By Conor Mihell

Like the wicked sou’easters that pummel the Inside Passage all winter long, a storm is brewing on the northern coast of British Columbia that could threaten a paddler’s paradise and a pristine node of biological diversity. Canadian environmental assessment hearings began in January for Enbridge’s proposed 700-mile pipeline route from northern Alberta to the small coastal B.C. town of Kitimat, which would pump 525,000 barrels of sludge-like bitumen across the Rocky and Coast Range mountains and into the fragile Great Bear Rainforest. From there, about 220 Empire State Building-sized supertankers would navigate the convoluted waters of the Douglas Channel each year before striking off across the Pacific to Asia.

Read more on paddling B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest from our March 2010 feature HERE

Paddlers Norm Hann and Frank Wolf know the area first-hand. In two separate yet equally ambitious projects in the spring and summer of 2010, Hann and Wolf ground-truthed the pipeline and tanker route using muscle power alone. Hann, a resident of Squamish, B.C., cranked out 40-mile days and weathered occasional bouts of eight-foot seas on a 250-mile journey by standup paddleboard from Kitimat to the native community of Hartley Bay and along the island-pocked coast south to the remote town of Bella Bella. He met with coastal First Nations to learn first-hand how supertankers each carrying eight times the volume of the Exxon Valdez would affect their traditional way of life, visited whale researchers, and landed at age-old pictograph, petroglyph and burial sites.

“Spill or no spill, these places will change,” says Brian Huntington, a photographer who joined Hann in producing the documentary, Standup 4 Great Bear. “Many of them won’t survive just because of the presence of supertankers.”

North Vancouver filmmaker Wolf and his friend, Todd McGowan, began their 53-day epic far from the coast in Edmonton, Alberta. The pair biked 250 miles into the heart of the Tar Sands and then followed the exact GPS course of the pipeline by foot, mountain bike and packraft to the coast at Kitimat. Wolf and McGowan crossed 773 waterways including the headwaters of the massive Skeena and Fraser rivers and ventured into some of the wildest terrain in North America, just as another Enbridge pipeline spilled 19,500 barrels of Canadian bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, precipitating a $700 million cleanup project that continues today. Upon reaching the coast they sea kayaked the Douglas Channel, camping in the mossy forest and on rocky points.

The Great Bear Rainforest is home to the famous Kermode or “spirit” bear, a white-coated subspecies of the common black bear that’s only found in this portion of the B.C. coast. “It’s a beautiful place to paddle,” says Wolf. “There’s old growth, lots of whales, seals, easy fishing, spirit bears and wild wolves on the coast.”

Officials in the Canadian government would do well to watch Wolf’s On the Line documentary, which is set to air on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Documentary channel in March. Since President Obama shelved the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas, Ottawa has been a vocal supporter of finding new markets for Canadian oil in Asia. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has blackballed “wealthy socialists” like Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom have spoken out against the Northern Gateway under the banner of Washington, D.C.’s Natural Resources Defense Council, in the media. Similarly, natural resources minister Joe Oliver stated in an open letter to Canadians that “environmental and other radical groups” are hijacking the permitting process and threatening Canada’s economy. Other supporters of Enbridge’s $5.5 billion plan include global energy giants including France’s Total SA and China’s Sinopec.

Besides adding another nail in the coffin of efforts to abate global climate change and expedite the transition to cleaner sources energy, Hann and Wolf got to see what’s immediately in the line of fire: Wild mountains, rivers and coastline, a rich array of wildlife and proud communities clinging to traditional, sustainable economies. Along the proposed pipeline and tanker route they met with members of the 130 first nations that oppose it. While the Canadian government is hawking its oil to the world, it’s clear that thousands of concerned citizens are digging in their heels for an epic environmental battle.

“Everything here is at stake,” says Ian MacAllister, the director of Pacific Wild, a non-profit conservation group on B.C.’s central coast. “First nations culture, whales, salmon, spirit bears and so much more.”

Watch the documentaries:

Norm Hann’s Standup4GreatBear:


Frank Wolf’s On The Line:

— More on Frank Wolf and his paddling adventures, and more on the basics of making documentary films.