Every good story has a conflict and every good conflict has a hero. The biggest environmental story in Canadian history has a surfeit of both. From the print issue of Mountain Life Annual. Words :: Feet Banks.
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow gifts on his fellow man.” — Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces
A Hero’s Journey
Humans will always need heroes. They conquer our fears, step forward when others shrink back, wade in like shining knights of possibility. From Odysseus to Luke Skywalker to Po the Kung-Fu Panda, whether battling dragons or tricking the Seagull Spirit to release the sun from a cedar box, throughout history and across cultures we have made legends of those—real or imaginary—who rose to the occasion.
Today’s heroes don’t fight dragons (they can’t even figure out how to play an entire hockey season) and there are no more conflicts as straightforward as, say, World War II. We don’t have masked crusaders keeping our streets safe, nor caped avengers protecting us from aliens, villains or deranged geniuses.
There’s no need for heroism in a perfect world, of course, nor in one of absolute evil. But human life exists in an equilibrium between the two, and when that balance shifts, when the forces of evil sink in an extra claw and begin to drag us all towards the darkness… that’s when heroes arise.
These days, with evil lurking everywhere from conservative politics and conscienceless executives to your mother’s idling SUV or the styrofoam box your lunch came in, the next wave of heroes will be those that can save us from ourselves.
The Common World
Containing huge deposits of bitumen, an extremely heavy crude oil, the Athabasca Tar Sands of northern Alberta support one of the largest industrial projects on the planet. Enormous amounts of water and energy are required to extract bitumen from its sandy matrix. Belching smoke and steam obscure the stars and toxic tailing ponds dot the landscape. While it provides for thousands of jobs, the tar sands is also the country’s single largest generator of greenhouse gases and the primary reason Canada became the first nation to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Freed from the strictures of Kyoto, tar sand lease-holds are rapidly expanding. And in lieu of a national energy strategy, there are no plans to rein things in. To capitalize on the lack of regulation, Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. has proposed a 1,177-kilometre pipeline to carry tar-sands bitumen from Bruderheim, Alberta, to the port of Kitimat on the North Coast of British Columbia.
Here, the bitumen will be loaded onto supertankers—220 each year—destined for Asian markets. The Enbridge “Northern Gateway” (ENG) is actually twin pipelines, as a highly toxic natural-gas condensate must first be piped to Alberta from Kitimat in order to dilute the bitumen—which is thicker and heavier than conventional oil—for transport.
Enbridge claims the $6.5 billion megaproject will pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the Canadian economy over 30 years and create 3,000 temporary jobs during construction. A majority of British Columbians, however, believe the inevitability of a pipeline leak or tanker spill (calculated at 95-99 per cent for the life of the project in a recent Simon Fraser University study), and potential risk to an economy and way of life tied to salmon-bearing rivers and the coast, drastically outweighs any possible benefit.
As information about the project seeped out, those who lived, worked or recreated along the pipeline and tanker routes realized how few in the provinces’s south or across the country were aware what was actually at stake. Anticipating that strong-arm political and economic spin (which materialized in spades) would attempt to keep people in the dark about the true risks, a few heroic citizens decided to take the task of raising awareness into their own hands—even if it meant a trip into the heart of darkness.
The Call Forth
“[The tar sands] is not a place you want to be,” says 43-year-old Vancouver-based adventure filmmaker, Frank Wolf. In August 2010, along with friend and schoolteacher Todd McGowan, Wolf embarked from Fort McMurray, hub of oil country, on a 2,400-km, self-powered adventure that would largely shadow the proposed pipelines route.
The first leg was a 450-km bike through scarified lands from Fort McMurray to Bruderheim and the start of the pipeline, but it wasn’t the worst bit. “The tar sands zone up in Fort Mac is definitely a dustbowl,” Wolf explains, “but hiking the degraded landscape of Northern Alberta between Grand Prairie and the Rockies was the most mind-numbing part.”
GPS in hand, the pair biked, hiked, biked again, rafted and kayaked as close to the surveyed route as possible. Wolf’s subsequent film, On the Line, showcases landscapes the pipelines would traverse and the thoughts and comments of those met along the route.
