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Irrepressible Howe Sound

An enigmatic fjord swirling with the after-effects of industrial activity and shining with remarkable comebacks of nature



"I'm not sure if two people can fit in this boat with all this equipment," warns Squamish conservationist John Buchanan with a grin, as I step tentatively into The Mandy Lynn, a 3.7-metre aluminium car topper. 

I force a smile and manage to squeeze in the seemingly precarious vessel at the Squamish dock, finding a place amongst the pile of cables and camera gear.

We motor out across Howe Sound's crystal clear waters and five kilometres later we near Woodfibre, an ex-logging town currently undergoing remedial treatment after decades of industrial activity. Buchanan speaks in a low voice telling me of the environmentally-damaging activities of the pulp mill over the years, adding that he is not welcome here, while personnel eye us suspiciously from the shoreline. We're safe out here on the water, though, as we are not trespassing, so I start to relax and gaze around the buildings and dock.

When Buchanan indicates it's time, we manoeuvre ourselves carefully in the shaky boat and lower down 76.2 metres of cable plus his homemade underwater camera into the ocean about 50 metres off-shore of Mill Creek. Given the history of misuse of the area, I didn't have high expectations as to what we would find, so was utterly shocked when, as we huddled over the small computer screen and squinted, we spotted curious fish approaching the light of the camera, along with jelly fish at the 30.5-metre level, a few spotted prawns, a voracious-looking crab and multitudes of tiny invertebrates of the depths.

Buchanan admits he was also amazed at the amount of life we witnessed.

"It's not lifeless," he said later on, "I mean — things are coming back in that area, right? You think about how much was dumped in front of Woodfibre over the years. And that is the start of the food chain down there at that depth. That's where everything starts in the ocean ... the phytoplankton and the micro-organisms."

Resiliency is a trademark of Howe Sound — despite decades of industrial activity, this is just one example of a series of remarkable comebacks of nature occurring throughout the sound.

A story of movement

Howe Sound is British Columbia's most southernmost fjord. Stretching for 42 kilometres from the Strait of Georgia to where it laps ashore at its most northerly point at the town of Squamish, Howe Sound was carved up approximately 20,000 years ago by the movement of the glaciers, as they slowly crept across the region, leaving huge gouges in their wake.

As for the first human inhabitants of the area, Squamish historian Eric Anderson fills me in on the Squamish Nation's strong connection with Howe Sound — one which commenced 9,000 years ago, according to archaeological evidence located near Vancouver.