We left Calgary early on the first Saturday of October bound for a small town called Terrace in Northern British Columbia, with the purpose of visiting the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art. The drive was estimated to be about 20 hours and we planned to divide the days of driving with an overnight stay in Jasper, in the midst of Jasper National Park. To get there, you have to also drive through Banff National Park. The views between Calgary and Jasper via Banff and Jasper National Parks are nothing short of extraordinary. Words such as ‘beautiful’, ‘amazing’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘mind-blowing’ are used in over-abundance and do little to convey the magnitude of the natural display of wonder through which the road traverses.
The morning we left, I was jetlagged after returning the day before from a trip to the UK (the during which time I visited the University for the last time as an employee). The tremendous beauty that surrounded me in Banff and Jasper were a far cry from those intense days working as an academic. Although there were precious gems of collegial friendships I had developed with many inspiring students and other like-minded academics, overall, the geography of the academic environment was harsh and unforgiving, hardly nourishing or conducive to deep creativity and passionate purpose. During the four years I worked at the University I felt an intensifying hierarchy and lack of support. This is not the same experience for all early academics, but it was for me. I was often lost in a murky sea of politics, torn between commitments within two different departments, scurrying around like a headless chicken to keep up with an overload of teaching and often times losing my sense of purpose and self in the process. The glacially sculpted peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains offered an immediate respite, reminding me of the slow process of time through which each of us are such small, but deeply connected components. I also was reminded by how small my world had become in the mire of the University’s expectations and structure. Much bigger issues, such as climate change, that I could view firsthand in the receding glaciers at Banff and Jasper, are exponentially more important. The world is much larger, vastly more interesting, than the small-mindedness of universities whose primary objectives are to make themselves as big as possible within the global economy, particularly at the expense of the happiness of many of its staff, faculty and students. I also realized that the healing required from my experience working in academia – to unlearn ways of thinking that had been detrimental to my overall well-being – would be slow and erratic. Feelings and experiences embed themselves deep in each of our bodies, affecting far more than our minds. I felt an intense gratitude for these reminders surrounding me in the tremendous beauty of the sculpted Rocky Mountains, turquoise lakes, sublimely green ever-green trees and yellowing Autumnal leaves – and also the melancholic presence of melting glaciers amidst the beauty.
Although we hastened our travel to Jasper that first day of driving, we managed a few stops that brought us to the forefront of climate change processes. After marvelling at the turquoise waters of Lake Louise and Bow Lake, we stopped at Columbia Icefields to walk up the path to see the Athabasca glacier up close. At the turn off to Columbia Icefields, on the drive to the parking lot, we noticed signs that read 19012, 1920, 1945, 1960, 1980, 1992, 2000 – each demonstrated the level from which the glacier had receded, the most recent being 2000, at least 50 metres from where the edge of the glacier currently lay melting with torrents of small rivers and streams running off toward the turquoise lake below.
We also stopped at Parker Ridge, on the side of the highway and walked 2km up a steep ascent to eat a small picnic lunch. The view hiking up the snaking avalanche path was as impressive as the drive and we felt alive as our lungs were working harder to grasp oxygen from the thinning crisp air. The only downside of the view was a haze of smoke from controlled forest fires in British Columbia. Along the path, stunted alpine evergreen trees and wildflowers thrive here in the desert-like landscape that brings constant blasts of wind. Once we reached the crest of the ridge, the most extraordinary sight beheld us. We were transfixed. Through at least a mile or so of evergreen and Autumnal yellows of forest cascading below us lay an untouched valley with a rivulet of streams and rivers cutting their way through from a massive glacier on the right that we approximated to be at least 5 miles long. The massive Saskatchewan glacier, which dwarfs the Athabasca glacier at Columbia Icefields, we later learnt, creates the North Saskatchewan river that flows over 700 miles to meet with the Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan and eventually empty into Lake Winnipeg.
Our overnight stay in Jasper was in an overpriced hotel that was more like a glamorised hostel, with a shared bathroom for the hallway, but a separate box-shaped bedroom with gold fixtures on the lamps, bed, dresser and windows. We happily left Jasper bound for the furthest town we could reach before dark. We remembered to fill up on petrol as the nearest petrol station was a 4 hour drive away. We entered British Columbia a couple of hours after leaving Jasper. That night, we made it as far as Burns Lake, a small town at least 200 miles from Terrace.
