Great Bear TIS – dispatch 3

“Actually being in the air and seeing the landscape from above put it into perspective. This is what we are trying to save”, said Mike Ridsdale, of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.

With an opportunity to be guided by our First Nation partners once again, Steven Garman and I paid less attention to the GPS coordinates on our flight over the Wet’suwet’en territory. With Mike and his companion, David de Wit, by our side, we didn’t need the coordinates – Mike and David knew this land like the backs of their hands.

Story after story from our friends convinced me of this. Every water feature was not simply named, but instead known for unique qualities, like the clear blue and green water of “Wetzink’wa”, the mighty Morice river, whose flow and tributaries produce much of the chinook salmon in the entire Skeena system. I later learned that the river’s characteristic braided channels also provide extensive spawning habitat for sockeye and coho salmon. David told me the Wetzink’wa has the cleanest water in their territory and is viewed as the lifeblood of the Wet’suwet’en. Its annual gift of thousands of pounds of protein and nutrients thread through their culture. The transmission of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities are often centered around the harvesting, preparation, and distribution of the foods that come from this resource.

Mike was keen to point out that the proposed pipelines would travel the entire length of this river and its tributaries for close to 60 km, with a crossing southwest of Houston, B.C.

Looking down on spruce and pine trees, which Steven and I had trouble distinguishing, Mike was able to tell us where each species prefers to grow. I remembered this from my tree planting days many years ago, when I used to place spruce seedlings in wetter soil and pine seedlings in the drier areas. But from above, the terrain can mislead you at times. David taught us how to differentiate between the species from this angle: spruce have more pointed tops, while pines are more rounded. He also shared specifics about ecotypes – lodgepole pines grow in well-drained soils, often on flatter and drier east-to-west facing slopes. Old forest fires will generate uniform pine stands. Spruce and balsam will grow on north facing slopes, in depressions and in areas with thicker canopy closure, as they are more shade tolerant and need more moisture. Deciduous trees predominately grow in the lower-to-mid valley, spruce and pine dominate the mid valley, and balsam (sub-alpine fir) dominate the high elevations.

Mike and David’s encyclopedic knowledge of the land continued to amaze me throughout our flight together. As we approached a brown-earthed canyon, we were told to keep an eye out for the white specks that could be mountain goats who frequently visited this unique habitat. Another wildlife story unfolded as Mike blended cultural lore with ecology upon spotting them.

And, despite the wildness viewed with keen searching eyes, clear cut patches were still disheartening. David was surprised to see how much more they had cut down since last year. I took more photographs and he noted the location of the fallen trees in his memory.

The significance of the Wet’suwet’en culture and connection to the land need not be measured, counted, or tested. It should simply just be. I had this feeling before meeting Mike and David, and believed it to be true even more after flying over their territory with them. They are custodians of a special place, and after I asked Nikki Skuce to tell me about the notable features of the Wet’suwet’en territory, I was reminded they are not the only ones looking after this land. Nikki said, “There are so many amazing things – from the caribou protected area on the Telkwas, to all the mountain ranges and opportunities to explore within, to the Bulkley Canyon where the Wet’suwet’en hook fish, to great morel and huckleberry picking in the forests, to the place I call home.”

Hear more thoughts from the Wet’suwet’en on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway oil pipeline here.