Capturing the Spirit

Comox Valley photographer recounts his experience with the mysterious Spirit Bears…

“I delivered 20,000 litres last year,” says Martin McNabb of his GreenRelease product, a vegetable oil substitute for diesel oil used in concrete building forms.  “That’s 20,000 litres less of toxic oil being trucked hundreds of miles to end up in our watershed.  That gives me a lot of hope.”

Martin McNabb believes education is a catalyst for change.  It’s the main reason he became a teacher, however his ‘education’ encompasses a wider world than the official world of formal schooling.

“A friend of mine was complaining to me that his wife was refusing to wash his work clothes. ‘She says I should throw them out, they stink so much, but I can’t put on a new set of work clothes every day,’ he was saying to me,” says McNabb.

That friend works in the construction industry and is required to work with wooden forms for concrete to be poured into.  The traditional method of preparing the forms involved spraying the wooden forms with diesel oil.  This allows the forms to be pulled off the hardened concrete.  “That diesel oil—it stinks!” McNabb says.   “It’s also toxic.  If you’re working in summer heat, it makes you feel all woozy.   If you’re working in an enclosed space, you have to wear a mask.”

McNabb pondered the dilemma his friend—and many other construction workers—was in.  “As a person who knows a little about science, I thought there has to be a better way… and that was the beginning.  I experimented with various substances and came up with a mixture of vegetable oils and some secret ingredients.  After a good bit of trial and error, I eventually came up with a formula—and voila—it worked!”   Thus was born GreenRelease, McNabb’s company.

Six years have passed since that experiment and quietly and single-handedly McNabb has been going to professionals in the construction industry and telling them about his invention.

“It’s a win-win situation,” McNabb says. “Not only is the oil available locally, it’s non-toxic.  When the concrete made in diesel-sprayed forms is finished, the rain eventually washes the diesel off—into our groundwater, into our drains, poisoning everything it touches.  Trucks were bringing the diesel up from Texas and Ohio—more poisoning of our air.  Almost the whole of Vancouver Island has converted to vegetable oil for their concrete forms.  It’s fantastic.”

Surprisingly, in the age of internet and hard-sell, most of McNabb’s customers have been swayed by word of mouth.  “No one liked using the diesel oil,” he says frankly, “but at the time, there were no alternatives.  Prolonged use of diesel makes the skin on your hands crack, and the strong smell permeates your body—not to mention your clothes.

“When I began my rounds of concrete companies and construction sites, the first question was invariably, ‘Is it more expensive?’  You see, even although people know what they’re doing is harmful, we’re all conditioned to putting money first.  Fortunately, my product isn’t more expensive, and once people heard it was vegetable oil, they were keen to give it a try.  One man told me recently that when he went to pull the forms off the concrete, he pried off the first board and the rest just fell off!  ‘I’m sold,’ he told me.”

Born in Toronto 52 years ago, McNabb is the child of immigrants from Northern Ireland.  “It was easier to get into a commonwealth country back then,” he explains, “but my parents held the United States as the ideal place to live, so when I was two years old, we moved to Los Angeles.  After 13 years there, McNabb moved to Oregon where he stayed for the next 27 years, completing a Bachelor of Arts degree.  He had a four year stint in Germany and a year in South America before coming to Vancouver and earning his teaching degree at UBC.

“I initially went into teaching because I had a desire for a world run on better principles, but found the reality extremely frustrating,” he says.  “The education system is a world unto itself and many teachers and administrators are not in the slightest interested in shaking the status quo.  I wasn’t too popular with quite a few head teachers!”  He laughs.  “I was too much of a free-thinker, didn’t wear a suit and tie, and had a non-authoritarian rapport with the kids.”

But, he adds, “I always got on really well with the kids and still do.  I work as a teacher-on-call and when I go to a class I regularly sub for in Port Alberni, the kids have a big smile and say, ‘Hooray, we got the McNabb again.’”

Finding his chosen profession to be rather hit-and-miss, McNabb had been dabbling in various other business ideas.  “You know, it’s a bit frustrating in Canada as a small business person,” he says.   “Having grown up in the States, I saw that small businesses were encouraged and seen as a positive force in a local economy.  The Canadian government seems to have no interest in supporting small business; they’re more concerned with protecting their benefactors.  I found Canadians to reflect that attitude, and be rather suspicious of small businesses.  They seemed to be under the impression that large corporations would be more reliable, and they felt somehow safer dealing with them—not that there’s any real evidence of the truth of that belief.  The reverse, I would say.”

