Skilled at a startling variety of things, he's a hard guy to peg. In addition to being a trapper, guide, former big game hunter and logger, he's also an author, photographer, and amateur paleontologist who has made significant fossil discoveries in the region. In the space of a few sentences Sawchuk can say "goll-durned" with a straight face, compare a rock formation with the ruins at Thebes, and then define and spell "solifluction" (water-soaked ground flowing downhill under its own weight).
Sawchuk was born and raised in country like this. Though this wilderness has nearly killed him on several occasions, it has also kept him alive—not just in body, but in soul. "I may have pissed away my twenties and part of my thirties," he says of the rowdy, hell-bent years he spent logging, partying, and grizzly hunting in B.C.'s mountainous interior, "but now I've atoned for some of that." Sawchuk's atonement, if it can be called that, is on such a massive scale it makes one wonder at the sins that inspired it. Since 1993 he has worked as a conservationist funded by private donors, and most of his energy, paid and volunteered, has been concentrated on the vast mixed-use landscape called the Muskwa- Kechika Management Area that we are now taking a month to cross. If you've never heard of it, it's no surprise; few British Columbians have either. Named for two of the region's biggest rivers, the Muskwa-Kechika, or M-K, is arguably the biggest well-kept secret in North America.
Stretching southeastward from the Yukon-B.C. border, the M-K enfolds Canada's northern Rockies in a 16-million-acre (25,000-square-mile) embrace. Encompassing mountains, meadows, rivers, and forests, its sprawling wilderness represents the largest intact wildlife habitat in the entire Rocky Mountain chain. Seven times the size of Yellowstone National Park, and only slightly smaller than the state of Maine, the M-K contains 50 undeveloped watersheds and the greatest combined abundance and diversity of large wild mammals in North America. Species include grizzly and black bear, wolf, lynx, caribou, elk, moose, bison, two kinds of deer, and most of the continent's population of Stone sheep. The region has been called North America's Serengeti; the sheer size, complexity, and intactness of the place make it unique on the continent. And the M-K might never have come into existence if it weren't for Wayne Sawchuk and a band of visionary conservationists and biologists who took advantage of an extraordinary confluence of events.
In the early 1990s the B.C. government was under pressure to decide, once and for all, how to manage the vast resources of the province. Sawchuk and others recognized the conservation opportunity of a lifetime. Although he was still a logger at the time, he teamed up with George Smith, then national conservation director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, to launch the Northern Rockies–Totally Wild campaign. They were joined by an unlikely group of fur trappers, guide outfitters, and biologists, all of whom understood a basic principle of conservation biology—that the best way to protect an ecosystem is to keep it intact.