Alert Bay – July 10th, 1999

Adjectives, though useful in setting scenes and defining moments, are easily overdone. So it’s with some hesitation that we use “fabulous” in our headline… but that’s what FREE CORKY DAY in Alert Bay was on July 10th, so we really don’t have much choice. Fabulous it was, from end to end, even from two days before. Here is the story

You’ll recall that we left you (FREEDOM) stranded on the side of the road 15 kliks south of Buckley Bay pointed towards an event in Tofino that wasn’t to be. We got the news on Hanson Island almost immediately, courtesy of a friendly passer by with a cell phone to lend David. Oh no! The warm afterglow of the Denman event that we were basking in vanished immediately… the tone of David’s voice making it clear that this was no trivial glitch to be fixed with his magic hands. Something very bad had happened to the old International engine that has kept FREEDOM humming (well, chugging) along for the thousands of miles of her journey so far. The immediate solution was a costly tow into Courtney to an auto repair shop & a verdict the next day. David’s initial assessment proved accurate… we needed a new engine.
At that point, five days away from the tour’s finale we had some swift decisions to make, the principle one being at what point to cancel Alert Bay. There was a slight hope that a replacement engine could be found & installed in time, but not much… but we went for that option for a day anyway.

On Tuesday, at the gas dock in Alert Bay we gave Mayor Popovich the bad news, offering the hope that we could reschedule the Alert Bay event within a few weeks. His response was immediate, and adamant. “We can’t do that”. The world media had been invited, not to mention Sea World and Anheuser Busch… the show simply had to go on. Within about a minute he came up with “What about towing the bus to Alert Bay?” Hmm, possible but it was sure to be very costly towing a bus 200+km. Then, “Maybe we can get the Regional District to pay for the towing, after all Corky comes from the whole region not just Alert Bay.”
Half an hour later Mayor Gilbert had the tentative approval of Regional District chairman Gerry Furney, & by the end of the day enough of the rest of the board to make it certain a motion would pass at a District meeting the following night. “Go for it”, said Gilbert. And we did. On Thursday afternoon, with the cooperation of B.C. Ferries, FREEDOM was towed onto the ferry in Port McNeill & left there. At the other end, Alert Bay Village’s front end loader backed on board, hitched a chain to the front bumper & trundled her up the ramp & down the street to a safe parking spot opposite the government dock & RCMP station. At last and with time to spare, FREEDOM was in Alert Bay. Yeah!

The next day, Friday, with willing help from the village office staff, we plastered Alert Bay with posters advertising the event, so just about everyone was quickly aware that it was happening. Some of our OrcaLab assistants went over to Port McNeill and Sointula on the ferry to post notices there. We talked to boat owners about joining the final leg of the journey, to Freshwater Bay. Altogether, and quite amazingly, by the time we headed home to Hanson Island at the end of our “town run” day, we were ready!

Saturday dawned clear and was already sunny and warm by the time we headed back in at 8:30am. We’d advertised 9am as the starting time for the event (inviting help putting the banner up) and were happy to see little knots of people already waiting when we arrived at the dock in the June Cove. There were 15 of us from OrcaLab (including Earth Island Institute’s Mark Berman) on board. David, our driver, was already busy stringing rope between telephone poles and road signs. The first order of business was getting FREEDOM into place.

This turned out to be a simple matter of a dozen people pushing at the front and our car towing at the rear… ten minutes after we began, there she was parked securely in front of the Village Square, a perfect fit for the space. Then we went to work, loading sections of the banner into the back of our car & dropping them off up & down the long waterfront street for Corky’s helpers to lay sections of her banner along walls and fences and pin them to rope with clothes pegs (of which the stores were emptied). There were some tricky bits of engineering (by David) involved in suspending the banner over long stretches between poles without sagging to the ground.

We festooned the old Village office building, and the Village Square next door became a bright maze of back lit patches full of messages about Corky. The centre piece of the colourful display was a beautiful section created by the kids from Alert Bay school in 1996.

By noon we had just about every patch of Corky’s fabulous banner on display, and took time to relax a bit and watch the people of Alert Bay as they strolled along, pausing to read or just look, taking in the mass sentiment of the kids of the world for Corky. Drivers stopped their cars and pickups to look, mothers with infants in strollers found a new attraction for their little ones, older kids and adults rode up and down on their bikes… the day took on a festive atmosphere.

