Thursday, December 27, 2018

All Things Must Pass

Just before Xmas a hurricane force wind storm hit the B.C. coastline leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity as fallen trees and branches took down power lines everywhere and marking it as the worst in B.C. Hydro history. While there were plenty of unsettling photos amongst all the chaos perhaps the most dramatic images were of the pier in White Rock where waves smashed it apart, destroyed the sailboats moored there, and necessitated the rescue of a trapped individual by helicopter.

Whether the cause of the storm was yet another manifestation of global warming, the high tides of a full moon in conjunction with the winter solstice, or the flapping of a butterfly's wings somewhere halfway around the world, it served to remind us yet again of the frailty of our existence and our powerlessness in the face of Nature.

2018 was also the worst year on record in B.C. for the number of forest fires with over 13,000 sq. km. destroyed which beat the record set the previous year. But before the summer fires started there was also a winter of record rain and snow fall and a spring of record flooding.

The extreme oscillations between dry and wet, heat and cold impacted every region of the Province and left an aftermath that threatens to be a never ending repeat performance. Heavy moisture in the winter turns into large snow packs that rapidly melt with warm weather, and the burned out forests have no vegetation or ground cover to soak up the water so flooding ensues which further damages the soil and leaves the forest even more dried out and prone to catch fire again.

Mountain pine beetle

As massive as these floods and fires are, the root cause is something much smaller and that's the bark beetle of which there are more than 6,000 species, including the mountain pine and spruce beetles, which have recently been devastating our forests. These creatures have always been around, and indeed they play an important role in the natural management of a healthy forest but, owing to some misguided fire fighting practices in the past and warmer weather they have now become a nuisance of epidemic proportions.

Pine beetle infested forest
The only way to get rid of these beetles is by extreme cold or fire. With our warmer winters we haven't been getting the minus 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit needed to kill them and putting out forest fires in areas where they are active only allows them to survive and attack more forest. The combination of these factors has led to their exponential growth and they have now spread into other parts of the country including the Yukon and N.W.T. which are well beyond their historical range.

Regenerating forest after a fire
It may take a few more years of nasty forest fires to wipe out the beetles but thankfully Nature has a way of quickly recovering, with the heat from the fires causing dormant pine cones to open up and release their seeds for germination, and various shrubs and grasses taking advantage of the open canopy to flourish which, in turn, provides a food source for all sorts of wildlife. 

As a result of climate change these hurricanes, floods, and fires seem to be happening everywhere around the world with greater frequency. Time will tell whether it's part of a natural cycle that will eventually sort itself out or a sign of serious change ahead and that all things must pass. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

And When I Die

Sockeye salmon spawning in Weaver Creek - photos by Junie Quiroga

A couple of weeks ago I drove out to see the last of this year's sockeye salmon run as they spawned in the waters of Weaver Creek, a small tributary of the Fraser River. A remarkable feat as everyone should know by now since these fish have not only survived the hazards of the open ocean but also found their way back 4 years later to the exact same place they were born. Watching these noble creatures determinedly going about their business provoked a profound meditation on life and death.

Like all Pacific salmon, the sockeye species hatches in fresh water over the winter and spends the first year or so growing to smolt size before heading out to sea where they spend the next couple of years growing and maturing before they return to spawn and die. Out of the thousands of eggs laid and fertilized by each pair of salmon only a few complete the cycle and yet that's still enough to return millions of sockeye 4 years later in the summer and fall. Truly a miracle. 

But what makes the salmon so special is that, unlike other fish who never know when they are going to die, every salmon species has a definite end of life date (assuming of course they aren't eaten before they get to spawn and get through the gauntlet of fishing boats trying to catch them). Never resting from the minute they are born they embrace life with tremendous vigour and don't wait until they are sick or infirm to exit but rather, in the absolute prime of their life, come home to start a new generation before dying selflessly in the process. They have a fixed timeline to get through and they don't waste a moment.

How different this is for us humans who never want to acknowledge our own cycle of life. The average life expectancy of men & women in North America has increased from 71 in the 1960's to 82 years and more now. Those extra 10 years keeps us putting off ever having to think about the end but I wonder about the quality of life we actually enjoy in that extra time. Staying healthy, mentally stimulated, and physically fit are critical to a meaningful existence but, when that drops off, as it inevitably will, why do we insist on prolonging life?

Fall Colours - photos by Junie Quiroga

Just like the salmon, this is the time of year the trees start changing colour, putting on a blazing display of colour before their leaves die and fall to the ground. Another reminder of the circle of life and a time to consider the famous and not so famous people we know who have passed away. Were their lives complete and purposeful or were they just existing? Have we ourselves accomplished what we need to do or are we just ticking off the boxes on a bucket list? If we knew exactly when we would die would it change our daily focus? Would we waste our lives in traffic jams and soul destroying jobs? Would making money and spending it still be our primary goal? Would we raise our children differently? 

