Grease, gas and dilbit trails

👤Charlynn Toews 🕔Nov 25, 2013

“Called Grease Trail by the Europeans, (it was) a major trading route running from Gitlax’aws (near Nass Camp) to Gitwanhlguul/Kitwancool; the trail (was) utilized by the upper Ksan people, or Gitksan … to trade for oolichan grease—the prize commodity of the Nisga’a Nation. … The Nisga’a travelled this trail on the way to the Babines to trade oolichan grease.”

– GeoBC, Nisga’a Tribal Council, New Aiyansh

I am pretty sure there was no environmental assessment or Joint Review Panel for the establishment of the Grease Trail, nor any proponents, critics or lawyers.

It was part of the many ancient international trade routes that First Nations established to make life better for the people trading. Coastal people got furs, and the inlanders got seaweed, seafood and the prized commodity of oolichan grease.

How old is the Grease Trail? Gitxsan oral histories refer to an ancient cultural flourishing, and archaeologists identify this as a period of important changes in the subsistence patterns around 3,500 years ago. About 500 or 600 BC: a long time ago.

So, first, walking over trails, next boats, a telegraph line, pack trains and the railway:

In 1741, the voyage of Danish expedition leader Vitus Bering, an officer with the Russian navy, to Alaska resulted in direct contact—primarily fur trading—between northwest coast people and Europeans.

The steamer Mumford made it as far as Kitsumkalum with supplies for the Collins Overland Telegraph line in 1866. The Russian-American COLT line was a $3 million project—equivalent to $45.8 million in today’s dollars. Both short-lived events, COLT economic activity and, later, gold-seekers with donkey or horse trains made Hazelton a boomtown.

The riverboats operated on the Skeena for only 22 years, when the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway took over its function. Construction started from both ends—Winnipeg and Prince Rupert—in 1908. Coming from Rupert, the first passenger train puffed through Terrace and Hazelton in 1912 and Burns Lake and Smithers in 1914. From Winnipeg, it reached Prince George and Houston in 1913. The two ends of the railway were joined in 1914 at Fort Fraser.

The railway was not all good news: it meant the end of steamboat and pack train operations, and jobs were lost. But there were bonuses, too. The population in the Bulkley Valley boomed from about 75 people n 1905 to more than 1,200 by 1920.

And now, pipelines:

Jump to 1968 for the first natural gas pipeline. Connecting to the Peace River area’s gas fields north of PG, it travels north of Vanderhoof, through Fraser Lake, Burns Lake and Houston, takes a short cut from Telkwa to Terrace, then branches off to Kitimat and Rupert.

According to the Pembina Institute, landslides ruptured natural gas pipelines in northern BC four times so far—in 1978, 1999, 2002 and 2003.

Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline would enter BC south of Tumbler Ridge, and pass through Fort St. James, Burns Lake, then south of Terrace to Kitimat.

According to TransCanada Corporation, to reduce the gooeyness of bitumen so that it will flow in a pipeline, it is mixed with a light petroleum liquid to produce diluted bitumen, or dilbit. They do not mention this, but you should not eat it.

Oolichan grease is stable, thus suitable for storage and transport, explaining its status as a preferred trade item among First Nations in our region. It won’t—and cannot—hurt anything if it spills.