Published: November 2008
Muskwa-Kechika
The largest wilderness region in the Canadian Rockies might never have been preserved if not for a former logger who came to the rescue.
By John Vaillant

The route over Misery Pass is invisible unless you know exactly what to look for. There are no roads here at the headwaters of the Gataga River in British Columbia's northern Rockies, only animal trails, and that's the way Wayne Sawchuk likes it. "There should be one place in the world where you have to find your own trail," he says. "All it takes is a little guts."

The shale beneath our feet is slick with rain and offers about as much traction as a pile of broken china. It shatters under the weight of the horses' hooves as they slip and grind, sending shards clattering into the gorge. A thousand feet below is the tree line, and a thousand feet above is the pass, threading its way between a pair of hulking 9,000-footers. In every direction glaciers loom, strangely luminous beneath a heavy gray sky.

There are six of us and thirteen horses. But no one is riding because the trail is simply too steep—at times pushing 50 degrees. We lead our mounts by their reins knowing that if one of them loses its footing there is no way we'll be able to stop it from tumbling into the boulder-filled cataract that plummets headlong to the valley floor. But it's either get over the pass or take a hundred-mile detour.

Two weeks earlier, Sawchuk nearly lost Leo, a young packhorse, while crossing a river near here. It wasn't the current that almost took the horse under; it was the glacial cold. It took five people—who nearly froze themselves as well—to man-haul the horse up the riverbank, and half an hour to thaw him out (and that was in July). It's a common hazard in this country, where you can make a dozen river crossings a day.

By the time we reach the saddle of Misery Pass, it is hard to tell who's blowing harder, the humans or the horses. We catch our breath in a wind-scoured trough dotted with shallow blue tarns and little else. The season's last lupines and moss campions are putting on a brave display. Symmetrical depressions in the lichen-speckled scree look like graves, but they're not; they're sheep beds, and they could be a thousand years old. Midway across the pass we come upon the first significant evidence of human presence we've seen in days: a plane crash. Nothing is left from the belongings of the occupants now but four pairs of sneakers, each shoe still neatly tied. "That plane didn't leave a mark on the rock," Sawchuk murmurs, his words practically sucked from his mouth by the wind. "The mountain is implacable."

This is the Rocky Mountain divide, two degrees south of the 60th parallel and, just like the people in that plane, all we want to do is get across. We don't know yet that the way down is almost as steep, which means we'll still have to lead our thousand-pound horses, only this time they'll roll right over us if their hooves fail to hold. This, I realize, is the price of admission into Sawchuk's world.

Whipcord thin, with fingers that seem to have the consistency of cold chisels, Sawchuk has been exploring this country for more than 20 years, winter and summer, and, like few others alive, knows what it takes to survive here. On the left side of his saddle he carries a cruising ax in a scabbard. Slung off the right side is a lever- action Browning .308 (no one, it seems, travels in here unarmed). A small chain saw rides atop one of the packhorses. Sawchuk carries a set of farrier's tools, two full sets of rain gear, spare horseshoes in four sizes, duct tape, copper rivets, buckles and leather for harness repair, and a miniature anvil.

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.

Harvey Locke, founding father of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (of which the M-K is a key link) makes no bones about Sawchuk's contribution to the M-K: "He wasn't the only guy, but boy oh boy—without him, I don't know if it would have happened." While George Smith handled political strategy, Sawchuk and his former partner, Marce Fofonoff, guided people from the media, government, and scientific communities through northern B.C.'s vast country on horseback, so they could see firsthand what was at stake. Smith, Sawchuk, and others also engaged in a series of grueling nego­tiations over the M-K, initiated by the provincial government, that lasted nearly ten years. At the table were guide outfitters, recreational hunters, representatives from the oil and gas, mining, and timber industries, snowmobilers, environmentalists, local businesspeople, government officials, and others who had a stake in the region. (Some First Nations groups elected not to participate fully, fearing it would compromise ongoing treaty negotiations.)

"We argued over every last foot," Sawchuk recalls. But they all had a powerful motive. "If we couldn't come to an agreement, the government would decide for us, and that scared the hell out of everybody."

The formula they helped hammer out called for 25 percent of the M-K to become provincial parks; 60 percent have been designated "special management zones" that are open to oil, gas, and mineral development, but (in theory) only on a limited basis. Most of the remaining 15 percent are "special wildland zones," where logging is prohibited. Officially legislated in 1998, the creation of the M-K was as much as anything a colossal act of faith—an invitation to a wide variety of stakeholders to rise to the occasion of one of the last best places on Earth and to do their best to keep it that way. Too big and too valuable to simply lock up, the M-K embodies an inspired attempt to find a kind of middle way to meet the needs of an ecosystem, its peoples, and the wider public all at once.

Sawchuk's journey to become a self-styled guardian and ambassador was a circuitous one, and along the way he saw and did things that still haunt him. The Peace River region southeast of the M-K, where he lives, is a broken patchwork of farmland and clear-cuts tightly crosshatched by seismic lines and access roads for natural gas wells. The Peace River itself has been dammed not once but twice, and a third dam is being considered. But it wasn't always that way. "When I was growing up, we were on the frontier," he says. "To walk to my grandmother's house, I had to travel through wild country." During his lifetime, logging, mining, and gas exploration have made the country virtually unrecognizable. "It could happen here, and it wouldn't take long," he says of the M-K.

When he was 11 years old, Sawchuk remembers gathering as many fallen cherries as he could carry from an orchard. It sounds like an idyllic image until you understand that the entire orchard had been felled by a chain saw. The faller was Sawchuk's father.