At 1pm Mayor Popovich arrived for the speeches and realised they needed a bigger crowd, so he borrowed a portable megaphone from Chuck Wong at Alert Bay Electronics and drove around town announcing 2:30pm as the time to be at the square. When that time came a goodly throng was on hand to hear Paul first, explaining Corky’s story, then Chief Cranmer putting Corky into the context of his people’s vital connection to the animal world (“our people have a special feeling for Corky’s predicament because she’s one of the creatures in our creation stories … everything is interconnected in this world … it’s important that they free Corky and other orcas that are in captivity … we stand here with the people that are working to free Corky”), then Mayor Popovich demanding fair treatment for Corky (“Corky has committed no crime, even the most hardened criminals are freed after 25 years… Corky has made enough money for Budweiser that Budweiser should finally release Corky … killer whales are majestic, highly intelligent, very gregarious animals, they belong in the ocean, they do not belong in a fish bowl … we look forward to welcoming Corky soon in her new home in Freshwater Bay), then Mark Berman encouraging us with Keiko’s success, and finally Wendy Harford’s lovely ballad that sums everything up. By the end of Wendy’s song, tears were flowing from yet another audience, this one perhaps the most important of all… the folks from Corky’s home town.

Then, as the last merchandise was sold (we made a record $500 that day) we began the reverse task of picking the banner up and putting it on board the little flotilla of boats that headed out on the last leg of this journey, to Freshwater Bay.

FRESHWATER BAY is a lovely sheltered anchorage that’s largely protected from both summer and winter winds. It has two little islands on either side, Flower and Turtle, with openings between them that allow boats and orcas easy access. It’s a perfect spot for Corky’s eventual “half way house” as it will be relatively easy to enclose with nets and stock with fish for Corky to catch while she’s adjusting to the ocean and learning to feed herself again. It’s on one of the main travel routes for the orcas (including Corky’s family) that come to the area each year, so social contact should be easy.

Our idea for the banner was simple enough (surrounding Freshwater Bay as a symbol of Corky’s return) but in practice it turned out to be harder than we’d thought. The day before we’d strung long pieces of rope along the shore, & attached it to trees to make the job of getting it across to the islands easier. We dropped the OrcaLab crew off first & they quickly got the land job done… soon, long sections of CORKY’S FREEDOM BANNER were stretching sunlit along the back of the bay. As the boats arrived, they anchored in the spaces between the islands and we attached rope between them and to the shores.

Then we started attaching the banner to the rope. That’s when we realised the swiftly running current was a problem. Some of the bigger boats just couldn’t hold still… one section that hung between the Cape Cook and the Gikumi kept dipping into the water. But we persevered, and by the end we had sections of banner stretching between each of the islands and between the islands and the shore.

As an exercise in symbolism, we’d done it! It was an absolutely gorgeous scene, with the sun dipping low in the sky to a perfect golden sunset, the banner beautifully backlit fluttering in the breeze from the mast of the Tuan and between the 10 boats that made up Corky’s circle of hope. Kayakers drifted by, energetic paddlers from Village Island arrived in a traditional canoe, an aircraft circled overhead videoing the spectacle from above while a German film crew captured the details below for a story about people and whales. Our mood was buoyant, to say the least.

Then, as if we weren’t up enough, a report came in on the VHF radio telling us that orcas were headed our way! There’d been no sightings that day, so this was too much. We stood on the deck of the June Cove, mouths open no doubt, gazing out under fluttering banner, as Corky’s cousins, the A24s, trundled up the middle of Blackfish Sound and stopped right opposite us. There was no spectacle, just their presence. Quite enough.

We are grateful beyond words to those who made this day possible… Mayor Gilbert Popovich and the Village of Alert Bay, Chief Bill Cranmer and the Namgis First Nation, Mount Waddington Regional District, David Howitt, the vessel & aircraft owners & crews who came to Freshwater Bay (Gilbert & Vicki Cook, Jim & Mary Borrowman, David & Maureen Towers, Ron & Anne Turner, Garry & Catherine Ullstrom, Hermann Meuter & Janie Wray, Oonagh & Sean O’Connor & Ed Knapp, Jeff Ardron, Martin Musgrove, Jay Gamble, Tommy Sewid, Jim O’Donnell), the bay’s land owner Georgeanna Malloff, and to our OrcaLab assistants & everyone else who helped so willingly.

THANK YOU ALL!!!

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