Exploring Haida Gwaii

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Our zodiak adventure ended with whale sightings on Hecate Strait. After returning to Sandspit, I did readings in the local elementary school, hosted by Haida Gwaii Literacy. I find it so impressive that people in this remote, northern location have opted to sponsor Syrian refugees. Haida Gwaii is one of the most peaceful locations in earth. I can’t begin to imagine how the Syrians feel to be here. I met a lovely young couple, both of them working hard on learning English and holding jobs. In Queen Charlotte City I met a gracious family with young children, one of whom lost her leg in a bombing. It is heartwarming to see how the community has adopted “their” family. Friends drive the children to ballgames, the parents to English lessons, they bake cakes and help with shopping. The Syrian family may have left behind relatives, but they gained many new aunts and uncles in Haida Gwaii.

I did readings and presentations in lovely schools and libraries all along the coast from Charlotte in the south to Masset in the north. I walked into one school to find that the power was out in the entire village. “Yeah, that happens often,” the principal said with a shrug, “probably an eagle that flew into a power line.”

In another village I asked directions to a house. “Turn right after about three pole lengths,” was the answer.

Charlotte has a great Visitors Centre with information and maps. The Haida Gwaii tourist guide has a lot of useful information. Too bad shops and restaurants are not really geared at visitors: the information centre, the coffee shop and most other places are closed on Sunday. The whales, however, don’t go by at the calendar. They circled and spouted along the shore every day.

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One of the most impressive places to visit is Skidegate’s Museum and Intepretive Centre. This massive wooden longhouse, has a museum that houses ancient totems and other carvings, paintings, photos, costumes, woven hats and tools. The place gives you a great glimpse into Haida history and culture. I highly recommend visiting here before exploring the island: http://haidagwaiimuseum.ca

Skidegate has a First Nation’s village with beautiful longhouses and totem poles along the water front. A long house is a traditional house – often a community centre – that has massive ceiling beams and square posts on each corner. The Unity Pole of Skidegate was just recently erected. Driving north, the tiny village of Tlell has several art studios and a great bookstore. We spotted sandhill cranes in a field nearby and walked on pebbly beaches, including Balance Rock where we looked for crabs while eagles watched us.IMG_5407

Port Clements is a logging and fishing village with a great library. We hiked the Golden Spruce trail. If you ever go here, be sure to first read the book The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant.

Finally we reached the northern town of Masset. It is small but full of colourful characters and history. I was surprised to find market tables full of produce and bakings in the middle of town. Traditional Mennonites live on homesteads nearby and bring their garden produce, cakes and breads into town to sell. The library in Masset is a gorgeous old log cabin. I enjoyed doing a presentation surrounded by honey coloured logs lines with books. Be sure to pop into the Secret Garden behind the RCMP office, where you can sit on a sold wooden bench among flowers and blossoms.

IMG_5517From Masset it is only about 2 KM to the First Nations town of Old Massett. Again, longhouses and totem poles indicate that you are now in a traditional village. I stayed in the spacious Haida Lodge, which looks like a small bungalow from the street but turned out to be much larger with spacious rooms. The very kind lady who made our breakfast, told us that her husband is a carver. How lucky we were to be invited into the carving shed. Here we watched in awe as two men carved a 60’ cedar. They each had a tiny chisel and carefully worked along the pencil lines, making figures appear. 10’ of the pole will go into the ground, and many tonnes of rock will be used to keep it firmly in place. We were told that it will take 400 people to raise the massive pole. Besides several poles, there were also longboats in the shed. Their traditional paintings in red and black make for an awesome sight. We felt very privileged to see this ancient art in progress. IMG_5496

From Masset we drove to the end of the road. First we passed an icon: an old, painted hippy school bus in the bush, famous for the cinnamon buns that are baked and served here. Next, we strolled along agate beach, of course picking up several agates.

