A super tanker reflects in the eyes, black oil spills from its hull then transforms into tears flowing over a broad muscular face. This design, stylized in traditional northwest native fashion, is printed across the backs of sweatshirts worn by the children who ran down the dock as we unloaded our kayaks in Hartley Bay, British Columbia.
This town lies approximately 45 miles from Kinimat, the proposed endpoint and shipping terminal for a Canadian oil pipeline. After pumping crude tar sands oil in from interior Canada, enormous tankers would transport the product through inside passages and then across the Pacific to the awaiting market in China.
Our first exposure to this proposed project came several days earlier in Grenville Channel from a passing zodiac raft comprised of a two-man team. Retired engineers, Norman and Brian, were traveling from town to town to speak with council members of the communities who could play host to passing tankers or the reaching pipeline.
Referring to project initiators, Brian shared his frustration, “When you mention the environment their eyes just kind of glaze over.”
Each day, loaded tankers would attempt to navigate the narrow, curving channels on a twelve-hour jaunt before reaching open ocean. An incident in the form of a leak or spill would likely cause complete devastation to the diverse groups of life whom inhabit these waters.
Norman related their findings, “It is amazing to see how these people are still living, the ocean is their life source.”
In town, this sentiment was immediately apparent. Our new friend Stan, the artist of the design on the “Say No to Tankers” sweatshirts, welcomed us with a feast of halibut, herring eggs and dungeness crab. The following day we picked blueberries with the kids, explored the culture center, and visited with the colorful residents. We were fortunate to meet Cameron, a retired fisherman who currently works as a school teacher and city council member, who was eager to share his thoughts.
“We are not going to sit back and watch our territories be mismanaged anymore, we are going to fight for what we have left,” he said.
He was preparing a fresh sockeye salmon for the smoke house.
We spent a lot of time with Cam and the more we learned, the more I understood his position. He represents the small village of about 200 people who have the massive duty of protecting and maintaining an area of wilderness roughly the size of Lynn Canal.
Living in Juneau, only a slow-paced 50-day paddle away, I was not aware of the project or the consequences that its success could bring. I sincerely doubt that toxic waters will be stopped at the border, this most certainly is an Alaskan issue.
It seems that decision-makers live far from here, analyzing statistics and resources on the screens of computers. They do not live in the heart of the coast, they do not wear the salt of the sea. Politics leave no room for places like Hartley Bay who boldly stand before the towering wave of economic progress. There will be talk about the greater good, boasting of the jobs that the pipeline will surely provide. The proposal seems to follow the path of least resistance, opting to route the risk through small towns with the least likelihood for organized opposition. Potential impact to the coast is immense and is not felt by those who stand to prosper. Not only should the fisheries and tourism industries feel a threat, but also I believe that we must recognize the inherent value of this region.
Hartley Bay is a place where stories matter. Where children know how to smoke fish and love the taste of oolichan oil. This is a place where roads are made from wooden planks and grocery stores do not exist. Whether time here is spent filleting fish or harvesting seaweed, an appreciation is born in the process. I believe that somewhere deep in every human lies a craving to connect to the natural world. Hartley Bay embodies this connection; its residents respect the resources that sustain their lives.
As we continue our journey south, Cam’s final thoughts have continued to resonate with me, “There is no other way to say it, if the pipeline goes through, our way of life is dead.”
• Chris Hinkley is a member of A Trip South. Read more about their adventures at atripsouth.com.