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Salmon Trees

Nancy Baron

Our 65-foot motor vessel, Blue Fjord, is anchored in Barnard Inlet. The night is cold and wet as we wriggle into hip waders and rain gear and strap on bear spray-laden belts. Then we load cameras, tripods, and umbrellas into the red Zodiac tied to our floating home and head out into the rain for the fourth time since this morning.

Encrusted with mud from days of slogging up and down streams and bushwhacking through rainforest, our ragged-looking crew of six is still eager for the chase. We are trailing researcher Tom Reimchen as he journeys up the northern coast of British Columbia to investigate 55 watersheds for evidence to support his revolutionary discovery about the workings of West Coast ecosystems.

As the Zodiac cuts across the clear waters of the inlet, Dan Klinka, Reimchen’s field assistant, whispers to me, “Tom is the most passionate and driven man I’ve ever met.” Klinka is no slouch himself. Hard-working and unflappable, he is perfectly suited for working with Reimchen—and for researching bears at night. Reimchen’s graduate student, Deanna Mathewson, is equally diligent. Tiny as a gymnast, with blond, Botticelli curls, she is as tough as anyone else on the team.

“You look like a war correspondent,” Reimchen says to photographer Bob Semeniuk, who is dishevelled and slung with cameras.

“You look like Bo-Peep,” retorts Semeniuk. Indeed, Reimchen is wearing the green hood and shoulders of an old slicker over a filthy yellow rain suit. But with his strong features and bobbed red hair sticking out from his hood and cape, he looks more like a deranged Sir Lancelot. Although Reimchen is dead serious about his work, he doesn’t mind laughing at himself. Besides, we’re heading out to watch bears at night. It takes the edge off.

Earlier we had seen swarms of salmon in the estuary, which means that after dark, the place should be crawling with bears. We clutch night-vision monoculars and infrared flashlights—our windows into a hidden world. Over the years of his study, Reimchen has observed that bears fishing for salmon are almost twice as successful at night as during daylight hours, which is why we are heading out now.

The moment the Zodiac pulls away from the lights of the boat, we can see part of the reason why bears have such good luck at night. The wake off the Zodiac’s bow splashes green, and the water churned by the engine leaves a contrail of light. Each drop of rain that hits the water sparkles like a twinkling star. This astonishing display of phosphorescence is caused by a type of plankton called Noctiluca, meaning “night lights.” Any agitation triggers a burst of chemical light from these tiny critters, making the ocean look like a liquid galaxy. Myriad little fishes light up as they flee the boat like thousands of shooting stars going off in every direction.

Near the river’s mouth, we startle an army of salmon. Metre-long chum shoot away like comets, leaving behind a long, luminous tail, each burst of light a physical sensation. We drop to our hands and knees to gaze over the sides of the Zodiac. None of us have ever seen such a spectacle—fish scribbling the water with light. “Aquatic fireworks,” murmurs Reimchen.

Salmon, he tells us, avoid moving—unless a boat passes over them like this—because they light up like lamps when they move, making them easy targets for the bears. Bioluminescence is common in late summer and fall, coinciding with the salmons’ return to spawn. Reimchen speculates that salmon have adapted to this problem by going into a nocturnal torpor out of which they aren’t readily roused. As we step out of the boat and wade into the river’s mouth, the salmon lie like floating logs in the water. When our boots bump against them, they don’t respond.

Following the creek, we enter forest as black as a bear’s coat. We peer through night-vision glasses: it’s like peeking through a keyhole into a spooky, green-glowing world. Wherever we shine our infrared lights, we pick up bear eye shine—two gleaming emeralds in a dark pool. There is bear activity all around us, but we can see only a tiny bit at a time.

The bears shuffle up and down along the creek on trails worn by generations. To establish who is around and how close, they mark trees with scent. Bears are visually sensitive to each other, but at night they seem less leery and fish side by side. One balances on a log in the creek’s centre. We watch in silence as it gropes in the water, grabs a salmon, and retreats into the forest to eat. We can’t see it, but we can hear it, and we wince at the double pop of its teeth biting into the fish’s brain. “Brains are best,” Reimchen says. “Testes are detested.” Tonight the bears are biting off the heads and leaving the bodies, scattering them everywhere. But when salmon are scarce, the bears can’t afford to be so picky. In other areas, we’ve seen entire fish devoured, only the long, earringlike testes left uneaten. Bristol Foster, Reimchen’s long-time friend who is along to video the bears’ behaviour, jokingly suggests that we drape ourselves in testes as bear proofing. Reimchen replies that bears can strip the knackers out of a salmon with surgical precision, so it wouldn’t do us much good.

Tonight, chum salmon are so plentiful that the bears are being very fussy. Time after time we watch one bear catch a fish in its mouth, then seconds later spit it out and try again. When fishing is this good, the bears select for females. If they catch a male, they immediately sense its sex by smell, release it, and try again. Reimchen has found that the captured females are often already spawned out, so the bears’ impacts on salmon reproduction is minimal.

Klinka is having trouble with his infrared beam and clicks it on and off repeatedly. The bear stops fishing and stares in our direction. Reimchen hisses at Klinka to stop. Silence. The bear turns away and resumes fishing. We exhale deeply, relieved. The bear is absorbed in its work, feasting in preparation for winter hibernation. Salmon and bears are doing well this year at Barnard Inlet. When we finally get back into the boat, an elated Reimchen stays up much of the night celebrating the spectacle of plenty.

How bears catch and eat salmon is just one part of a much bigger picture that Reimchen is piecing together to demonstrate the links between the land and the sea. His quest to quantify this relationship began in 1992, but it originated back in 1975, when he completed his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and moved to Haida Gwaii (then called the Queen Charlotte Islands). For him, Haida Gwaii was a natural laboratory, and he luxuriated in spending 11 out of 12 months in the field, gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake. He studied stickleback, a small freshwater fish found in the islands’ lakes, which have never been glaciated. He was fascinated to find that these fish showed all the variety and specialization of Darwin’s Galápagos finches and for the same reasons: isolation over a long time and adaptation to their specific circumstances.

Reimchen could quite happily have spent his life examining the evolutionary details of these remote islands, but in the 1980s, when logging threatened to decimate their delicate ecosystems, he was drawn into the battle to save South Moresby. His detailed knowledge of the animals and their habitats was often called up when cases were being made against logging interests.

When, after years of struggle, the Haida, provincial, and federal governments finally signed the park reserve agreement, Reimchen was troubled that commercial fishing by natives and non-natives was allowed to continue in perpetuity around the reserve. “When they enshrined this in the letter of agreement, I was distraught,” he says. “To me, that just undermined the whole thing.” Parks Canada said the fishing was being done sustainably and biodiversity wouldn’t be affected, but Reimchen knew it was ludicrous to protect the land portion alone. “It was clear to me that they were overfishing the salmon and herring, two species that almost everything else relied on, and that the abundance of salmon was the predictor of the abundance of all sorts of other species.”

But Parks officials said, “Prove it,” so he began pondering how to convince the bureaucrats that

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