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Then came Tow Hill – an important spot in Haida culture. We climbed the hill to admire the view of the open West Coast sand beaches and learned more Haida legends. The view here is of Rose Spit, where the first Haida people originated. I found it fascinating to learn that a clan can own a story or a song. Stories and songs can be given to another clan, and then the original clan that gave it away can no longer sing the song or tell the story. IMG_5525

We walked on North Beach and saw the outline of Alaska’s most southern islands across the water. Haida Gwaii is a fascinating place. I was lucky to have almost no rain. It can be cold and windy. But it’s people and their culture make this a heart warming place, of gracious hosts and intriguing tales.

IMG_5547On my last night, I was honoured to be poet laureate during a fundraiser evening for Haida Gwaii Literacy. The dinner included herring roe and rice with seaweed, as well as three different kinds of salmon. What a thrill to share the stage in the gorgeous longhouse with a traditional Haida storyteller who spoke in Haida, and with award winning musicians. As I left the islands to come home, I got hugs in the airport from newly made friends. Haida Gwaii is a very special place and, some day, I hope to have the opportunity to return to this magical land.

For more info, check out:

http://www.gohaidagwaii.ca

http://www.moresbyexplorers.com

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Totem Poles and Bears

IMG_4934Our Haida Gwaii/Gwaii Hanas adventure continued:

On our way by zodiak to the most southern tip of Gwaii Hanas, we visited ancient village sites and remnants of totem poles in several sites: Skedans, Tanu, S’qang Gwaii, Rose Harbour and more. Each site has its own intrigue and charm. Skedans is a village site with house remnants and totem poles, but not as many as in the most southern tip S’qang Gwaii. Here, a mystical and misty atmosphere enhances the site where old spirits dwell and history is tangible. The bleached and weathered totems lean against moss covered house beams. The beach still tells stories of canoe runs between rocks, where the “Vikings of the Pacific” showed their power by rowing their long boats far east, north and south, taking slaves as they encountered other nations.

IMG_5109I was intrigued to learn that a Haida Chief could marry a slave woman, thus making the former slave the most powerful matriarch of the clan. In this matriarchal society, men do as the leading woman dictates and children are part of their mother’s lineage.

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I also learned about different totem poles: the shortest one were usually house poles, depicting the family’s clan and history. Tall plain poles with rings are potlatch poles, showing how many potlatches, or celebrations, have been held. Some poles are a memorial for a particular person, sharing his life story while yet others have a hollowed out square opening at the top housing a bentwood box of bones: a burial pole. Their silent stories are impressive and pay tribute to a society that lived here long before “contact” – as the period after the arrival of European explorers’ ships is called.

Houses were large, sometime dug down to allow for more space. Immense ceiling beams were held up by corner posts and closed by cedar walls. Now, all that remains is rounded beams covered in soft green moss, often with a new cedar tree growing on each corner as the trees reseeded. Slowly and silently, history is swallowed up by the rain forest. The Haida people have chosen to let their history return to the earth, as it always has, rather than have Parks Canada follow their usual mandate of preserving history.IMG_5093

We were most impressed by the Watchmen. This ancient term refers to Haida who spend the summer in each historic location. They are provided with a small house with a wood stove and basic comforts. Here they work for the summer, hosting visitors. They are extremely well spoken, gracious hosts with a wealth of knowledge about their people. Each host told us amazing stories. Haida Gwaii is made up of stories and the oral history seems alive and well. We heard stories of how people first came to populate the earth when Raven found a clamshell full of little people on Rose Spit. He pried open the shell and the people spilled out. Raven also brought light to the world.

IMG_5011Bear married a woman who gave birth to bear cubs and in return he gave hunting powers to humans. There are many tales of super natural beings in this land. Mostly, these are people wearing animal cloaks. Eagle, Raven, Whale, Bear – they all have specific powers and fascinating stories. Haida also strongly believe in reincarnation.

One of the men who told stories, told us of the impressive oral history. “When I was about 10 years old,” he said, “my uncle called me into his house and told me a 2 hour story. The next night I had to come back and tell the story back to him without embellishing, best as I could.”

This repeated night after night until he had memorized much of his own history. The tradition continues today as he tells his daughter the ancient tales and makes her tell them back to him.