McNabb shrugs his shoulders and looks thoughtful before continuing.  “I think that attitude is changing though, and it’s part of the slow ‘greening’ of our ideas.  Certainly in the Comox Valley there is growing support for small businesses like mine.  Also, I think the slump in the construction industry last summer gave everybody involved in it a bit of time to reflect.  They were all so frantically busy in that building boom that swept through here, no one had time to consider new ways of doing anything.  ‘If it’s working, let it be’ seemed to be the philosophy.  People are more open to listening to what I have to say about not using diesel oil, and really, we all know the writing is on the wall as far as the oil industry is concerned.”

Over the past two years, McNabb has seen a big shift in attitudes.  “Lots of the guys I talk to in the construction industry love to fish, and I say, ‘Why would you want to pollute the oceans and poison the fish when there’s an alternative?’  They can’t disagree, and ultimately, most people want to do the right thing, so if it’s made affordable, they jump right on board.”

One of the delights in operating GreenRelease for McNabb is that all his oil comes from restaurants that would dispose of their frying oil anyway.  Oil can only be used for a limited time for frying before becoming a health hazard and has to be thrown out.  Most of it used to go into pet food, but now there are quite a few businesses that are more than happy to take used oil.  As more cars convert to bio-fuel, there is more demand for used oil.

McNabb’s attention to his own ‘carbon footprint’ is obvious in his enthusiasm for GreenRelease’s growing number of clients.  He also runs his own car on used vegetable oil, and sees that although bio-degradable oil isn’t a total solution, it’s part of the puzzle of finding better ways of doing things.

At the moment, McNabb is still doing most of the collection and delivery of oil himself.  “I collect all the used oil myself in containers in the back of my truck, and take it to a little plant I have and mix it into GreenRelease and then I deliver it from Campbell River down to Victoria.  I’m not really a salesman, though, and just recently I’ve been able to hire another man to work with me, and he drums up more customers.  Up till then, though, I’ve had to do everything myself—advertising, delivering.  It’s been a lot of work over the past six years, but it’s beginning to pay off, finally.”

One of the first commercial outlets to use GreenRelease was Island Forms in the Comox Valley.  “I talked to the owner and asked what he was using, and it was diesel oil, or engine oil, of course.  Everyone used that because it’s cheaper than regular oil, as it’s used off-road and isn’t taxed.  He was using 3,800 litres a year—all of which was going into the environment afterward.  One of the other beauties about GreenRelease is that it’s totally bio-degradable—it turns into mold within a month,” McNabb says.

“Island Forms tried it and really liked it, and it’s a small community where the concrete delivery people talk to their customers, and word spread.  Another big outfit is Highland Concrete and they’re now using GreenRelease—it’s exciting.

“Concrete is in everything,” McNabb says.  “It’s ubiquitous—in our roads, our homes, all the pipes that carry waste, as well as clean water—and for centuries we’ve been using products that are harmful to the environment, as well as ourselves.  But slowly and surely, things are coming around.  I knew from my own experience how toxic diesel oil was—I’ve done my share of spraying it on forms—so I’m delighted that there’s something better for us all.

“Of course, there are still some people who are stuck in their old attitudes, even though they know it’s bad for them.  Some people don’t like to change,” McNabb says.  “But I look on the fact that I delivered 20,000 litres last year—that’s 20,000 litres less of toxic oil being trucked hundreds of miles to end up in our watershed.  That gives me a lot of hope.”

For more information visit www.greenrelease.ca.
Spirit Bear, pharm
Ursus Americanus Kermodai or Kermode Bear. Whichever name you call it, ambulance
one thing is certain—when you get to see this rare white-furred inhabitant of British Columbia’s Northwest coast, you will be transfixed. Comox Valley conservationist and photographer Steve Williamson certainly was…

In 2003, although I didn’t know it at the time, I got my first look at what I would later learn was called the Great Bear Rainforest on BC’s northwest coast.  As a tourist visiting from England, I was traveling aboard a cruise ship bound for Alaska.  I was amazed at the region I was traveling through and returned to the UK determined to learn more.  Three years later my wife and I immigrated to Canada and set up home in the beautiful Comox Valley, hoping I could use it as a springboard to learn all about the BC coast.

Since then, I have spent a great deal of time working with conservation charities up and down the coast.  In the Fall of 2009, I had been doing some field work for the organization Pacific Wild, working with the Gitga’at community in Hartley Bay to establish live video from the bush back to a classroom in the village school.  Using a wireless radio link connected to a computer in the classroom, pupils could then actually see and track bears and other wildlife along a river without disturbing them.

On my day off, I got to accompany one of the top bear viewing guides in BC and Hartley Bay resident Marven Robinson, on a trip across to an island in Douglas Channel in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.

I felt fortunate and privileged to be able to spend some time in the bush with Marven and to hopefully be able to see some spirit bears in the flesh, not just through the lens of the video cameras I had set up.  As it would turn out, the experience is one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I followed along on the trail and the word started to come back to remain very quiet—a bear had been seen already ahead, but we had to get around to a safe viewing area.

