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Expedition: Great Bear Rainforest — Day 5

Day 5: Salmon, Bear and a Perfect Ecology

By Sanjayan

One rarely gets to see big animals in so many forms of death.

We have been hiking along an inlet far into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, looking for salmon — and here they are in abundance. The water ripples with their thrusts as they fight to move upwards against the relentless current.

It's a struggle that is doomed from the start. Instinct pulls salmon on a journey from the deep cold ocean towards shore, towards a stream, and towards the place where they were born — and where they would die. Are dying, right before us.

It is pitiful to see them this way.

Can You Smell That?

Some of the salmon are listless, eyes dull, and won’t even move when nudged with a boot. 

Others have more life in them and explode in a spray of water when any shadow approaches.

And finally, some look silvery and red, with giant hook jaws, fighting with each other for spawning space.

The ultimate outcome for all is the same: None will leave this river. White corpses litter the bottom of the stream, and the shores are covered on either side with fish rotting into the earth.

The rot from the salmon carcasses can be smelled from half a kilometer away. And it has not gone unnoticed to the legions of predators and scavengers who rely on the death of salmon for life through the upcoming winter.

The air is crowded with eagles and in one inlet we count over 70 individuals perched in trees, on the ground and swooping through the trees. Ravens, crows, and gulls add to the clamor. We watch as a northern harrier (also know as a marsh hawk) feeds on bits of salmon — not something the books say these traditional mousers are supposed to do. 

A Meal Fit for a Bear 

Everywhere we look, we see the tracks of grizzly bears and wolves. Big day beds carved out in the sand punctuate the beaches, creating resting places for the growing belly of a feeding grizzly. 

What looks like a tree stump from afar turns out on closer inspection to be brown bear — a grizzly. There is actually a pair of them, feeding casually but continuously on the dying salmon.

Though the water temperature is probably no more than 50 degrees, the bears seem to have no problem taking the plunge. Sometimes they take the fish to the shore to dine, but at other times they simply strip off flesh while standing neck deep in the chilly water.

The bears seem to be aware of each other, but there is no aggression. The abundance of fish is a useful distraction. 

Every now and then, one of the bears will swim to the other side of the channel and contemplate fishing from the opposite bank. With fish everywhere, it is hard to know if this is a better strategy. Yet, Ian McAllister tells us that this has not been a terribly good year, and salmon numbers all along the coast are down. 

We, too, have entered many inlets to find no fish. This inlet is different: The salmon are out in force, far too many for all the predators to have much of an impact on their numbers.

Fertilizing the Circle of Life 

Leaving the river and hiking along the forest, we continue to find pieces of fish, sometimes just the backbone or head.

Wolves and young insecure bears usually will carry their bounty far up into the emerald green forest to consume them at their leisure, fertilizing the forest along the way.  

A perfect ecology exists in the Great Bear Rainforest. The salmon support the bears, who then fertilize the forest, which will create shade for new salmon. These animals are tied together, and the loss of one would eventually confound the others. 

It should make me feel a bit better about all these dying salmon. The bears need them. Already in the pebbles of the streams, I can see bright pink eggs, the sign that life for fish begins anew. 

It is how it should be. For tens of millions of years, this successful reproductive strategy helped push the species along most of the Pacific coast of North America, the Far East, and of course the North Atlantic.

But I still cannot help feeling a bit sorry for the salmon. They have a lot of faith and never stop trying.

Sanjayan

« Day 4: Big Brother Great BearExpedition: Great Bear Rainforest »

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