with the goal of becoming the first people to ever attempt a distance swim in the frigid ocean waters of the Great Bear Sea, swimming up to 50km over the course of two consecutive days. Our adventure would begin on the shores of the abandoned town of Ocean Falls, take us down Cousins Inlet into Fisher Channel, veer off through Gunboat Passage, past the tiny town of Shearwater, finally crossing Lama Passage to land at Bella Bella.
Ocean Falls, now largely deserted and decaying, was once a vibrant and industrious town with a legendary swim coach who managed to produce a disproportionate number of Canadian Olympians throughout the 1960s. Many of the coaches the three of us have had throughout our years in the sport have been schooled in his ways. As such, Ocean Falls holds a noteworthy place in Canadian swimming history, and so choosing it as our start line was in honour of its value and contribution to our own lives. The rocky remains of the crumbling retaining wall that once formed the foundation of the old aquatic centre, now barely distinguishable from an overgrown rock pit, seemed like an appropriate launch point to start the swim. Bella Bella, on the other hand, is the central community and meeting place for the Heiltsuk Nation, a people known for their enduring and spiritual connection to the land and water that surrounds them and gives them life. For me, this represented one of the greatest opportunities this adventure of ours would bestow – a unique chance to experience, even if just by a glimpse, a culture that so intensely values its relationship with the natural world, something I believe our high-tech and hustle-bustle world far too often disrespects.
We arrived in Bella Bella with a few days to spare, giving us valuable time to relax, calm our nerves, get to know our hosts and the locals, and very importantly, do a last-minute test of the water. The Great Bear Sea is cold, which of course we knew, and figured would likely present as one of our biggest challenges. I admittedly wasn’t even sure what we were proposing to do was going to be possible. We were told to expect surface temperatures anywhere between 12 and 17°C in mid-July – for reference, your local aquatic centre pool is probably kept at around 26-28°C. Susan, who has multiple sclerosis, exploits the chill of the water to help regulate her body temperature, something those with MS often have a severely diminished capacity to do, and so she had no plans to wear a wetsuit at any point during the swim. She planned instead to rely on her well-trained cold tolerance that she has developed from years of ultramarathon swimming. Jill and I, on the other hand, were about to embark on our first attempt at a long-distance swim in water that cold. Jill opted to use a thin, sleeveless wetsuit, while I made the decision to attempt the swim without. I wanted to test out how long I could hold out before the effects of hypothermia would ultimately force me to abandon the swim and exit the water.
Our training required not only countless laps at Crystal Pool or around Thetis Lake, but also a lot of time simply spent immersed, at practice or at play, in water most people likely would not even wade into up to their knees. Just as a marathon runner builds their distance over time, we slowly built up our frequency and duration of cold-water exposure over the course of the preceding year. Some of our, albeit shorter, training sessions were in water as cold as 8-9°C. And trust me, water that cold is downright painful – imagine the worst of ice cream headaches, only that it won’t go away just by putting down the ice cream. Surprising, I learned quickly how to tolerate and get beyond the discomfort the cold water created – and then everything changed. I started to enjoy it. I wanted to go longer, or colder, just to see what I could withstand and what would happen to my body as my core shed more and more heat. By the time we arrived in Bella Bella in mid-July, I honestly can’t say I had any idea of what my limit was. I figured I could last at least two hours (6-8km), maybe three (10-12km), in water as cold as 13-14°C, before I would start to notice a loss of control in the muscles in my fingers and hands. In fact, the safety crew knew to specifically monitor my ability to open and close zip-lock food baggies containing either an wrapped section of protein bar, an unpeeled half banana, or a slippery piece of cantaloupe, one of which would be handed to me by my support kayaker at 30-minute intervals throughout the swim. The rule was that if I couldn’t get into my food, I wasn’t allowed to remain in the water – a fair rule indeed. Despite my new-found love for cold water, I still joined in on the collective sigh of relief to the news that the surface temperatures had consistently been hovering between 15 and 17°C the week prior to our arrival.