Maybe the reason we keep hanging onto life, when it no longer makes any sense, is because we never had any focus and so we keep thinking there's something more to come. Of course it doesn't help when the government insists on putting obstacles in the way of those who want to choose their time of dying. If instead we had lived more like the salmon and kept to our purpose we would be satisfied with what we had set out to accomplish and be ready to say goodbye at the right time. When I die I want to be like the salmon, at peace in my home stream. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

While You See A Chance

After spending the past two summers touring the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska it really struck me how differently Canada and the U.S. choose to manage their First Nations communities, resources, and tourism in the North. Whether out of pragmatism, practicality or simply opportunity, the Americans seem to have made incredible progress while in Canada we have tended to languish and procrastinate. Why there are such differences in an area with so much in common is a question that needs more examination.

In terms of size, with a combined area of 706,000 square miles the Yukon and NWT are nearly equal to Alaska which has 740,000 square miles but in terms of population there is no comparison with the Yukon and NWT barely registering 85,000 people whereas Alaska has over 740,000 and even that makes it the most sparsely populated state in the Union. The populations weren't so far apart until WW2 when the population of Alaska, particularly Anchorage, exploded with the building of military bases, the Alaska highway connecting Fairbanks to Dawson Creek in Canada, and then the discovery of oil.

Trans Alaska Pipeline
It was the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968 that prompted the U.S. government to begin negotiations with the First Nations people whose lands were still in dispute following the purchase of Alaska from Russia 100 years earlier. By 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the largest land claim settlement in U.S. history, had been worked out and was signed into law by President Nixon which created 12 Native regional economic development corporations for the Natives who lived in each region and transferred title to millions of acres of land for them to farm, mine, or log as they saw fit. In return the oil companies were able to build a pipeline from the Arctic coast to the port of Valdez where tankers could then load the oil for transport to the U.S.

Contrast this with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry for a gas pipeline to connect the gas fields of the Mackenzie Delta with the pipelines in northern Alberta which started in 1974 and after 3 years of consultation resulted in a 10 year moratorium on any development taking place. For the next 35 years gas exploration, First Nations negotiations, and federal permit applications were under way but, by the time everything had been agreed on between the First Nations, oil companies, and federal government the price structure had collapsed and, in 2017, the project was cancelled. All the promised jobs and economic opportunity were once again put on hold.

Treaty Map of Canada
Land claims and self government agreements between the First Nations of the Yukon have been ongoing since the days of the Klondike Gold Rush but started in earnest in 1968 with the formation of the Yukon Native Brotherhood and by 1990 an Umbrella Agreement had been reached that over the next 15 years saw 11 of the 14 First Nations in the Territory become self governing. But in NWT the original Treaty of 1921 is still in dispute not only for the unequal way it was negotiated but also because of subsequent violations committed by the Federal Government with the residential school system, resource extraction, and actions by Indian agents.

The Alaska Railroad was started in 1903 and by 1923 it connected Fairbanks to Anchorage and Seward providing a backbone transportation link that continues to this day carrying freight and passengers to all the major centres. The Canadian rail connections north of the 60th parallel are basically non-existent. There used to be a railroad running from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse on the Yukon River but it has since been scaled back to Carcross, and in NWT the railway from Alberta ends in Hay River which is located on Great Slave Lake. Since 1890 a Canada - Alaska connection has been continuously proposed without success as the logical next step for railways in the North. In 2015 a link between Fairbanks, Whitehorse, Fort Nelson and Fort McMurray called the Alaska Canada Rail Link (ACRL) has been rekindled with the support of First Nations but 4 years later nothing has materialized. 

While the railways wait to connect at least there's some progress being made with the roadways up North. The Mackenzie Highway connects northern Alberta to Yellowknife, NWT and the Alaska Highway connects northern B.C. to Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. A major breakthrough this year was the completion of the road to Tuktoyaktuk from Inuvik which extends the Dempster Highway from Dawson City all the way to the Arctic Ocean but year round connections still need to be made between Inuvik and Yellowknife. There are no roads anywhere within Nunavut but perhaps one day something will connect Rankin Inlet with Yellowknife.

Alaska has three cities with universities, but currently there isn't a single university in any part of Canada's north, the only northern nation without an arctic university. With a population of 300,000 Anchorage would be expected to have a university, but Juneau and Fairbanks each with 30,000 residents also have one and, while Yellowknife and Whitehorse are roughly the same size, there is only a college.  Climate change, resource development, agriculture, and Indigenous languages are just a few of the disciplines that could attract students from all over and stimulate growth and new opportunities in these territories. Long overdue plans are finally afoot to establish universities in NWT and the Yukon starting this fall, 56 years after the Alaska university system was established.

Denali National Park
In terms of national parks both the Alaskan Denali and N.W.T. Nahanni are spectacular and filled with all sorts of wildlife and signature geographic features such as Denali Mountain, the highest in North America, and Virginia Falls, which is twice the height of Niagara Falls. Both have restricted access to preserve and protect the parks but the entrance to Denali is surrounded by beautiful lodges, restaurants, and services of all sorts whereas Nahanni has only the dilapidated Fort Simpson which is practically devoid of any accommodations, places to eat or tourist conveniences of any kind. As a result, over 400,000 people a year visit Denali as opposed to less than 1,000 who visit Nahanni.

