August 4th, 2017 – When I woke up and looked out the window I didnt need to see the sky to know the smoke was back, the eerie red glow on the trees outside the window told me all I needed to know. Yesterday the crew had been telling me I was lucky the smoke had cleared, becasue the flights the day before had been cancelled out of the valley since the planes couldnt land for poor visibility. Now I was wondering what was in store for me this afternoon.
But my flight (assuming it flew) was not until after lunch, and there was a creek walk on Snootli on the agenda for the morning. The four of use each had a job to do; we were to count live fish and dead fish, to differentiate and enumerate marked (hatchery) and unmarked (possibly hatchery, possibly wild) fish, to retrieve tags from any tagged fish that we found, and to measure and scale sample and adipose clipped fish. Any carcasses are pitched as high up the banks as possible to avoid recounting them in subsequent walks. It’s harder than it looks…. in some places the banks are steep and the fish slide back down. Cursing, you stab it with the pew before it is pulled downriver, and try again.
Not a lot of fish have been put above the fence yet, so the work wasn’t overly onerous. In a week or two this will take a great deal more effort.
The smoke was thick and heavy in the air, it smelled like a campfire, but on the creek, under the thick canopy of trees, the smoke seemed to be held at bay, but the eerie and apocalyptic red light filtered through in pockets.
Not all the fish on the river are in good shape, but you have to admire the way nature recycles things. In a day or two there won’t be anything left of this fish but a few bones.
At the end of each reach we stop and compile our counts into the data book, rest a few moments, and then begin slogging through the water again. Along the banks are clearly marked entry and exit points where bears access the water, it’s a bit eerie to know they are there, we see fresh tracks in many spots, but we never see one. They have lots of fish to eat and we are of no interest today, thankfully. Will tells a story of being charged by an angry sow on his last day on the Atnarko last year….. I don’t need that sort of excitement today.
At the bottom of the last reach we end up at the Snootli Creek fence, where a crew has finished taking eggs and are now tagging fish.
We haul out of the water and watch for a few minutes before someone comes driving down the dirt track to find me and tell me that I need to be at the airport in half an hour….. and that the morning planes were cancelled out of both Bella Coola and the alternate airport in Anahim Lake. He tells me that at the airport I will find out if I will be bussed up to Anahim Lake for a flight out, or if I will be spending another night in the Valley because of cancelled flights at both airports.
I say goodbye to the staff at the fence and jumped in a truck to run back to the hatchery and grab my things. Chris asks if we should go straight to the airport and I remind him that my things are at the hatchery…and I’d rather not board a plane in my waders.
More hugs and goodbyes, several people asking if I’ll come back in September for the Atnarko work that I usually come up for (I was six weeks earlier than usual this year…sometimes it’s good to mix things up), someone else inviting me up to Owikeno for some other work later in October….. I wish, but this is probably my only trip up until next year, but maybe I’ll try to come in the spring…
At the airport another hug goodbye and then I checked in and Stewart informed me that we would be bussing up to Anahim and that things had cleared a little bit, enough for a plane to get in and get us out, but we wouldn’t be leaving on the bus until the time we’d normally be flying out.
This was going to be a long day.
Luckily I’d made myself a sandwich and grabbed an apple before leaving so I plunked myself down on the sidewalk to wait for the little yellow bus, for the third time in as many years. I’d thought that I’d be spared the ride up The Hill since I’d come in earlier, whold’a thunk that smoke would be my nemesis this year and not nasty fall foul weather.
When the bus came around I was already waiting where I knew it would stop, which meant that I got my favourite seat…the very first one on the outside, witht he best view of the cliffs below the crazy dirt highway. A woman from hydro sat across from me with a little boy travelling solo to Vancouver. Part way up the Hill she was laughing somewhat hysterically and saying to me “This is insane, how much more of this is there?!?!” I replied that we were about halfway through the precarious part, and that I presumed she’d not experienced this perk that Pacific Coastal reserves for special occasions.
