Visiting a Boreal Village: Life Downstream from Tar Sands Oil

After I toured some of Alberta's tar sands oil operations last week, I traveled north to Fort Chipewyan, a small village in the Athabasca River Delta. The community is only 60 miles from tar sands central in Fort McMurray, but it seems like a world way. Except that it isn't.

It takes less than an hour to fly between the two (there is no summer road into the village, only an ice road in the winter). For the first third of the trip, I flew over active tar sands oil development. For the second third, I saw the scars of exploration as tar sands march northward--linear swaths cutting through the forest, interspersed with a checkerboard of clearings where exploration has taken place. 

But for the final third, I was relieved to see the green carpet of boreal forest largely intact--so far. And when I headed into the river delta by boat and slipped through marsh grasses, alders, and poplars, I realized I had truly entered another world.

This is the Peace-Athabasca Delta, NRDC's boreal BioGem.  All four major bird flyways in North America converge in one spot in the boreal, right here. More than 1 million birds, including tundra swans, snow geese and countless ducks, stop to rest and gather strength in these undisturbed wetlands each autumn. For many waterfowl, this area is their only nesting ground.

I could see how this winding mass of waterways, which it seemed only our Dene guides, Joe and George Marcel could navigate, provide the perfect habitat on the trip north.

Rounding a corner in our boat, we surprised a moose, which disappeared into the reeds before we got a closer look, an eagle flew overhead. Then, as dusk fell at 11:00 in this northern landscape, we watched beavers speed downriver with the current.

Back at our camp, we heard song sparrows and rose-breasted grosbeaks fly around the trees. We also listened to George and Joe, both members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, tell stories of the old settlements and the culture of trapping and fishing.

Together, we visited the cemetery of elders seemingly lost among the delta's channels, and walked an ancient trail that their forebears had hunted on for generations. The caribou moss crackled under our feet, as we passed old home sites while swatting away those giant mosquitoes that make the boreal famous.

But that old life style is threatened. And this is why the boreal solitude of Fort Chipewyan seems far too close to industrial clamor of Fort McMurray.

The Athabasca River flows north from Fort McMurray's tar sands operations into the vastness of Lake Athabasca.  Whatever gets released into the water or leaches out of the giant tailing ponds in Fort McMurray travels downstream to the lake and delta. Fish have been caught with multiple deformities, and mercury levels are well beyond the safety point.

We spoke about the unusually high rate of rare cancers in Fort Chip, and of the lack of opportunity for local young people. George spent years as a welder in the tar sands, and Joe travels 100 miles east to work as a fishing guide. 

And yet their culture retains its strong bond.  Over 100 of George and Joe's friends and relatives will gather from near and far next weekend to celebrate a wedding at the site of their settlement Jackfish, down those braided channels that only they can navigate.

NRDC's BioGems campaign will continue its vigilance to protect the biodiversity and ancient cultures that the boreal forest nurtures. We are calling for a moratorium on new tar sands oil projects in the boreal and encouraging a switch to cleaner forms of energy production that would reduce global warming and protect North America's last great forest.

Click here to join these efforts and to tell Canadian officials to protect wild landscapes throughout the boreal forest.