A River with Bears
Ahhhhh Canada… The great outdoors…. Inspiring colours, magnificent wild places, and astonishing variety of wildlife has captivated my heart right from the beginning! Now seven decades later my love of the natural world has never wavered.
Loads of amazing memories are out there off the beaten path: breathtaking mountains, gorgeous waterways, vast out-of-way intact ecosystems containing robust flora and wildlife. I love the patchwork greenery of moss & lichen…. quilting under Haida Gwaii’s magnificent Sitka Spruce monarchs, the Northwest Territory’s lonesome grizzlies, and the awesome caribou herds of the Mackenzie River delta. Wondrous sights & feelings forever etched in my mind’s notepad to be recalled again and again. And today, my thoughts are captivated by many recollections of the Quatsel, nature’s splendour found in our own backyard….
Nestled in the Pacific’s coastal paradise of beautiful North Vancouver Island, Kwakiutl traditional territory, is a small but mighty Quatse River system. It is made huge by an amazing diversity of plant, trees, fish, animal, and bird life found in the river and along its shores. This magnificent river is a glistening jewel in British Columbia’s wild kingdom.
Words are inadequate to describe the Quatse’s natural beauty… steeped in historical foraging culture, and today’s salmon fishery. The River mouth was originally a Kwakiutl fishing settlement… the river’s original name: Gwa’dzi River or Klaklupamatagwis. Simply put the river is brimming with amazing ecology, history, and sights along its 16 or so kilometer length.
The Quatse begins its journey as drainage from higher elevations of mixed new and older reforested lands north above Quatse Lake. The river travels down about 5 kms, bolstered by various runoff streams and creeks such Bluebell & Caledonia, then enters the Lake’s northwest swampy side. It exits the eastern lakeside in another brisk 3 or so km downhill run southeast.
This narrow shallow water course passes through about a kilometer of open low bush bog, and then into dense second growth firs hiding this gem from most human travelers except biologists, foresters, and the most ardent of nature lovers.
River dynamics change becoming more visible when approaching the Coal Harbour Road, arcing to a northeast direction over boulders and such, a fishway to assist Sockeye & Pink migration, then widens, forms pools, and slows to a lazy pace over mixed sand, gravel and smaller stones for the the final 9 kms.
Along the way it passes through a high steep clay cliff, gathering more volume from Lamonte and Dick Booth Creeks, heading to Quatse River Campground, Salmon Hatchery, & Regional Park. There it slows to show off its beauty to casual walking visitors.
The lower section below the Coal Harbour Road is moreover hiker kindly, being sided by mixture of new & old conifer forest. A fair number of spectacular tall trees, salal, salmon berry and other bushes are worth the trekking effort. The river travels under a few log jams and windfalls. The treed and underbrushed riverbanks are awesome for wildlife viewing…. as are all sections of the River. Patience and determination has its rewards, the ecosystem being prime foraging habitat to countless fish, birds, animals big and small. Wildlife includes Mergansers, Dippers, Kingfishers, Buffleheads, Elk, Black Bear, Cougar, Wolves, Racoons, Black Tailed Deer, Marten and much more.
Here and there Alder, Maple, and Fir trees draped with spaghum, lungwart, ferns, and other greenery, hang precariously over the river, shading waters creating exquisite mirrored reflections. Imagine sitting in such vantage points, seated in one of natures hidden havens, silently watching and listening to natural river and wildlife activities. Then turning you notice nature is intently watching you… a fabulous Black Bear!
The final section courses over sand and smaller gravel, identified as crucial rearing beds for all species of Pacific Salmon, (Sockeye, Chum, Coho, Chinook, Pink) Steelhead, Cutthroat Trout and other fishes. Pure water and ideal habitat contribute to the success of the river’s Salmon Hatchery enhancement programs… run by volunteer stewards building fish stocks for a better tomorrow.
The Quatse River Regional Park is also located on the River’s lower section, hosting a groomed 2.5 km easy walking loop through surprisingly large conifers, some hundreds of years old. Magnificent tall Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Red Cedar anchored in a lush foliage, green moss, lichen, and a variety of lilies amongst low brush cover: salal, salmonberry, huckleberry, and much more.
I really don’t know how to adequately write about the Quatse’s incredible beauty… It is my hope the photos herein do most of the talking, giving the River some justice.
The Quatse is always changing, and wonderful wildlife surprises await around every bend, especially during the Fall salmon migration. Black Bears are regular visitors, foraging around the riverbanks for berries or fishing for an opportunity to grab a passing salmon. Seagulls and eagles chatter it up waiting the bears success from vantage points, ready to swoop in and pluck up any flesh scraps or salmon eggs.
Vancouver Island has one of the densest Black Bear populations in the world… and we regularly go out to find these wonderful animals. Most of the time they continue foraging seemingly undisturbed by our presence, sometimes they bolt away. It is alway a thrill when they stick around, however as wild animals their behaviour is unpredictable! One should certainly exercise caution… we have been surprised by an aggressive bear, and now always maintain a safe distance and carry Bear Spray.
Black bears can live about 20 years and weight over 300 kilos! Their diet includes plant roots and shoots such as skunk cabbage, grasses, berries, nuts, insects, small mammals, crabs, shellfish. In remote natural habitats bears are active during the day. However, in areas of high human activity such as the Quatse campsites, black bears often become nocturnal to avoid encounters with humans.
The colours found on the Quatse are unimaginable and must be seen to be appreciated. One of my favourite Quatse birds is the Hooded Merganser, a tree nesting aquatic avian friend that is always wary of shore movement, flying off with the least movement…. They enjoy slower pools, diving for insects, fish, crayfish, and other foods, snatching their prey with thin serrated bills.
They actually swim underwater searching for a meal, and can stay submerged for up to 2 minutes! Remarkably they nest in tree hollows & cavities hatching 6-16 or so eggs. Ducklings will jump from their hollowed tree sanctuary to the forest floor below “when only one day old”. A baby’s leap of faith may be from a nest 15 or more meters above ground! Fortunately their fluffy down attire slows and cushions their tumbling forest floor fall.
Life is amazing!
Waving goodbye the river makes its final dash under Highway 19 to empty into a large tidal flat estuary at the head of Hardy Bay. There for all to see is welcoming Kwakiutl carving with writen signage heralding the importance one of the most remarkable migratory bird sanctuaries on Vancouver Island. The translation reading: Gilakasla…. Fix the World, Work Together For Children, Grandchildren, and Those Unborn…. Namugwis. A message to be heeded.
Nature, the wild kingdom is truly worth respect, admiration, and protection for all of tomorrows.
Safe travels… on to the next memory