Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Not gone tree planting after all...

Last night, for personal reasons, I decided not to go tree planting after all. I regret having had to make that decision, but I saw no other choice. Ergo, I will remain in Portree on Isle of Skye and immediately start working on the things I came to Scotland for in the first place: setting up photo workshops, continuing work on "The Larger Picture" (which is evolving out of "Project Canada"), and some other ambitious ideas that you will read about, probably within a few months time.

Probably more explanation for this decision will follow in due time

Monday, 19 January 2009

Turning into a Highlander Pt.2


The famous pier of Portree, my new hometown, at sunset (see the blue house, Lies?). Just to give you an idea of the kind of scenery you get here even when you just go walk the dog for ten minutes (although walking for only ten minutes is hardly possible when the walking is so good!).
Day after tomorrow I will leave the island again, however. That is to return to the job I temporarily have in the area of Dunoon, near Glasgow: planting trees! I hope to be able to write a bit more about the job, possibly even an article about what tree planting is and does. Internet will remain a rarity for a bit longer, I fear, so updates will be irregular and rare too.
Just for the friends I left behind in the Netherlands, and those in other parts of the world that I can hardly keep in touch with during these weeks/months, I miss you all very much! Keep in mind that we have a spare bedroom and a study where you could sleep if you'd ever feel like visiting this beautiful island! It is a strange feeling to know that you have made a good decision with such a big move; a migration away from home and those you know, but at the same time feel the loss of especially those friends and some even closer to the heart than that...
Ach, it's a shame that there is no time to write more, or write better. Time's up in the library where I can work on the internet for 30 - 60 minutes per session, and I have to go back home to finish my tax declaration (oh yugh!!).
Until next time!!

Monday, 12 January 2009

Turning into a Highlander!

Here is just a very short message, typed in the library of Portree on the Scottish Isle of Skye, to explain the long silence on this blog. The explanation: I am turning into a Highlander! Very suddenly and very unexpectedly too, I have decided to migrate from the Netherlands to this beautiful island (one of the most beautiful places in Western Europe in my opinion) not long after returning from the last fieldwork period for Project Canada last September. I am still very busy with all the things that come with moving house and going from one country to another. I hope to get settled within a few weeks and find some time again to work on all the photos and on all the ideas for articles again then. Just looking outside the window of the library, I can see the mountains and I think that this area will be very inspiring for all the big changes that will transform Project Canada into The Larger Picture!

All the best and hopefully until soon with more news!
Arthur

Monday, 20 October 2008

Food for Thought

This is a short movie showing how children sometimes sense that not all is well in the world around them. This boy may have found a solution to what bothers him!

Click here to see "Warlord" on youtube.

As always, feel free to speak out any thoughts you might have about it here on the blog!

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Petition to protect wolves


Just like a few months ago, I would like to draw your attention to an online petition for protecting wolves in the Canadian Central Rocky Mountains, where regulations do not suffice to secure the species' future in the area. Please have a look at the petition website and consider signing too.

Although I support the petition, I took the opportunity to write a little bit about the nature of nature conservation and the idea that wild species need to be protected from human influence. That text follows here, starting with a quote that I am likely to use quite often in the future:



"(W)e are all floating in the same boat. We may certainly try to push one another over the side, but only a maniac (...) would make a hole in the bottom." Terry Pratchett 'The Fifth Elephant"

Wolves, just like any other living species, are in that boat with us. Somewhere along the line our culture came up with the idiotic idea that the boat was only intended for us (not even for all humans, but only for our culture) and that other species were at best commodities to sustain us during our trip, but at worst useless and possibly dangerous stowaways taking up valuable space and resources that were ours by right. And so, these species deserved nothing better than to be pushed over the side. Every last one of them! And wolves in many cases are the ultimate Unwanted Stowaway for our culture and most parts of the boat have already been successfully rid of them.

Pushing others over the side on its own is not a new or necessarily bad thing; it is the thing that continuously happens to individuals if they find themselves part of the food chain or in the way of a stronger competitor, and it happens to complete populations or even whole species during evolution when circumstances change and they cannot adapt. This will continue to happen as long as there will be life on this planet, or anywhere else for that matter. But our culture does it in quite another way: our purposefully and routinely pushing over as many complete species (instead of just individuals) as possible is definitely a novelty. And how about that hole in the boat? Oh yes, we are guilty of that as well! Of course that boat is really this planet, or possibly the natural system we are part of. And aren't we working very hard to do maximum damage to it for the sake of growth and what we call development?

