I am eyeing the 11 avid paddlers in the 11-metre long canoe. They lean in into their paddles in harmony through the mirror-like waters of Whale Channel when it happens. Beyond them stretches the seemingly endless rugged coastline of what's known as the mighty Great Bear Rainforest. Perched on the bow of the support boat with the rest of my team, we are resting after our two-hour-long session at the paddle and I am thinking about how there are few places in the world which feel like true, remote wilderness and this is definitely one of them.
Suddenly my reverie is broken by a cry and I notice the crew has paused and all are pointing ahead of the canoe. From my vantage point on the bow of the boat, I can see nothing at first, but then in a heartbeat, I spot it — the rise of the distinct tall, black fin, the flash of white on the face and I immediately register it is a killer whale (Orcinus orca). A female and two calves travel past us up the coast surfacing less than ten metres away from the canoe as they travel.
The essence of our calling is surmised in this one moment in time — a wild encounter on a wild coastline — which is battered not only by winds and storms, but is now placed at the forefront of a battle between encroaching development and the coastal people standing in its way.
When Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. filed a project application with the National Energy Board for the Northern Gateway Project in May 2010 — a proposed 1,172 km-long oil pipeline that would transport approximately 525,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Alberta tar sands project to Kitimat, B.C., where it would be picked up by oil tankers and exported to the U.S. and China — it set into motion a lengthy regulatory review being conducted by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
It also set into motion a powerful environmental debate, which has stirred up a flurry of activity on both mainstream media and social media the world over.
Since the joint review panel hearings were launched in January this year, more than 4,000 people have signed up to speak and leaders of the Gitga'at, Saik'uz, Haisla and other First Nations have spoken out strongly against the project.
According to Enbridge, this $4-billion megaproject will create 4,000 construction jobs as it crosses the traditional lands of 40 different First Nations. As for the oil tankers (dubbed super tankers) the company promises double-hulled vessels, radar monitoring stations, pilot super tugs and high-tech shipping protocols to prevent spills.
But people on the coast and across the country are not feeling reassured by these promises.
Branded "radical environmentalists" by Canada's Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Canadians from all backgrounds are demonstrating against pushing the pipeline through.
On-line petitions have been circulating widely, alongside articles, blogs and massive rallies held in Victoria, Vancouver and Prince Rupert.
But for one university student this was not enough.
Magdalena Angel's first trip to the Great Bear Rainforest — a remote area covering more than two million hectares of pristine temperate rainforest on the north-west coast of B.C. — with her Quest University ecology class in 2009 left her yearning for more after being welcomed warmly by the community of Hartley Bay and experiencing the rainforest firsthand.
With a passion so clearly conveyed through her words, she describes how she made her way back to the region exactly a year later to volunteer at a whale research station situated on Gil Island. These visits solidified her zeal for protecting this threatened coastline.
Angel says that she felt spurred on by a desire to support the First Nations communities, environmental groups and people of the coast who are working hard to preserve the culture and the integrity of this area of unimaginable beauty.
And thus a campaign idea formed in her mind.
Targeting youth because, as she says in her own words, they are the ones who often get overlooked and she wished to empower them to have a voice, the Great Bear Rainforest Youth Paddle came to life.
Spearheading the ambitious awareness-building campaign, Angel rallied a group of Quest University students, who, alongside 11 high school students from Hartley Bay — a tiny Gitga'at First Nations community, which, along with Kitimat stands at the epicentre of the super tanker debate — embarked on a four-day, 110-kilometre paddle in June from Hartley Bay to Kiel, circumnavigating Gil Island, tracking part of the proposed tanker route.
Norm Hann, Squamish resident and owner of Mountain Surf Adventures, helped co-ordinate the Quest class trips to Hartley Bay and says he is impressed by Angel's motivation.
"She's definitely taken the bull by the horns," he says.
Hann is no stranger to activism, as he himself organized a campaign entitled Standup4Greatbear, a 400-km standup paddleboard trip from Kitimat to Bella Bella in May 2010 along the proposed oil tanker route.
"I guess at the back of my mind I'm always smiling a bit because I know that once I bring these students up there, they usually take off in their own way," he says.