Wolf’s previous films include a 43-day kayak circumnavigation of Haida Gwaii and a 2,000 km canoe expedition across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut that highlights climate change effects in the region. “If you want to make a living filming and writing about these kinds of trips you have to be willing to give back,” he says. “You have to balance adventure and the issues affecting an area to help them stay wild and persevere ecological integrity. On the Line was my first real issue-focused film. I wanted to use whatever skills I could to make a difference.”
Whistler-based environmental/sustainability specialist Kim Slater echoes Wolf’s thoughts. “I never thought of myself as an activist,” she says. “I wasn’t even comfortable with the term—I had notions of a fist-pumping angry person. Then I realized an activist is just someone who takes action. It doesn’t have to come from hate or fear, it can come from love.”
In June 2012, just as Canada’s National Energy Board began public hearings on ENG, Slater put love into action and ran 1,177 km across British Columbia’s Highway 16, engaging communities along the way in dialogue about the tar sands and alternatives to expansion. “I never positioned myself as an expert. And I’d never even run a marathon before,” says the 31-year-old Slater. “But our health and safety and identity are tied to these natural places. My connection and loyalty to the landscape is so strong that [this pipeline] felt like a gun pointed at someone I love and I had to do something to protect them. A friend told me running is the fastest way forward. So I started running.”
These days, B.C. is awash with heroes like Wolf and Slater: outdoorists from every corner of the province who are putting it all on the line to fight for rivers and fish, seaweed and bears, and for people they will never meet. Ali Howard swam the entire length of the Skeena River. John Olson and other Gitxsan Nation members barricaded their own treaty office for half a year. Tamo Campos embarked on a carbon-neutral surf/snowboard and speaking tour. Arno Kopecky and Ilja Herb sailed the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest. And Norm Hann spent two summers stand-up paddleboarding areas that would be exposed to tanker traffic.
“You hear the call and you go,” says Hann, “Because places like the North Coast or the Great Bear Rainforest inspire changes in us that we just don’t find in a city park. So the question becomes: ‘How do I transcend this experience to give back to these lands?’”
“It’s a tale of two provinces really,” notes Frank Wolf. “Alberta is oil and gas country and B.C. is wild water and wild fish country. Looking around Alberta, Todd and I didn’t know if we even really cared if there was another pipeline, there were already so many… but once we got into the Rockies it changed our minds.”
Giving away their bikes in Grande Prairie, Alberta, near the B.C. border, Wolf and McGowan donned 30-kilo backpacks and set out on foot across a stretch of Rocky Mountain wilderness as wild and untouched as any part of Canada. “It’s more pristine than any park,” Wolf says. “Nothing but animal trails and metre-thick spruce—even at elevation. Huge, ancient trees, wolf, moose, grizzly and lots of bugs—an intact ecosystem.”
Though the journey from the tar sands out into the Pacific Ocean would span 53 days, the Rockies stretch is what sticks most. “It’s like stepping into a lost world,” recalls Wolf. “People come to B.C. because places like this still exist. To run a pipeline through there… well, you just can’t justify it.”
If fouling productive rivers and pristine lands with a pipeline leak is unjustified, then exposing a rugged, unsullied coast to a tanker spill is sheer madness. Covering 70,000 sq. km on the north-central coast, the Great Bear Rainforest is home to thousands of interconnected species including B.C. icons like Pacific salmon (five species), whales, sea lions, sea otters, ancient cedars, Sitka spruce, wolves, grizzly, and the celebrated white Kermode “Spirit” bear. It is one of the last and largest remaining unspoiled temperate rainforests on the planet.
“I’ve seen that place change people’s lives,” says Norm Hann, who has logged a decade guiding in the area. “[Some] finish a trip up there, go home and quit their jobs. People leave in tears all the time.”
Between 2001-2010 Enbridge reported 720 pipeline leaks which cumulatively spilled 132,715 barrels (21.3 million litres, enough to fill 488 large tanker trucks) of oil into farms, forests, wetlands and waterways across North America. Most egregious was the 20,000-barrel gusher that contaminated a 61-km stretch of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in July 2010, for which Enbridge drew infamous ire from the U.S. government for its “Keystone Kop” response (delayed some 17 hours after alarms first sounded).