We departed for Ocean Falls the day before we were scheduled to start the swim, traveling the entire course in reverse on the mothership, our primary support boat. It was a chance to sit back, soak in the incredible beauty and pristine wilderness on display in the Great Bear, and make note of the major sighting landmarks along the route. It also offered an opportunity to steal a few moments of quiet, solitary meditation as excitement and apprehension started to play an intense game of tug-of-war with our nerves. Upon arrival, we kept our minds occupied by taking a stroll through the ruins of the once lively neighbourhoods. It’s an interesting place where nearly every house stands abandoned, exhibiting the eerily beautiful signs of nature slowly reclaiming the space and resources. It’s a strange sensation one gets as you start to ponder the lives once lived there, some of whom obviously just up and left one day leaving behind so many of their cherished belongings. In one case, we peered through the cracked or missing windows of what was once someone’s modest sun room, and there pushed up against the peeling and crumbling walls were two wooden upright pianos, strings now partially exposed, left behind likely because it was just too expensive to barge them out when the town fell silent. We encountered a surprising number of people that day, at least for a so-called ghost town. They were primarily other transient visitors there on a fishing holidays, or retirees stopping in to check out the town while spending the summer sailing the Inside Passage. Most oddly though, was that many of those supposed strangers knew exactly who we were – that crazy bunch of swimmers who were willingly planning to swim all the way to Bella Bella.
We settled for the night in the comfort of the Ocean Falls Fishing Lodge, very kindly opened to us and our crew by the caretakers and owners of the lodge, people we had only met only a few months prior while visiting on a reconnaissance tour. After a wonderful home-cooked, carb-loaded dinner, we all sat around the sprawling dining room table to make a few final passes over the tide schedules and navigational charts, review the emergency and safety procedures, discuss feeding and hydration plans, finishing with each swimmer laying clear their goals and strategies. Susan planned to swim the entire 50km over two days; Jill was gunning to complete the full 25km on the first day one and would take a wait-and-see approach on the second; and I was hoping to make it to at least the 10km mark, or about 2-3 hours, each day, and would only keep going if the cold didn’t force to stop. While most went off to bed immediately after our meeting, I decided to sit in quiet contemplation out on the big concrete porch outside the lodge and peered out into the darkness, listening to the sound of the falls in the distance. Holy crap … this was really going to happen.
We awoke early the next morning to an almost ghostly calm. There was a chill in the air, and the low-hanging, dense clouds made it feel like it could start raining at any moment. Thankfully, the winds were quiet, leaving the water a sheet of glass with barely a ripple. We didn’t have much time to think about anything that morning, which was probably a good thing. We had to get an early jump on the tide if we wanted to catch it in our favour. A quick breakfast, a couple strong cups of coffee, and we were on our way down to the dock. My nerves were a mess, making eating no easy task as the butterflies took control of my stomach. They wanted nothing to do with the food I was so insistently trying to force down. Time was ticking though, and before we knew it we were piling into our smaller support boat, which would deliver us up the shallow channel to the base of the falls. We hopped out onto the rocks below where the old pool once stood, mere meters downstream of the white water coming over the falls. The freshwater was noticeably colder than the ocean near Bella Bella, probably sitting somewhere around 14°C, that fine line where I knew fun and discomfort would clash. But there we were, the three of us standing together, smiling nervously for the camera, watching the boat pull away. This was it, now or never, there was no turning back.
We had barely been swimming 10 seconds when I started to hear it – the sound of people cheering. Many of those we had met the day before were now standing along the shoreline, offering enthusiastic support and well wishes as we started our epic journey. Emerging out into Cousins Inlet, we passed the tiny harbour, at which point the sound of boats horns joined the chorus. I know I’ll never know rock star fame, nor truthfully do I yearn for it. But I will admit, for a few passing moments, it was a pretty darn cool feeling to have reached celebrity status, even if it was abandoned-town, Ocean Falls style. We even had groupies. A wonderful couple from Prince George, there on a weeks-long fishing trip, whose 3 of 5 children also just happened to be competitive swimmers, would occasionally pull up next to our slow-moving convoy to check in on how we were doing, always taking the opportunity to shout out some loud and wholehearted encouragement. It’s experiences like this that makes life what it is – they are occasions to meet and connect with all sorts of interesting people that you would probably never otherwise have the chance to cross paths with.