We fool ourselves by thinking that Nature and Humanity are separate ànd opposing entities and that what is good for one is necessarily bad for the other. It is what our culture has taught us, but it is a ludicrous idea, confusing growth and development with humans! Making sure that wolves can survive is not bad for humans! It may be bad, I grant you, for the kind of growth and development that our culture seeks so desperately and without shame or remorse, but, if you consider that both wolf and humans are part of the same natural system and each play (or could play, in our case, as has been proven beyond a doubt by all our ancestors before our culture was invented) a useful role in it, NOT bad for humans! Every species removed, globally òr locally will be a player less in the natural system and because each player has a role, the integrity of the system will undoubtedly suffer. And because we are part of that system, we will likely suffer sooner or later too. Heck, we ARE already suffering from all the damage we have done! But, fortunately for our peace of mind, there always is the working towards ever more growth and development to take our minds off thoughts like that... and so we work to ever more damage! And we compensate by trying with one hand to come up with rules and laws to protect what we destroy with the other.

Making sure that we do not, purposefully or accidentally, push overboard as many wolves as we can, would be a wise thing to do, even for selfish reasons. But is protecting wolves from humans the right way? Protecting wolves from ourselves sounds a bit as if we are in one boat, and wolves, along with the rest of Nature, are in another. Or maybe that wolves might be stowaways on our boat after all, but that at least some of us have come to like and appreciate them, and that, despite the fact that they take up some of the space and resources that we could so well use for our growth and development, we want to allow them to stay. Nice of us, huh? Or is it rather that we think of ourselves as intrinsically bad and dangerous and that we cannot help ourselves pushing everything overboard and making holes in the hull and that only rules and laws can possibly protect our fellow passengers and the hull from our tendencies?

In that sense, protecting nature is something that is bound to fail. It might work for a while, but when we give in to our culture’s continuous urging to grow and develop, it can never hold. Conservation traditionally settles for trying, at best, to maintain a given state for a natural value and, at worst, to minimize damage to it. Unlike development, it never really goes for outright gain, which would have to be giving up a bit of already established (!) growth and development and give it back to the natural system instead of monopolising it. And so, even if it wins, nothing but a bit of extra time is actually won for the natural value it seeks to protect. Most of the time, however, it just achieves a continuous line of minimized loss and damage and that just means that development will take just that bit longer to achieve maximum damage!

The answer is still in that boat analogy. We do not have to protect wolves from ourselves, but we have to make sure that our actions do not damage the boat and recognise that our fellow passengers all have a role in keeping the boat afloat. We have to recognise that Nature and Humanity are not separate entities, and certainly not opposing ones. What is good for one, is by default good for the other, because humans are just another part of nature! We are not even the captains on this boat, although we like to think so. There are many species that are infinitely more essential to the staying afloat of the craft, like bacteria and insects. Without them, the boat would disintegrate instantly, while it would glide on as before to the horizon if we should vacate it for whatever reason.

Not completely throwing the wolf overboard is good for nature and thus for humans. A system based on achieving unlimited growth and development in a limited world by gobbling up every possible resource and eliminating any competition is not only utterly unrealistic, but also bad for nature and thus for humans! Pushing a fellow passenger overboard every now and then is inevitable if we want to survive, but we will reach true sustainability only if we push over only what we really need to push over, just like any other truly successful species. And we will have to face that the current size of our population and what is needed to feed it and its growth alone, is automatically pushing 200 species per day overboard for good, never to return again, and that every attempt to save wild species is completely impotent if our population growth is not stopped ànd reversed.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Update from the field 5: Just some images (Haines etc.)

From our extremely luxurious-seeming hotel room (well, it certainly is comfortable, but nothing really special; it is just a huge change after spending almost five weeks in a small camper truck) in Whitehorse, the evening before we accept the journey home again, I find just enough time to upload just a few of the thousands of photos shot during this Fieldwork Period.

Our last longer stop was in Haines in South-eastern Alaska. We had spent two evenings in that remote little village last year and - by accident - found out that a few miles out of town there is another great opportunity to watch grizzlies fish for salmon. During that journey, we only saw one bear and that just before dark and so the photos were not that great. Now we wanted to really spend a few days there and see if that would give us some better opportunities. And boy, did it ever!!


The tips of this bear's ears were almost white, which made it very easy to recognise and... it looked rather cute too. Here he or she is in early morning light, trying to locate a fish to munch on.



And voila, success! It is a great spectacle to see a bear pull big fish from the water, but at times it is really tough to witness the feeding. A salmon, of course, poses no threat whatsoever to a big bear and so there is no need for the bear to kill its prey before starting to eat. And sometimes the fish stays alive awefully long... It keeps moving while its skin is stripped off, its tail is eaten, and sometimes -if it is a female fish who hasn't spawned yet- to have her eggs pushed out by a brusque push on her belly and then be left alone to suffocate on the ground. Most people witnessing all this do not seem to mind this at all, but mum and I sometimes had a hard time.


But many more animals congregate here to feast on the abundant fish. That is... the fish that ought to be abundant! Like in Hyder, the salmon run was bad this year. In Hyder it was said that only about 1% of the numbers that should be swimming upstream to spawn were counted. In Haines it appeared a little better, but not much. The reasons for this are unknown, but most guesses concern overfishing on the oceans, pollution, climate change and the like. Even a number of Native peoples that usually still depend for a part of their diet on the salmon runs have decided to not take salmon this year, or at least to take a lot less than they normally do.