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We learned to chew spruce tips and licorice root. Even ate herring roe on kelp… As far as wildlife goes, we saw many, many eagles. A few glimpses of whales as well as two bears.

IMG_5132One overnight was spent in Rose Harbour, an old whaling station. Much debris, buildings and rusty tools remind of an era when people caught and processed whales for oil. I found it a sad place to be. The lone woman who lives here, offer a guest house and meals to Moresby Explorers. We ate green from her immense garden and freshly caught ling cod. In the morning she ground grains on her converted exercise bike to make us pancakes with rhubarb sauce from the garden. An outhouse and wood heated shower made it into a rustic adventure.IMG_5175

Gwaii Hanas by Zodiak

IMG_4680HG mapHaida Gwaii – the very name conjures up images of windblown spruce clinging to rocks surrounded by foamy waves. Not unlike an Emily Carr painting. Haida Gwaii had always been high on our wish list, so being invited to speak in schools and libraries here was pretty much a dream come true. The archipelago stretches along the northern BC coast almost to Alaska. You can reach it by ferry from Prince Rupert or fly in from Vancouver.

We flew into Sandspit, a tiny town on the north east shore of huge Moresby Island. Our son had often visited these remote islands and recommended we visit the very southern tip which is in a National Park called Gwaii Hanas. Basically the only way to reach this remote region is by a zodiak tour offered by a local wilderness company called Moresby Explorers: http://www.moresbyexplorers.com

We studied our options, counting our coins and decided to splurge on a four day trip with a photography theme.

Moresby Explorers also owns a B & B in Sandspit so it was easy to walk out of the airport and find our accommodations just down the road. Seaport B & B is a newly built house with sweeping views of the water front. Eagles perched in the trees along the strait. Our room was plain but large with comfortable beds and warm cookies were waiting. There is no one living in the house but we found a note with our room number and someone came in at 6 AM to cook us breakfast before we were picked up at 7:30. No need to lock anything on Haida Gwaii.

Bryan, our guide and skipper, picked us up and also the five other guests with whom we would spend the next 4 days on a zodiak. We drove from Sandspit across a ridge of Moresby Island, on dirt logging roads, to Moresby Landing where we were outfitted with bibbed rain pants, a large rain jacket and gumboots. We’d live in these for the next few days. We wore undershirts, a sweater, a fleece jacket topped by our own rain jackets and then the provided rain gear over top.This meant we could only wobble like astronauts in a space suit…  IMG_4687

Of course we had prepared ourselves for four days of driving rain, grey skies and grey waves. Fortunately, we were lucky and only ended up with a half day rain and three-and-a-half days of blue sky and sun and/or cloudy but dry weather. Considering that Gwaii Hanas averages rain for about 230 days a year, we were lucky.

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We had not even left the Landing when I spotted the first black bear browsing on the intertidal beach. The island’s bears have evolved to have much longer snouts than the mountain bears we are used to seeing. Like the Galapagos, even the same species of animals have made adaptations to different local environments resulting in, among others, a different sub species of stickleback fish in every lake. At least 39 distinct subspecies of plants and animals evolved in the archipelago, including seven mammals, three birds and fifteen species of the stickleback fish that are found nowhere else in the world.

IMG_4739We cruised across inlets, around Louise Island to spend the first night at Moresby Float Camp, the house anchored in a secluded fjord. The blue skies reflected in mirror calm green waters. We docked and were welcomed by the two young women who cooked for us, with tasty appetizers, tea, coffee and hot chocolate. They even had a fireplace giving us much needed warmth to warm our chilled hands and feet. After a great dinner of bbq salmon, salad, veggies and rice we fell asleep in no time. Most of our fellow adventurers had brought along their own bottle of wine. We hadn’t realized you could do that. If you like a glass of wine with your dinner, bring a bottle in your pack!

