I’ve been up to the Great Bear Rainforest three times now. Once, on the RV Bangarang, a research vessel owned and operated by a dear friend, Dr. Eric Keen. Once, at Whale Point and the Wall, a full summer running around the islands and getting to know the people who live and work here: Janie, Hermann, Nicole, Bunker, and the rest of the dedicated Gitga’at Guardians. This last time – to the Fin Island Research Station.
On a sunny morning, Janie and Chenoah vanish into the sunny glare south of me, and I am alone. They have left for a week to conduct a BC-wide marine survey, trusting me to look after the station while they are gone. For the next few days, the nearest people to me are an hour away by boat. I have a GPS with texting capabilities I use to check in twice daily. I have enough food to last nearly three weeks. I have warm clothes, plenty of propane, books for my upcoming entry into a PhD program. We’re good to go.
I turn the hydrophones up: this is the real music here. The constant, soft whisper of the tides, the distant sounds of humpback whales bubble-net-feeding around the point, and bird song on the island behind me.
Alone. A funny word, really. Sometimes we feel alone, surrounded by people. Sometimes we miss people, but we aren’t really alone.
Sometimes – like me – we’re alone, but we don’t feel so. No one around for miles and I feel completely present, completely at home. I only have the music of the underwater world that surrounds me.
Pristine places are worth protecting, partially because we undervalue silence. I read an article last year about a man who makes it his mission to find square inches of silence. You learn things about the world in silence, about yourself, and most importantly, about the relationship between the two. I learned that I think too much, talk too much, worry too much (ironically, as I write this, I am worrying – some lessons are hard to learn). I learned that I don’t listen enough. This world, the Great Bear’s world, is all about the listening.
These places are worth protecting because in the silence, we find something a little bit… more. Of course, I’m not the first to have this thought. The Gitga’at and the other First Nations have known this since they arrived. But it bears repeating, over and over, until the whales swim free of harsh propellers and trapping nets and toxic oil slicks. We lose ourselves when we kill the silence. When we impose discordance on the music, we lose something.
We’re lost – both materially and spiritually – without them. Because they aren’t really silences, are they? It’s just a different kind of music.
I confess I’d been expecting something a little different when I was up there. Both my previous trips had been marked by truly epic experiences: close encounters with all three types of whales, a chance to explore the Wall Islets, motoring around beautiful days in the fjords on the Bangarang. This trip was marked by silences and quiet, by loneliness, by the kind of frustration you only experience when you literally cannot express it to another person. The whales were light this year, and while I was alone I had only a few sightings per day, let alone the close encounters I’d come to expect.
But God – whatever you believe God to be – is not always found in the epic. Sometimes it’s the whisper, the silence.
And so, on my last night – the sun is mostly down. I’m on the rocks, quietly writing in my journal; I’m no longer alone, but I feel the need to find some solitude in these last moments. I let the gentle waters lap against my boots as I watch the last glimmers of light disappear over the magnificent rock faces of Campania and Pitt Island. There is always sorrow and joy intertwined on your final night in the Great Bear. The Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran wrote that the two come hand in hand: “Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced. When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.” I was empty, trying to make sense of an experience that continually surprised and challenged me.
The first stars came out above me.
And then I heard it. The unmistakable music of a whale breathing close by. One, two, down. Nothing. And then an explosion as, with the last small glimmer, I see a humpback whale propel itself out of its world briefly into mine.
Should’ve expected the goodbye. The Great Bear does nothing in half measures, refuses to let your soul go, whispers to you “Remember what you heard here, what you saw here, what you felt here, what you knew here. Remember the music made from silence.” Bears have claws, and the Great Bear Rainforest sinks its claws into you and never really lets go.