This bald eagle and a legion of gulls of different species wait for fish to strand and die, or for scraps left by bears.



A bald eagle calling.


And a gull (sorry, I do not have my bird fieldguide with me to save weight, so no exact ID...) scavenging on the salmon that perish after having used all their last energy to spawn. Even though the salmon run was low this year, the number of dead fish on the shores is amazing and saddening in a way, even though of course you have to realise that these fish have succeeded in what they came to do here: to take care of the next generation.


During the week or so that we visited the Chilkoot River at least twice a day, usually for at least 4 hours a time, we ran into this nice fellow. Jon Jacobs became our regular breakfast and dinner partner for a while and the hours spent along the river photographing bears and (flying) eagles were very pleasant and a lot of fun! Thanks a lot for your company Jon!



And while we are looking at people, here is mum showing off her newfound brave self, being only two or three dozen meters away from a bear eating a salmon. Mum admitted to having had her hand on her bear spray on a number of occassions when bears came rather close, but took the can out only twice. Thanks for your company as well mum!


And then back to the real main characters of Haines: the salmon. Without them, there would not be this rich and important food source for bears, eagles, gulls, seals (regularly seen at the last part of the Chilkoot River) and many many other species, including plants which also absorb the minerals the decomposed fish add to the soil. Thank you fish, and I hope that the current trend in your numbers will not continue, or we (all other species aggregating to profit from your deaths) will lead a much poorer life very soon...


That, for now, leaves Haines behind. Many more images will certainly follow, but for this update it will have to do. We travelled up to Haines Junction again, along the Chilkat River, which is really very beautiful at many points...


... And arrived in Whitehorse day before yesterday, cleaned the camper truck to bring it back to the rental company (Fraserway RV (thanks for the service, guys!!)) and then prepared for two more very boring days in town. But... it wasn't meant to be that way!

Just after handing in the camper truck, we were enjoying a coffee in Tim Horton's when suddenly in walks this guy that looks a bit like Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister. I am not a big fan of our leader and in that first split second of seeing this man walk into the establishment, I take an instant dislike to him (which of course is a bad thing to do at any rate!)... only to suddenly realise why else he looks so familiar: we met about one and a half years earlier at an environmental education conference in Kananaskis Country (near Canmore, Alberta, Canada) and had a great time talking together there! At the end of the conference, he sang a few songs for the attendees and I really liked that too. And so here he was, entirely unexpected. I walked up to him while slowly his name - Peter Puffin - came back to me, and he almost dropped his bagel seeing me! It turned out that he was in town to do a little concert for kids and their parents, along with another man - Remy Rodden, a Whitehorse local - I met at that conference. Of course mum and I decided to go and I even made pictures of the whole happening. It was great fun and all the more special because it came entirely out of the blue!

After the concert, Remy and his wife invited us to their place to have dinner there along with some other guests and we had an absolutely great night; much nicer than the anticipated bagel with cheese while lying on the bed in our hotel room. Thank all of you present there as well and I hope to have a chance to meet you again one day soon!

Here is Peter (in green) and Remy (in yellow) after their performance. I hope to soon give you some more information on these two. Their songs try to raise awareness of environmental issues and are great fun to listen to.


That is it for now! Tomorrow we get up at 0430 am to catch the bus to the airport and then have a looooong journey with about 11 hours of waiting altogether between flights, before arriving home... The next updates will be from the big city (huge compared to anything we have seen here) in our tiny little overpopulated country again.

Thanks for keeping an eye on this blog and please don't stop!

All the best,
Arthur

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Update from the field 4: A Big Leap Forward



And now for some drama: from Haines in Alaska, where many hours a day are spent observing grizzly bears, bald eagles, salmon seals and many other animals, I bring you news that the ongoing fourth fieldwork period will be "Project Canada's" last! Some things are inevitable, and this is one of them. And I feel great about it!

Let me explain. Evolution is one of those inevitable things; it never stops. When biological species evolve and thus change, as they continuously do, at a certain time species A cannot be called species A any more, and you have to start calling it species B. Apparently that goes for freelance photojournalism projects too. "Project Canada" has been evolving rapidly during the past few years and change upon change makes it ever less appropriate to keep calling it "Project Canada".

