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On the banks of the Kitlope River

Ecotrust's creation story begins on the banks of the Kitlope and in partnership with the Haisla First Nation — a people living in of one of the last pristine rain forest watersheds in the world.

Editor’s Note: On March 31, 2015, Ecotrust founder and chairman Spencer B. Beebe will receive The National Audubon Society’s Dan W. Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership at the annual Audubon Gala Dinner in New York. In celebration of Spencer’s 40 years of work to redefine the environmental movement, we are running weekly excerpts from his 2010 memoir Cache: Creating Natural Economies. These posts represent pivotal points in Spencer’s journey to build economies that restore nature and invest in people. And they are five moments that made Ecotrust.

By Spencer B. Beebe

The floatplane pilot was eager to push off from the mouth of the Tsaytis River. The tide was falling fast and it was unknown territory for him. He’d dropped four of us off in this big, wild estuary strewn with huge logs, a fast blue-gray stream, and sandy beach covered with grizzly tracks and tormented willow. Coho salmon were running.

A granite slope shoots up from the milky blue waters of Gardner Canal in the Kitlope.

It was August 1990. The roar of the de Havilland nine-cylinder Beaver’s radial engine echoed off high canyon walls as the float plane stepped up, the white wake grew smaller, the floats broke the tension of the water, throttle and prop backed off to a quieter pace, we watched our only connection to civilization gradually vanish down channel.

Silence.

Then the sound of the stream running fast over granite boulders, underwater clinking of rocks, and scratching of glacial sand being carried to sea.

The four of us were all new to each other — three volunteers from the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and myself. We were there to get a look around the place. In surveying rain forests worldwide, Conservation international discovered that the Kitlope was the largest intact virgin rainforest watershed in the world. The bad news was that logging company West Fraser had a lease from the Canadian government to cut it all. In looking for local partners to help explore it, I’d enlisted the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, who had sent along my three companions as representatives. We were here to meet with a group of local leaders from the Haisla First Nation about mounting a grassroots campaign, but they couldn’t meet us for three days, boating in from Kitamaat Village, 80 kilometers down the fjord. The four of us had decided to fly in anyhow and enjoy ourselves on a restful camping trip.

The volunteers consisted of two bewildered-looking young men, one brandishing a rusty German Luger to fend off the bears, and a brave young woman photographer from Vancouver. They’d said they would bring the food for five days’ camping. All I could see was a cardboard box with a couple of loaves of bread, tuna fish, peanuts, and crackers. Looked marginal. At least I’d brought my own camping gear and fly rod.

A still, blue-green river winds through high forested mountains
Tezwa River, a major tributary to Kitlope Lake on a rare clear day in August.

I pitched a tent on a high bank under old-growth spruce six feet in diameter and 250 feet tall. Blueberries and salmon berries were abundant and ripe. In the low spots there was seven-foot-tall devil’s club with their painful thorns; best to steer clear of them. Bears had left trails winding along the high bank, but they should be little danger to us. My companions preferred the open sand bar near a willow patch that looked to  them less like home to the bears.

About midnight of the first night I awoke to some frantic shouting and flashlights searching the sky. One of the threesome woke up to the gurgling of water and pointed a flashlight out the tent door in time to see one shoe and a cardboard box with our scarce supplies floating past on an outgoing tide. The next hour we spent carrying tents and sleeping bags and what food had survived through chest-deep water out of the 17-foot tidal zone to high-bank forest.

Two men stand on a boat looking out at a river and the mountains beyond

Coho were moving up the river and I was having a good time fly-fishing and bird-watching in the estuary and forests. But by the third day, our bedraggled crew was beginning to wonder if our alleged Haisla saviors were going to show up. At the appointed hour on a warm sunny afternoon, however, our first sign of human life appeared down channel. A small aluminum jet boat drove up the estuary, then up the mouth of the Kitlope River, with three Haisla Indians surveying their unlikely guests. John, the Luger-toting geologist, came running down the beach in his boxer shorts waving desperately. We later learned that Charlie Shaw, the jokester among the Haisla, had mischievously told the crew to “keep going,” which they did just long enough for John to go nearly apoplectic.

Our “saviors” were Cecil Paul, a hereditary elder, Charlie Shaw, councilor, and Gerald Amos, elected chief of the Kitamaat Village Council of the Haisla First Nation. When we’d learned about the importance of the Kitlope, we’d asked around about what local people we could call. We’d been directed to the office of the Kitamaat Village Council, where Gerald was serving his second consecutive term as elected Chief Councilor. Just a week before I reached Gerald on the telephone, Cecil, who had been born in the Kitlope, walked into Gerald’s office, his pockets stuffed with red ribbons.

Cecil had just returned from the Kitlope, his boat at full throttle all the way down the 80 kilometers of Gardner Canal that separated the Kitlope from Kitamaat Village, where the Haisla now lived. Cecil had found the ribbons lining the valley floor, marking out the road that West Fraser planned to build so they could log the ancient spruce and cedar that had been untouched for eons, except for bark taken for medicine, planks for houses, and the occasional canoe tree. “They’re going to log our valley,” Cecil said, “How are we going to stop them?”