Thursday, April 1, 2021

Big Trees


Recently my hiking group decided to check out the "Temple of Time Grove of Giants" that have been found in the Seymour Valley. These are a collection of Douglas-fir trees that somehow survived the logging in this area 100 years ago and now tower above the second growth hemlock trees that dominate the area. Guided by an old Western Canada Wilderness Committee map fragment that had been posted on the Internet we set off to find these ancient witnesses to the North Shore's history.

The old-growth rainforests of the Pacific Northwest are a mixture of tree species dominated by giant Sitka spruce, western red cedar, hemlock, and Douglas-fir that were hundreds of years old. In 1903 the Hastings Shingle Manufacturing Company set up two mills in the Lynn Valley area due to the abundance of western red cedar growing in the Seymour Valley. Employing simple logging technology they used springboards to get above the butt swell of the cedar trees and cut them down using axes and cross saws.  Trees were bucked and limbed on site and then dragged along skid roads to the mills.

The logging was very selective, with only the best cedar trees taken and other species were left behind. As a result, the Douglas-fir in this particular area continued to grow and in the 1980's were discovered by the tree hunter Ralf Kelman who also campaigned to save them. But it wasn't until 1994 that logging was finally halted in the Seymour Demonstration Forest and the plan to cut down the Temples of Time Grove was shelved. It took until 2002 before logging in all of Greater Vancouver's watersheds was stopped.

After a couple of hours of hiking we came across them and it was amazing. Encountering these giants stretching hundreds of feet into the air that are so big in circumference it took all of us putting our arms together to try and encircle one of them was truly awe inspiring. It's even harder to imagine a forest filled with trees this size. Such magnificent organisms and it's sad to think in the old days we cut them down without any thought. 

Equally impressive are the old cedar stumps with their springboard notches that stand like tombstones in the new forest growing around them. The hard labour that went into cutting them down is also hard to imagine. It will be a long time, if ever, before anyone sees cedar trees like that again though there are still a few misshapen ones that were left behind to give us some idea.

Only the Redwood and Giant Sequoia trees in California are bigger and taller than the trees in the Pacific Northwest. Western Red Cedar grows to well over 200 feet in height and up to 20 feet in diameter and Douglas-fir to over 300 feet in height and 9 feet in diameter and these trees can live for over a 1,000 years. Life doesn't get any bigger than these trees and what a unique pleasure it was to get up and close with them.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Ghosts In The Zoo


The other day I was walking through Stanley Park exploring the remnants of the depressing, old zoo that used to be there and came across the polar bear pit. Such a sad looking and miserable enclosure that once held up to five polar bears transplanted here from Hudson Bay. The zoo also had penguins, monkeys and seals amongst other animals but the polar bears were the main attraction until it closed in 1994. Tuk, the oldest polar bear, stayed on until 1997 when he finally died of pneumonia.

The exhibit opened in 1962 and, like the rest of the zoo, it was poorly designed and hardly provided any sort of natural environment for its inhabitants. Contrast this with the modern award winning facility at the Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg where the 10 acre Journey to Churchill exhibit hosts orphaned polar bears in a setting that includes muskox, wolves, and seals. The animals roam around in semi-authentic landscapes of forest, tundra and ice including a salt water pool for the polar bears and seals to swim in that also provides an underwater viewing tunnel for the tourists.

Next door to the old Vancouver Zoo is the Vancouver Aquarium which opened its doors in 1956 and in 1967 had a killer whale, named Skana, on display for 13 years. The pathetically small tanks to hold this and other killer whales, a false killer whale, and various beluga whales kept increasing in size and number but were never big enough and couldn't hope to replicate any sort of natural environment for the cetaceans. Mercifully in 2019 the federal government finally outlawed the keeping of whales in aquariums though by then all of Vancouver's whales had already died of various causes.

The whole issue of zoos and aquariums to keep animals in captivity for the viewing pleasure of humans is losing its appeal worldwide though there does seem to be support for facilities that are for rehabilitation or if an animal is too injured to be released into the wild. But there are no end of heartbreaking stories from zoos around the world where the animals are being mistreated or their lives are a misery. The most recent was Kaavan, dubbed the world's loneliest elephant, that was finally rescued from a zoo in Pakistan and moved to a sanctuary in Cambodia thanks to the assistance of Cher.