One of the more obvious, albeit least important reasons for that is the fact that Alaska turns up for the second time on a fieldwork period's itinerary. Alaska is not Canada of course and certainly quite far away from the Canadian Rocky Mountains, which initially were the project's main area of focus. And with the invaluable information and impressions that I have found in Alaska so far, I am certain to return there again. However, after this Fieldwork Period not as part of "Project Canada" any more. You will have to get used to a name that has slowly materialised during the past months. I am happy to say that, more than “Project Canada”, it is a name with a much clearer meaning:

"The Larger Picture"

Work on a completely new website commenced in June already, first intended to be the new "Project Canada" website that I mentioned in the previous update, but while working on it the realisation really started growing that a move from A to B could no longer be postponed. This website will be quite different from the "Project Canada" one and I fear that quite some time will go into developing it. I am aiming for the end of 2008 and hope that time will permit me to achieve that. Until that time at least, www.project-canada.com will still be available, only not very often updated any more. Updates will mostly be posted on my blog instead: www.project-canada.blogspot.com.

Back to the name “The Larger Picture”, which is very much in line with the thoughts I posted on the News page when www.project-canada.com was last updated. I said then that "Project Canada", against the advice of several people, would not narrow down and focus on just one main subject like bears, Native People, the effect of highways on wildlife, climate change, or one area like Banff National Park or anything like that. Instead, the focus would be... all of the above and in fact much more. In short: the larger picture!

This leads to the most important reason why “Project Canada” has evolved into “The Larger Picture”. It is that, for the story I want to tell, even the enormous Canadian Rocky Mountains have proven to be way too small and limited. With all the insights gained since starting the project in 2005, I now know that raising awareness of the natural values of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and of humanity’s role in that natural system just is not enough. Indeed the whole of Canada is too small too and so are North America, the Western or Northern hemisphere and any limited part of this world. “The Larger Picture” will not be limited by national or continental boundaries. “The Larger Picture” recognizes an important fact that was not factored into “Project Canada” yet: boundaries of all kinds are not simple and impermeable separating lines between things; they are connecting areas where countless interactions take place between these things and sometimes, when seen at a certain level and with a certain amount of insight, it is even quite hard to say where one thing ends and the other starts.

At the very top of this article is a picture. It is the new banner for the “The Larger Picture” website and symbolizes it all quite well. The symbolism, obviously, is that of a jigsaw puzzle and it may make sense if you recognize how our culture tends to not see the world as one complete system where everything is linked to everything else, but draws imaginary lines and divides the world and everything in and around it into ever smaller pieces and focus so much on the seemingly most interesting pieces that not only are most other pieces ignored, but ‘the larger picture’ is completely lost from view as well. So much so that in our daily lives we often only move around on a very limited number of supposed pieces (like your job, your family and maybe a hobby or two) and maybe spend a few minutes every day to look at a few selected others from a huge distance (maybe when you watch the evening news or read a newspaper). The fact that what we do on each of those imaginary separate pieces does not stay on that one piece but has a very real impact on all the other pieces (or rather on the whole system) that you do not easily see, is something that is very easy to forget and get used to. Just consider how often you think about what the influence of flushing your toilet is on the watershed around that you draw the water from, or how many plants and animals were very actively killed to provide you with that shiny red apple, or what the connection is between the bread and vegetables you eat and the ever-growing and ever more dead zones in many oceans, or what the influence is of driving to your local supermarket on the bears and salmon in Fish Creek near Hyder in Alaska? But of course everything you do has an influence on the world around you and if you actively look for these influences they can be surprisingly easy to see! And indeed, if we would recognize these influences, these connections, or these links better, we would probably live our lives very, very differently indeed! And this is not talking about taking the bicycle to the supermarket, buying an fuel-efficient car, or using energy-saving lightbulbs in your house. The necessary changes are a lot more drastic than that. The beauty of it, however, is that for most of us that change will not be about giving up, about limiting ourselves, nor about taking a step back, but much rather about finally finding the way to what we really deeply yearn for but are mostly denied in the lives that we live today: safety, fulfillment, a true goal in life and contentedness.

And that is precisely what “The Larger Picture” will be all about! It is not a “traditional” conservation initiative that only informs people about certain subjects in the natural world and our influence on those subjects in the hope that people will become more environmentally aware and treat nature better. It will also not try to find a balance between nature conservation and human development in the current sense of the word, if only because what we have come to call development and the principle thoughts behind it are by default corruptible and unsustainable. Even the best initiatives to prove that our kind of development can be sustainable and environmentally friendly have so far not succeeded in making big necessary changes. Explaining this will be one of the things I seek to do in “The Larger Picture”, but first and foremost it is an initiative that will try to get rid of perceived boundaries where there are none, starting with the most important one: the commonly held idea that Nature and Humanity are not only separate, but also opposing entities. This probably is the most basal idea that has led to our current way of development. Our culture has planted it in our minds so firmly that it is mostly held as a fact, but “The Larger Picture” will strive to show that the clear line that we ourselves have placed between nature and humanity is really just not there. The fascinating and revealing story of how it got there and how it is maintained explains so much about who and what we are, where we come from, where many of the big problems around us come from and possibly even about where we will go from here, that it will come back time and time again in this project. It is going to be a major subject in an article I have been working on for months now and that I hope to finish within a few weeks and publish on this blog.

