Muskwa-Kechika: The Wild Heart of Canada's Northern Rockies (Peace PhotoGraphics, 2004)

The wildlife population in the Muskwa-Kechika region is more abundant than any other similar-sized area in B.C. An estimated 4,000 caribou, 13,000 elk, 18,000 moose and 5,000 Stone's sheep roam in this 'Serengeti of the North.'

The only plains bison in B.C. live there, too. Other species include grizzly and black bears (3,500), as well as coyotes, wolves, wolverines, cougars and fur-bearers such as squirrel, mink, weasel, marten, lynx and beaver.

So maybe it's a good thing you've never heard of it. Maybe you don't really need to know that the Muskwa-Kechika has 50 roadless watersheds and it's named after two of northern B.C.'s largest river systems. You can get to the Serengeti almost as easily. It's about as far away from the Lower Mainland as you can get and still remain inside the province (although a drive along the Alaska Highway cuts across one corner).

Growing up near Chetwynd in a logging family, Wayne Sawchuk listened to his father's hunting and trapping stories about the Muskwa-Kechika wilderness but he never went there until 1985 when he spent three months exploring its secrets on horseback.

"Traversing some of the wildest backcountry in the world,"; he writes in Muskwa-Kechika: The Wild Heart of Canada's Northern Rockies (Peace PhotoGraphics $59.95), "I couldn't escape the jarring contrast between the scarred and roaded industrial landscapes where my family worked, and the wildlife rich, pristine wilderness I visited in the all too short northern summers.";

Sawchuk eventually got out of the logging business to work his own trapline on the Gataga River. Living and working in the northern Rockies, he started to pull together like-minded northerners-First Nations, guides, hunters, trappers, naturalists and conservationists-to join forces with George Smith of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society to preserve the Muskwa-Kechika.

These weren't exactly urban tree-huggers. They were wolverine-huggers. The end result has been the birth of the Northern Rockies-Totally Wild campaign.

Soon Sawchuk and his partner Marce Fofonoff were saddling up policy makers, scientists and others for lengthy excursions into the wilderness. He says he loved to watch the veneer drop from people on these journeys. In the early '90s many people from this informal network joined the roundtable planning process. Locals working for some local solutions. Forest companies, conservationists, commercial recreation operators, oil & gas interests and First Nations (who attended as observers) pounded the table, negotiated and finally came up with a new model for wilderness management.

Government legislation confirmed what is now the province's largest protected area (16 parks and protected areas), surrounded by Special Management Zones for "sensitive and temporary resource extraction."; The theory is that industry is required to return the land to its natural state. An advisory board now acts as steward, and Sawchuk is part of that board. "It's much like Banff and Jasper,"; he says, "but without the roads and without the people.";

Sawchuk has carried a camera with him for the past 20 years. His book Muskwa-Kechika: The Wild Heart of Canada's Northern Rockies chronicles how all this came about. "People need to understand what's out there on the ground. Nothing equals a good photograph."; His images capture a wild essence in inspired ways. Fresh wolf prints glisten in a muddy medium. Achingly beautiful East Tuchodi Lake is half-shrouded in mist. Hoodoos in the Wokkpash Valley disappear on the horizon.

There's enough wildlife to fill an ark many times over. This bounty of species and grand scale of landscape defies comprehension. When asked for a favourite photo, Sawchuk points to a more personal shot: a picture of his partner Marce. She's seated on a hillside in the changing colours of fall. "The little colt is beside her and she has her hand on the neck of that colt. You can just feel the smooth warmth of the neck, and that for me sums up a lot of the travel in the Muskwa-Kechika, and the feeling of that bond between person and animal-and on a broader level the bond with the landscape.";

Sawchuk is cautiously optimistic about the future, but of course there are some potential problems. "In the mountains west of the Gataga, we pass huge red scars on the mountainsides, natural 'kill zones' advertising lead zinc deposits. The land use plans (to which the mining sector did not agree) and the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area Act recognize that mining may exploit such deposits in the future, if wilderness, wildlife and habitat can be maintained. This could be a tall order in these pristine and trackless mountains.";

As well, a road corridor has been approved for Graham-Laurier Park; techniques being used on some natural gas projects have damaged the ecosystem; and there's been backtracking on funds for conservation science. The Muskwa-Kechika Management Area Act is an experiment in progress. "We owe it to future generations to do everything in our power to make sure it does not fail,"; says Sawchuk.


-Mark Forsythe

[BCBW Summer 2004]