Beautiful places and the contradictions of wilderness adventures – plus Chasing Clayoquot (an excellent read!)

I love being out in the wild – but is there a cost? A recent talk and a great book had me thinking about this…

The other day, I was fortunate to be able to attend a National Geographic presentation by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes entitled “Coral, Fire and Ice”, about many of their recent adventures and assignments as marine photographers (discover more here). The stories they told, and photos and movie clips they shared, were absolutely spellbinding. From seal pups in northern Newfoundland to tiny lantern sharks lurking down in the depths, each tale and accompanying image entirely increased my sense of wonder at the diversity of aquatic life (and highlighted my enormous knowledge gap when it comes to the ocean). 

                An incredible creature – Long Beach, Vancouver Island

Hayes and Doubilet talked with passion and humour about their underwater experiences. Their delight, concern and compassion for this vast and largely undiscovered wilderness cannot be overstated. They were remarkably honest and clear eyed about a potential contradiction in what they do everyday. They have a sense of mission in bringing both beautiful and dark stories to the attention of as many people as possible. They witness how human activity is having a devastating impact on many marine species. In the past two hundred years, human-marine interactions have been increasingly detrimental to the underwater life forms Doubilet and Hayes are seeking to protect. The contradiction is knowing that simply by being in the water, they themselves, as well meaning documentarists, are causing a degree of distress to the very creatures they want to help – they are a disturbance.

My thought is that Doubilet and Hayes needn’t be too concerned about the impact they are having – the benefits outweigh any unintended discomfort or distress they may cause to a small number of sea creatures. We need them to be under the water, capturing amazing images of incredible creatures and educating the widest possible audience about this little known yet threatened wilderness. But it did get me thinking about my own presence in the great outdoors. 

              The great outdoors – Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, Vancouver Island 

I don’t regard myself as unsympathetic to the plight of the planet – I even believe that my adventures outdoors show a sort of respect and understanding. As a teacher, I always encourage students to research and experience what they wish to know, and I apply the same expectation to myself. So, to appreciate our planet, and my particular current corner of it, requires that I get outside. But I sometimes wonder, as I asked earlier, at what cost? 

I must be having an impact on whatever wildlife resides there – think of the bear that needs to focus on 200 000 berries each day in late summer to get ready for hibernation. A human blundering by can only be disruptive, making it that much tougher to survive. Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive…the bear just thinks, oh, him in the plaid shirt again.

               Pristine sands, a beautiful pattern, Long Beach, Vancouver Island

I’m not a fan of being under the water, but I do enjoy being on it. We recently finalized plans for a trip to Clayoquot Sound this coming summer. It will be a return visit – we enjoyed a few days in and around Tofino last summer, and were so smitten by the landscapes that we couldn’t wait to visit again. 

I’ve been reading David Pitt-Brooke’s excellent book “Chasing Clayoquot”, in which he writes a chapter for each month devoted to an outdoor adventure in the Clayoquot region. He has an amazing grasp of the ecology, history and geology of Vancouver Island. His descriptions evoke the beauty and uniqueness of the Clayoquot biosphere, an incredibly beautiful yet threatened environment. He muses on the impact he has on his immediate surroundings – in one chapter, a short intertidal walk causes him to pause and ponder on how his presence disturbs the place he loves and appreciates. It is a conundrum, to visit and interact in a wilderness, and publicize the beauty of hidden places so that others can share that appreciation, yet avoid upsetting what makes these places so special.

            Sunset on Chestermans Beach, Vancouver Island

Pitt-Brooke makes the point that we only seem to love a species or place once it’s very existence has become threatened. Why can’t we value our natural treasures and resources – all of them essential to our wider ecosystem and overall survival – before they are on the brink of extinction?

There are no easy short term answers to how we manage our relationship with wild places. Still, it does no harm to stop and think about some of the questions, have an awareness of what we are doing – even as we move through these beautiful habitats.

Do you share some of these concerns? Feel free to write a response and share a thought! Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Canoes, Ray Mears again, and a slow start to paddling by PlaidCamper

With winter appearing to be over, my thoughts turn to spring as lakes slowly thaw and rivers start to flow. Canoes! Patience is required, at least here east of the Rockies, but as we wait, I ask myself, is a canoe the best transport ever? Yes! On northern waterways in particular. (There you are, question answered, and PlaidCamper’s shortest post ever).