Following a three-day stint to learn the intricacies of paddling a 18-person canoe, the group cast off from the shores of the tiny seaside community lined with boardwalks and tall cedars and embraced the eight-hour journey to Kiel, a distance of 26 nautical miles. It was June 7.
Kiel is sacred to the Gitga'at people — it's a traditional spring harvesting camp on Princess Royal Island, which has been used for generations. It consists of a scattering of tin and wood buildings that house community members while they harvest and dry seaweed and halibut.
After the massive canoe had been hauled up onto the white shell-strewn beach, the paddles put away and a feast of fresh salmon gobbled down, I spoke with Quest student Net Mirachatsuwan about her thoughts on the day.
"Today when we set out with a destination in mind, I think everyone was way more determined," she says with a tired smile.
Videographer Bill Munoz agreed, adding that there was a certain look in everyone's eyes.
"There was this intensity," he reflected as we sat on the couches in the large cabin, our home for the next few days, and soaked up the peaceful atmosphere that defines Kiel.
Munoz, alongside filmmaker Kimara Brilling, has been documenting the expedition and he remarked on the complexities of filming from a sailboat as it followed the canoe.
"The challenge is it's rocking so you're trying to keep the frame steady and at the same time, not go flying off the edge. About halfway through my legs were rubber," he laughs.
The pair plan to release a documentary in the fall.
Brilling commented on how the paddle itself is very uplifting.
"It stands apart from any tanker ever being in the water," she says, "and this is the reality that we're trying to maintain because there's such abundance here. It's important to celebrate, rather than live with the idea of disaster — I think the act of celebration is really powerful."
As dusk finally fell around 11 p.m., I found myself sitting around a bonfire on the beach where the sonorous sound of laughter floated under the canopy of the starlit sky. Reflected in the flickering of the flames, I could clearly see in each person's eyes that a passion for this place had been ignited.
What's at stake
"I think if this project goes through, there will be an accident — it will be massive and it will be catastrophic," says whale researcher Hermann Meuter.
We're gathered around Meuter and fellow researcher Janie Wray at Whale Point in the cramped quarters of the Cetacea Lab research station, listening attentively as the pair describe the appalling effects the super tankers would have on humpback, fin and killer whale populations. A live stream of underwater recordings plays constantly in the background, thanks to a series of hydrophones placed throughout the region.
Whales depend on sound — it's crucial for their survival — and if the tankers come to this coast, Meuter and Wray argue it will drive them away.
Approximately 252 humpback whales call these nutrient-rich waters home each summer and for more than ten years the research team has been compiling a massive database on whale behaviour and population numbers.
"If this project goes through, we will lose a very important place for whales, there's no doubt," says Meuter.
Super tankers produce 215 decibels of noise underwater — which is ten times louder than the sound of a jet engine if you stand 10 metres away, says Meuter.
"We can't really fathom how loud this is but it's enormously loud. It's a huge noise source and because these channels around here are so narrow, what will happen in these shallow inlets, the noise will echo back off the rocks which will make it even more confusing for the whales if they are navigating."
Even without an accident there are huge repercussions to the whales, says Wray, pointing to the danger of ships hitting whales in addition to the noise pollution.
The travel route that Enbridge is proposing also concerns the researchers.
The pair point to a large navigational chart on the wall of the station and explain that these super tankers —three football fields in size— would have to negotiate a treacherous path of more than 100 nautical miles through knots of islands and narrow channels — a route which passes through the heart of the Gitga'at people's territory.
The route will require the massive ships to maintain 12 to 19 knots through hazardous waters in order to make several turns greater than 90 degrees.
"It's really interesting," notes Wray, "when they first put out the environmental assessment and everyone had a chance to look at the charts that they put out, this chart here, they actually didn't have that island on it — they took the island out and made it look a lot easier to navigate. They didn't get away with that for very long," she says with a wry grin.
Just as we complete our visit to the station and jump back onboard the canoe to paddle the seven kilometres back to Kiel, a humpback whale surfaces a few hundred metres away, a fitting salute to the tireless work of the researchers at Whale Point.
Opposition to the Enbridge project has been spreading like wildfire across the province — not only through the voices of individuals, but also in the form of municipalities taking a stand.