Meanwhile back in Canada we have the world's coldest elephant, Lucy, living in a zoo in Edmonton that refuses to move her to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, and the happy reunion of the four elephants from the Calgary zoo that were re-united at a zoo in Washington, D.C. when officials belatedly realized it wasn't nice to separate animals that have been together for years. 

Intelligent mammals like whales and elephants have complicated kinship arrangements not to mention close ties to their environment and one can only wonder how they feel about being suddenly uprooted from what they know and being taken away to some alien location. The same probably goes for other creatures so why this obsession with trying to tame the wild? We need to leave it alone and protect whatever is left of nature. If you want to see these magnificent creatures find some sustainable way to see them in their own environment, not some manufactured one.

While creatures like Tuk and Skana may have brought joy to thousands and, in the process, created the awareness that has led to various preservation efforts or their respective species, it came at the cost of their freedom. When most female killer whales live for 50+ years Skana died at the age of 18 without having any offspring. Tuk lived to 37 when most polar bears live for only 25 years but his life was sad, lonely, and pitiful. Now it's just his ghost that prowls around the deserted enclosure.  

Monday, February 1, 2021

No Place To Run To No Place To Go


What is it with Vancouver, and practically every other major city in North America, that they can't provide enough decent public toilets? It's a universal human need that has existed since humans started living together yet it's been systematically ignored as if it will somehow just go away. But it's not going away, and every day we put off addressing the issue only adds to everyone's frustration as they try to hold it in.

The deteriorating homeless situation in Vancouver magnifies this problem with thousands of people now living in makeshift camps, tents, and doorways that of course have no washroom facilities. This means they end up using playgrounds, private gardens, parks, or the streets and alleys to relieve themselves.  An absence of public toilets means an absence of hygiene. 

The Vancouver Parks Board does have a variety of public washrooms in most but not all of its parks but they aren't open 24/7 and they are geared towards people using the parks themselves. Some are more appealing than others both in terms of appearance and cleanliness but most are in need of a serious upgrade. Their average age is over 60 years old and their outdated design offers poor accessibility, comfort, and safety to anyone using them.

The public transit situation is even more shocking. There are more than 50 stations along the rapid transit route alone and not one has a public washroom and, of course, there are no toilets on the trains themselves. With rides that can easily last over an hour this can make for a very uncomfortable situation for some passengers but clearly Translink doesn't care about its customers either.

The cost of maintaining public washrooms is often cited as an excuse for doing nothing and lately there have been some efforts to bring in automated self-cleaning toilets that even offer advertising as a way of offsetting the cost. But the high cost of these overengineered toilets ($500,000.00+) and the fact they were too comfortable and thus attracted people wanting privacy for doing drugs and engaging in prostitution was one reason Seattle got rid of the ones they had originally purchased. 

Another solution (at least as a temporary one) would be to install a network of Porta-Potty or Honeybucket style chemical toilets throughout the city and at every Skytrain station. Self contained units that don't require any plumbing connections, they can be placed just about anywhere and the contractor is responsible for all the cleaning and emptying of the sewage tank. However, at approximately $200.00 per day per toilet the cost is quite high.

Enter the Portland Loo. This simple, indestructible design that discourages it being used for anything except what it's meant for, prevents crime, is easy to clean and maintain, and is inexpensive to operate. For these reasons it's catching on with cities everywhere. At approximately $100,000.00 each we could have two of these at every Skytrain station for $10 million and for another $10 million spread 100 of them around key locations in the City which would more than double the public washrooms we have now.

