Keeping wilderness intact

🕔Sep 24, 2007

The Muskwa-Kechika

Living as most of the province does in the Pacific watershed, few BC residents have heard of the northeastern wilderness known as the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area (MKMA). More than 6.4 million hectares in size, it straddles the Rocky Mountain Trench in an arch formed by the watersheds of the Muskwa and Kechika Rivers as they travel north through miles of boreal forest into the Liard River, the Mackenzie and finally the Arctic Ocean.
In an effort to protect its biological and cultural values while allowing some resource extraction, the MKMA was established in 1998 out of a process that integrated the work of three Land and Resource Management Plans (LRMPs).
As well as increasing the number of parks, the provincial act creating the MKMA includes special zoning for economic development in sensitive areas, and establishes a public advisory board with an office, staff, and budget to monitor the implementation of the plan. The process remains vulnerable to politics: its members are appointed by the premier and its budget, moved from ministry to ministry as political objectives shift, has been systematically reduced.
But there’s room for optimism, says Wayne Sawchuk—logger, trapper, photographer, and conservationist—who sat on all three LRMP processes and is a member of the MKMA board. He is especially pleased to see an increase in First Nations involvement. But he knows that, due to the area’s remoteness, the economic pressure has not yet really kicked in, and that maintaining political support for the values of the area takes a multi-pronged approach. Smithers writer Sheila Peters spent a week in the Muskwa-Kechika this summer with a group of writers and visual artists as part of a process to develop another kind of support.

Wilderness entry

Twelve of us gather beside a wind-ruffled lake just south of the Gataga River. After three days of getting to know one another in an amiable, loosely organized bush camp, we’re preparing for a trip into the alpine to spend a couple of nights on the flank of an unnamed mountain here in the northern Rockies. Thirteen horses stand tied to the rails and pine trees behind Wayne Sawchuk’s one-room log cabin, shuffling and snorting, sidestepping away from the blankets and saddles being hoisted onto their backs.
A sprawling pile of sleeping bags, tents, foam pads and bundles of clothing lie ready to be wrapped in canvas tarps and strapped to the packsaddles. Food containers and dishes clank and thud as they’re loaded into bright orange panniers the other packhorses will carry.
Wayne Sawchuk, tall and lean in jeans and a cotton shirt with the cuffs rolled up, his deep tan and white moustache signifying a man who would, he says, much rather have his backside in a saddle than in a chair in a meeting room, is the center of the apparent chaos. He calmly directs the rest of us to the tasks we’re able to take on, from fetching rope to cinching saddles.

Diverse group

And we are no less diverse than the hundreds of people he’s negotiated with over his years in those meeting rooms. Brian Jungen, a visual artist with roots in Dene-zaa culture, has lived in London, New York and Los Angeles, and created installations in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries and museums, but is quietly comfortable in the bush. His cousin, Garry Oker, who has worked internationally in the clothing design business, used to wrangle horses for guide-outfitters in the MK when he was a kid on the Doig Reserve. Adrienne Greyeyes, a young Cree woman, one of three young First Nations women in the camp, is on her way to Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design this fall, the same place Jungen began his career twenty years earlier.
Ann Jones, a painter from Cranbrook, can sit all day on a horse whether it’s lunging through swamps or sidestepping wasps. She has her 70th birthday on the day we fly out.
And there’s Hudson Hope museum curator Rosaleen Ward, her 12-year-old photographer daughter, Angharad, and three writers, including Dawson Creek poet Donna Kane, the camp’s co-organizer who has been bringing writers to the northeast for years. She’s new to bush life herself and provides her own visual commentary in the pink cowboy hat and blue daisy rubber boots she wears, hiking through lowland swamps and up the steep climb into the alpine, keeping the hikers well ahead of the horses in spite of some momentary holdups. Like the confusing trails of caribou, moose, and goat pinwheeling out from the centre of a big salt lick. Or the grizzly that rises out of the soapberry bushes “like the side of a large refrigerator” says Jungen, eyes wide as he backs us down the trail to create a noisy diversion.