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The next morning we had fresh coffee, eggs, homemade bread, granola and yogurt before bundling up again. This became a ritual: two or three layers of warm clothes, thick socks and gloves. Then our own outer gear, the provided rain pants tucked into the gumboots and the rainjacket over top of everything else. By the time you can’t bend down anymore, you still have to maneuver into a lifejacket and into the waiting zodiak. We’d pull a warm hat and scarf over nose, mouth and face and then we were ready to zoom across the Hecate Strait to our next destination. IMG_4721

Moresby Float Camp has a large open living room, kitchen and bedrooms. There’s no shower but running water and regular toilets. Bedding was well organized: we took our (provided) sheets and pillowcases with us for 3 nights.

To be continued…

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BC’s Sunshine Coast

Map ss coastJust north of Vancouver there is wonderful stretch of coast waiting to be explored. Attached to the mainland, you can only reach the Sunshine Coast by ferry, boat or floatplane so it needs a bit of planning to get there. But it’s worth the effort. Like the Gulf Islands, you need to book the ferry especially when you visit in the summer and bring your car.

If you travel by car, then you need to take the ferry. Check the schedules here: www.bcferries.com and do make a reservation during the summer months if you don’t want to sit out a sailing wait.

IMG_4669If you don’t take a car, check out the float planes: http://www.harbourair.com Yes, it is more costly but you will be in Sechelt 20 minutes or so after leaving downtown Vancouver. You can also fly from the airport’s south terminal. The impressive terminal next to Canada Place on Vancouver’s water front offers free coffees, croissants, fruit and pastries. They have umbrellas for rainy boardings, and even offered me a free transit pass to connect to the Skytrain and busses. Great service. And sitting in the co-pilot seat, searching for whales, flying right over Stanley Park and the Lion’s Gate Bridge never gets old!

You arrive in the traditional lands of the Sechelt, Squamish and Sliammon First Nations. Towns include Gibsons, Sechelt and Pender Harbour. Totem poles stand tall and proud in many locations. If you are lucky, you might encounter canoe races, a musical festival or artist demonstrations organized by the Coast Salish people. IMG_4672

One of major events in this region is Sechelt’s Sunshine Coast Festival of the Art. It takes place in August but tickets sell out quickly once they go on sale in May. This literary festival is widely known and a major attraction for the region: http://writersfestival.ca

You can stay in many cabins, B & B’s, campgrounds or the odd motel but planning and booking ahead is becoming a necessity, especially in summer. Like the Gulf Islands, there are plenty of funky eateries, coffee shops and gift shops along the Sunshine Coast. But what I like most is the many beautiful hiking trails right along the shore. A walking path in Sechelt runs right along the gorgeous pebbly beach, offering views of the Salish Sea and the snowy mountains of distant Vancouver Island. You’ll see plenty of bald eagles staring down at you while deer and the occasional black bear wonder around, too.fixedw_large_4x

I highly recommend stopping for lunch in Madeira Park’s Mad Park Bistro: https://madparkbistro.com and visiting the wonderful little bookstore.

Websites:

http://www.sunshinecoastcanada.com

http://www.writersfestival.ca

Quick – spell Equinox at Quito, Ecuador!

Following our trip to the Galapagos Islands we flew to Quito, Ecuador. At an altitude of almost 10,000′ this city is surrounded by green peaks of volcanoes. After the heat of the Galapagos it was nice to be in a much cooler, almost cold, place. img_4513
From our hotel we did a city tour of old Quito, a Unesco World Heritage site because of its old Spanish buildings, cathedrals and other buildings. The area is prone to both volcanic eruptions and earthquakes so much of the old city is low buildings.img_4523 Perhaps daily life has lulled people into some complacency because the outskirts of this city of 2.5 million people has highrises built right on the edges of cliffs – in my eyes a disaster waiting to happen. img_4551The old city squares felt very Spanish and we enjoyed strolling along, watching women in black felt hats and long skirts sell strawberries and other fruits and candies.

We’re a bit churched-out after our time in Spain, but visited a large cathedral as well as an amazing smaller church completely decorated in gold.

