July 11, 2012

Standup Paddleboarding the Great Bear Rainforest

"Whoah! What was that?" Derek Nixon yells, as the telltale pfffft of air blasting from nostrils sounds from somewhere disconcertingly close to us. The rest of our group has stroked ahead to the sheltered waters of a nearby cove, leaving Nixon and me behind on our standup paddleboards, alone on open ocean. We turn toward the noise and see a large brown whiskered head sticking up from the water's surface, maybe 50 feet away. Another pops up beside it.

Steller sea lions. Big ones.

The pair size us up through inscrutable black eyes for a moment before sinking back into the sea.

We pull our paddles from the water and wait for the heads to reappear. Our 14-foot-long boards suddenly seem very small—the only thing between us and the 1,000-foot-deep ocean and the creatures that live in it. The surface is still. The windless air smells of wrack and saltwater. In the distance, a raven cackles; it could be laughing at us, or maybe just warning us to stay away from sea mammals with large brown whiskered heads.

It's the second day of our paddleboard journey into the Great Bear Rainforest, a place that lends itself to magical thinking, and already I'm starting to get the sense that the animals are trying to tell us things.

Even this now-submerged pair of pinnipeds seem to have a message—or at least a plan. Why else would they announce themselves with startling nostril-blasts before slinking away into the deep? Are they circling below, plotting an assault? Have they been chased away by something bigger?

Minutes pass, and still no sign of them. How long can these beasts hold their breath?

"OK," Nixon says, scanning the water, "now I'm freaked out."

It turns out Steller sea lions can hold their breath for a very long time (more than 20 minutes, I will later learn), which is why Nixon and I finally decide to give up our vigil and paddle for shore. The sea lions eventually do emerge and trail behind us for a mile or so of sporadic spy-hopping. They seem more curious about than afraid of the humanoids who stand on water, but I can't help feeling that maybe they should be afraid—not of Nixon and me in particular, but of humans in general, because some of my species have made plans that could lay waste to their world.


This is the beginning of my latest story for Sierra magazine about standup paddleboarding through the endangered Great Bear Rainforest on the northern coast of British Columbia. To read the rest, head to their website (and feel free to ignore the video clip they plopped into my story — it has nothing to do with my trip): 


A few more pictures, plus my cover shot, from the trip are below. I'll be doing another post on the Great Bear in a couple months when a photo essay from my trip will appear in a SUP magazine. 

This last shot of me was taken by Norm Hann, who also led our trip. To learn more about Norm and his guided SUP journeys into the Great Bear, visit http://mountainsurfadventures.com/MountainSurf_Adventures/Home.html


  1. Fabulous story and photos! The Great Bear is a global treasure and must be protected. Read my novel (Bella Coola: The Rainforest Brought Them Home)set in the Great Bear. Excerpts at www.earldjames.com/news.html.