According to its own feasibility study, Enbridge will push its pipeline through the Rockies at elevations of 1,200-metres and cross 773 watercourses, a staggering 660 of which are fish-bearing and include all the major salmon watersheds like the Fraser. B.C.’s lush forests rely on these rivers which function as arteries that deliver nutrients (in the form of spawning salmon) to the heart of the land. The rivers are life itself here, particularly for First Nations.
“The Skeena River flows through my blood,” says Gitxsan Native John Olson, who has always lived on the river. “The pipeline will cross the Morice River, the Morice runs into the Bulkley, the Bulkley runs into the Skeena… And the Skeena runs into me.”
In December 2011, it was discovered that a treaty negotiator employed by the Gitxsan Nation had cut a secret deal with Enbridge. “I was sick to my stomach,” recalls Olson. “Ashamed. Enbridge’s [safety] record is astronomically bad. What kind of neighbours would we be if we endorsed something like that?”
After uncovering the subterfuge, Gitxsan clans came together and decided to stop all business of the treaty society. For six and a half months, through the dark of winter, Olson and other volunteers remained outside its office, barring anyone from entering. “We stood 24-7,” he says. “Freezing nights in one of the coldest winters for a while. Forty-two truckloads of firewood. How many meals and rallies, songs and stories?”
Olson, 47, says that he would stand there again for as long as it takes. “I have a one-year-old son and my little girl is three years old,” he says. “My older girl is five and I have 29-year-old son who has given me three grandchildren. I care about their future, and our way of life is tied to the salmon.”
You don’t need to have a river for blood to love the fish it supports. Twenty-six-year-old filmmaker Dimitri Gammer has been catch-and-release angling for wild steelhead—the Holy Grail species of fly-fishing—in the Skeena since 2006. “It’s easy to fall in love with the fishery and the area,” he says. “It’s a place that, for the most part, is still the way it should be.”
Gammer recently released Casting a Voice, a fly-fishing conservation film he hopes will highlight the true value of B.C.’s North Coast rivers and the fish they give life to.
“Wild salmon contribute $110 million to our local economy each year,” says Shannon McPhail, executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition. “And that’s just the Skeena. The landscape drives our economy and our culture. It’s all the same thing.”
Northern Gateway is a risk that few in these communities are willing to take. “There are few places left that have a world-class steelhead fishery like this area,” Gammer explains. “And there’s a strong history of pipelines not holding up here. There’s a natural gas line on the Copper River that has been taken out numerous times by landslides, rockslides, and erosion.”
In other words, putting a pipeline like Enbridge Northern Gateway anywhere near fish-bearing streams is a terrible idea that has already proven to fail.
If the pipeline transport of bitumen were somehow miraculously fool-proofed, there remains the problem of the proposed tanker route, which inspires little confidence. Pipeline spills (Kalamazoo apparently notwithstanding) can be shut down or blocked off fairly quickly. A ruptured tanker? Not so much.
“That coastline is an extreme weather environment,” Norm Hann says, “and inundated with rocky shores and fjords.” Supertankers over 350 metres long are expected to leave Kitimat via Douglas Channel to navigate a number of hard, tight turns through narrow channels in waters that often see freezing, hurricane-force winds. “Throw in some eight-metre tides,” adds Hann, “and shortened days in the winter with limited daylight… it’s beyond challenging.”
And then there’s Hecate Strait, the “fourth most dangerous stretch of water on the planet,” according to Environment Canada, a literal ships’ graveyard due to shallowness and strong currents. Waves higher than 20 metres have been reported—so large they leave open sections of ocean floor in their troughs.
Nature, of course, has nothing on human error. In the past decade no fewer than five major vessels have collided or run aground along the route, including the Queen of the North, a 125-metre BC Ferries vessel which struck Gil Island and sank in 2006, killing two of the 103 aboard.
“Everyone [on the North Coast] has stories about totally unforeseen weather and conditions,” says Squamish-based journalist and surfer Arno Kopecky. “With the Queen of the North, the guy in charge had navigated that route 800 times. The 801st time, something happened.”
