GRIZZLY WIDE PASS — No one knows for sure when humans first discovered this impossible place.
Perhaps it happened on a warm summer evening like this one, an awe-struck group of backcountry travellers watching the mountain goats brave an amphitheatre of sheer rock atop southeastern B.C.’s Flathead Valley.
Then one billy goat breaks from the herd and adopts a methodical track along a barely perceptible switchback rising to the top of a hanging valley. Watching from a distance, you can almost sense the laboured breathing as he follows the receding alpenglow ever upwards to the clouds.
He approaches a final exposed rim below 2,982-metre Long Knife Peak and pauses while the winds tear at the last of his shaggy winter hair. And with a final grunt, he shoulders into the rock face and melts completely from sight.
The man who has led us here, Harvey Locke, first heard of this place from Andy Russell, the legendary guide-outfitter whose territory encompassed this remote region of the Rocky Mountains.
“It’s the width of a grizzly,” says the former Calgary lawyer who’s become one of North America’s foremost conservationists. “If Andy Russell hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have believed it was here.”
NARROW CRACK IN THE ROCK
The next morning, not to be outdone, our group of nine hikers follows the same rocky zig-zag path up the hanging valley, passing rock walls painted with yellow and orange lichen.
Russell described his own ascent thus in the best-seller Grizzly Country: “The ledge was littered with goat sign, and in one spot we found the week-old track of grizzly. At the top of the rim we squeezed through a narrow crack in the rock and came out on another broad ledge overlooking a vast sweep of country beyond.”
Russell would be impressed with my hiking company this day: Pat Morrow, the mountaineering superstar from Invermere in B.C.’s East Kootenays who, in 1986, became the first person to hike the tallest peak on seven continents.
Morrow’s major expedition days are behind him. At 56, he suffers from a bulged disk in his back and requires help to haul the bulk of his gear, including a video camera, on our four-day hike through the contentious Flathead.
Still, he seems to levitate up the mountain, arms behind his back as though strolling through VanDusen gardens.
As we approach Grizzly Wide Pass, Morrow is first to proceed through and be staggered by the beauty.
“Whoa,” exclaims the explorer who has seen much and is not easily impressed. “This is world-class.”
A SWEEPING VIEW
Pulling myself up onto the final rock slab and inching closer to an expected abyss, I am rewarded by sweeping views of Montana’s Glacier National Park. Mount Cleveland, tallest in the park at 3,190 metres, is visible in the distance, and a strange glacially scoured rock feature known as a nunatak in the foreground.
The closest thing to an international boundary marker is a remnant patch of snow laced with fresh wolverine tracks directly below me. Not much farther away, two mule deer bucks take shade beneath a rock overhang. And the warning cries of hoary marmots pierce the thin mountain air as a golden eagle patrols overhead.
One member of our hiking group, Joe Riis, sets up a remote camera on the rocks overlooking the pass to capture goats, grizzlies, or anything else that might pass through. “I guess I’m getting known for this remote stuff,” says the Wyoming photographer, who freelances to National Geographic and is next off to capture B.C.’s spirit bears for the BBC.
Grizzly Wide Pass (Locke allows he might have created the name rather than obtained it directly from Russell) is so spectacular that nature artist and Order of Canada recipient Clarence Tillenius came here in July 1961.
To this day, his painting is part of a grizzly diorama on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
Over the years, Russell gave up the gun for the camera and became a champion for the iconic omnivore and its imperilled habitat. He even suggested this quadrant of B.C. become a national park, taking its place alongside Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park, visible to the immediate east in Alberta.
Russell, who died in 2005 at age 89, was neither the first nor the last to issue a conservation clarion call for B.C.’s Flathead Valley. Locke notes that the legendary John George (Kootenai) Brown, first superintendent of Waterton park, touted the idea of an expanded park to serve as a wildlife “breeding ground” in 1911.
A century of failed lobbying and planning processes later, a coalition of conservation groups from the U.S. and Canada (with funding from U.S. foundations, largely based in Seattle) continues to campaign for national park status for much of B.C.’s Flathead Valley and an end to contentious natural resource projects.
They describe the convergence of the Flathead, Waterton, and Glacier as the Crown of the Continent, its various streams making their way to the Pacific Ocean, Hudson Bay, and Gulf of Mexico.
1,000 VASCULAR PLANTS
The Precambrian rocks here are the oldest in the Canadian Rockies at more than one billion years old; sedimentary layers contain fossils of stromatolites, single-celled algae that represents the earliest life forms on Earth.
The Flathead region is also home to more than 1,000 vascular (stemmed) plants, a dazzling summer array that reflects prairie, Pacific, and even boreal influences.
Harvey points along the route to Labrador tea, a plant near the south end of its range, and sky pilot at its northern limit. “In the Flathead, the rules don’t apply,” he asserts.
B.C.’s Flathead River is known to Americans as the north fork of the Flathead River, which is designated a National Wild and Scenic River, its undammed waters eventually flowing to the Columbia River.
A report by the U.S. Wildlife Conservation Society in 2001 described the Flathead as perhaps the “single most important basin for carnivores in the Rocky Mountains.” Because wolves, grizzlies, wolverines, marten, and lynx move across the international border, this is a “landscape that must be managed as one integral, ecological unit.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior reported in 2008 the Flathead “hosts one of the most diverse and unique native aquatic ecosystems throughout North America,” including B.C. spawning habitat of the threatened bull trout.