The symbolism of the puzzle will come back regularly too, because it explains so well what “The Larger Picture” tries to achieve. These boundaries between subjects that we have come to recognize as factual separating forces, like between Nature and Humanity, are not much different from the cuts a puzzle producer makes in a perfectly whole image. The result at first is of course many separate pieces that do not make too much sense on their own, but even when you put them together again, the cuts leave an obvious black line when viewed from nearby. And obviously that is what we do: we have cut the world around us in tiny pieces and continue to make them smaller all the time (always increasing the total length of boundaries and thus of ignored or forgotten links - and even pieces - as we go) and we try very hard to make sense of the piece that happens to catch our attention or that we are forced to focus on by jobs or convictions of different kinds. Anyone who would look at a finished puzzle that way would probably be eyed curiously and laughingly, but our whole culture is doing it with the real world around us. You might advise someone bending over a tiny piece of a puzzle or even a completed puzzle with a microscope while trying to understand the puzzle to take a few big steps back and look again, because you know that only when you look at the puzzle from a distance do the oddly shaped hard black boundaries fall away and you can see the whole picture again without seeing the separate pieces. That is what “The Larger Picture” will try to achieve.

Just to be safe, this of course does not mean that microscope or a thorough understanding of one little thing are bad things! What it does mean is that it matters how you look at and use the obtained knowledge and understanding: will it be seen as a separate piece or as a tiny but undeniably connected part of a larger picture? The difference might seem subtle and negligible, but our culture’s choosing the first option has had effects on us and the world around us that are almost impossible to overestimate and of course "The Larger Picture" will dive into that matter often.

That of course leaves the question of how the project’s goal will be achieved. Like “Project Canada”, it will remain a freelance photojournalism project and for the foreseeable time it will remain a solo project too. So, photographs and articles will still be used together to raise awareness, only now the focus will be way beyond the Canadian Rocky Mountains and you can expect subjects like politics, the challenge of rarely challenged perceived truths, overpopulation, food aid, freedom, true sustainability (not the kind where “environmentally friendly” really means “still utterly destructive, only slightly less so than before”) and many more.

Does all this mean that the natural values of the Canadian Rockies or Alaska and specific subjects like bears, American Natives and pine beetles will lose much of my interest? Most certainly not! These areas and subjects will continue to be extremely important for “The Larger Picture” for very solid reasons and will in fact, certainly for the foreseeable future, remain the basis for the project. And with very good reason!

Honestly, it took me a while to recognize those solid reasons and I was actually a bit afraid that I would lose my reasons to go to Canada and Alaska regularly. If it would just be because I like that part of the earth best for its scenery and relatively complete and unspoiled community of life (all species, not just humans of course), then that might not be a good enough reason to spend so much money and make such a large footprint (flying, driving around, etc.) working on the project while I might achieve the project’s goals at home in the Netherlands, or in countries closer to home, too. With some relieve I soon realized, however, that these relatively undeveloped parts in North America can help to explain a much larger part of the ideas I want to communicate with people than the Netherlands or its neighbouring countries can. The main reason, like I already recognized when I started “Project Canada”, is that this area is unique because its huge and still relatively complete natural system is located in the rich “developed” (which is not necessarily a positive word in my opinion) world. That means that there is still quite a lot to raise awareness of, And besides, the fact that Native people still live in North America, and in some cases have managed to hold on to at least parts of their thousands of years old and thoroughly tested and successful way of life is of great importance too because their experience and knowledge may be of great value for the direction in which our development should go if we want to have a chance of surviving the coming decades. The aforementioned upcoming long article will do something to explain that as well.

If you have any thoughts, suggestions or critique to share about all this, please feel free to send me an e-mail or, maybe even better, to post a reaction here on this blog for other people to read and possibly participate in a discussion.

Best regards,
Arthur

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Update from the Field 3: A Change of Plans

And yet another update, minutes after the last. My fingers, unused to typing by now, are still aching!

Yesterday I had to make a big decision; one that was really tough to take. As mentioned earlier, I was hoping to visit Katmai National Park and Preserve, being invited by Chris and Ken Day of Emerald Air Services, to learn about the grizzlies there and, even more important, about the grizzly hunt that was reinstated there last year. This was a story that I really hoped to be able to add to the project because there is so much in it that shows how people treat their fellow species in the community of life and how every species other than humans is not much more (and not seldomly less) than a commodity.

Honestly, I have looked forward anxiously to this for months. However, to my great regret I had to cancel the appointment. Problems with internet and e-mail made making a final appointment with Chris and Ken very difficult and that is why it was not entirely certain if the meeting could happen as planned until a few days ago. But then, after some careful calculations of the costs of the kilometres, the available time and especially the available money, it became clear that travelling to Homer, where Chris and Ken are based, is just out of reach.

