Saturday, 6 September 2008

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.

1 comment:

Jeroen said...

Improving the road has everything to do with humanities need to grow and expand in an ever more globalizing world.

This is because we are never satisfied with anything and always want more and better. I am not necessarily against that, but just the way in which it is done. There is hardly no concern at all regarding the natural world which we live in, because we only seem to care about profit.

Humanity seems to forget that we need the natural world around us to survive on this planet, so we have to be very careful with it.
Just a thought: We cannot survive by eating money, at least not the last time I checked ;-)