Seen from above, the black bear looks small as it ambles along the Porcupine Strand, but it likely weighs 400 pounds or more. It ignores the helicopter, just as it ignores the six-foot surf crashing in off the North Atlantic.
On that morning near the end of July, with no polar bears or human hunters in sight, that bear was taking a relatively carefree stroll towards a really good meal. A thousand years ago he might have worried about well-armed Vikings landing on these Wonderstrands (as they called them), and in the last century he could have been dodging live artillery shells lobbed from warships far offshore, followed up by military troops practising land assaults, but those dangers are now far in the past.
For a while this bear faced the prospect of encountering massive dredgers digging up the path before his feet to get at a treasure in titanium suspected to be hidden in the sands, but thankfully this threat has almost certainly been laid to rest. These ancient beaches, rich in life, known and used by humanity for tens of thousands of years, were firmly included within the territory of the future Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve.
After years of inordinate waiting (and after far too many concessions granted to third parties), a map outlining the boundary was released to the public six months ago. Not only are the Porcupine Strands to be protected from industrial development, but so are many of the English and Mealy mountains and the watersheds of the North, English and White Bear rivers.
However, unfortunately for our black bear, who was likely heading for the Eagle River, his destination did not make the final cut — like, incidentally, the Kenemich and the Kenemu rivers. Instead, the Eagle River (or rather much of the river, since its headwaters, where one of the last healthy, but precariously surviving populations of Atlantic salmon spawn their young, are being left out altogether) is supposed to be made into some kind of provincial waterway park — hopefully not the kind that are failing so miserably in Ontario, but one that might actually work.
The current provincial government, acting it would seem mainly to limit what it misguidedly considers a loss of valuable land to Ottawa (one colonial power to another, as it were), justifies hiving off the river from federal protection and assuming all the high costs of creating and maintaining a park by claiming it is capable of protecting “these special places for all time.”
Were that it were so.
Newfoundland has one of the worst records in Canada for achieving such goals, third only to neighbouring Hydroquebeckia and the western province of Tarsandsland.
Even before the Newfoundland government sold off provincial parks wholesale in the 1990s, it (Liberal or Progressive Conservative, it seems to make no difference) has generally displayed poor commitment towards ecosystem preservation.
Work on the Grand Lake Provincial Park, for instance — work that included land being expropriated from local families, borders being cut through the forest and an unfinished access road that is now mainly used by gravel pit operators — was simply abandoned for lack of funds. The park has never been cancelled, only condemned to limbo — for all time, one might say.
Six months after its grand announcement, the current government still has to prove it is responsible enough to actually preserve the Eagle River and the wildlife that depend on it. Sorry to say, but if the rampant and largely unchecked illegal overfishing now allowed by the new roads through the region is any gauge, it would be wise to be pessimistic.
The salmon are running right now, in numbers and size that attract not only a lone black bear, but hundreds of anglers from all over the world who are willing to pay thousands of dollars a day for the privilege of fishing them.
How many more years the salmon will run, how long the Eagle will be almost unique in the world and not just another fished-out river, is still a very open question, despite, or even because of, the promise of a future waterway park.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.