The lack of money is by far the biggest culprit. The last few months before this Fieldwork Period, things went rather bad financially. A number of photography assignments that I was counting on were postponed – hopefully to be picked up soon after I return home - and a few unexpected large-ish sums had to be paid for this and that. In the end it got so bad that during the last two months before the journey started I had to take up a temporary job filling shelves in a supermarket in the extremely early and late hours of the day. Some nice colleagues aside, I found it a terrible job. However, it provided me enough material to hopefully one day soon write an article about supermarkets. Believe me, there is LOTS to think about!
Regardless, I had to let Chris and Ken know that I could not come. I will do my best to interview them soon by phone to learn as much as possible that way, regrettably without the great advantage of actually seeing the bears in the park, and hope that it will be possible to meet them next year!

That leaves us with about three more weeks though. Rest assured, it will be spent usefully! There is a new plan already, which in a way merely extends a part of the journey that we already really wanted to make: the Dempster Highway. We planned to do only a few kilometres, but now we will be able to make that a bit more, if conditions allow it.

This highway, supposedly, is much less developed than Highway 37 (see previous posts) and according to some books it is a destination on its own (fitting nicely with the idea that life is not about destination, but about the journey). It leads roughly from Dawson City all the way past the Arctic Circle to Inuvik in Northwest Territories. The road leads through mountains and tundra and permafrost supports much of the Highway. Or it used to… Since climate change is picking up, the permafrost is melting in places and this affects the road surface heavily in some parts. With care, it should be possible to travel on it for at least some distance though.

How far we will be able to go North is uncertain and just as much limited by financial reasons as the trip into Alaska would have been. But travelling through such a remote place will certainly be a great learning experience and hopefully it will give opportunities to meet Native people, because so far I have not had real contact with any during this trip.

Internet will be even rarer there, so when the next update will be published is far from certain, but I like the idea that I have no idea what kind of story it will be when it comes!

Until then,
Arthur

Update from the Field 2: Highway 37

Almost two weeks have passed of this Fieldwork Period and it has been worth it so far!

As mentioned in the previous update, we have spent about a week in Hyder (Alaska), observing grizzly bears and bald eagles feasting on spawning chum salmon. I have learned a lot about bears ànd about the people visiting this place during that week, but will need more time to produce a little story for the blog.

This update is about the journey back through British Columbia along Highway 37 to Whitehorse (Yukon Territories). I already mentioned a few thoughts about the work done on the highway, but want to add a few more short insights and some images as well.

Here, work to “improve” the highway is still continuing. This image makes it quite clear what a huge scar a road is in a place that used to be just another part of a huge forest that stretches for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. One scar in such a huge area might not seem that influential, but its effects are definitely profound. And the improvement of the road will only be the beginning, as such projects that open up an area always lead to more development.


This sign notifies every traveller that this part of the highway too is no longer unpaved which allows much higher speeds and makes the road that much more attractive to more vehicles again. No more muddy parts, potholes and loose gravel anymore.



A moose chooses to travel over a portion of the highway for a while in the quiet early morning instead of through the thick forest along it. Maybe he also likes the even surface more than the uneven ground between the trees. Or maybe he just thinks that he is safer here because he can see predators coming from a distance. However, not all deadly enemies use stealth and trees to creep up on unsuspecting prey… Just a few seconds after the photo was taken, a car came from the other direction and could only just hit the brakes in time to avoid a collision.



And collisions are not rare. This northern flicker, a woodpecker, has not survived a crossing of the road or, more likely since it regularly feeds on the ground, a breakfast consisting of insects on the road surface.



This dark version of the red fox has very likely also been hit by a car, although not lethally. At least, not directly so… While we were driving, we suddenly saw it sitting along the road and slowed down to pass it carefully. But as soon as we passed by, it came after us. Curiously, we stopped the car and, to be sure, the little fox approached and sat down on the tarmac right next to the truck! Only just before it sat down, we noticed that it did not use its left hind leg. There could be more than one reason for that of course, but for an animal so used to being in the neighbourhood of a road, the chance of it having been caused by a road accident is quite big.



The poor fellow, quite comfortably seated just about two meters away from the driver’s door, was obviously begging us for food! It was heart breaking, especially in combination with the injured leg, but we did not want to give it any food because that would only make it stay near the road more to ‘forage’. Whether the probably accident had happened because it was habituated to food offered by motorists, or because foraging in the wild became too difficult after being hit in the first place is another uncertainty, but the influence of the “improved highway” on this fox is definitely very pronounced!