Devastating development

When you drive along the Alaska Highway through the striking scenery of the northern Rockies, the road has a similar feel to Highway 37 north of Meziadin. It seems like the only road on the map. But when you get up in a float plane, the side roads appear, snaking across the landscape, fording rivers, zigzagging up mountains—signs of mineral exploration that goes back decades. International events, as the people along the Alaska Highway corridor found out in the forties, can trigger huge local changes. Fluctuations in mineral or energy prices can do the same, the bulldozers appearing over the ridge and irrevocably changing a small land holding, a trapline, or an entire community. Just such a concern was one of the factors motivating Sawchuk to spend much of the past fifteen years in meeting rooms, away from his trapline, trying to forestall the kind of unmanaged resource exploration and development characteristic of the north.
From the small alpine tarn where we make camp, we see the South Gataga River flowing down to the Gataga. Further south, 2000-metre peaks edge the Rocky Mountain Trench around Fort Ware; the water on the other side flows into the Fox and Finlay Rivers—another watershed and way of life for an entire people that was destroyed when the first Peace River dam was built in the fifties to create the huge Williston Reservoir.
The mountains have names like Scarcity and Deception but many, like the one whose flank we are camped on, are unnamed, an attribute of the area that pleases Sawchuk. It’s an indicator, he says, of the true wilderness he is trying to protect through his work on the MKMA board.

Caught in a storm

Up on the mountain, Adrienne and I joke about what would be more likely to attract lightning—her piercings or my walking stick. At the peak, Garry leads a singalong of the song he composed while waiting for the floatplane back in Muncho Lake. By the time I’m crossing a ridge to find shelter from the pounding hail, wondering where next on the mountain the lightning will strike, I’m hoping the others, who turn back before me, have made it down safely to shelter. Then five caribou wheel and turn across my path and I stop worrying.
Later, dry and warm, crowded in my little tent, Ann and I sip Scotch shoulder to shoulder as the wind snaps the fly. Giggling like girls at a pajama party, we talk about how evening campfire discussions have opened our eyes to the ways people find a refuge from the world in their art, in the same way that people find a refuge in wild places. And how the passion of conservationists and artists both can influence shareholders in a corporation considering a copper or gas deposit in what they erroneously thought was the middle of nowhere.
The MK has provided Wayne with just that synergy. From his days as a logger and trapper concerned about protecting small holdings of personal significance, he expanded his sights into fighting for the MKMA, a huge experiment in land management that can’t do any worse than the status quo and offers potential, he says, for some best-practice resource development.

Bringing it home

It’s not just his ability to sit on boards and negotiate with other resource users that has brought his dream this far. His skill as a photographer has helped bring the MK to international attention. That, and Donna Kane’s connections with some of Canada’s leading writers: a week after we leave, a team from National Geographic—including The Golden Spruce author John Vaillant—set out on a four-week trip through the MK, giving it the kind of exposure many conservationists dream of.
As our float plane lifts off to take us back to Muncho Lake, each of us staring out a window that gives a slightly different perspective on the landscape below, we’re wondering just what we’ll settle to, just what we’ll create for the show Donna will curate next year. A week together in the MK has made us part of the complex process required to keep any wild place intact for the future, a storehouse for needs we can’t even imagine now.

_The First Nations people of the Muskwa-Kechika have informed Sawchuk’s photography, writing, and experiences on the land and in the meeting rooms. In his book, Muskwa Kechika: The Wild Heart of Canada’s Northern Rockies, he refers to a story he’s heard many times, one he retells often to get to the heart of our need to set special areas aside.
“When we leave the mountains in the fall of 1984, we hear the story of the cross. The Keily Creek Valley has long had great significance for First Nations, because the many salt licks where animals congregate, along with a variety of diverse habitats, create a rich wildlife community in the valley. Legend says that an important chief erected this cross (called a Dechinn) as a sign that the valley was always to be left unhunted, except in time of need or famine, so that the people would always have a source of animals, and the animals would always have a refuge.
“The vision of the ancient cross maker of the Keily Valley seems to grow ever stronger with the passage of time. In a natural world increasingly under threat, it seems the Muskwa-Kechika is that refuge for wildlife, wilderness and the people who depend on wild things, that the old ones dreamed of so long ago.”_