Great Bear TIS – dispatch 1

Ever wonder what an alternator does? It converts mechanical energy to electrical energy. In simple terms, the alternator allows you to charge a battery, which in turn, allows you to start an engine. I read more about alternators on Day 1 of the assignment after I received an early phone call from LightHawk volunteer pilot Steven Garman notifying me he was stuck in Kelowna with a plane that had alternator issues. He was en route to Prince George where we were starting our coverage of the proposed pipelines route, but called his travel short to investigate any possible trouble.

It was not my first time speaking with Steven, as we had been chatting over the phone for the past week prepping our assignment together. But, I had never collaborated with him before. Steven has been a LightHawk volunteer pilot for more than 10 years now, and an active pilot for even longer, surpassing well over 10,000 flying hours. He serves as caretaker of LightHawk’s owned Cessna 185 aircraft which is deployed for special missions – like ours – where other local aircraft may not be available. Steven has flown all sorts of crafts – Lear jets, King Air turboprops, and lots of Cessnas and Pipers, to name a few – and has participated in a handful of flights assisting conservation photographers like myself over the last couple of years – National Geographic’s Paul Nicklen was the last. I enjoy meeting pilots for the first time because they practice their profession with a subtle calmness and exact attention to detail. Each one of them has their own personality or “feel” for flying.

On the phone reporting on the alternator issue, Steven sounded tentative, and informed me I’d have to find something to keep me busy while he looked into a quick but reliable fix. I sensed that he was optimistic but it was not the news I wanted to hear. We hung up feeling concerned, and planned to connect a few hours later.

While waiting in Prince George, I spent more time reviewing the facts and research I had compiled before my journey to British Columbia. Typographic maps had become my best resource, and after getting my hands on versions with the pipelines route overlay – from ForestEthics’ Nikki Skuce – it was tempting to begin visualizing what landscapes we would be flying over. Even on a printed map you can appreciate the vast green terrain and the river and stream features that makes northern BC so wild. On Google Earth, these details became even more obvious and I pinpointed coordinates to search for interesting patterns we might see from above. Despite the omnipresent spruce and pine forests, a patchwork of clear cutting as far as the eye could see would test my ability to make aesthetic compositions. I also noted the scarring of spruce bark and pine beetle, as they left their mark along portions of the the area we would fly.

At lunch, the first person I asked about the proposed pipeline was Jaime, a server at Coach’s Corner Sports Bar, where I randomly stopped in for lunch. Before we spoke about the pipeline in any detail, Jaime told me that she was originally from Kitimat so I was immediately curious to speak with her more. She told me she was “for” the pipeline development, expressing an interest in the economic incentives that Enbridge predicts will come to local communities and businesses. My next question was to ask whether other people felt the same way as her. She responded that they were “probably against it”. As we chatted more, Jaime conveyed a concern that displacing the animals might be the worst thing that could happen if the proposal works out. But, then I mentioned the possibilities of an oil spill and the dire consequences that could follow. Admittedly, she mentioned that an oil spill had not come to mind as a possible outcome. She noted it was difficult to imagine as she had never been affected by such a disaster. When I looked at her again, I think the idea might have changed her mind.

Afternoon research turned into searching on the internet and I quickly found previous works and conservation efforts that have been made surrounding this issue. Each hit, most of which I had seen before, reminded me of the severity of this proposal. And, for the fifth or sixth time I found myself watching Oil to Eden ( and Spoil (, documentaries made by some friends and colleagues who are also invested in this campaign. I was only interrupted by the occasional email or phone call that updated me with the status of our Cessna 185’s alternator. The good news finally came by mid-afternoon, as a very resourceful Steven had the propeller spinning again – fresh off a safety and maintenance check. He shared the news that he would be in Prince George within a few hours to pick up where the day was supposed to start. Joining us for the late afternoon flight were representatives of the Saikuz nation who had an interest in seeing aerial views of their territory and where the pipelines were proposed to be, and would act as our guides in the sky.

Watch a short interview with Jasmine Thomas, of the Saikuz nation at the top of this post or here.