We intended to spend two nights on a campsite along Highway 37. We had already visited this place last year and wanted to return because it was so very beautifully situated on the shore of icy blue Boya Lake. When we arrived just before sunset, however, a fellow camper approached us with news that reduced the number of nights to be spent there to only one. He told us that the previous night a grizzly bear had tried to break into a caravan on the site. At 4.30 am, it had tried to open a window and the door with its huge paws and claws, but either lost interest or was deterred by the noise that the four people inside the caravan started making when the caravan started moving because of the bear’s powerful attempts to open it up. Obviously prepared for bear encounters, the four Germans had bear spray and even shotguns in the caravan, but fortunately did not have to use it. After this, the bear left the campground to see if the warden’s building close by would provide some food. The warden, a Native man, noticed the bear coming and came out to confront him, shotgun in hand. Not meaning to shoot it, he talked to the bear and told it to leave. The bear was obviously not aggressive either and after first curiously looking at the warden, slowly turned around and walked away. At that point, the warden decided that it would be good to give the bear no reason to come back to the campsite again and fired two loud shots into the air, which made the bear break into a run to reach the safety of the forest.

Our fellow camper warned us to not be too surprised if during our sleep the truck camper would suddenly start moving about violently and to start making lots of noise to let the bear know that there was no easy picking here. Well… it must be said that this scared us a bit. We had seen about 39 bears already during this trip, but all at a safe distance and none interested in the food stored within our temporary home! In a way I was excited about this too a little, thinking it would be quite an experience, but I expected mum to demand that we would leave immediately and, despite it getting dark and the next campsite being about 200 km (wild estimate) away along a less developed or “improved” part of Highway 37, would opt for the next safe place. But… she didn’t! It had been a long tiring day and the risk seemed small enough to take. But still we made sure that we would be well prepared for anything. I parked the camper so that one side and the back, where the door is, were near the edge of the somewhat elevated site we chose, so that the bear would have to reach much higher to reach the door or window. However, we both kept our can of bear spray and bear bangers (a kind of firework producing a loud bang and fired by a kind of pen) within reach and even took the heavy axe, apparently standard equipment provided by Fraserway RV in their campers, from the truck’s cabin into the camper. Just in case…

We both fell asleep pretty confident, but still quite excited and somewhat scared too. The next morning we woke up… nothing had happened. Strangely enough, apart from relief, that caused a slight feeling of disappointment too. After all, it would have been quite a story to tell!

Still, the relief was most important, and not just for ourselves, but for the bear too. In a way, it was likely another kind of victim of the “improved” highway. Before this huge operation, the conditions on the road were quite daunting for heavy campers and caravans. The paving, however, seriously reduces the risk of spilling all the contents of the cupboards or breaking an axle and the number of Recreational Vehicles choosing to travel Highway 37 is certainly on the rise. More people on the campsite also means more potential food for bears there; trash cans will be fuller, more barbeques spread their heavy scents and among all those campers, there will be more that do not do their utmost to keep their site as clean as they should. A passing bear therefore will be more likely to find some easy picking on the campsite and once that happens, it will almost certainly come back for more. Eventually, as has happened on many other campsites in bear country, the bear will become bolder and possibly more aggressive if it finds walls or people between food items and itself. The risks resulting from this are obviously big, both for humans and the bear. Hopefully this one was really scared off by the two gunshots the warden fired and will not try to find food on the campsite again. Only time will tell… But very clearly more development along Highway 37 could lead to more of these incidents.

Any thoughts about this subject of development and its influence on the local community of life are welcomed. If you want to share your opinion, please comment on this post. I am very curious if this could create a discussion.




Friday, 29 August 2008

Update from the Field 1

Project Canada's fourth fieldwork period has started. On 25 August we left home just before 5 am to arrive in our hotel in Whitehorse about 30 hours later, at almost midnight local time. A truly exhausting journey!

The next day we picked up our truck camper in which we will spend the coming five weeks.

The plan was to first travel down to Hyder in Southeast Alaska, which we did. However, only when we were driving for about an hour already, we found out that last year's exhausting long trip in this area has really messed up our memories. Ok... let's be fair and say that it was mostly my memory that was messed up. I thought that Hyder could be reached in just about one full day driving, or one day and a short morning at worst. It turned out however that a certain junction (the one where Highway 37 starts from the Alaska Highway) that in my memory was only an hour or so away from Whitehorse was actually well over 400 km away! With all the things we still needed to do in Whitehorse (getting groceries and some other necessities), we only had half a day left to travel and reaching that junction was the best we could do! You can see us sitting there on the campsite near the junction... a lovely place... The concrete was particularly picturesque! Nah, honestly, not the nicest campsite we have ever seen! But oh well, exhausted as we were, we just went to sleep right away and left again at 6.30 am.

Highway 37 is pretty long and pretty lonely though and we wanted to fill up the diesel before setting off. There was a gas station at the junction, but unfortunately it did not open before 7.30 or 8 am (I haven't really kept a close look on clocks since arriving), so we had to wait!

When we started the journey down Highway 37, it felt as if the journey had finally really begun. The word Highway is pretty deceiving for a road that is not even fully paved, has no lines along the first few hundred kilometers and where the road condition did not allow us to go faster than 70 km/h most of the time (40 or 50 km/h along some less developed and unpaved parts).