It didn’t take long for Ocean Falls to disappear behind us as we turned south to follow the western shoreline of Cousins Inlet. The water in the inlet is deep and nearly crystal clear – a perfect combination for swimming one might think, right? Well, not for me. It became abundantly clear relatively early on in our ocean training that my biggest challenge was going to be confronting my active imagination. Catching moving shadows out of the corner of your eye as you stare down into the dark abyss can fuel unnerving thoughts of the unknown creatures lurking below. I guess more precisely, I worry about what the heck I was going to do if one those creatures happens to pay me a visit, or worse, thinks I look like a tasty meal. I’m used to swimming in lakes, and although I’ve also been known to still conjure visions of the Ogopogo while swimming in Okanagan Lake, or the Stin’qua in Cowichan, I know the most dangerous things in a lake are likely going to be motorboats and floating deadheads. The ocean, on the other hand, is teeming with of all kinds of real monsters – sea monsters – like the wonderfully weird and occasionally dangerous jellyfish, or the graceful but haunting kelp gardens and forests, which we all know are perfect hiding spots and camouflage for the ravenous and malevolent creatures. There’s also the friendly and curious, like seals and dolphins. And of course, our planned route also just happened to go right through busy migratory routes and rich feeding grounds for the giant humpbacks and orcas. Some might refer to what I experience as a phobia. I prefer to call it a perfectly rational and healthy respect. Call it whatever you want. I was quite relieved to have witnessed a very few and mostly unexciting signs of life on that first day – the occasional silvery flash of a fish darting away, or the circular and slowly pulsating outlines of jellyfish deep below. Little did I know that that sense of relief would very quickly evaporate the following day.
At about 2 hours in, the water started to take on a distinctly saltier tone, and the visibility gradually declined as the water filled with an abundance of nearly microscopic life. We were now in the ever so slightly warmer ocean waters, which couldn’t have come at a better time. Both pinky fingers had ceased to remain under my control, and I figured I was only one or two feeding breaks away from having to call it a day. Thankfully, the constant fight against the cold started to ease, and at around the three hour mark I hit my goal of 10km. My fingers were fully back under my direction and I was having way too much fun to get out, and so I continued to push on. Another two hours past, at which point I started to feel that all too familiar pinch in my left shoulder, the consequence of being a distance junkie for most of my 30 years as a swimmer. Knowing there was still another full day of swimming ahead, I chose to preserve my shoulder and exit the water. I had made it about 5 hours, and covered just over 15km, the longest swim I have ever accomplished to date.
Back on board the mothership I layered myself in warm clothing, poured myself a hot tea, made a couple of sandwiches, waited for the shivering to stop, and then went back out on deck to help observe and support Jill and Susan as they pushed toward Stokes Island. Both are amazing strong women, something they clearly demonstrated so many times throughout those two remarkable days. At between 8 and 9 hours, we all watched in awe as they together scaled the side of a rocky ledge on Stokes Island, only about a kilometer from the entrance to Gunboat Passage. Quickly, we got them onboard, assessed their condition, and start the warming procedure. It’s a slow process that needs to be carefully managed to avoid the possibility of sending the swimmer into sudden cardiac distress. Jill was in rough shape in comparison to Susan. Her core temperature had dropped slightly below the 35°C threshold where the effects of hypothermia can become much more dangerous. Thankfully, Jill recovered quickly over the next couple hours, only suffering from a pretty spectacular case of exhaustion, understandably so. Day one was officially in the bag, and so off we went to our host’s place near Bella Bella for a big dinner and an early night to bed.
Again, we awoke to cool and cloudy skies, the winds a little stronger, the water a bit choppier. Everyone was feeling sluggish that morning, each one of us visibly carrying some of the previous day’s strain. Shuffling around quietly, we packed up, boarded the mothership, and set out to find the exact same rocky ledge where Susan and Jill had exited the water the previous day. The plan was that they would enter there, while I would launch from a rocky point at the mouth to Gunboat Passage and swim out to join them. Timing was of the essence that day, and we were running late. We had to get through Gunboat, a relatively narrow and shallow waterway with a jagged shoreline carved out with a plenitude of inlets and bays and dotted with occasional islands and rocky outcroppings, before the tide started to change. On a good day, the surface currents and near-shore eddies in the passage would present an unpredictable and formidable opponent. At its narrowest point, about 8-10km down from where we started that day, Gunboat constricts and squeezes the water between the two relative calms on either side, creating some incredibly impressive tidal flows. Arriving at those narrows too early would mean facing turbulent and potentially dangerous currents; arriving too late would mean tackling currents far too powerful to swim against; timing it just right would mean catching a sweet and safe ride right on through.