The drive to Burns Lake from Jasper was engrossing, a continuous flow of mountainous peaks and valleys amidst lakes and rivers, endless evergreen trees and the red, oranges and yellows of aspen, cottonwood, alder and other deciduous trees at their Autumnal peak.
Our only stop along the way was spontaneous, about 5 or so hours into the drive. We noticed a sign that said ‘Ancient Forest’ which piqued our interest. It turned out that this sign led us to a moderate 1 mile hike through an ancient cedar forest where the cedar trees were as old as 2,000 years.
This forest is a temperate rainforest and very rare for being so far inland, especially for North America. We learned that the golden moss growing on the majority of the trees only forms on trees more than 250 years old. The intense oxygen and sweet aromas from the ancient cedar forest were more than enough to sustain us for another 5 hours of driving.
We also made a brief 5 minute stop to get a good photograph of a ‘No to Enridge Pipeline’ sign.
We had noticed several posters plastered onto signs along the way, but this particular one had been rigged up on a bridge over a fast-flowing river just off the highway. The controversial Enridge Pipeline project is two parallel pipelines from the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta to Kitimat, each with a length of over 700 miles. The primary reason for this proposal is to open Canada’s oil market to China and other Asian countries. The proposal was first set forth about 7 years ago. Although there has been a significant amount of financial incentive offered to at least 60 different First Nations communities, not one community has agreed to accept. The reasoning behind this is not only because of the sacredness of the land historically to all First Nations peoples but also because of the incredible fragility and diversity of the plant and animal life which comprises the temperate rainforest land that the pipeline would pass through, affecting not only salmon runs, but habitat for all species. National Geographic wrote a special article in August 2011 about the critical protection needed for the Great Bear Rainforest – ‘a wild stretch of western cedar, hemlock, and spruce forest that runs 250 miles down British Columbia’s coast. Whales, wolves, bears and humans thrive in the rich marine channels and forests of the Great Bear’. There have been and will continue to be numerous protests about Enridge in Canada and the US.
In addition to Enridge, there are other pipeline projects proposed such as Keystone (running from the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas) and the Trans-Mountain pipeline system from Edmonton to Puget Sound, in Washington state in the US. Each of these proposed pipelines (Enridge, Keystone and Trans-Mountain) are intensely controversial – particularly for First Nations and Native American communities. When we were in Victoria after our visit to Terrace, we learned that there was a blockade of activists protesting Keystone in Texas, many of whom were imprisoned. Daryl Hannah, the actress was among the activists which brought greater media attention to the efforts committed to blocking the construction of Keystone. These pipelines are highly contentious, but with the economic crisis being such a burden to so many people while the hunger for oil grows, the imagined need for Enridge, Keystone and Trans-Mountain is bound to strengthen.
That night, during our short stay in Burns Lake we were told by the motel owner that he had seen the Northern Lights just a few days before. We could only hope to be so lucky, this was something that Udi and I both had long wanted to witness.
The next day we drove the 4 or so hours to Terrace, stopping along the way in Smithers, to see one of the Northwest College campuses after noticing a sign. The Freda Diesing School of Indigenous Arts is also a part of the Northwest Community College satellite campuses and we were curious to visit the NWCC Smithers campus. In Smithers, we learned, students can take a variety of courses not only in education and computer technology, but also preparatory skills for geological exploration and mining.
We arrived in Terrace with much excitement in the middle of the afternoon, finding a place to stay for the next 4 nights with much more difficulty than assumed due to the influx of oil and gas workers in the area at the time. The symbol of Terrace is the ‘Spirit Bear’ – or the Kermode as it is officially known – a white Black bear, the subject of the National Geographic article mentioned above and an animal of extreme spiritual significance for many First Nations peoples. The Spirit Bear is notoriously elusive but can occasionally be spotted in this area. As the Spirit Bear is the symbol of Terrace, there are several life-size sculptures around town, each painted with ovoids and animals symbolic to First Nations communities.
We decided to quickly drop our stuff off and drive straight down to Kitimaat Village, where the majority of the Haisla First Nations people live, to see a view of the Douglas Channel harbor that leads out to the Pacific Ocean, before dark. We were also hungry and noticed that there was a recommended restaurant in Kitimaat Village called ‘Sea Masters’. The drive to Kitimaat is about 50 kilometers south of Terrace. We were hoping to see the Northern Lights that night…