By Katie McKy
For most of his life, Chris Cooper has paddled big canoes for pleasure, from the Shetland Islands to the Isle of Skye in Scotland to his beloved British Columbia coast. However, this summer, Stewart and his comrades are paddling from Vancouver to the Alaskan border for the purpose of protecting, via raising awareness, their coastline and its pristine paddling. Canada is considering allowing Enbridge to build the 1,172 kilometer Northern Gateway Pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to Kitimat, BC. From there, 250 oil supertankers would annually twist through the Douglas Channel to reach the open sea and then Asia. It's a stretch that has sunk many ships. The challenge isn't just the many 90-degree turns, shoals, islands, and reefs.
"I was speaking with a First Nations elder and they are greatly concerned by the weather,” Cooper says. It's almost 100 miles from Kitimat to the open sea and huge winds occur, from 80 to 100 knots. Ships get sunk along here, including our BC ferry, which is still leaking oil. The sinkings happen quite frequently."
In the tradition of paddling conservationists, Cooper and his crew want to educate their fellow Canadians about the beauty and fragility of the B.C. coast by documenting their trip, through filming, blogging, and newspaper coverage. The area is particularly important to the 25 First Nations that rely on the British Columbia coastline for their sustenance and culture. It would also impact the killer and humpback whales, grizzly bears, wolves, eagles, and sea lions. Enbridge has a history of pipeline leaks, including spills in Michigan, Wisconsin and the Gulf of Mexico since 2010.
Cooper's canoe, named Chief of the River and custom built by Western Canoe and Kayaking, is fiberglass, 42' long, and weighs a hefty ton. It's equipped with two outriggers, which are Delta kayaks that double as dinghies and filming platforms. Painted green and white by Brandon Gabriel of the Kwantlen Nation in a traditional motif, the canoe also carries a sailing rig.
"She can sail at 3-8 knots with 100 square feet of sail,” Cooper says. “She's a beautiful boat. People are quite stunned when they see us."
Although the Chief of the River can scoot under sail, she is paddled 90 percent of the time and won't be the only big canoe on the coastline. Cooper's team has just arrived in Bella Bella, where it will rendezvous with as many as 100 other big canoes.
Their expedition, called Spirit of the Coast, is floated by generosity.
"We've been blessed by the number of people who've helped. People are rallying to us because we're traveling in the old ways, what is called the Grandfathers' Journey. More than anything else, it's about educating our Canadian people about our coastline and what's at risk."
Follow their journey at http://www.spiritdancercanoejourneys.ca/