I was barely in the water 10 seconds when, this time, I nearly ran directly into it – a massive fried-egg jellyfish hovering just below the surface, much bigger than any I had ever come across while training in the Saanich Inlet earlier that summer. I knew fried-egg jellies were relatively harmless, at least to humans, so I had little reason to fear it on that front, but I was still admittedly taken aback by its sheer immensity. The bell was easily the size of a large dinner plate, with long, trailing tentacles extending several feet below that. Of course, I was already in an elevated state of awareness, as just minutes before I had witnessed Jill and Susan swim through a scattering herd of seals that had been lounging on the rocky shoreline. And mere moments prior to that, we caught a glimpse of a pod of humpbacks, one flashing its fluke as the enormous animal dove and disappeared below the surface. We had seen so little life the day before, but that was not how it was going to be on the second day, quite the opposite indeed. In fact, I had no idea I was about to be tested in a way I was obviously not prepared for.
Huge jellyfish, dense kelp and seaweed gardens, moving shadows, and eerie dark patches – my imagination thrust itself into overdrive, my nerves into a constant state of strain, just barely below their threshold. It was a struggle, but I managed to maintain my control and composure, at least I did until I arrived at the narrows of Gunboat where the currents were thankfully still swiftly moving in the direction we were swimming. The shallow contours of the submerged, underwater ridges started to flash into view, almost out of nowhere, then disappear almost as quickly. They were plastered with all sorts of life – all perfectly harmless life I’m sure, but still enough to set something off inside my head. And that’s when it happened. I started to descend into a state of panic. I fought as hard I could, but an inescapable, almost claustrophobic urge to escape the confines of the water started to take over. I was losing control and wanted out – and I wanted out now. I knew the only way to escape the downward spiral was to regain jurisdiction over my breathing, and so I rolled over onto my back, laying nearly motionless in the water as I let the current took me, focusing my attention wholly on one deep, slow breath at a time. Thankfully, my amazing support kayaker Tom, an accomplished competitive freediver and experienced ocean adventurer, knew exactly how to calmly talk me back down off the ledge. With control tenuously re-established, I turned back over on to my front and continued swimming.
I pushed on for another hour or so, but I was struggling, mentally much more than physically. I had been swimming for too long under a state of anxiety that far exceeded my comfort level, and so at about the four and half hour mark (about 12km), I grudgingly made the decision to exit the water. Once back on the mothership, I found out Jill had also left the water about an hour and half earlier, her body profoundly experiencing the effects of the previous day’s punishment. Susan was the only one left in the water, and she was looking and feeling strong. Susan swam on through what remained of Gunboat, did a swim-by in front of the town of Shearwater, and pushed on toward Bella Bella.
With about 2 kilometers to go, Jill and I jumped off the side of the boat and joined Susan for the final stretch. Word had spread that we were on our final approach, and as I looked ahead to the spit where we planned to land, I noticed a small crowd starting to assemble. It continued to grow steadily, and with less than 5 minutes to go the sounds of wailing boat horns and people cheering began to fill the air. We were so close to achieving something I thought might have been impossibly just a year earlier. We took our final few strokes, firmly planted our feet on the rocks, and climbed ashore together. Quickly we were wrapped in warm blankets and then proceeded up the embankment toward the smiling faces of those who had ventured out to welcome us ashore. The minutes that followed are by far the most memorable, and easily my favourite moments of the entire experience. People genuinely wanted to know what it was like and engaged in conversation as though we had known each other for years. Especially memorable were the exchanges we had with the countless Heiltsuk children, who seemed to look upon us with awe and admiration, an exceptionally gratifying cap to a very rewarding journey.
Where do we go from here? Well, a new year brings new challenges, and it is our hope to be back in the Great Bear sometime soon to stage yet another swim. We hope that that week last July was just the beginning. We hope to build upon the friendships we’ve already forged. Our swim provided a foundation on which we built relationships with communities across the region. Through our swim, we raised much-needed funds to help support the Qqs Projects Society’s Koeye Camp, a Heiltsuk Nation summer camp for children that fosters scientific and cultural environmental awareness. The remaining funds raised went to help support people living with MS. We also worked closely with Pacific Wild, a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of awareness and ecological conservation efforts in the Great Bear Rainforest. It was no small task to be able to do all this, and we don’t want to stop now. We are aware, however, that continuing these efforts will require innovative thinking and determination. The Great Bear is isolated and sparsely populated, at least in the human sense, which makes it an expensive and challenging place to get to. We are endeavouring to work with BC Ferries and Pacific Coastal Airlines in hopes of gaining some much-needed travel assistance, and are pursuing other support opportunities for other aspects of the project. But where there’s a will, there’s also a way. So stay tuned for more exciting adventures to come in 2017 and beyond.
Photo credits: Russel Clark and Trisha Stovel, Seaproof TV (www.seaproof.tv)