Coastal Vancouver Island, Canada is vast, remote, windswept, and rainy. Here, deep inlets gouge into snow-capped mountains flanked by towering old growth temperate rainforests; where humans clad in thick neoprene tread along cedar boardwalks and mossy trails to access of some of the coldest and most beautiful surf spots on the planet. With only three paved roads providing access to the craggy coastline that’s nearly length of the Washington and Oregon coasts combined, it’s safe to assume the area’s probably pretty natural and pristine, right? If only that were true.
Here’s the reality: jaw-dropping amounts of synthetic garbage from various types of marine industry and international shipping traffic have been accumulating for decades along what politicians euphemize as the “B.C. marine highway.” For most, including the countless annual tourists who lounge on well-maintained beaches around Tofino, the coast’s primary resort town, the plastic epidemic is out of sight and out of mind. So in May of 2017, Tofino-based conservation biologist, diver, Lisa Szostek began planning an unprecedented colossal clean up with her friend Josh Temple, a long-time surfer and commercial fisherman. Szostek knew she had her work cut out for her.
Six months later, a lanky newcomer to town sat in a 12-person zodiac, struggling to zip up his orange floatation suit. That person was me, and while I had no idea what I was in for, I was stoked as hell to be kicking off my four-day volunteer shift in phase one of Lisa and Josh’s plan. It was now called the Clayoquot Cleanup, involving captains, pilots, divers, and many other community volunteers with a two-year plan to tackle the estimated 400-600 tons of marine debris in Clayoquot Sound. The zodiac shuttling was part of the $80,000 worth of cash and in-kind support from Tofino residents and businesses. The twin outboard engines hummed as we left the harbor, threaded behind Vargas Island, and made our way northward into the open ocean. We were headed for Hesquiaht, the traditional territory of the Hesquiaht First Nation. The region is 90 minutes north of Tofino by power boat, has a full-time population in the single digits, and is one of the areas hit hardest by the environmental disaster, which to this day exists largely out of sight and out of mind.
Hesquiaht’s first non-indigenous resident was Ada “Cougar Annie” Rae-Arthur. Landing on shore by canoe in 1915, she carved out a homestead from a wall of dense coastal rainforest. She outlived four husbands, maintained an incredible five-acre garden, and reached quasi-mythical status as a tough-as-nails bushwoman before her death in 1985. Today the property is maintained by a non-profit, The Boat Basin Foundation, which hosts ecological retreats and university field courses.
On the shore stood the volunteers we were relieving. They looked dirty, tired, and happy, giving us a “good luck, you’re in for it” type vibe. Someone mentioned that one of the boat drivers had caught an 80lb Halibut that day and there was plenty left over for us to have for dinner.
We ascended a winding cedar boardwalk through shady old growth rainforest, through Cougar Annie’s garden, and up to the dining hall. Before heading to sleep, project co-founder Josh Temple gave a moving talk about the culture of resource extraction that he grew up in a commercial fishing family; how over his career he’s grown to see the collective impacts of society’s increasingly destructive path; and how now, more than ever, action is required on all levels if we want a half decent quality of life for ourselves, for the non-human life with whom we share the planet, and perhaps most importantly, for future generations.
The days flew by, and before I knew it, I was on the beach at Boat Basin again, alongside a tired and dirty team, kissed by the rain, sun, and wind, feeling half drunk with happy fatigue as we waited for the next crew of volunteers to arrive. We’d been dropped military style along beaches throughout the area, at times in the rain and combatting surf conditions, but our seasoned volunteer boat captains smiled confidently through it all in the way only those raised at sea are able to.
We’d seen first-hand the sheer volume of trash pounded into the shoreline, contrasting so sharply with the area’s surreal natural beauty. We’d collected pieces of disintegrating styrofoam from the loamy forest floors, untangled fishing nets, and placed thousands of plastic water bottles aside for recycling. We’d experienced the mix of both stoke and anger each time we encountered a new “trove” of trash. It was our job to hunt it down and bag it up, but it should never have been there in the first place. With the hands of over 60 community volunteers, phase one of the Clayoquot Cleanup resulted in over 50 tons of marine debris being removed from the beaches of Hesquiaht, and transported by barge to Victoria for further sorting and recycling.
One local friend from the Hesquiaht First Nation found a glass Japanese fishing float– a type of “beach treasure” we’d all been hoping to find. Many of us tucked away some type of memento– unique antique bottles that somehow remained unbroken like colorful fishing floats, various vintage marine hardware — simple representations of the experience we’d all just shared.
It’s no surprise that amazing experiences arise when a group of people get together to put their backs into a difficult task, especially when inclement weather, environmental conservation, and stunning coastal landscapes are mixed into the equation. And while Clayoquot Cleanup’s primary aim was (and will continue for the next several years) to restore the shore, I couldn’t help but reflect on this special secondary outcome, as a group of new friends boated southward along Clayoquot Sound to Tofino, the sun hanging low over the mountains in the northwestern sky.