Kopecky and photographer Ilja Herb sailed throughout the coastal Great Bear Rainforest in the summer of 2012. “Neither of us had ever sailed before,” Kopecky explains, “but Ilja had just bought a 12.5-metre sailboat, so we took advantage. There weren’t many stories coming out from people who actually lived in that area, and the [ENG] review process was underway so we decided if we’re gonna do this, we need to do it now.”
An accomplished skipper friend sailed them from Victoria to Bella Bella, literally showing them the ropes before leaving the duo on their own for three months. “We were lucky,” Kopecky says. “It was a mellow summer as far as ocean conditions and we had weeks on end without storms.”
Relatively smooth sailing allowed Kopecky and Herb to really experience the wildlife. “It’s hard not to sound cliché,” Kopecky says. “Orcas breaching under the full moon, wolves howling from the beach. River after river choked with salmon, grizzlies only metres away. It was a daily onslaught of wildlife, a real Canadian safari.”
Unfortunately, as history has shown, these species are most at risk in the event of a spill. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez, one-third the size of a supertanker, dumped 250,000 barrels of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound only a few hundred kilometres north of the Great Bear Rainforest. Few who saw them can forget the images of destruction: sea birds choking on black ooze, otters like slimy charcoal logs. Twenty-five years later, herring, salmon and shellfish stocks have yet to recover and you can still scoop oil off beaches over 700 km from the spill’s epicentre.
“That’s what made my mind up,” recalls Hann. “I saw a film called The Black Wave: Legacy of the Exxon Valdez and I was floored. I knew I had to do something.”
That “something” grew into an astounding endeavour. In May of 2010, Hann stand-up paddleboarded 400 km over a ten-day expedition that followed the proposed tanker route from Kitimat to Hecate Strait, then south to the native communities of Klemtu and Bella Bella. As captured in the film StandUp4Great Bear, Hann made connections with local youth in Bella Bella, inspiring a high-school woodworking class to build their own cedar stand-up paddleboards and discover a new way to enjoy their traditional lands.
In the summer of 2012 Norm Hann returned to Hecate Strait, this time to paddle the eastern reaches of Haida Gwaii, the last area tankers will pass before hitting the open Pacific. Alone on the water for hours at a time in some of Canada’s most isolated and storied terrain, Hann covered 350 km in eight days, visiting Haida heritages sites guarded by ancient carved totems that have watched the sea for millennia. Filmmakers Nic Teichrob and Anthony Bonello documented the feat for STAND, released in May 2013, a visual masterpiece that explores connections to the coast and the risk Gateway poses to marine and land ecosystems, and those who’ve lived there since time immemorial.
“The people don’t make the land. The land makes the people,” states Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen in On the Line. As such, people here can be as rough and ready, and as beautiful and inspiring, as the mountains, rivers, and forests that made them.
In 2009, long before most had heard of the Enbridge Northern Gateway, Hazelton resident Ali Howard swam the length of the Skeena River to help build awareness of the so-called Sacred Headwaters—an area of northern B.C. in which the Skeena, Nass and Stikine Rivers rise. One of the province’s largest unspoiled tracts of wilderness, at the time the headwaters were under the threat of drilling for coalbed methane.
“I’d read about Martin Strel—the Big River Man,” Howard says, “this incredible guy who was swimming the Amazon. So I suggested to Shannon McPhail she get hold of him to see if he’d swim the Skeena. Shannon said, ‘Yeah, but you live here, and you swim. Why don’t you do it?’ I said okay.”
And so a 33-year-old health food store owner, with no endurance experience, spent 28 days swimming a glacier-fed river 610 km from source to sea. “The moment I jumped in I knew we would finish,” Howard says of her team. “We were doing it for the river and the people of the watershed. That spirit of intent allowed us to succeed.”
As she drew nearer to the Pacific, tides and winds off the ocean had driven her back upstream, but Howard pushed on. Featured in the film Awakening the Skeena, her swim garnered world attention, and with the Tahltan people fighting alongside luminaries like anthropologist Wade Davis, communities on the watershed were able to precipitate a moratorium on methane drilling in the Sacred Headwaters, announced in December 2012. Other threats, of course, still loom.