But the highlight was our visit to the Equator. Here the invisible line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres creates for some fun science experiments. Now, upon coming home and writing this blog, I decided to do some research so that I could explain what we saw on the equator: water flushed through a sink – either going straight down (on the equator), swirling down the drain clockwise or counter clockwise depending on which side of the line we were on… We were most impressed with what we saw. However… in checking Google, I read nothing but articles posted on science websites, in the Huffington Post and so on, that explain that all this is a hoax! I was baffled. I replayed the video I took. Then I went to the sink and poured water in the same manner. Indeed – I can make it go down clockwise or counterclockwise. It seems that the thing we enjoyed most in Quito was a simple hoax. I guess the young man who showed us around care nothing about the truth and fooling people. All that mattered was the income derived of unsuspecting tourists…

 

img_4541We tried our hands at balancing an egg on the Equator. Because it is pulled one way and the other, it took a lot of patience but Kees earned a certificate for a skill he never knew he had! Another equatorial hoax…

The museum here displayed some local native history: an enormous boa constrictor (stuffed!) and several shrunken heads. To our amazement we learned not only how to make a shrunken head but also that this practiced happened as late as the 1990’s. Tourism likely improved once they stopped this practice.

We ate at a restaurant that specialized in Ecuador cuisine: empanadas with shrimp, cheese and avocado.  And a fabulous soup eating together with a thick paste of peanuts and bananas.

We asked many questions about the education system (mostly free), about politics (elections this weekend and lots of unhappiness about corruption and broken promises), about religion (many young people turning away from the church and traditions) and also about why Ecuador is not called Equador is it is named after the important line running through the country. The answer: it is the Spanish spelling. Ta-da!

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Galapagos: Boobies and Frigates

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Sally Lightfoot Crab

We hiked across Mosquera Islet seeing many birds up close, including – to my delight – the Blue Footed Boobie. We had watched documentaries about the Galapagos and were thrilled to see these birds in real life, as well as the bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs scurrying across the black lava rocks, pelicans, swallowtail gulls and many others.

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Blue Footed Boobie!

One of the funnest animals was the sea lion, which looks exactly like our North American seals but the ears show that they are sea lions. It is amazing that all animals here have no fear of people. The seals come right at you, follow you like puppies and want to play. It is the hardest thing not to reach out and pet them… But this is a National Park and everything is highly protected – you cannot take a rock or a shell or touch anything. And rightly so.

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Male Frigate bird

Next we hiked North Seymour island where the huge Frigate birds soared overhead and young ones with white heads in perched in trees looked like bald eagles.

Iguanas live on most islands but they are different species, having adapted to life on each island. Some islands had black iguanas, elsewhere they were yellow or even pink. We also saw the swimming ocean iguanas.

img_4402We hiked across Santa Fe and South plaza Island. Being on a boat allowed us to visit more places but it also had the disadvantage of rocking and bobbing.

However, the biggest thrill for me was being able to swim off the back of the boat. Even after a few excited calls of “shark!” I couldn’t figure out why it was OK to swim when there were sharks but I trusted that our guides knew what they were doing… We snorkeled several times and it was beyond description to be in the ocean and have a large sea lion coming straight at me, like a bullet, only to veer off at the last second. At one point two sea lions swam alongside me on either side. I watched turtles swimming below me, hundreds and hundreds of colourful fishes like parrot fish……img_4431

And sharks. White tip sharks. Pretty cool.

On San Cristobal Island we strolled through the town and it was a bizarre experience to run into two friends from Kelowna! img_4332

We bought tshirts and other souvenirs, of course, and visited the Galapagos Interpretation Center. Sweat dripped of our bodies as we just stood still, reading about the violent human history on the islands. The animals really ought to be afraid of humans after they killed over 100,000 turtles and thousands of whales during the mid 1800 to mid 1900’s. Nowadays 97% of the islands is strictly protected as a National Park. All we can do is hope it will always stay this way and that Galapagos’ amazing variety of wildlife, which so well demonstrates its way to change and adapt to its natural environment, will be around for generations to come.