Not surprisingly, proposals over the years for open-pit coal mining and coal-bed methane exploration in B.C.’s Flathead Valley have generated concerns on both sides of the border, including from American senators in Montana, about the impact on world-class wildlife ecosystems and on water quality downstream.
The Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. named the Flathead the province’s most endangered river in 2009, while American Rivers rated the U.S. side of the Flathead the fifth most endangered.
That kind of publicity can have a chilling effect on industry.
BP (British Petroleum) announced in February 2008 it is not proceeding with plans for coal-bed methane exploration in the Flathead. And the provincial-federal environmental process for Cline Mining Corporation’s proposed coal mine in the Flathead headwaters is stalled.
Still, conservationists consider these only temporary victories in light of provincial land-use plans that still permit resource extraction.
Their campaign is pushing for 45,000 hectares, including the Flathead River east to the continental divide at Waterton Lakes National Park, to be folded into Waterton.
Another 300,000 hectares west of the Flathead River and north to Banff National Park would be declared a provincial wildlife management area. Such a designation would allow connectivity to other protected areas to the north and would allow logging, hunting, and all-terrain vehicles respectful of wildlife values.
Mining, coal-bed methane, or oil-and-gas extraction would be allowed, but not in the Flathead.
Conservationists claim to have the public on their side, citing a 2008 poll that found seven out of 10 Kootenay residents supported a national park in the Flathead.
But some powerful opposition remains.
Kootenay East Liberal MLA Bill Bennett resigned as mines minister in February 2007 over an e-mail sent to Maarten Hart, a veterinarian and president of the Fernie Rod and Gun Club who had complained about the government giving hunting allocations to guide-outfitters at the expense of residents.
“It is my understanding that you are an American, so I don’t give a s— what your opinion is on Canada or Canadian residents,” Bennett wrote.
“As someone who has spent the past six years working my ass off for my constituents, I am not about to take that kind of bulls— from someone who, for all I know, is up here as an American spy who is actually interested in helping the U.S. create a park in the Flathead.”
FORCES NOT JOINED
While hunting and conservation groups have joined forces in several areas of the province, including the Northern Rockies near Fort St. John, on conservation issues, not so in the Flathead.
The B.C. Wildlife Federation, boasting it represents 35,000 hunters and anglers either through individual or club memberships, argues a national park in the Flathead is “completely unnecessary and will only detract from the use, enjoyment and economic benefits of this region to the British Columbian economy.”
The federation adds: “Montana politicians must also respect that the Canadian Flathead is B.C.’s jurisdiction and that within Canada’s acknowledged international obligation to steward waterways upstream from the U.S., we will manage the Canadian Flathead in accordance with responsible British Columbia standards and policies.”
Locke explains that politics makes for some important differences in the shared Flathead ecosystem.
Animals are protected in Waterton and Glacier, but vulnerable to legal hunting should they cross into B.C.
Grizzly Wide Pass is actually located within 10,921-hectare Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park, a wilderness open to hunting.
The Ministry of Environment says that hunters killed the following game animals in the Flathead in 2007: 62 white-tailed deer, 35 elk, 15 mountain goats, 14 moose, eight mule deer, six black bear, one bighorn sheep, and one grizzly.
Harvey says it is B.C.’s “dirty little secret” that hunting is widespread in provincial parks despite the fact that only about two per cent of British Columbians are licensed hunters.
TIMBER CUTTING ALLOWED
Locke, who is conservation vice-president of The Wild Foundation based in Colorado, also notes that the boundaries of Akamina-Kishinena were drawn by the province to allow timber cutting in lower-elevation Akamina Creek.
And he argues that B.C. Parks is so short of cash that there is almost no on-the-ground management or enforcement of hunting activities.
Our hike up Grizzly Gulch Creek to Starvation Pass and ultimately Grizzly Wide Pass had no signage and parts of the trail were plugged with fallen trees.
“The deadfall takes the edge off the trip,” confirmed Alberta backcountry horseman Ross Taylor, whose party of two was the only one encountered during our hiking trip about 100 km south of Fernie.
The debate over the future of the Flathead continues to gain steam and international recognition.
At a June meeting in Seville, Spain, the 21-member world heritage committee of the United National Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (including Canada) voted unanimously to send a mission to “evaluate and provide recommendations on the requirement for ensuring the protection” of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The park was established in 1932 and became a 457,614-hectare UNESCO world heritage site in 1995.
“Protecting this valley is not a loss for B.C.,” argues Montana-based Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association, who attended Seville with Fernie’s Ryland Nelson of Wildsight to lobby for a successful vote. “It’s an area we are fortunate to share. Let’s work towards that.”
The official position of Parks Canada is that B.C.’s Flathead remains an “area of interest,” but that a national park feasibility study cannot proceed without support from both the B.C. government and aboriginals.
The Ktunaxa first nation, whose B.C. bands are spread between the Invermere and Cranbrook areas, has agreed to the study, but so far the B.C. government is not budging.
Or talking, it would seem.
Bennett did not respond to The Sun’s request for an interview. Nor did the the ministry of intergovernmental relations, which has the lead on the Flathead issue.
Locke remains optimistic. He prefers to think that the B.C. government is being “reflective rather than uncommunicative” and that it is weighing its options for the transboundary Flathead as the conservation groundswell spreads