“Even in 2009 we knew the pipeline was coming,” Howard says, “so when we spoke at every public school in the watershed we’d ask kids, ‘who has fish in their freezer?’ Every hand would go up.”
Arno Kopecky, who completed his book The Oil Man and the Sea late last year, witnessed that land-human link firsthand during visits with First Nations on the North Coast. “It was nice to meet people who have a story for every nook, rock and cranny,” he says. “Every inlet and river—autumn camps for salmon, summer camps for seaweed, spring camps for herring. It was really cool to bask in that human connection, that visceral knowledge of natural rhythms.”
Conversely, throughout her 47-day run, Kim Slater found magic in folks encountered along a hot asphalt highway, people who joined her to run for a mile or two. “It’s hard to connect without experience,” she explains, “but sport is pure experience. Sports and outdoor activities bring people to a place that isn’t about facts and numbers. It’s about passion and awareness.”
Indeed there is both passion and power behind a people united. “One of my heroes is [former Haida Nation President] Guujaaw, who led the logging fight on Haida Gwaii in the ’80s,” notes Norm Hann. “It was B.C.’s biggest environmental battle ever, and someone asked him, ‘Why do you care about trees so much?’ Guujaaw’s response was, ‘If all the trees were cut down we’d be just the same as everyone else. What you do to the land you do to us.”
Hann once took a group of Hartley Bay youths clam-harvesting with friend Cam Hill, whose wife Eva adopted him into the Git’gat Nation in 2006 for his work as a basketball coach, teacher and guide. “We returned to the boat with five ten-gallon buckets of clams. I told Cam, ‘thank you for bringing us out’ and Cam pointed to the clams and said, ‘This is what makes us Git’gat. We’re not rich by the amount of money we have, but by the amount of freezers we have full of food.’”
“Beyond Boarding started a year and half ago,” says Tamo Camos, a 23-year-old North Vancouver snowboarder, of the organization that links humanitarian causes with the snowboarding community. “We started to realize how fortunate we were as snowboarders and that we have a voice.”
Campos, along with surfer/shredders John Muirhead and Jasper Snow Rosen embarked on a Northern B.C. trip that saw the crew variously paddling into deserted surf breaks on the northern tip of Vancouver Island and slogging 30 km into the Sacred Headwaters to shred mountains few riders will ever see. Piloting a bus powered by waste veggie oil, the trio have also given presentations to schools around the province and met with key players associated with pipeline protests. (Check out their recent film Beyond Grease.)
“We want to experience places that will be affected but also showcase things that are sneaking in behind the pipeline,” Campos says. “And we need to showcase some solutions and to start living differently. This pipeline is simply another vein fueling the tar sands and all sorts of other projects. It has worldwide implications due to its contribution to global warming—it’s not just the coast but everyone on the planet.”
Hann concurs. “Expeditions, actions are the easy part. Once you do something like that the responsibility that falls on your shoulders is to share your story and get the message out.”
Because that’s what heroes do. They rise, they fight, and they return with a gift for the rest of us. Sometimes it is the severed head of an antagonist or a magic amulet to cure all ills. In this case it might be a template for how to overcome the challenges we face in the future or something as simple as hope—hope to keep up the fight, to join with each other as family to never give up. After all, the rivers and coast of British Columbia are the lifeblood of the province and blood is thicker than oil.
You hear stories about Enbridge already surveying the line out of Alberta, or clearing land for their port in Kitimat. It’s easy to cower at the size and scope of the issue as the Harper government slashes environmental protection laws and seems content to ram ENG down the throats of British Columbians. It would be easy to disguise indifference as defeat, but it won’t happen, because reason dictates that fish and forests and whales and rivers and clams are a good deal more valuable than money. And when reason fails, heroes inevitably rise.
“Absolutely there are people willing to die for this,” says John Olson. “And I know who they are. They will stand beside one another and beside me and we will stop this pipeline.”
These Great Bear Rainforest heroes have their own superheroes too. Read about them here.
Feet Banks was raised in northern British Columbia where his first pet was a rooster named Houdini. At age twelve his family moved to Whistler to live the dream and never left. Feet is the founding editor of Mountain Life Coast and likes to ski, fish and rock out.