Bringing it to (Great) Bear
Filmmakers inspire with paddling trip through B.C.'s endangered wild coast
By Conor Mihell
These days, Canada is as synonymous with pipelines and Oil-sands bitumen as it once was portrayed as an untracked frontier. While the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to ship Alberta crude to Texas refineries has garnered much of the U.S. press, the Canadian government is also touting a plan to pipe raw bitumen across the Rocky Mountains to the British Columbia coast, where it will be shipped by supertanker to China. Just like Keystone debate stateside, Northern Gateway pits environmentalists and native groups against big industry and government promises of economic wealth.
Last fall, Calgary-based whitewater paddler Paul Manning-Hunter, 25, a member of Canada’s national slalom team, and longtime friends Daniel Robb, 24, and Spencer Taft, 25, spent eight days sea kayaking British Columbia’s wild Central Coast—the same convoluted, mountain-rimmed channels that could soon be plied by supertankers. The three Albertans decided to steer clear of the political debate in producing a film about the expedition. The result is a powerful short that cuts to the core of sea kayak touring and captures the beauty of coastal wilderness. [Read more about kayaking the Central Coast HERE.]
We caught up with Manning-Hunter to learn more.
CanoeKayak.com: How did a competitive whitewater paddler end up sea kayaking British Columbia’s Central Coast?
Paul Manning-Hunter: I had never been in a sea kayak before, so it was kind of out of the blue. I started [whitewater] kayaking when I was four, and in whitewater there’s definitely a bit of thinking that sea kayaking isn’t nearly as much fun, so I had never seriously considered it. But then I started getting a little tired of paddling just for the sake of competing or training for competitions. I wanted to get back to paddling for the fun of it and the adventure.
The guys I went with, Daniel Robb and Spencer Taft, have been my friends since I was four years old. Spencer is an ecology masters student and Dan is an adventurer and canoe guide on the Nahanni River. We were hanging out in Calgary and decided we should do something together—that we should do something different, something out there in the real world.
At the same time the debate about [Enbridge Corporation’s Northern Gateway pipeline, which would ship bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to a supertanker port on the B.C. coast] was in the news a lot. Both as an Albertan and someone who loves the outdoors I decided to look into it. I didn’t know anything about the area and I was totally shocked when I started researching the Great Bear Rainforest—I was shocked to learn that this is the largest temperate rainforest in the world and they might be running oil tankers through it.
We decided we were ideally suited for a trip. Dan knows how to pack and what you need for a wilderness trip, Spencer knows a lot about ecology, and I lied and said I knew everything about kayaking [laughs].
What time of year did you do the trip and where did you start?
There’s no public launch in the town of Kitimat [Enbridge’s proposed site for a port] so we drove 25 minutes to the native community of Kitimat Village. It was late-September. People definitely didn’t recommend us to go that late in the season because of the fall storms. We did an eight-day trip, out and back.
What was it like to take your first strokes in a sea kayak on B.C.’s Central Coast?
Within an hour Dan and I were sinking [laughs]—we had not packed enough neoprene hatch covers for our boats. We barely made it to shore, emptied the water and discovered that our satellite phone and tide charts were wrecked. So we were in an interesting position. We could turn right and go back to Kitimat Village, or we could go left and paddle into the middle of the Great Bear Rainforest without a sat phone or tide charts. We made the call to go left.
Can you share a few other special memories from the trip?
There were lots of little incidents. We packed so much gear because we had no idea what the weather would be like, so we actually ditched a big bag of rice while packing the boats. We weren’t starving—we could catch as much protein as we wanted with crabs and mussels—but we ran out of carbohydrates. We’d eat mussels until we were full but then 20 minutes later we were hungry again.
The overwhelming memory of the whole trip was being together as friends and sharing something so tangible. We live in three different cities and mostly communicate through Facebook. Out there it was a feeling of being together and relying on each other for safety and food, and just simply sharing an appreciation for the area. We were living in the present, as cliché as that sounds, but it’s important when so much of my life is looking to the future—whether it’s with training or at school.
Near the end of the trip, two hours from returning to Kitimat Village, all of my camera batteries had died. A pod of porpoises popped up and swam all around our boats. It was a pretty cool goodbye.
One of the film’s strongest elements is its non-political slant. You really capture the essence of a group of friends on a kayak journey along a beautiful coastline. Was this the goal heading in?
The three of us definitely have opinions on [the pipeline], but I felt that for one thing, I wanted to make a film that appealed to a wider audience. I felt I didn’t know enough about the politics to get into the sort of details that people can pick apart. The angle I took is something no one can disagree with.
Having paddled the Douglas Channel and experienced the Great Bear Rainforest first hand, do you care to take a stand on the Northern Gateway issue now?
Yes. There is no possible way to compensate for the damage an oil spill in the area will do. Even in an ideal world where those responsible do not fight tooth and nail to pay as little as possible, the culture—the actual identity—of the people who live in the area cannot be replaced. The whales, porpoises, seals, bears, salmon, cougars, wolves, won’t benefit from the pipeline yet they will be the first to suffer, meaning that we are building the pipeline on their backs. If there is an accident, which is likely given the industry’s record, how will we compensate the species we share this planet with?
As a Canadian who has traveled the world I know what others think of Canada. They think of it as a place full of beautiful wilderness and wildlife and they all dream of coming to see it and tell me how lucky I am to live here. I think that saying no to this project is an opportunity for Canadians to show that that aspect of Canada is also important to Canadians and our pristine wilderness is a product of the appreciation Canadians have for the wild and not simply a result of there not being very many of us and that we haven’t had long enough to destroy it yet.