The Portland Loo is just one example of how the lack of public toilets could be addressed and maybe it would finally get the politicians to say to the people that it's worth adding say 1% a year to the property tax bill to pay for something we all need. For larger facilities we could even have a design competition that added more esthetics and style. But whether it is a utilitarian solution or something grander we can't stick with the status quo where there's no place to go.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Say A Prayer For The Salmon

For British Columbians our New Year's resolution should be to finally do something about the salmon before there aren't any left. The millions of spawning salmon that used to make their way up the countless rivers and streams of this Province in an annual event that sustained thousands of fishermen, nourished First Nations people for over 30,000 years, and should have continued in perpetuity has been almost completely wiped out. Why is nothing being done?

Ever since 2009 when an estimated 8 million sockeye salmon failed to appear in the Fraser River, which is the most important salmon run in the Province, the finger pointing and speculation has continued with no definitive action being taken. Returns of sockeye have ranged from 2 million to 28 million per year but even the large runs that occur every 4 years have been steadily declining in what can only be described as a slow moving environmental disaster. This past year less than 300,000 salmon returned.

Scientists have come up with the so-called 4-H's to describe what has been the cause of the salmon decline all over the Pacific Northwest and it's hard to argue with the facts that we have over harvested the fishery, ruined many of the spawning streams (particularly in the Fraser River with all the industrial activity), built dams that block their route, and then try to compensate by breeding too many genetically inferior fish in hatcheries that compete with wild salmon for limited supplies. But there are other factors as well including the effects of global warming on the ocean and the spread of sea lice from salmon farms located along the migration routes of the salmon. 

There are five distinct Pacific salmon species and they aren't equal in terms of size, numbers, age, or preference. Southern resident killer whales for example depend on Chinook (which can grow up to 44 kg.) for their diet and they are also preferred by sports fishermen. Because of their colour and milder taste Pink and Chum salmon are usually canned, and because of their brighter red colour and flavour the public for the most part prefers to buy Coho or Sockeye salmon for cooking. Some of these runs, like the Chum and Pink salmon seem to still be doing okay but the decline of the Chinook has been linked to the starvation of the Southern resident killer whales of which there are now only 74.

An organization in the U.S. the Centre For Whale Research, based in Friday Harbour has recently purchased 45 acres of land on either side of the Elwha River near Port Angeles where they hope to naturally raise Chinook salmon in a restored habitat where they have historically spawned. Dubbed the Big Salmon Ranch, they hope to lead by example so that other spawning areas in the Salish Sea will be restored and enough Chinook salmon produced to once again support the Southern resident killer whales. Whether this and a ban on fishing for Chinook salmon will save the day is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, the Federal government, which is responsible for the Nation's fisheries, (and hoping to avoid a repeat demonstration of its ineptitude, with a collapse of the West Coast fishery similar to the collapse of the cod fishery on the East Coast 30 years ago) has ordered a phased out closing of all open net fish farms in the Discovery Islands in a bid to slow the spread of sea lice. But these farms employ thousands of workers and, if the companies don't move to some sort of land based containment system, these jobs will be lost with a huge impact on the local communities. Ironically it is farmed salmon that are doing more than anything else to save wild salmon.

With more and more people wanting to eat salmon there is no way the wild stocks could keep up with a growing consumer demand. Since 2009 the annual supply of wild salmon has been less than a million tons but the supply of farmed salmon has steadily increased to where it is now almost 2.5 million tons. This demand for salmon is increasing for many reasons including the fact it is healthier and more efficient to produce than chicken, pork, or beef. Interestingly, the salmon species responsible for all this farming is the Atlantic salmon not one of the five Pacific salmon species.

What makes Pacific salmon so unique of course is their anadromous life cycle. Each of these salmon species hatch in small freshwater streams and then migrate to the sea where they mature over the next two to six years. When mature, the salmon return to the same streams where they were hatched to spawn and repeat the cycle over again. To catch them all you have to do is wait for them to return. With such a plentiful food supply it's easy to see why the First Nations people held the salmon to be sacred. 

Pacific salmon underpin the culture and history of British Columbia as well as that of Alaska, Washington and Oregon. To lose this precious, renewable resource would be unthinkable, particularly if it was something we could have controlled, so efforts around the 4 H's and fish farm contamination have to be intensified. As to what the fish are up to in the open ocean is, of course, a mystery and something we have no control over. In the meantime say a prayer for the salmon.