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Journey to the Great Bear (Day 1): Hartley Bay, Community of heroes

10/07/2013 02:11 EDT | Updated 12/07/2013 05:12 EST

Shortly after arriving at Hartley Bay, you realize you are in a community of heroes. When the BC Ferry Queen of the North ran aground off Gil Island in 2006, the residents of Hartley Bay didn't hesitate. Despite the time (midnight) and the weather (difficult), they jumped in their boats and sped to the sinking vessel, successfully rescuing all but two of the passengers.

We met Danny Danes, who drove the first boat to the rescue. But Danny didn't mention his role until late in our conversation. He was too busy talking about the needs of his people.

We got to Hartley Bay by water taxi, in time to meet our group, Bluewater Adventures, and our boat, the Island Odyssey, which would be our home for the next few days. It was an overcast day, although the trip down from Kitimat was marked by natural beauty, despite the mist and fog.

Hartley Bay is a small fishing town, home to the Gitga'at people. Danny is a village elder, who spoke to us about ancient traditions, and their way of life based on an incredible connection with nature, particularly the abundant fish and shellfish in the nearby waters: he said "it's our refrigerator. At low tide we can harvest mussels and crab, and we catch halibut and salmon."

When asked about the Enbridge Northern Gateway oil pipeline, which would bring giant oil tankers through the very waters in which the Island Queen crashed, he grew animated and said: "it'll destroy this way of life. We'd lose everything." He talked about entire villages that had to be abandoned in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez crashed (twenty years on, an area the size of the Great Bear is still impacted by the oil spill). Opposition in the town is clear. One young man wore a hoodie emblazoned on the back with "no oil tankers" and a wonderful drawing by a local artist of a princess with a solitary tear dropping from each eye.

A sobering and thoughtful start to our journey. As we slipped out from Hartley Bay, I thought a lot about Danny and his community. Do we really have the right to risk their way of life? Can we be so certain that our technology is so perfect, that no accident can occur? Haven't we made this mistake before?

Two separate events brought this home to me as we cruised south through Whale Channel. About 45 minutes from Hartley Bay, we saw what seemed to be a whale spout. Neil, our skipper, steered the boat so that we could see two humpback whales frolicking in the water. They breached over and over. It was simply magical - almost like Danny sent them himself.

Later, as we sat on the deck for a briefing, the radio squawked: Prince Rupert Coast Guard, Prince Rupert Coast Guard, Prince Rupert Coast Guard. Severe weather warning. The forecast went on to warn of significant gales for specific passages.

I asked Neil if that was the tanker route. Oh yes it is, he said, yes it is.