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,

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, will still be available, only not very often updated any more. Updates will mostly be posted on my blog instead:

Back to the name “The Larger Picture”, which is very much in line with the thoughts I posted on the News page when 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,

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,

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.