Trash and Treasure

Breakfast is over, but it’s still early as Island Solitude maneuvers up the inlet on a falling tide. Dropping anchor, the guests on this sailing voyage through British Columbia’s Gwaii Haanas National Park pile into Zodiacs and head for a cove now constellated wth barnacle-encrusted boulders. Tying the rafts to trees, we bushwhack over a forested isthmus, crawling under a tangle of winter blowdown onto a flat of grass tussocks rimmed by a palisade of massive fir. Beyond this final picket lies a half-moon beach exposed to the full force of the Pacific, its tideline piled high with massive logs. Tracks of otter and deer crisscross the black sand, ravens and eagles peer down from hemlock towers; the only human footprints are ours, the first in more than a year.

The journey provides a rare opportunity to explore the kind of pristine coastal wilderness before us. These isolated islands off the north coast of B.C. are difficult to reach, requiring a floatplane or boat, and we’re happy to be travelling with the oldest company to provide such service — Bluewater Adventures. After days spent tracking spectacular archipelagic scenery, breaching humpback whales and key cultural sites of the Haida people who’ve occupied these islands for millennia, however, we haven’t made the hike into Bowles Beach to notch another touristic superlative. Instead we’re here to give back — by taking away, so to speak: brandishing burlap sacks, we fan out to collect a winter’s worth of washed up trash, which is to say, plastic. 

Immediately it’s clear the most common items on this strand are plastic drink bottles, either whole or broken up —  the latter unsurprising given how many have travelled the full breadth of the Pacific to arrive here. The remaining myriad jetsam includes food containers, fishing nets and rope, Styrofoam of every description, dishwashing pads, plastic cigar tips, even toothbrushes. Our group becomes diligent, peering between logs, yanking out things buried in sand, relishing the chance to make a difference. After an hour, during a final tideline sweep, I spot something distinctly different from my armload of plastic shards — a blue-green, mouthblown glass float from Japan, the only place where this art is still practiced. I head back to Island Solitude bearing not only my burlap-bagged cleanup effort, but a treasure seemingly plucked from the trash heap of humanity. 

Bluewater adheres to the core ecotourism principals of low-impact practices, supporting local communities, promoting conservation and providing guests with high-level knowledge about wildlife, Indigenous cultures and the environment — hence the opportunity for learning and action when it comes to water-borne plastics, an experience that would soon inspire us to double down.

A few days later, we anchor in expansive Luxana Bay with the intention of going ashore for a leisurely beach walk. Before long, however, we’re all picking up plastic again, and in two hours stack a literal ton on the tidal flats; ropes and nets, floats and buoys, packing containers and trays, Japanese water bottles and Russian toothpaste. They bay is so large we’ve only made the tiniest dent, but are nevertheless satisfied with the Zodiac-load of garbage we drop at a warden cabin the next day, where other visitors have also dropped their own clean-up efforts. 

The message: every little bit helps, and we can all do more. But a rethink of your own relationship to plastics doesn’t require going to a remote beach — though the beach is happy to have you — it simply means committing to reducing plastic consumption in daily life, and cleaning up where you can. Who knows, it might even lead you to some kind of treasure.