Waiting for the waterways to open…

I love canoes. I wasn’t born in Canada, but my home is here, and there is so much about this country that is remarkable, especially for a late developing would be outdoorsman. If I had to make a top ten list of Canadian wonderfulness, canoes are near the top. (Oh no, will PlaidCamper be doing his Top Ten of Canada? Yup, sometime in the future. Man’s gotta blog, and I love lists too).

My first canoe experience took place in the UK, on the River Wye. A lovely river, it flows fairly serenely through beautiful border countryside between England and Wales. At the time, I was lucky enough to be living in Herefordshire, and we often took trips crisscrossing the border country, visiting crumbling castles, peaceful abbeys, pretty priories, and delightful inns and pubs. 

Just as well I’d taken in the countryside views previously, because, at the start of my first canoe voyage, I don’t recall seeing the scenery pass gently by. It was more me spinning the canoe around and around, my buddy in front getting steadily more irate at my inability to steer a steady course down the river. It didn’t help that we were a little flotilla of five, all close friends on a stag weekend, and there was a considerable competitive edge throughout. With each rotation, buddy in the front wasn’t happy watching the rest of the canoes disappear up ahead through the next river bend. (Earlier, I’d already proved to be hopeless at clay pigeon shooting, and let’s say I lacked speed when quad bike racing. Although when it counted, I was a clear leader in one event – sinking pints). Fortunately, we didn’t sink or overturn the canoe whilst performing a wobbly yet well choreographed swapping of places. I adopted a suitably heroic pose at the front, pretended to know what I was doing, my buddy let me paddle every now and again, and he steered us safely downriver to the pick up point. Another pub, if you were wondering.

                

Canoes on Moraine Lake, AB

So, not the best debut ever, but I didn’t let it get in the way, and I am happy about that, because every summer since being in Canada, we take out a canoe whenever we can. Is there a finer way of whiling away a few sunny hours? Spectacular scenery on a calm lake, or along a more challenging journey downriver, taking gentle to more strenuous exercise, and enjoying good company. I saw my first bald eagle from a canoe – what a feeling. I become completely Canadian just clutching a paddle, and I can’t wait for my buddy from above to come visit one summer – show him I can navigate safely and with confidence now!

For me, canoes are such a part of the Canadian identity, seemingly ever present in books, songs, movies and paintings. I can never resist taking a photo, always seeking to capture the essence or spirit of what canoes represent. The shape is beautiful, so elegant and purposeful, an absolute triumph of form and function. 

                

Lac Beauvert, Jasper, AB

Not only do I love canoes, I also love learning about them from Ray Mears. (Ray Mears is a role model for appreciating wilderness. And yup, there will be a future blog about him. He is a marvellous man). For an eloquent and boyishly enthusiastic video essay on the beauty, history, and total practicality of the canoe, I highly recommend watching Ray Mears learning to build and describing his love of birchbark canoes:

Ray Mears Bushcraft – Birchbark Canoes

A lengthy video, worth all the time, and really entertaining. Ray Mears’ bushcraft company Woodlore (RayMears.com) has occasionally offered courses related to birchbark canoes and canoeing. I think that one of these trips or courses really should be on my important things to do list. I hope Mrs PlaidCamper reads this and remembers it next time old PlaidCamper has a birthday. (Yes, I’m that unsubtle). If you’ve watched the video, you’ll be adding it to your own list too. Won’t you?

An evening view from a canoe – Bow River, AB

Have you ever stood in front of the canoes in an outdoor store, saying to your partner “but if we bought one and used it x times, it would be better than renting, in fact it practically pays for itself,”? Or is that just old PlaidCamper, every time he’s in MEC, trying to convince Mrs PlaidCamper it’s a good idea? One day, PlaidCamper, one day…

Be warned, canoes will likely feature over and over in this blog – and why not? Do you have a canoe story, or piece of water or stretch of river you’d like to share? Thank you for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.