A heart can mean many things – an organ, love, life, compassion, understanding, feeling, the center. Sometimes travel can lead you to the heart of a place where you experience a deep connection, have an epiphany, or simply fall in love. That’s when travel switches from an activity to a transformation. It doesn’t happen on every trip, but when it does, I savor it.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Great Bear Rainforest in BC Canada twice, and both times it had a profound impact on me. It spoke to me in ways that surprised me, and I often spoke back to it.
People go to the Great Bear Rainforest to have a conversation with nature. It’s the gateway into Mother Nature’s soul.
Can a Place Have Multiple Hearts?
Google the “spirit of the Great Bear Rainforest” and be prepared to get thousands of results centering around the Spirit Bear. This one of a kind white(in color) black bear is what most people consider the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. The “spirit bear” also known as the Kermode bear is a rare subspecies of the American black bear and this rainforest is the only place to find them. Approximately 400 are estimated to exist.
The spirit bears are the main attraction to the forest. However, just because it’s rare doesn’t mean that it’s the heart of this region; it’s simply the draw of the region.
After going to the Great Bear Rainforest twice, I personally have found many hearts to this unique ecosystem. These ‘hearts’ works with and feed off of each other creating an incredible circle.
Here’s what I discovered…
The Heart of the Forest lies in the Wood Wide Web
It goes by the name of Big Cedar Tree. I inwardly chuckled at the name on the sign as we followed the arrow off the fire road and turned onto a forest trail. We followed the trail through some brush and I saw it for the first time. I stopped in my tracks. I understood its name. It was the biggest tree I had ever seen; so big that it takes 12 people holding hands to fit around it’s trunk. It’s said to be over 1,000 years old.
I looked up; its branches were as big as individual tree trunks.
This was the coolest tree I ever met.
As we all slowly walked around it – you couldn’t help but notice how small the surrounding trees were. It was at this moment when Michael mentioned that the Big Cedar Tree was probably a Mother Tree.
It was a ‘Mother Tree’.
Mother Trees is a phenomenon researched by Suzanne Simard who grew up in a logging family in the inland rainforest of BC. Through research she discovered that trees are connected below ground by mutualistic fungi called mycorrhizal fungi (sort of like an extension of the root system). They communicate through these mycorrhizal networks that link tree after tree after tree they send resources like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, and even defense signals.
The bigger and older the tree, the more connected it is. These trees are called “Mother Trees” and as the name suggests, she ‘takes care’ of the other trees and young seedlings by sending resources or nutrients out to trees that might be struggling.
As I looked around the Big Cedar at all of the smaller trees, I smiled – what a good mother I thought. She somehow survived logging, fires, and who knows what else, and now she was protecting the trees around her. I really was moved by the thought.
I put a hand on the bark to absorb her wisdom. I imagined what this mother tree could teach us.
• Be still and quiet.
• Be humble and hidden.
• Be kind to your neighbors.
• Stand tall and proud every day.
These were a few of the lessons that came to mind as I pushed my hand into the damp bark.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay, sit on the forest floor, and see if I could be adopted. But our boat was waiting for us, and we had to leave her…hopefully she would be caring for her ‘family’ for another 1,000 years.
If you are a tree lover like me, then check out this post about Tree Travel and Forest Bathing. Plus check out these great books about the power of nature below!
A Welcoming Spirit – First Nations are The Heart
The Great Bear Rainforest is home to over 26 different First Nations tribes. Their history in and around the Great Bear Rainforest dates back to settlements in existence for more than 11,000 years.
For these 18,000 people who live in the First Nation communities, they are closely linked to the land, water, animals and plants of the region. They are the elders of this region and love it more than anyone could. In essence, they are the conduit between all the life in the forest and the modern world. They hold the stories, share the knowledge, and continue to protect this pristine region.
When I went to visit the ancient petroglyphs in Bella Coola with Chris Nelson from the Nuxalk community, I was exposed to this welcoming spirit that felt like the ancient heart of the region, much like the mother tree.
The petroglyphs are estimated to be over 5,000 years old. Each of them told a story or provided a life lesson. The frog rock symbolized the process of always moving forward, reminding us to not get stuck in ruts or get too comfortable in any one place. We should always be growing.
Chris took me on a spiritual journey carved in stone and he put it to words and music – it was an incredibly touching morning making the forest environment even more special to me.
I also met with Mike Willie from Sea Wolf Tours in Alert Bay. He taught me about the history of the First Nations tribes in the area and how they related to the land, wildlife, and storytelling. He is one of the many First Nation Great Bear Rainforest businesses who is keeping the culture alive today; he’s keeping the heart beating.
Circle of Life in the Great Bear Rainforest
A heart gives a place life. As I spent time in this special region, I reminded again and again of the importance of the circle of life and how intricately related everything was. The frequent and heave rains provide sustenance to the forest, including to its largest and oldest inhabitants: the world’s tallest trees. Nutrients from the forest floor in turn trickle back into the ocean, providing food for aquatic life ranging in size from phyto-plankton to orcas and humpback whales – and of course – salmon. The five major Pacific salmon species—Chinook, Coho, Pink, Chum and Sockeye—provide food for eagles, bears and wolves, who then deposit the fish carcasses in the forest, acting as fertilizer and nutrients for the flora.
I hope that people who make the sometimes-difficult trip to the Great Bear Rainforest look beyond the Kermode bear and into the real heart of the rainforest; how everything works together in harmony and has done so for thousands of years.
I feel like I found multiple hearts in the Great Bear Rainforest keeping the whole organism alive and thriving.
Visiting the rainforest makes me realize just how important nature is to keeping me alive and thriving. That’s exactly why I know I will visit again one day, to feed off of the heart and harmony of the Great Bear Rainforest.
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