Firewatchers: 62 days in winter

Photo Credit: Amanda Follett Hosgood

Firewatchers: 62 days in winter

👤Marilyn Belak 🕔Oct 03, 2016

The biggest storm of northeastern BC’s mild winter fell in the wee hours of Jan. 25, forcing a worried phone call to a friend with whom I’m travelling into Rocky Mountain Fort camp on the Peace River’s south banks. In the 7 a.m. dark, I plow through heavy snow out of Dawson Creek to Mile 9 Service, buy coffee in a café packed with stranded truckers and text that we can’t meet at Braden Road because it’s closed.

She responds that she’s been stopped on the North Taylor Hill due to an accident and will turn back and travel via Hudson’s Hope while I drive the Hart Highway west two hours into Chetwynd. Three hours behind schedule, we meet there and hit the Jackfish Lake Road in her SUV.

As the pavement ends we call the camp before losing cell contact, letting them know when to fetch us by snowmobile for the last seven kilometres to the fort, then we push on to the snow-obliterated oil-lease and woodlot-access trails. Directions put the camp at 87.4 km. Three false turns and 45 minutes late, we pull into the clearing where two relieved snowmobile drivers taxi us through old-growth forest, past a historic ice-bridge landing and into the Rocky Mountain Fort’s green and yellow two-cabin-and-one-tent settlement.

For the past month, this historic site on Treaty 8 land has been occupied to prevent clear-cut logging to make way for flooding from the Peace River’s controversial Site C dam. I would make three trips to join Rocky Mountain Fort Stewards of the Land before the occupation ended March 1 with a BC Supreme Court order. Today, I approach camp for the first time, my snowmobile driver one of the original stewards who had two emergency shelters helicoptered in to cover frozen Simon Fraser University archaeological digs.

SFU has been excavating the site since 1974. The first inland fur fort in BC, it was used by 18th century explorer Alexander Mackenzie and is rich with artifacts that inform both Canada’s fur-trade and aboriginal-contact history. On this Peace River Treaty 8 land there existed a fort that never had palisades and shows evidence of settler and aboriginal conjoint use since 1794.

I am armed with a Council of Canadians banner signifying the social-action organization’s support for this cause and am anxious to display it at the day camp where firewatchers—women who hold the front lines—maintain a daily face-off with logging machinery. I’m taxied to their bonfire two kilometres from Rocky Mountain Fort, where a circle of women rises with enthusiastic waves and a flurry of hugs, chatter and campfire coffee. We hang the banner with a great feeling of solidarity. Beyond it, the Moberly River’s mouth stretches in frozen tongues to the ice-free “Mighty Peace,” whose level eerily rises and falls sporadically at the whim of dam keepers upstream.

The other firewatchers, young aboriginal women, are taxied to their cars to drive home before dark and, at sunset, I walk back to camp where supper is ready and our bunkhouse warmed by its woodstove. We choose our bunks, spread our sleeping bags and crowd into the kitchen hut to eat elk stew and listen to CBC radio. After using the antenna site for messaging, we wash dishes, mark a happy face on the calendar next to the number of days occupied (today is day 26) and retire early to the rhythmic sounds of pilings being pounded as BC Hydro works around the clock to install a temporary bridge across the Peace River.

A full moon and stars blink through the old-growth forest and I feel Alexander Mackenzie’s motley crew pull their bedrolls over their ears along with me and fall into a profound sleep.

Our wake-up call is the generator buzzing to life and cabin lights illuminating one hour before sunrise. I rise, stoke the stove and trek down the ice-packed trail to the black toilet tent and washhouse. After a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal I’m handed a thermos and baked goodies from the supply of donations kept frozen under a canvas lean-to. The snowmobiles are untarped and fired up, and we’re off to the perimeter camp to rekindle the fire.

An hour later, two BC Hydro security men approach while videoing us, and my twice-daily ritual begins: Security asks our names, then reads a statement saying we are in an active logging area and need to move back several metres. When we don’t respond they set a document naming us as a John or Jane Doe on the ground and walk through our camp to the fort.

The day warms enough to remove mittens around the fire and I am introduced to prayer flags. We create yellow, blue, red and white broadcloth flags by forming small tobacco-filled pouches into yards of fabric. My friend and I perform our own rituals and we hang the flags around towering bam trees, some likely up to two centuries old, at the end of the clear-cut path made before machinery was halted.

Over the next month, I return twice to firewatch for a few days each time. Alone from dawn to dusk, it seems a perfect place to write poetry and think Rumi-like wisdom; instead, I fall in love with the bush. I roam between the fire and the Moberly, sharing paths with moose and elk and walking under trees fur traders and aboriginal families likely walked by on their way from river to fort.

On Feb. 24, I leave just days before the injunction decision that would end the occupation. The snowmobile tows me, skijor-style, on the sleigh runners up from the Peace Valley through a spring-like day that encourages our optimism. While I remove layers of outdoor clothing and stow my backpack, a friendly bush plane circles the parking area and dips its wings, as it did daily over the campfire.

Signs of an early thaw are everywhere: Herds of outfitter horses have been rounded up and on my way in stock trailers are loading and leaving. I worry about the softening roads of breakup as I pull away for the last time.

On March 1, following the injunction, a handful of helpers broke our 62-day winter camp. BC Hydro airlifted the shelters and trucked them to a farm. Contractors took down the prayer flags. Treaty 8 land was clear-cut and mulched. On a warm April day, the stewards boated across to the fort and took photos of the devastation. Rocky Mountain Fort Stewards of the Land is actively campaigning to save the Peace with more determination than ever.