‘Child of the Wind’ mourned 

John Clarke, mountaineer and conservationist, dead at 57

One of the greatest voices for B.C.’s wild places was silenced on Jan. 23, as John Clarke succumbed to cancer at Vancouver General Hospital at the age of 57.

He is survived by his wife, Annette Lehnacker and son Nicholas, as well as other extended family and too many friends to mention.

Clarke will be remembered as an accomplished mountaineer, a passionate conservationist, an author and, most recently, as an influential environmental educator who helped to redefine the way we look at our wild places.

He was born in 1945 in Ireland, and moved to B.C. at the age of 13. He found his calling in 1962, four years after arriving in B.C., when he climbed his first peak, Mount Cheam near the town of Hope, with the climbing club from UBC. Eventually he would drop out in his final year of physical geography to spend more time in the mountains – six months of work followed by six months of adventure for more than 30 years.

In the mountaineering community, he was regarded as a true pioneer, making hundreds of first ascents – often solo – in the Coast Mountains. He was made an Honorary Life Member of the Alpine Club of Canada in 1987.

In Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering , author Chic Scott observed that, "His life is the stuff of legends and to chronicle his years of exploration would take a book. For 30 years he has been wandering the Coast Mountains, sometimes with like-minded companions, but often alone. From the Lillooet to the HaIltzuk, from the Klattasine to the Toba, there is hardly a range or valley he has not visited. Along the way he has climbed hundreds of mountains, most of them first ascents."

Still, Clarke’s extraordinary exploits went largely unnoticed until 1995, when he was featured in a documentary called Child of the Wind which won an award at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

In the mid-90s, Clarke refocused his energies on protecting the remote areas of B.C. Over the years he has noticed more and more logging roads into wild places, as well as the disappearance of species like the salmon.

At an AWARE meeting in Whistler a couple of years ago, he remembered that as a teenager the Cheakamus River was once "Fifty per cent water and 50 per cent protein – and now you don’t see any fish in there at all."

He concentrated his efforts on the Elaho Valley, which represents the largest intact forest remaining in the entire south Coast of B.C. He was part of the campaign to preserve the area known as the Stoltmann Wilderness, named after mountaineer Randy Stoltmann. Clarke and Stoltmann discovered and explored the area together, and Clarke was with Stoltmann when an avalanche took his life in 1994.

The tragedy brought Clarke out of his shell, and that year he started a Wilderness Education Program, speaking to thousands of school children around the province.

Among conservationists, Clarke was a voice of reason. In his wandering, he has seen some of his favourite areas destroyed by development and resource extraction, and he was able to provide a before and after big picture for the environmental movement that cut through the rhetoric.

"There’s a lot of skills out there in the conservation movement, but that hole that needed to be filled was somebody who had been to all these places, was familiar with them, familiar with the politics, and someone who had photographs of it…" he said.

He also understood that in order to protect these wild places, you had to win over the public. In 1997, he began hosting a series of Witness programs with the Squamish Nation, based on traditional First Nations ceremonies. He was adopted as an honorary member by the Squamish Nation at a Witness ceremony in 1998. He was given the name of Xwexwsélken, which means Mountain Goat.

His activities helped to influence the current hiatus on logging in the Upper Elaho and Sims Valley, which was established on the Squamish Nation’s behalf.

As an educator, Clarke worked for the public school board in Vancouver and Richmond, dropping by classrooms with wilderness slide shows, stories, and the knowledge that he had picked up over the years. His multimedia presentations were legendary at schools, and he had earned the reputation as being a humorous and passionate speaker.

In 1999 he received the B.C. Minister’s Award for Environmental Education for his commitment.

His greatest recognition came in 2002 when he was made a Member of the order of Canada for his achievements as a mountaineer, conservationist and educator.

The service for Clarke was held on Jan. 27 at the Squamish Nation Recreation Centre, and was attended by hundreds of friends, family members, environmentalists, mountaineers, and members of the Squamish Nation.

Rather than flowers, people are being asked to donate to a trust fund for the Clarke family. For more information, contact 604-318-0001.

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