Reflecting back on it all, I am very glad to have been able to make this amazing trip and to see these special places on earth. But it is a very long way to travel, expensive and a bit overrated. Like ‘Serengeti’ the name ‘Galapagos’ has mysterious allure, but we have visited many places where plants and wildlife have adapted to their environment, and places like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where we also saw giant tortoises and birds that stayed a foot away from us. If you can go, do it. But otherwise savour nature around you anywhere – nature is always incredible and forever adapting.

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Remember that all photos are Copyright ©Margriet Ruurs

Galapagos – From Bluefooted Boobies to Swimming with Sharks

img_3948Galapagos Islands: the very name conjures up images of a mysterious paradise, of unique species of animals that have adapted to their environment is special ways.  img_4109

I am so glad and grateful that I had a chance to visit these far away islands, even thought they have now lost some of their magic for me. But the intrigue has been replaced by memories of walking among iguanas and swimming with sharks and sea lions. img_4095

When we made the decision to travel to South America there were two thing high on our wish list: Easter Island and the Galapagos. I had read a wonderful, insightful book called Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman. This book heightened my wish to see these islands for myself.

We flew from Guayaquil, Ecuador west across the Pacific and landed on one of the circa 40 Galapagos Islands (did you know there are so many islands here?!): Baltra. The humid heat hit us like a wall. Tourists can travel to the Galapagos on their own or via a planned trip. But even if you go on your own, you cannot visit the National Park areas without a guide or small tour group. We booked our trip via a travel agent in Florida that specializes in South America. They adapted the itinerary to our budget by selecting types of accommodations but mostly by adapting the length of stay. The Galapagos are not only expensive to reach, they are expensive in every way since all food and drink needs to come from far away.

A guide met us at the airport, expertly whisked our luggage away and loaded us and about 18 others onto a bus. It was only a 10 minute drive to the boat launch where we climbed aboard a bobbing dinghy.  We would repeat this exercise in agility many times in the coming days. img_3985

The dinghy brought us to a medium yacht, or tiny cruise boat. The MV Coral I had about 14 cabins and a total of 20 guests on board plus a crew of 15, including two naturalists.

We were shown our cabin: a small room below deck, with a tiny bathroom. It did have everything we needed but the closet door wouldn’t open far enough to reach the hangers inside, so we never did unpacked our stuff.

An orientation meeting told us onboard routine. Each day we would get a friendly wake-up call, followed half an hour later by breakfast. Shortly after that we had the first of two activities in the morning, then a hot lunch, a siesta and then another activity like a hike or swim. Dinner was at 7 or 8 o’clock.

img_3939That first day we visited the Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island. This is where the breeding program for the Galapagos Giant Tortoises takes place. Eggs from all over the islands are hatched here and the little Giant Tortoises (how do you call a little giant tortoise?), are raised until the age of 5 when they are released in hopes that they will survive on their own. We saw several huge, ancient tortoises as well as amazing prickly pear cactus trees that grow into huge trees over 400 years old. Unfortunately, the buildings were not open to the public and we did not see eggs or baby tortoises.

We walked through town and discovered that, like Easter Island, the Galapagos we had imagined was very different from reality. For instance, did you realize that the archipelago consists of nearly 40 islands, four of which are permanently inhabited?

img_3943And did you know that over 30,000 people live in Galapagos? I had no idea… The cities of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal have schools, stores, government buildings and much more. Two airports serve the islands. Since Galapagos was used as a penal colony by Ecuador, most houses had bars and gates as opposed by the much more friendly atmosphere on Easter Island.

The heat was incredible. There is almost no rain on these lava islands. Some are lush and green but others are a volcanic wasteland. In fact, one early explorer wrote home to describe that he had arrived in what he truly thought was hell…. img_4052

That first night we slept well in our slightly rocking bunks. However, the next two nights were though as we crossed open ocean and coped with high swells which rocked the small boat left to right and front to back. Things flew through the cabin and we ended up sleeping on the outside deck. Most of us didn’t get sea sick but we rocked for 3 days afterwards…

 

Sorry – Bluefooted Boobies coming up in the next episode!

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