December 05, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

Skiing the pipeline 

The environmental risks of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project are too large to be measured. Even by skiers.

click to flip through (14) PHOTO BY PAUL MORRISON - Ian Morrison lines up another one at Northern Escape Heli in Terrace, B.C.
  • Photo by Paul Morrison
  • Ian Morrison lines up another one at Northern Escape Heli in Terrace, B.C.
In winter 2012/13, Canada's SKIER magazine sent three Whistler-based crews to ski three separate sections of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline route and plumb the thoughts of those in the tourism industry who live and work along it. The following is instalment #2 two of the series "PiPELINERS."

Atop a glacier-etched bowl called "7th Heaven," the view beyond our ski tips is a diorama of the divine: The power of the Earth in uplifted rock, the power of water and ice in the sculpting of the land, and the power of human experience in our anticipated descent — connection and sensation we'll take to the bank. Before us an ocean of mountains ripple towards the storm-lashed Pacific, trailing a nexus of rivers limned by verdant valleys. Raw beauty, unsullied by anything.

The tenure of Northern Escape Heliskiing, in fact, is one of the jewels in a crown of recreational tourism worn by Terrace, British Columbia. Yet though we've made a half-dozen life-affirming powder runs in this basin, on each lift of the chopper I've seen not only the snowy ridges and vast forests of a northern playground, but oil pooling in the valleys, and a thick, menacing line drawn across the mountains as if with magic marker. I have heard the sirens of emergency vehicles rushing toward something they know they are powerless to either repair or reverse. I have seen fishing boats bobbing morosely on an oil-slicked sea. And I have seen headlines — a told-you-so litany of what should have been apparent from the start. A classic arc of human folly.

Today is the 24th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and it has not gone unnoticed in our group.

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Thus considered, no greater deterrent exists to the insanity of leviathan supertankers brimming with toxic tar-sands crude blundering through stormy, labyrinthine marine passages than the folly and fate in similar waters of a much smaller vessel.

On 24 March 1989, the Exxon Valdez infamously ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, devastating one of the world's richest marine ecosystems with 11 million gallons of crude oil. The slick stretched 1,000 km into the ocean and contaminated 2,400 km of shoreline. A half million birds and billions of salmon, trout and herring died outright. A quarter century later and severe problems persist, including lasting damage to critical fish-spawning habitat. Oil that lingers deep in the matrices of intertidal zones means shellfish and herring stocks won't recover in our lifetimes, and predators like sea lions, killer whales, and seabirds reliant on them will continue to decline due to reproductive failure, genetic damage, skeletal deformity, lowered growth, liver damage, eye tumor, and brain lesions.

While the supertanker scenario is the kind of certifiably mad hubris possible only in the energy sector, it pales beside a further insanity of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway (ENG) project that spawned it: twin pipelines extending 1,177 km from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, B.C., and the wild, unpredictable territory they would traverse. A pipeline that industry, the federal government — and an increasingly deceitful B.C. provincial government — seems bent on pushing through despite overwhelming opposition.

"They can't put supertankers on this coast," Steve, our van driver, said on the 20-minute ride from Terrace airport on the night we'd arrived. "Politicians don't understand that there's simply no way to make it safe. I've sailed Hecate Strait many times. Waves get so big and the strait is so shallow that the ocean bottom is exposed between them."

On our last run that day, guide Yvan Sabourin leads the group down "Family Affair," a lengthy, Euro-style descent that begins on a corniced ridge before lolling down a glacial tongue and into a winding valley. Rounding corners prescribed by towering flutes of rock you expect a town to materialize at any moment. But this isn't Europe. Only peaks, walls, waterfalls, and trees; a metric of in-charge wilderness.

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