Nahanni National Park

Alaska, Yukon and NWT all share in being part of Beringia, that ancient land mass that stretched from Siberia to the Mackenzie River 65,000 years ago during the last ice age and was teaming with giant mammals such as woolly mammoths, scimitar cats and steppe bison. It also allowed for the movement of early people into the Americas from Asia. Later as the glaciers started to melt the area got covered up and remained hidden until the placer mining activities of the various gold rushes revealed what had once existed. In each of the major cities; Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Fairbanks, Anchorage, & Juneau there are some truly incredible museums with fascinating displays of these ancient creatures, First Nations artifacts, and all the animals currently living in the North.

Beringia Museum - Whitehorse

McBride Museum - Whitehorse

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre - Yellowknife

Museum of the North - Fairbanks

Alaska State Museum - Juneau

Anchorage Museum - Anchorage

Obviously the vastness of the North, not to mention the climate, is what makes it particularly challenging to tame but, if Canadians want to truly claim their land, they need to put more effort into the enterprise. Under nearly identical conditions the Americans have proved it's possible to succeed and, in the process, have created a prosperity for its citizens that is the envy of the country with Alaskans having one of the highest levels of per capita/family income. They have exploited their natural resources without destroying the habitat, made productive settlements with their First Nations people, and created an environment where tourism is booming and young people flock there to study and enjoy the outdoors. When will Canada realize that when you see a chance take it?

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Where Have All The Whales Gone?

L-92 aka Crewser

J-35 and her baby
This past summer was a dramatic tale of two completely different coastlines. Here on the West Coast the declining southern killer whale population dominated the news with first L-92, aka Crewser, a 23 year old male dying in June, then in August one poor mother whale, J-35 was filmed pushing her dead baby around for more than 2 weeks in a heartbreaking effort to stop her from sinking, and finally we all watched in September as another whale, J-50 slowly succumbed to disease and starvation. The southern killer whale population hasn't had a successful birth in over 3 years now and has declined to just 74 individuals.

J-50 and her mother J-16
The suspected causes of all this heartache include noise from tanker/freighter traffic, PCB's in the food chain, DDT from fertilizer run-off, and a lack of Chinook salmon, their main source of food. Chinook salmon are the largest species of Pacific salmon averaging 36" in length and 30 lbs in weight but they can get much bigger. Because of their size they are the favoured prey of killer whales and are highly valued by sports fishermen.  "There's no nooky like chinooky" is the saying, and the largest ever caught weighed 126 lbs. Native to the North Pacific and ranging from Alaska to California, Chinook are now in decline everywhere due to over fishing, loss of habitat, and poor ocean conditions. 

Nelson with a 20 lb. Chinook
Nelson with a 23 lb.Chinook

Chinook mainly spawn in large rivers such as the Yukon, Nass, Skeena, Fraser and Columbia and with both the Columbia and Yukon in a near collapse it leaves only a few rivers in B.C. to hold the fort. Last summer Alaska suspended both the commercial and recreational Chinook fishery to help protect the returning salmon yet B.C. kept its fishery open.

Chinook Migration Routes
While the southern killer whale population is suffering the northern killer whale population is thriving. They don't seem to have any problem feeding themselves and the group has now grown to more than 300 which is 4 times the southern whale population. Eating on average 500 lbs per day this could involve a lot of Chinook salmon but both groups also eat chum salmon and herring. Strangely enough they don't eat sockeye salmon which is unfortunate because this year was predicted to be a huge run whereas the Chinook run was dismal.

Sea lion and seals
While the federal government instituted a 35% reduction in the allowable catch at the start of the season the returns are so low that many groups have argued for a complete ban on fishing in order to preserve all the Chinook salmon for the whales.  Others, less informed, have also called for a cull of seals and sea lions which also compete for salmon. However Chinook aren't the primary food source for seals and sea lions and, if there really were too many of these creatures, the transient killer whale population would certainly keep them in check.

Right whale on the East Coast
Meanwhile on the East Coast this summer there wasn't a single incident of a Right Whale being harmed in any way as opposed to last year when 18 of them were killed. The changes to the crab fishing season meant all the fishing gear had to be out of the water before any whales arrived in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to avoid any entanglements, and slower speed limits for freighters and other commercial vessels in active shipping lanes managed to prevent any collisions. Enhanced whale monitoring efforts identified more than 135 individuals in Canadian waters this summer as compared to 114 last year so obviously they aren't starving either.

While government efforts on the East Coast have had a dramatically positive effect on whale populations, in spite of objections from the fishing industry and others, the same commitment is obviously lacking on the West Coast. The fishing industry simply has too much influence and, while they are keen to harvest the salmon, they don't seem to be putting much effort into habitat enhancement or hatcheries. In spite of the southern killer whales being an endangered species it's coming down to a decision on which is worth more to the economy whale watching or fishing. After that question is answered we will then know where all the whales have gone.