Rivers Inlet estuary (Photo by NCC)

Rivers Inlet estuary (Photo by NCC)

A week in Wuikinuxv

Julia Daly, BC Conservation Intern, 2014 (Photo by NCC)

Julia Daly, BC Conservation Intern, 2014 (Photo by NCC)

This June conservation intern Julia Daly spent a week doing fieldwork in remote Rivers Inlet on BC's Central Coast. Here, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is working closely with the local community in Wuikinuxv Village to protect the area's important forest and estuary habitat. This work was featured in the Spring 2013 issue of British Columbia Magazine

By Julia Daly, NCC west coast conservation covenant monitoring intern, 2014

June 8, 2014

The six-passenger Grumman Goose bush plane we boarded in Port Hardy an hour earlier glides between the sheer walls of an impressive U-shaped glacial valley as it begins its decent into Rivers Inlet. Suddenly though the clouds, the Wannock River estuary comes into view —  a vibrant fan of milky green that contrasts sharply against the dark green forest around it. We fly low over the Wannock River and Wuikinuxv Village and a one-kilometre-long gravel airstrip appears, onto which the pilot pulls off the swiftest and smoothest landing I've ever experienced.

Rivers Inlet (Photo by NCC)

Rivers Inlet (Photo by NCC)

We are greeted by Terry, a local in his twenties, who has come to help us load our gear into a van and drive us into the village. Terry has two nephews with him who entertain us on the way to Johnny Johnson's house, which will be our home for the next six days. Johnny is a local legend with a warm and good-humoured spirit, and he will accompany us for the long days of fieldwork ahead. He will leave a lasting impression on all of us.

Here we also meet Megan Adams and Scott Rogers of Raincoast Conservation Foundation. The pair have spent the past three months living at Johnny’s while monitoring black and grizzly bear populations in Wuikinuxv Territory.

June 9, 2014

Our first day of fieldwork begins on a wharf, where an Wuikinuxv Guardian named Brian picks us up in an 18-foot aluminum boat and takes us to the other side of the estuary. On the way across, Tim Ennis, the Nature Conservancy of Canada's West Coast Program Director and the leader of our field work expedition here, points out the local “Statue of Liberty” -- an enormous rockslide that resembles a figure with its arm stretched skyward.

Coastal tailed frog tadpole (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

Coastal tailed frog tadpole (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

Brian drops us off at the mouth of an unnamed creek that is completely concealed by a dense, aromatic wall of stink current, red alder, salmonberry, elderberry and thimbleberry. After three hours of bushwhacking up a lush, mossy canyon, we arrive at a roaring cascade where we conduct our first ecological unit (EU) plot and conduct a survey for the red-listed coastal tailed frog. After just a few minutes of searching, we discover two tadpoles! We identify them by the white dot (ocellus) found on the tips of their tails and their unique suction cup-like mouths, which they use to cling to the undersides of rocks in their turbulent whitewater habitat.

Next we hike east towards the Nicknaqueet River and clamber up the side of another steep forested canyon to conduct more EU plots. I am impressed by the diversity and vigor of plant growth here. Johnny locates a small red cedar tree, about 60 centimetres in diameter, and shows us how to harvest a strip of the bark and neatly bundle it for transport. Later we will soak the cedar in freshwater and scheme about what we will make out of it.

June 10, 2014

"Today will be another long and hard day of bushwhacking, punctuated with boat rides.” ~ excerpt from Tim Ennis's itinerary.

The tide is low this morning so Brian must drop us off about 20 metres from shore. We roll up our pant legs, lower ourselves over the side of the boat and wade through the cold tidal water towards a cobble beach. The upward-spiraling, flute-like song of Swainson's thrushes fills the otherwise still morning air.

Northwest salamander larvae (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

Northwest salamander larvae (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

We hike up another unnamed creek. This one runs slow and shallow through the forest before emptying out into a salt marsh in the estuary. As we slip over the abundant moss-covered logs that crisscross the creek, someone notices a round, baseball-sized mass of bluish-green jelly resting just below the surface of the water. Northwest salamander eggs! Soon these intriguing semi-translucent orbs appear to be everywhere. Tim picks one up so that we can get a better look at the larvae swimming inside. Suddenly one hatches out of the egg mass and plops into the water below! We have a good laugh as the tiny creature swims off in search of its first meal.