As I made my way close to the edge of the fast flowing river I spotted a white fury leg in between some boulders and a fallen log.  I made my way to our viewing area and there it was, feeding on pink salmon down in the river—my first adult spirit bear, seemingly unfazed by or unaware of our presence.

Someone guided my eye across the river and there feeding in complete harmony with the white bear were two black bears, equally fixed on the salmon.  The sight was mesmerizing and humbling and I could feel a lump in my throat.  The scene was inspirational and I was pleased the work I had been doing was helping to spread the word about the vulnerability of BC’s wildlife.

So as not to spook the bears, equipment had to be set up very quietly and our tightly packed group held our collective breath as a rapture of clicking cameras fired away, in the hope that the bears would not be disturbed by the new sound in their rainforest home.

It is estimated that there are less than 400 of these white bears—which, genetically at least, are actually a black bear—in existence.  They are born white due to a genetic anomaly, which must be present in both parents.  In this part of the world, when you see a male or female black bear, it is impossible to tell from sight alone if it is carrying the gene that will produce a white cub.  You may also see a black bear with white cubs or a white bear with black cubs.

Spirit bears are only protected in a very small area of BC where no hunting of bears— black or white—is allowed.  A collective of groups, including Pacific Wild, are working to improve this and it is hoped that before long these areas can be extended, as a hunter cannot tell if a black bear in his sights carries the Kermode gene or not.

Recent studies have also shown that it is possible a spirit bear may have better luck feeding in a river than its black relatives.  However, it is also thought that being white makes these bears at a higher risk to predation and maybe as a consequence, they are wary about showing themselves in the open.  On the BC coast, as fall arrives in the Great Bear Rainforest, the salmon start to return to their native rivers and creeks to spawn and this is the best time to see spirit bears as they come out of the forest to feed on the salmon.

As individual bears came and went during our visit, we were blessed with at least one bear—black or white—in view throughout most of the day.  Twice a spirit bear passed within five metres in front of us as he travelled along the river in search of his next salmon.  On one occasion, I counted six bears in view at the same time—four black and two white.  We could not believe our luck; Marven could not believe our luck.  On some occasions his guests only get to see a very short glimpse of a spirit bear, often through the bush.  On a few rare occasions his guests haven’t seen anything.

That is a fact of watching and photographing nature in the wild—nothing is guaranteed.  But for me, even a day without seeing any wildlife in the Great Bear Rainforest is a good day.  To see this area is a treat in itself; to see some of the many wonderful and rare creatures that inhabit it, and be able to capture them on film so to speak, is an added bonus.  The region is truly a majestic, lush temperate rainforest.  Besides its wildlife and birds, it is full of creeks, rivers and waterfalls with spectacular coastal shoreline and waterways.  It is certainly a nature photographer’s dream location.

To see and photograph these bears is a unique experience as there are so few of them.  The use of a local guide or tour operator such a Marven is vital both for you the viewer, the wildlife and the environment you are in.  Protection of the local habitat and wildlife is key and your guide or tour operator will ask you to work with them in ensuring this protection continues.  They will not do anything to place you in any danger, while at the same time they will not allow you to carry out any practice that may endanger the wildlife or the surrounding habitat.

Bookings for trips from Hartley Bay can be made with Marven Robinson ([email protected]) and accommodation reserved in the village through Gitga’at tourism.  This may need to be done well in advance—the season is not very long and vacancies are often at a premium.  For a way to see more of the surrounding coastal rainforest, book with one of the many tour operators that frequent the area by boat, such as Ocean Adventures.

Always plan for the weather—this area is not affectionately known as the Great Bear Rainforest for nothing.  You will see rain at some stage and while this is not the most ideal conditions for photography, the rain is vital for the region and for encouraging the salmon back up river.

On our journey back to the village, one of my companions said that at one stage by mid-afternoon, we had been so blessed with the attendance of the bears, that as he looked around, for a brief period, no one was photographing anymore.  We were all just stood watching, enjoying the spectacle of the bears in their natural environment and enjoying their presence.

This nice observation reminded me that it is always great to get some wonderful photographs, but you never know if or when the opportunity will arise again, so it is always worth taking a little time to enjoy and marvel at the splendours of nature, outside of the lens too.

For more of Steve’s photos visit www.stevewphotography.ca.

You can view a display of his spirit bear photos at the Comox Rec Centre from July 21-October 27.   He is also part of the Pearl Ellis Gallery Members Show (People’s Choice) on display June 23 – July 12.  For more about Pacific Wild go to: www.pacificwild.org.

One Response to Capturing the Spirit

  1. This was a pleasure to read and really brought to life the Great Bear Rainforest and it’s inhabitants. Thank you Steve, we really enjoyed it. :D