At a certain point, mum said that what we were doing was like making a 30 hour flight to Amsterdam, rent a camper and drive all the way to Southern France doing an average of maybe 60 or 70 km/h! For us Europeans, that would be a ridiculous thing to do, but here we are doing the North American version of it! The good thing about it, is that our journey here lets us go through forests, hills and mountains ALL the time, whereas the journey from Amsterdam to Southern France would be along highways where 130 km/h would be the minimum for some kinds of drivers, through very developed areas with huge cities and only tiny bits of forest in between. Our wildlife score for the 660 km along Highway 37 was -to name just the mammals) - countless red squirrels, one Least Squirrel, one Red Fox (the first we ever saw in North America!!) and five black bears! In the European version of this journey, you might have a chance to see squirrels and some other animals, but the only chance to see bears would be in the extreme south of France, and even then the chance would be almost nill.

This part of the world is really very undeveloped. I think that's good. But I fear for it.. Last year, we travelled along Highway 37 too, and the changes are quite shocking. Rather big parts of it were unpaved then and it was often impossible to exceed 40 km/h! We noticed that there were roadworks going on then, but we never dreamed that these people would work so hard that only a few stretches of unpaved road remain now and it seems like a good guess that next year the whole road will be paved.

Is that bad? This is the only road connecting North and South through Western British Columbia, and what is the harm in getting it paved and making travelling here a bit easier? What harm could this really do to that huge forested area?

Well, first roads through a previously undeveloped area have a huge effect. They form a barrier for many species and an important cause of death by traffic too. Paving that road makes it only worse, because vehicles will be able to travel faster and more vehicles will choose to travel that road too. Huge lorries, which often travel faster than normal cars in North America, are now able to speed along certain stretches of the Highway too, and would never be able to stop in time if wildlife would suddenly step onto the road ahead of them. The direct death toll is very high and only increased because roadsides often offer nice young vegetation which is less concentrated and harder to find away from the road and thus attract many animals too.

But there is more. A first road offers chances for further development. Along one part of the Highway, near Iskut, Royal Dutch Shell (oh, I'm so proud of my country and, incidentally, of this nice corporation that is the main sponsor of the famous Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest, which I haven't participated in since they took over sponsorship from the BBC) is trying to drill for methane, which would very likely poison and ruin to major river systems. The only thing keeping them from it until now is the resistance of local people, many of them Natives. I hope to have a chance to visit some of these people when we will travel back North again.

For now, however, we are in Hyder. Yesterday we spent our first day at Fish Creek, which is the place we came down here for. This is where grizzly bears fish for salmon and where we hope to get some good images. Moreover, I will try to learn what draws people to this very remote area just to see bears. Why do they really want to see these animals? Is it just to get a nice image, or is there some deeper reason? I will interview a few people during the coming days to find out!

Today, unfortunately, mum is not feeling well, so we could not go to the Creek early in the morning as planned. Too bad on one side, but on the other it gave me time to produce this first update. More will definitely follow, but when is difficult to say. One of the upcoming updates has some very important information about Project Canada, so please keep an eye on the blog and while you're at it, feel very free indeed to forward it to friends, family, colleagues and so on!

Cheers for now!
Arthur

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Five nights away from Fieldwork Period 4

"Project Canada's" fourth fieldwork period is approaching rapidly! My travel companion and biggest sponsor (combined in the person of my dear mum) and I will leave for Whitehorse (Yukon Territories, Canada) on the 25th of August. From there, we will first travel through Northwestern British Columbia (Canada) to Hyder (in the extreme Southeastern tip op Alaska) where we will spend a week in an area where bears regularly fish for salmon. After that, we will follow our tracks back up North again, well past Whitehorse and then West into "Alaska proper". What happens then is not certain yet. The initial plan, as mentioned on the website before, was to meet some people in Homer and travel to Katmai National Park with them to learn about the grizzly hunt that is going on since last year and which supposedly is threatening the grizzly population there. Unfortunately, however, it is tough to get in touch with these people and make appointments and so I will have to see if this will still work out. If it does not, we will probably head farther north towards Denali National Park, roughly in Central Alaska. This is a very special place because a choice has been made to keep this park very undeveloped. There is only one road running through it, one visitor area and no real hiking trails, which is something different than the highway, a secondary highway, a major railroad, hundreds of hiking trails, a town, a number of huge hotels in areas that were much used by wildlife before, etc. I am very curious about the reasons for the choice made for Denali (which I much applaud) and what visitors ànd Native people think of it. With or without set plans, I am certain that there will be a lot to learn again!

I will do my best to provide some more information about the trip before we take off and of course, when internet connections are available, I will give updates from the field!

The traveling in Canada and Alaska will be done with a truck camper (I'd much prefer going by horse, but after just three or four lessons that might be a bit tough and the distance might be a bit too much to cover in five weeks too) and the company we rent it from is the second sponsor of this Fieldwork Period. Thanks a lot, Fraserway RV!