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Skiing the Sacred Headwaters of British Columbia

Nick, Julia, Ken, John, TrevorA team of five young skiers from Colorado have set out to explore a vast stretch of backcountry in British Columbia, a place where caribou, stone sheep, and grizzlies roam.

Friends since college, the group first explored the area during a post-graduation backpacking trek, but they soon became aware of the many environmental issues facing this wilderness. 

This is the ancestral land of the Tahltan First Nations people, home to the Sacred Headwaters, which feed three of Canada's most important salmon rivers — the Stikine, the Skeena and the Nass. This pristine wilderness has sustained the Tahltan for centuries and they have united to keep their land from being exploited.

Thus far proposals for a railway, an airstrip, and a dam have all failed, and they have managed to thwart a proposal by the Ministry of Forest to greatly increase the tree harvest. In 2005, when Fortune Minerals tried to move machinery in, the locals created a physical blockade to keep them out. Their battle against Royal Dutch Shell's coal bed methane project was ferocious, resulting in many arrests. A moratorium was put into place forbidding Shell to speak with the local community, one that is set to expire at the end of 2012.

During these upheavals, the Tahltan elders released this statement, "Promise of jobs does not compensate for the loss of land, resources, and impacts on the environment and people. . . . No indigenous culture could survive the combined impact of the proposed projects. Our land, and the creatures that depend on that land, would be devastated. Our Tahltan People would be devastated."  Sacred-headwaters-watershed-map

Nick Chambers first spent a summer in the area with his friend, Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence. After bringing his friends up for the backpack trek, the group decided to return during winter for some back country skiing.

Returning to Colorado, the friends submitted an application to the Young Explorer Expedition Council at Nat Geo. and were quickly approved for their expedition, "Skiing the Sacred Headwaters." They immediately enlisted their friend Oscar Dennis, a local Tahltan living in the nearby village of Isket, along with his sled dog team to help them with their gear.

The team plans to stay through April, and aside from enjoying the ultimate ski trip, they intend to help open a trail to Black Lake for future winter recreationists, an idea suggested to them by some of the locals. "It's an old trapping line with a handful of archaeological sites. The trail has become overgrown and we were looking for a way to repay and earn our right to be here."  

But Chambers says this too is a controversial issue because Imperial Metals operates an open-pit copper and gold mine there and wants to expand. They have proposed Black Lake as a tailings pond and the B.C. government is trying to expedite it. "Black Lake is this little cobalt jewel of a lake and basically they' ll just dump heavy metals into a lake chain that feeds the rivers. There's no way that should happen."

Todagin Plateau and Klappan HighlandsAt the end of their expedition the group will join up with the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition to tour the watershed and engage in a campaign talking with local school children. While the future of this wilderness is undecided, we look forward to sharing the photos and stories while we follow these five amazing travelers.

"We hope people will learn more about what's going on up here and how cool it is.  We think it's a marvelous region that's worth paying attention to and worth saving."

--Cyndy Patrick/images courtesy of Ben Pritchett and Nick Chambers

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