In his article for Beside, Jimmy Thomson looks at the delicate ecosystem that operates around the humble salmon — and what happens when that balance is upset. Thomson visits the community of Wuikinuxv, where the relationship between salmon, grizzly bears, and humans has been knocked out of sync. With great respect for the animals they share the land with, the Wuikinuxv nation wants to do their best to rectify this, rather than come into conflict with the bears.

Carver George Johnson is putting the finishing touches on a stunning pole when I visit his carving shed. It’s built around the concept of “four,” a number that has great resonance in Wuikinuxv culture. For each of the four seasons, there’s a species of salmon. For each of the four local species of salmon, there’s an animal that catches it, just one of which is a human. At the bottom of the pole, clutching a sockeye, is a grizzly bear. And swirling up from the ground, along the haunches of the bear, is a pattern that connects it to the soil and the land.

In eating the salmon, the bears bridge the gap between the deep ocean and the treetops, dragging the wriggling essence of one ecosystem into another.

With colonization, the community of Wuikinuxv saw the opening of several canneries — and salmon numbers depleted, to a point they have still not recovered from. The last of the local canneries closed in 1957, but the salmon declined for another half-century. Part of the reason could be a loss of genetic diversity that came with a lower population, leaving the fish vulnerable to environmental changes. The reduction in salmon was accompanied by logging, replacing old-growth rainforest with a dense thicket — full of juvenile trees that do not produce berries. For grizzly bears, this has meant a reduction in two important food sources — and hungry bears are increasingly coming into contact with humans. 

The carcass is a reminder that bears remain a threat even today; accordingly, there are a few things I need to know before I step outside the Wuikinuxv lodge, according to the facility’s manager. “If you smell something, it’s a bear,” Judy says. “If the dogs are going crazy, it’s a bear.”

With instructions to get inside the nearest house in an emergency — the small cluster of houses in the village are always unlocked for this exact purpose — Judy hands me a metal, spring-loaded tool the size and shape of a pen with a plastic cylinder screwed onto it. It’s a “bear banger,” a tiny explosive like a firework intended to scare away curious bears. I am to carry it around any time I’m outside.

I run into Johnny Johnson outside the lodge. He laughs at my puny protection. “That won’t even scare them anymore,” he says. Johnson’s opinion on the matter is an educated one; not only did he grow up in Wuikinuxv, he survived a violent mauling a decade ago.