The votes are in for the Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia's annual list of endangered waterways, and at the top are the headwaters of the Stikine, Spatsizi and Skeena rivers—world-renown whitewater and canoe-tripping destinations. The alpine plateau in northern B.C. that's known as the "Sacred Headwaters" could become the site of a massive natural gas development in 2011. Currently, oil and gas giant Shell Canada is poised to develop a 990,000-acre coalbed methane deposit; a government-issued moratorium on such developments is set to expire this December.

Northern B.C. is a wild frontier for paddlers. The 45-mile-long, Class V-plus Grand Canyon of the Stikine River has become a rite of passage for whitewater boaters since it was first run by Rob Lesser, Lars Holbeck and Bob McDougal in 1985. Meanwhile, Archer says the Stikine, Spatsizi and Skeena all offer superlative wilderness canoe tripping with great opportunities for hiking and wildlife viewing. The area has been called the "Canadian Serengeti" for its rich array of wildlife, including healthy populations of grizzly bears, mountain caribou, stone sheep and wolves.

"The Spatsizi, Skeena and Stikine are the classic northern B.C. paddling trips," says Laurel Archer, canoe guide who's set to release her second guidebook to B.C. canoe routes. "People in Europe and the U.S. probably know more about these rivers than most Canadians."

If Shell gets the go-ahead "a maze of wellheads, roads and pipelines" would spread across the area, threatening to contaminate the sources of these rivers with wastewater, salts and heavy metals, says Mark Angelo, the Rivers Chair of the B.C. Outdoor Recreation Council. Besides compromising the wilderness and diverse terrestrial biology of Sacred Headwaters rivers, the development might also impact salmon spawning grounds—critical to the success of both B.C.'s and Alaska's fishing industry.

So far, Archer says the ongoing campaign to protect the Sacred Headwaters is an "inspiring success story." Locals, paddlers and conservationists from around the world first rallied to protect the Stikine's Grand Canyon from hydroelectric development in the 1980s, resulting in the creation in a patchwork of protected areas. Although natural gas exploration has occurred in the region for years, Archer says powerful grassroots coalitions have been key in preventing full-on development. Now the push is to permanently outlaw mining in the area. "When I first went up there it felt like a war zone," says Archer. "Most of the locals realize that this place is too special to be lost and they've fought long and hard. There are beautiful alpine peaks and wild rivers…it is truly magical."

The Sacred Headwaters region tied for top honors on the Endangered Rivers list with the Kettle River, a smaller waterway in southern B.C. that flows into Washington and provides critical salmon habitat, which is threatened by water removal projects.
Conor Mihell