In the late 1960s, British Columbia was aggres­sively tapping its hydroelectric potential, and Sawchuk's father, Mike, a Seventh-day Adventist with a work ethic Noah would have admired, had a contract to dismantle one of the towns that would be flooded by the Keenleyside (Arrow Lakes) Dam. The job took weeks to complete, so the whole family relocated to the doomed town of Burton.

On weekends young Wayne helped his father with the demolition, and during the week he went to school with the same children whose homes, barns, and orchards his father was bulldozing into heaps. At night those towering piles would be set ablaze. "The fires of those burning houses would light up the whole valley like it was day," Sawchuk recalls. "I remember the kids at school looking at me like I was some kind of devil. I saw their faces through the window in the school bus: They looked like war children—like refugees."

Today that lost world lies at the bottom of one of the largest man-made lakes in North America. "It just makes you cry," Sawchuk says, "when you think of all the places that went under." And yet, at the time, few people questioned it, and they certainly didn't question the jobs that put food on the table.

As soon as he was old enough, Sawchuk went to work as a logger alongside his father and brothers. But as he saw the forest denuded by chain saws and log skidders, Sawchuk began to question the ethic he had inherited from his father. Doubt metastasized into torment. "It became harder and harder for me to get back on that skidder," he says. "There were mornings I would throw up before going to work."

The final straw came in 1990, when one of the last untouched watersheds around his hometown was slated to be logged. Sawchuk committed what in the eyes of some was an act of treason. Still working as a skidder operator, he started a campaign to protect the Mountain Creek Valley. He became a charismatic speaker and, with the aid of a compelling slide show, he rallied many to his cause. That contested valley is now a source of local pride: the 100,000-acre Pine Le Moray Provincial Park.

On the day before we cross the divide,we hike up to a place where Sawchuk has never been—which is saying something. Sawchuk has spent years exploring the region on foot, horse, snowmobile, and snowshoes, but he'd never made it up to Gataga Pass. Then again, few people have. A handful of hardy local hunters, hunting guides with well-heeled clients, and helicopter-borne mineral prospectors are about the only visitors to these glacier-bound peaks. The view, once you get there, is on an IMAX or Grand Canyon scale. From the 6,000-foot saddle where we stand, the mountain falls away for thousands of feet into a lush, green valley that stretches southward for 15 miles before running into yet another phalanx of glacier-­clad mountains.

It's breathtaking, not just for its beauty, but for its sheer size; this enormous valley seems to have its own gravitational pull. All around us, the rush and roar of rivers being born thrums in our ears as glacier-fed waterfalls carve near-vertical paths down the mountainsides. Far below, the scars of winter's avalanches appear as great swaths of flattened trees. A moose cow and calf graze at the tree line while, high above, a dozen mountain goats trail across a precipitous scree slope, challenging the stability of its angle of repose.

What is so extraordinary about this wilderness is that one can follow these rivers and explore these ranges for days and weeks and never see a person, a rail line, or even a fire tower. This is the West as Lewis and Clark, or Roosevelt and Muir, might have seen it: a landscape without familiar reference points, where everything is so massive and raw that estimates of height and distance continually fall short of the reality. In the upper Gataga Valley we crossed a recent rockslide that could have buried a football stadium. In the upper Tetsa there are anonymous waterfalls with drops approaching a thousand feet.

The animals behave differently in here too, and it underscores a key distinction between places like national parks, where wild animals live but are habituated to human beings, garbage, and cars, and places like the M-K, where they are truly wild. Despite the fact that we encountered grizzly signs every day, including numerous kill sites, we never secured our food. To a seasoned outdoorsperson such behavior might seem irresponsible or even dangerous, but here humans are alien, to be avoided, and bears stayed away from our campsites. Only the mountain caribou (which travel in far smaller groups than their barren-ground cousins) were overcome by curiosity, and sometimes they would shadow us on the trail.

In all these ways, the M-K makes it easy to forget what century you're in. "For years we traveled with no communication of any kind," Sawchuk says, recalling his early forays through this country. "The outside world could be blown up and you'd never know."

To see what might have happened here if Sawchuk and others hadn't intervened, you don't have to go far. Immediately to the west, enormous open-pit copper, lead, and zinc mines are already up and running, and as of this writing, tens of millions of dollars are being invested in even more ambitious projects. To the east, beyond thousands of square miles of natural gas wells, lie the Alberta oil sands, a monumentally expensive and environmentally destructive oil-extraction project. Nor is the M-K immune. Because of its somewhat vague "special management" status, many individuals close to the M-K believe the future of this grand experiment is precarious at best. "What we've seen over the past few years is an unraveling of the M-K," says Dave Porter, a member of the Kaska Dena First Nation and former M-K advisory board member who has also represented the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.

Under British Columbia's pro-industry Liberal government, the board's budget for outreach and education about the M-K and what's permitted inside the reserve has been whittled down since 2001 by a third. Conservationists also worry about potential new oil and gas development. Sawchuk is an optimist at heart, but he has no illusions. "We live in a political world," he says. "I wish it was all tied up with a big red bow, but we are going to have to keep defending it. That's just the way it is."

It is in situations like this where the hard lessons Sawchuk learned from his father in the woods around their home become most valuable. "Getting on that skidder every day—even when I hated it—taught me perseverance," he says. And his youthful fight to save his hometown's forest? "That woke me up to the fact that none of these guys are going to stop until you make them stop."