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Photo of goats in the Muskwa-Kechika
The Fight for Canada's Muskwa- Kechika

by Rick Bass

First Nations tribes, environmentalists, politicians, and industry came together -- in peace, for once -- to protect 15.5 million acres of spectacular wilderness in the northern Rockies. But now the deal is starting to unravel.

It's September, gold aspen leaves are howling past in the north wind, and elk are screaming all around us. Up here in northern British Columbia -- near the end of the forested world, in the last of the stony mountains -- the hunting guide Ross Peck and I are riding horses upriver toward those near and jagged final peaks. We have come not to hunt, but rather to bear witness to an experiment that is, for Peck, the gamble of a lifetime, with both his business and his beloved homeland at stake.

Photo of a bearMost folks don't even know the country's up here, a wooded, mountainous landscape almost the size of Ireland, with breathtaking summits in excess of 10,000 feet, and with more stunning wildlife -- wolves, grizzlies, Stone sheep, eagles, and vast herds of elk -- than anywhere else in North America. There are only a few small roads and only one major road (the Alaska Highway) cutting across the northeast corner of this still-pristine wilderness near where Alberta, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories begin to come together, and where the Rockies get bigger and wilder the closer you get to the North Pole.

Peck, a taciturn man, lets the vast silent spaces of the north remain vast and silent. Some questions he just flat doesn't answer, while others he cogitates on for long periods -- 10 or 20 minutes, or even an hour or three -- before answering. When I ask him how cold it gets in this country, his first answer is the short version -- "as cold as it wants to" -- though later he will send me the following description: "In late January this year it was down to -40 C. Across the north, this week we have a chinook on the east slope and it went to 10 C this week," and so on, helpfully.

Peck is a hunter, which is not to say he couldn't be considered an environmentalist -- but in his passion for this wildest of lands, he has allowed himself to get mixed up with some bona fide environmentalists, and with some geologists, too, as well as other hunting guides and outfitters, and First Nations people. He began going to meetings and conferences, years and years' worth, entering vast wildernesses of concrete, with the future of this land, the Muskwa-Kechika (named for the Muskwa and Kechika watersheds), as unknowable and unmappable as the deepest, ancient ocean-turned-to-stone or the darkest, farthest forest above.

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Rick Bass is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including most recently, The Hermit's Story. He lives in the Yaak Valley of Montana with his wife and two daughters.

Photos: Gunter Marx
Map: Tony Morse

OnEarth. Spring 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council