Guest Post: An SOI Alum in Haida Gwaii for Ocean Bridge 2018

Sam McBeth reflects on her experience with Ocean Bridge, an initiative centered around connecting youth and promoting ocean literacy.


Written by: Sam McBeth, Arctic 2016 Alumn

Photo Courtesy of Ocean Bridge

I am currently one of 40 youth across Canada selected to participate in Ocean Bridge, an Ocean Wise program supported by Canada Service Corps aimed at connecting youth from coast to coast coast to improve ocean literacy and encourage volunteering across the country.

I have recently connected with other Ocean Bridge youth in the community of Haida Gwaii as part of a 10 day extended ocean literacy expedition. The 10-day immersive wilderness expedition had the goal of delivering marine conservation service projects as ocean health community services. The national team spent the month leading up to this extended service co-creating their project with local community members and each other. By living, working and reflecting as a team in a rich natural setting, the hope was that the group would develop social capital, respect for diversity and a heightened sense of responsibility and pride.

Everything I packed from Haida Gwaii still has a lingering smell of wood smoke. During the past weeks I’ve hung my clothing and gear in the late spring sunshine, but to no avail. Haida Gwaii clings to my pack, just like it still clings to my skin and my mind. When I close my eyes and breath in, I find myself in a wooded campground, under a bright canopy of spruce, the sounds of waves hitting the beach muffled by the mossy ground. Raven wings beat like the heart of the rainforest.

Haida Gwaii is a series of larges islands on the North Coast of British Columbia. Our home and campground, Hiellen, was built on the former location of a Haida Village of the same name, on the very northwestern tip of Haida Gwaii. On a clear day, you can see the coast of Alaska from the beach. Home of the Haida since time immemorial, life there flourishes thanks to the ocean that surrounds the islands, and the creatures and spirits bound to the sea. The Haida language has so many words to describe waves and weather patterns, which can change in a blink of an eye. The Haida homeland is from the top of the mountains to the bottom of the sea, a fact that they passionately defended with the creation of marine protected areas. It is the perfect place to learn and understand the importance of the oceans, and people’s connections to it.

BC old-growth rainforests always take my breath away. Despite my home-region of Quebec having beautiful mixed forests and birch groves, I’ve always associated the idea of a “forest” with massive and ancient, densely wooded mossy places. I think about a forest having ancient eyes, mysteries under foot, and rich, hidden life. Haida Gwaii is like this for me. We had the honour of being guided by knowledge holders who helped us see the forest with new eyes. With their help, we began to understand that the moss we walked on might cover the remains of a village, or that a log might be a totem pole from centuries ago.

Deep in the forest, you can also find signs of the outside world like plastic, garbage and lost buoys that are blown in by the Pacific currents and the storm winds. I was disheartened to see such garbage, but part of our work their was to pick up garbage, so pick up we did! Thousands of tonnes of it in fact. A drop in the bucket lost at sea. However, although plastic reduction is a huge concern, sometimes it feels to me like the environmentalist’s equivalent of “flavour of the week”. Many people in Haida Gwaii were quick to discuss other areas related to ocean conservation. Protecting salmon and herring and promoting shellfish and abalone  is work that they have done since before European contact. Eliminating rats from seabird colonies, and hunting the non-native deer that have been ravishing native plant species are key concerns. Even the reintroduction of the sea otter is a cause for discussion, as a sudden increase might bother the already fragile balance of biodiversity at the sea floor. Because sea otters are often used as an example of animals that help ecosystem restoration and are often considered an important player in keeping biodiversity rich, I was surprised to hear for the first time that their renewed presence might be a “shock to the system”.  It just goes to show how conservation work, especially ocean conservation work, is always more complicated than one can imagine. Haida ecological knowledge gives us a better understanding of this.

As I repack by bags for my next adventure, I know that the lessons I learned in Haida Gwaii will be carried on. With Canada’s three coast, multiple bays, seas and oceans, and the lifeblood of rivers and lakes flowing through the country, it is impossible to forget that everything connects back to the sea. And now with 40 new friends, all of them fierce, passionate ocean defenders that I know I could work with and who are sharing with their own communities, I feel hope. We may one day live harmoniously with our watersheds, just like the Haida.

– Sam

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