Take, for example, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).
At the RMOW council meeting held on April 3, council passed a resolution opposing the pipeline and Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says it was an extraordinary step for the municipality to join in the debate.
"We don't usually dabble in matters outside of our mandate," she said, "but because we are in the tourism business, we are absolutely dependent upon the pristine nature of our environment. And it's not just Whistler's environment, but British Columbia's environment. British Columbia is marketed internationally as 'Super Natural B.C.' ... and if it is marred significantly in any way that affects everybody in the tourism game."
She went on to say that as a result of the resolution, the RMOW has received a huge amount of positive feedback from the community.
And the RMOW is not alone.
The councils of Prince George, Smithers and Terrace, among others, have also voted against the pipeline.
Voice of the elders
It's mid-morning in Kiel and we have assembled outside with the sun on our backs while Gitga'at elder Helen Clifton imparts her wisdom to us.
Her light laugh is contagious as she jokes about children today with their electronic toys, and shares how she feels it is her mission to help them learn to live off the land.
Clifton, a member of the killer whale clan and whose Gitga'at name is Gwila nax nox, meaning "all knowing," has been coming to Kiel for 70 years. She has witnessed the enormous changes that have come to Kiel over the years, namely in the form of fridges and freezers.
Yet there are even more troubling changes on the horizon, she says.
"This year I told the people to enjoy the camp, enjoy the gathering as much as you can ... because pretty soon you are surrounded by all the development that's going to change our way of life. That you will not be able to live the life I lived here, that you're going to have to adapt and I don't know if we can because we're people of the sea. Your psyche comes from the sea. Everything we have ever gotten the sea has provided," she says.
She worries that the super tankers are going to introduce invasive species to the coastline, and she wonders what kind of backwash massive ships like that will produce.
"Where are they pumping their bilge as they are entering our coast? What kind of laws apply to them? We're an oil and gas world. It's the oil and gas companies that control the world today, that's the way I see it. And even I depend on oil and gas," she says as she nods to the constant droning of the diesel generators that power the tiny community.
"I try to be optimistic," she continues, her warm smile returning. "I feel there's hope when I meet you all. It means there are other people in the world who want to save the Great Bear Rainforest. I believe it with my heart and soul that development won't ruin it, that environmentalists and First Nations will work together to save the traditional way of life here."
Before it's time to move on, Clifton speaks about the traditional plants of the Gitga'at people and their strong spiritual connection to the land.
She tells tales of her youth, collecting cedar bark on a neighbouring island and talking to the tree, asking for its permission to take bark and then thanking it for the gift.
"The energy moves between you and the plant. It's a very spiritual thing," she explains.
Pausing to listen to the cry of a nearby bald eagle, she smiles and turns back to us, saying in her soft, but strong voice, "This is one place where you tune into nature and become part of her world."
Wind, waves and wily weather
We were certainly tuned in to nature and her unpredictable ways later on that day as I joined one of the teams paddling across the channel to visit the infamous Sea Lion rocks.
Home to a colony of raucous Stellar sea lions, apparently it's a must-see stop when you are at Kiel.
The wind picked up as we paddled across and as our ocean guide Phil Winters confessed later on, things then started to get a bit hairy when gusts of 15 to 20 knot winds hit the canoe.
"We were definitely starting to get to the limits of what I was comfortable with in terms of the weather," he remarked afterwards.
His challenge was in steering the canoe in the exposed waters with an increasing wind.
A gust of wind and the waves worked together to turn the canoe broadside, pushing us sideways, but Winter managed to get us straightened out as we dug in and paddled hard. Taking shelter behind a small island and anchoring the canoe to the kelp, we were shuttled via boat to the rocks for the compulsory photo sessions of the sea lions.
Winter says his main concern during the trip was the weather – the forecast kept changing, as it always does on the coast, and he was often spotted with a small hand-held radio to his ear, listening intently to the updated weather forecasts.
Upon our arrival back to Kiel, we got a taste of the Gitga'at people's deep connection to the sea. A few community members had been busy harvesting while we were away and as we gazed in wonder at the mesh bags brimming with cockles (a type of clam), sea urchins and other unidentifiable seafood it was easy to see that the sea is nature's supermarket for these people.