It’s about an hour and a half trip up to Anahim Lake and the view can be spectacular. I’ve seen it once when I drove up the road in 2008 when I was doing some contract work. The beetle was at its peak at that time and there were more red trees than green. In 2009 a fire swept through parts of the area above the valley buring about 500 hectares of forest, and in 2010 another fire destroyed another 500 hectares of timber in that part of the Cariboo region. That year a 200 year flood also tore through the Valley below, and in 2011 another 200 year flood hammered the Valley. They had a rough four years. The burned timber still stands, black skeletons on a background of green growing below. There is still a significant amount of beetle kill present in the forest, but it’s less obvious now that the red has faded to grey and stays hidden among the green.
At the summit the air is clear and the sky is blue, the chocking campfire smell we were breathing in on the hot little bus with open windows and no air conditioning fades away and everone deeply inhales the fresh mountain air. The muskegs are green and glass like pools of water lie in the deeper parts. I forget how pretty the Cariboo-Chilcotin country is. This is the type of landscape I grew up around, and it’s a sight for sore eyes.
Although we are in a clear part of the landscape, we can see the smoke from the Procipice fire int he distance, where we are headed. And sure enough, as we reach Anahim Lake and return to a paved road, the smoke settles in around us again. We disembark and wait for our plane. There is a plane already waiting on the tarmac, but it is for those passengers stranded this morning.
They finally leave at 3pm.
And we wait.
And while we wait trucks of firefighters come and go, this is a triage base for them. Two huge helicopters fly in and set their water buckets down before landing to refuel and head back out to continue to drop water on the huge fire to the west of us.
When our plane finally arrives we are told that we will have to wait an hour before we can take off since things have backed up down in Vancouver and we will need to wait for a landing slot. When we do finally take off, I realize the plane isn’t full, so I head straight to the back. The Beechcraft 1900C is affectionately known as either “The Flying Culvert” or “The Flying Coffin” depending on who you ask. I generally opt for culvert. Every seat is a window, except one right int he middle at the back. There are two rows of single seats down the cramped space, and only one set of three right across the back. There is no bathroom, and you have to bend in half and almost crawl down the aisle, hunching into an even smaller ball at the middle where (I think) the landing gear has some sort of attachment and bulges into the inside. But the fun part, if the plane isn’t full and you can get all of them, is that the back three seats offer one passenger two window seats (one on each side of the plane) and one seat in the middle that allows a full stretch of the legs. Since the plane only had twelve passengers, I snatched the back three.
In front of me sat the little boy from the bus. I learned that his name was Jonathan Radcliffe. I learned this when he pointed out the window as the top of a mountain and told me that it was Mount Radcliffe. When I asked if he’d flown before he said only once, but he knew that mountain because that was his last name. That bit about only ever flying once before was a clue…as was the constant stream of chatter he engaged me in, he was very nervous. And the fact that much of the world below was clouded by smoke probably didn’t help.
At some point, because I was taking photos out the windows, he asked if I was a photographer, I said “No, I am a biologist” and he said “Cool, High Five!”. As we came closer to Vancouver he got a bit agitated and turned to me ans said “When we come in to land….may I hold your hand?”.
Like I’m going to say no to that plea.
And sure enough, when we started to descend, his little hand slipped back and found mine and engaged it in a vice grip, ever tighter until we were fully on the ground and had slowed. He then turned to me and said “I guess this is where we part ways, it was very nice meeting you.”
And it reminded me of why I like small northern towns so very much.
It was a nice end to a very good work trip.
Back to 2.0 on Tuesday…sigh…..
For interests sake, here are satellite images of the BC coast between August 1st when I arrived, and August 4th when I left.
Bella Coola is circled in red.
You can see how the smoke from the fires inland flood the valleys and inlets all along the coast and across the Lower Mainland and much of Vancouver Island.