Further upstream we find ourselves in a wetland, where we find a western toad, a diversity of sedges and a family of Lincoln's sparrows. After completing several EU plots, we make our way back to the edge of the estuary where we find Brian waiting for us. Dozens of seals bask on a long log boom at the mouth of the Wannock River and watch us as we cruise back towards the village.

After dinner, Johnny leads us to a large patch of devil's club located behind the village and teaches us the traditional method of removing the medicine-rich bark. After shaving off the sharp spines with a knife, we peel away the bark to unveil beautifully smooth bone-like sticks underneath. Johnny describes the numerous ways in which the bark and sticks can be used for medicine, tools and art. I am touched by Johnny's openness in sharing so much of what he knows about traditional medicine with us.

June 11, 2014

We take a break from our fieldwork to visit Wuikinuxv's schoolhouse. When we arrive we are greeted by the school's two teachers, Sunny and Nahanni, and 10 students, aged 6 to18. We bring in a couple of buckets full of invertebrates that we captured from a nearby creek earlier that morning. Together, we spend an hour plucking the critters out of the water and gravel with pipettes and putting them into ice cube trays for identification. The diversity we find in just a few handfuls of gravel amazes us.

Wuikinuxv bear cubs. (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

Wuikinuxv bear cubs. (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

That evening we are invited to attend a community dinner in the House of Nuakawa, the village's Big House. The bear research team, who is eager to share results from the past two years of their research with the community, hosts the event. After their slideshow presentation, some of us head into the kitchen to help Johnny's brother, Peter, prepare an impressive feast, which includes local sockeye salmon and dungeness crab, herring roe on kelp, bannock, mashed potatoes and salad. For dessert we are presented with an enormous bowl of whole fresh fruit — a special treat in a community that must have all of its food delivered by boat or bush plane.

After dinner the younger school children perform a play that they’ve recently learned in drama class. Everyone becomes quiet as six little ones wearing cedar bear masks emerge from the back of the Big House. The story is based on the humorous interactions between the local bears and remote camera and hair snag equipment used by the bear research team to study them. Everyone gets a good laugh, especially Megan and Scott.

We leave the Big House with smiles on our faces and the smell of cedar smoke on our clothes.

June 12, 2014

On our last day of fieldwork we hike up a beautiful, sandy-bottomed creek to conduct the last of our EU plots. Along the stream bank we find the bones of pink salmon and the tracks of a marten traveling with a young kit. High above the trees Vaux's swifts zip through the air hunting for aerial insects.

After finishing our work, we make our way to an old wharf on the south shore of the Wannock River and wait for Brian to pick to us up and take us back to the village. Several harlequin ducks, returning from their headwater breeding grounds, drift down the river towards the sea, while marbled murrelets, Bonaparte gulls and harbour seals swim against the current to feed on fish.

I lay down on the wharf, close my eyes, and listen to the sound of Johnny’s gentle voice sing the words to a song in his native 'Uwikala language.

“That song was passed down to me through my mother's family,” he tells us on the boat ride home. “It's called the Chinook Love Song.”

June 13, 2014

It is a busy morning at the Wuikinuxv airstrip with two Grumman Goose and a Cessna waiting in the cargo area. As soon as all of our gear is loaded onto the Goose, we climb in. It's a little windy today and the pilot tells us to expect some turbulence.

As the plane takes off, I can't help but feel a little emotional as I gain an aerial perspective of all the special places we've visited over the past week. The numerous unnamed creeks, each with their unique physical structure and beauty, the spectacular Wannock River and estuary, the statue of liberty, the house of Nuakawa and Johnny's home.

The smell of devil's club fills the cabin and I remember the bundle of ivory-white sticks and bark in my backpack. Once home, I get to work making a string of devil's club beads to send to Johnny as way of saying, Giànakci. Thank you.

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