A way of life threatened
Cam Hill, a Hartley Bay high school teacher and band elect council member, helped Angel to organize the paddle. His Gitga'at traditional names are Aaya'yawx, which means "peacekeeper" and Hagilaxha, which means "thunder in the sky." Seated at the table in the cabin at Kiel, with his red-chequered lumberjack shirt, cut-off shorts and tattooed legs and arms, he's a gentle giant with a ready laugh, but also a force to be reckoned with when it comes to protecting his land.
He tells us how the community of Hartley Bay made a presentation at the joint review panel hearings, where they were asked to define their oral history. From young people just 12-years-old to the most elderly matriarch in the community, they all spoke about the Gitga'at ways — they were powerful.
But he is upset about the need to defend their existence.
"Never before in my life, or my father's or grandfather's did we ever think we'd be sitting in Hartley Bay defending who the Gitga'at people were and are," says Hill. "The process was demeaning, disgraceful. People who lived here for thousands of years had to defend who we are."
When asked about what promises Enbridge has made to the Gitga'at people, Hill gives a bitter laugh.
"When you talk about promises," he says, "we basically said there are no benefits to the Gitga'at people in any way, shape or form with the tankers travelling through our territory — none. There is no balancing act either — if you put the benefits on one side and the risks on the other, our whole way of life would be decimated."
In terms of eco-tourism potential in the region, Hill believes they are situated on the edge of a gold mine. "We're finally at a place where we can have our people employed in our territory and not harm our territory. So we're very interested in knowing how this is going to impact all the living organisms within the Gitga'at Nation."
Hill says his people have very little faith in government and big business.
"They want to bring the world's dirtiest oil to our coastline."
The youth of Hartley Bay agree with Hill.
Hilary Robinson (also known as Jonni) is a Grade 8 student who says if the tankers came, life wouldn't be the same for her people.
"Even if they came through and there were no spills, it would still cause a lot of bad things to happen. Even the land animals would be affected," she said.
Grade 9 student Jenelle Reece says she is worried about the development that threatens her land and admits she wouldn't be who she is today without her home.
"It would change things for us; we would have to move away. And we depend on the ocean for a lot of our food and it would just be horrible."
Chris Stewart, 24, was raised in Hartley Bay and came to Kiel every year growing up.
When asked what makes this place so special, he replies, "Just look at it. And this chunk, my chunk, is special to me, special to my elders, special to my little cousins and we wouldn't trade it for any amount of money."
A dream fulfilled
"Good morning everyone! It's the horrible hour of 5 a.m. and it's time to wake up, pack up and get paddling!" the voice bellows throughout our sleeping area.
It's Winter, and he and Hill are chomping at the bit to get out on the water for the paddle back to Hartley Bay.
Seven hours later, after two team switch-overs, the spotting of another humpback whale, a sea lion and the astounding encounter with the orcas, we glide back into Hartley Bay as the festivities ring out loud and clear in the form of bear bangers, fireworks and loud cheers from the crowd gathered at the dock.
Angel is beaming from ear to ear as she clamours from the canoe and exchanges hugs and high-fives with the other 16 youth leaders.
She confesses she is reeling from the experience of seeing her dream manifest into reality.
"Seeing this finally come together I feel really proud – a sense of accomplishment after a lot of struggling and stress," she says with a wide grin.
She admits to not knowing why she didn't quit so many times along the way.
"I guess I just really believed in it, deep down, that once we got here it would be worth it."
As for the impact the trip had on the young paddlers, a reflection session back in the classroom in Hartley Bay revealed budding life-long friendships and a shared passion for saving the coastline from tankers, with the Quest students already planning their next trip back to the area and more awareness-raising in the works.
Guffaws of laughter erupt in the room as funny moments are re-lived, and there are some tears shed as well.
Hill sums it up aptly as he addresses the young people: "Youth from two culturally-different backgrounds have banded together and paddled along a proposed route that could be devastated in one twist, one slip of a wheel," he says.
"I think the Gitga'at people are richer for having spent time with you and they have brought a wealth of knowledge to you as well."
"Youth, in my mind, play a pivotal role because youth are the future. And the future is now and you can't disregard the potential that young people have."