#913 Northern wilderness advocate

Crossing the Divide: Discovering a Wilderness Ethic in Canada’s Northern Rockies
by Wayne Sawchuk

Smithers: Creekstone Press, 2020
$21.95 / 9781928195061

Reviewed by Luanne Armstrong


Who wouldn’t want a chance to sit around a campfire with Wayne Sawchuk, and listen to him tell stories? Horses munch grass in the background, his faithful dog, Chancey, curls at his feet as the fire crackles and darkness surrounds you. You have been riding all day through and over mountain passes, beside clear lakes, spotting all kinds of wildlife. You’ve helped cook dinner over the fire. You’re ready for some stories.

And Wayne has so many great stories to tell, stories of wilderness survival in harsh and bitter weather, stories of trailing a pack train through country that only Indigenous people knew, where wildlife: grizzlies, caribou, wolves, elk, beaver, mountain goats, are abundant. And stories of the long effort to save this part of the world from exploitation by resource-grabbing corporations.

The book is told in a series of linked stories, and the lovely thing is the unpretentious, aural quality that Wayne has preserved in the tone of the writing.

Wayne Sawchuk

In Wayne’s early years, he went logging and tree falling with his dad; the early stories are of this work and also of his trapline days when he navigated his way on foot, on snowshoes or on a snowmobile through bitterly cold weather, over treacherous rivers and lakes, stories of almost dying, stories of animals and mysteries.

And eventually, as he watched the logging roads crawl up every valley, watched the survey tape and bulldozers begin to come into pristine wilderness, he realized that he and other people that loved this land would have to fight to save it.

I knew some of Wayne’s stories already, before reading this book. I was fortunate to be able to work with his partner, writer Donna Kane, as she was completing her MFA at UBC, and writing the manuscript that became the wonderful book, Summer Horse. We had long discussions on line about the very mysterious nature of horses and riding and she told me a few of the stories she shared with Wayne.

Wayne Sawchuk, Bonus and Chancey on the southern Caribou Range

I have also been very fortunate to work with Sheila Peters and Lynn Shervill over the years, on various writing and editing projects. They run a very special small press, Creekstone, focussing on books about the north, about Indigenous people, about the environment. Check out their publishing efforts here. Small presses are absolutely invaluable in the Canadian literary world, and they deserve your support. Congratulations to Creekstone for this significant publication.

Wayne Sawchuk grew up near Chetwynd, in northern BC. His parents were farmers and he learned early the skills of pioneer homesteading life. His parents had 120 acres of bottomland plus his father worked at a sawmill. Wayne had two brothers and a sister and the family shared their land with a lot of wildlife such as deer and bears, as he recalls: “Black bears and occasionally grizzly, made their way across the open side hills. Beaver, otter, muskrats, and mink swam in the sloughs and backwaters of the river bottom, and marten, fisher, and squirrels lived in the small patches of spruce that had escaped the loggers. Lynx and snowshoe hares, grouse and moose made their homes in the willow bottoms.”

Wayne’s childhood home on the Pine River

Wayne’s parents were strict but they also allowed their children the freedom to explore the country around them. For example, when Wayne was fourteen, he decided to walk to his grandmother’s house. Except the walk would take him cross country for twelve miles through a wilderness of thick brush and trees where he would have to camp out on his own. He also had to swim across two swiftly flowing icy rivers. Of course he made it to his grandparents’ house but not without some scary moments. His grandmother and grandfather had raised fifteen children in their big farmhouse and it was still a gathering place for the whole family.

Mica Dam under construction, 1970, with the Columbia River still flowing behind. Courtesy The Dickey Collection, Revelstoke Museum & Archives

Wayne continued his adventurous life, hunting with his dad, and eventually working with his dad on various logging jobs. He took many risks and was often saved by sheer luck.

But a particular job that he and his dad took on shook his worldview. “The sixties were the beginning of the era of big dam building in British Columbia,” he recalls, “of land clearing to make way for hydro lines and reservoirs, and our family was in the thick of it. One of the jobs was located at Burton, a small town set in the Kootenay mountains in southern British Columbia. From Burton I remember three things clearly — a cherry tree, the bright red fish, and the eyes of the children.”

He and his father cleared land, burned houses, and cut down orchards full of fruit in the former town of Burton in the Arrow Lakes Valley, which was flooded by the Keenleyside Dam.

Rose Rohn in front of her burning house at Renata on Lower Arrow Lake, 1967. Courtesy of Our Coloured Past: The Arrow Lakes in the Age of Colour Photography, by Kyle Kusch
Cemetery plaque and memorial above BC Hydro’s reservoir on Highway 6 at Burton. Photo courtesy Vernon & District Family History Society

On a subsequent job, he cleared land for what would become the Kinbasket Reservoir behind the Mica Dam and Williston Lake behind the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. The flooding from these dams displaced the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation, then known as Ingenika, and drowned huge numbers of moose and other wildlife.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, as logging roads were driven up almost every wild valley in BC and a series of dams went up on the Kootenay Columbia river systems, many people turned their energies to saving what was left of BC wilderness. A wave of environmentalism was born in BC in those days that is still going strong, but perhaps not strong enough, today.

In the early nineties, Wayne and other concerned people joined the Land and Resource Management Plan Process (LRMP), which would be a consensus-based process. This process took almost ten years, but eventually the group succeeded in finding agreement and sixteen areas in Northern BC were recommended for provincial park status.

Sawchuk and Bonus in Heaven’s Pass

In 1992, Wayne met George Smith, the National Conservation Director for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). Wayne and George began to campaign for a vision for the Northern Rockies that included pre-planning for industrial activities, a dedicated fund, plus a multi-sector advisory board. Their goal was legislation that would protect the wilderness of the Muskwa-Kechika area of northeastern BC, an area Wayne knew very well from his hunting and trapping days. Their coalition was made up of “First Nations, guide outfitters, sportsman’s groups, scientists, conservation organizations, and many dedicated individuals united by a strong feeling of concern for this amazing land.”

Eventually, they connected to Harvey Locke, who was pioneering the vision of a Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) protected area that would link ecologies together. Wayne became an enthusiastic proponent of this idea as well. The land Wayne and many others fought to save became a key in the process:

The Muskwa-Kechika Management Area. Courtesy M-KMA

The Muskwa-Kechika is like a great northern anchor for the Y2Y vision, a lifeboat of genetic diversity that will help to ensure that wildlife has a fighting chance for survival up and down the Rocky Mountains if the habitat found there is sustained over the long haul. The Y2Y initiative and many others have identified the Muskwa-Kechika as key to the survival of biodiversity on the North American continent.

Once again, years of meetings, of negotiations, of flights back and forth to Vancouver; but through their long, gruelling years of dedication, Wayne and others succeeded. They created the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area (M-KMA), Wayne writes, “a chunk of land more than seven times larger than Yellowstone including the largest and richest habitat for large mammals on the continent. Named for the Muskwa and Kechika rivers, the Act protects fifty contiguous watersheds each larger than 5000 hectares, truly a momentous agreement.”

These days Wayne continues to advocate for the environment. He also takes guests, with riding horses and pack trains, through the Muskwa Kechika area so they can see its wonders for themselves and help protect it.

Sawchuk with portal sign to the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area

Crossing the Divide is anchored by a section of incredible photos, of wildlife, pristine valleys and lakes, and of Wayne with his good horse, Bonus, and his good dog, Chancey.

And he worries still about the chaos that might come as a result of global warming and how easily wildlife and pristine wilderness can be lost. He hopes that the Muskwa-Kechika will be big enough to survive these changes but there is no way to know for sure. Wayne writes:

Only when we truly incorporate the hopes and needs of all communities, human and non-human, First Nations and settlers alike and allow an ethic of respect for all living beings to guide our actions can we become true stewards of the land. Only then can we close the door on the short-term, selfish exploitation of the natural world that defined the frontier.

This change in ethics is coming slowly, and it will be necessary for us all eventually to make that change. I believe we can do it. I also believe that all of us in BC and Canada owe a huge debt to the Wayne and the men and women who fought so hard to conserve areas of profound importance like the Muskwa Kechika and many others. The fight goes on and it must be fought for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of all life.

Thanks, Wayne. Thanks for this book. It was pure pleasure to read it and listen to your stories. I could listen all night. I’m sure you have many more to tell.

Zoo Valley in the Northern Rockies


Luanne Armstrong and Caraigh

Luanne Armstrong has written 21 books. She writes young adult book, fiction, nonfiction and poetry. She has contributed to many anthologies and edited Slice Me Some Truth (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), an anthology of Canadian non-fiction. She has been nominated or won many awards, including the Moonbeam Award the Chocolate Lily Award, the Hubert Evans nonfiction Book award; the Red Cedar Award, Surrey Schools Book of the Year Award, the Sheila Egoff Book Prize, and the Silver Birch Prize. Luanne lives on her hundred year-old family farm on Kootenay Lake. She mentors emerging writers all over the world on a long-term basis, and in the last three years has edited eight books through to publication. Her last book was Sand, a young adult book for Ronsdale Press. A Bright and Steady Flame, The Story of an Enduring Friendship, was published by Caitlin Press in 2018 [see Lee Reid in The Ormsby Review – Ed.]. She is now working on a book of essays, Going to Ground, as well as a new book of poetry, When We Are Broken. Editor’s note: Luanne has also reviewed books by Katie Mitzel, Tom Lymbery, Richard Vission, Deni Béchard, Robert Bringhurst & Jan Zwicky, Briony Penn, Ann Kujundzic, and Lee Reid for The Ormsby Review.


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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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Mayfield Lake Base Camp

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