For the past year, the province of British Columbia has been working on a plan to clean up the infamous, dormant Tulsequah Chief mine and end pollution that has been flowing from it for 60 years into the Taku watershed. That plan cannot come soon enough. It’s estimated that over 400 million litres of acid mine drainage leach from the abandoned Tulsequah Chief every year.
The Taku is one of the Pacific coast’s most beautiful and biologically rich watersheds. It deserves a plan that is comprehensive, permanent and worthy of the watershed’s extraordinary ecological and cultural values.
For 14 years, I raft guided on the Taku. It was an escape to wilderness that I shared with 20 adventurous travellers at a time, and hundreds over the years. Embracing nearly two million hectares, the Taku is one of several transboundary watersheds that bridge northwest B.C. and southeast Alaska. Significantly, however, it is the largest intact river system on the Pacific coast.
I worked as a trip leader and director of operations with The River League Wilderness Rafting Expeditions, a commercial rafting company that operated more as a non-profit by facilitating access to the remote region for First Nations, researchers, government decision-makers, NGOs and media.
During the years that The River League operated on the Taku, the world vicariously experienced this magnificent transboundary watershed through the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and more, including National Geographic, which profiled it on TV, online and in its Traveler magazine.
To explore its currents is like coursing down a 250-km waterslide: Albeit gentle on its takeoff, it barely feeds one’s paddling confidence before it accelerates through twisting turns and hairpin bends. It sluices back and forth across a mile-wide plain of emerald marshlands tracked by beaver and moose. It slices through spruce and aspen valleys full of migratory birds. It careens through tight-walled canyon rapids, and cascades down a three-metre boulder-garden drop.
Eight or 10 days in, when visitors are fully recharged by the cold vigour of the river and perhaps have beaten their personal demons, the Taku broadens and slows once more, fuller with inputs of a half dozen tributaries and numerous estuarine glaciers. It is a humbling denouement to a brilliant baptism in God’s green creation, an undeveloped, undammed, unspoiled wilderness that starts deep in the shoulder of British Columbia.
In the early years, without access to satellite connection from the wilderness, we were alone with the watershed’s full-time residents — the wolves, wolverines, mountain goats, eagles, moose, black bears and, especially, grizzlies. Lower down, as we approached the estuary, we would also have the company of river otters, mink, porpoises and harbour seals.
The river terminates in Taku Inlet, less than 20 km south of Juneau, Alaska. Being home to all five wild Pacific salmon species, its world-class salmon runs support the local sport and commercial fishing industries that are integral to southeast Alaska’s and northwest B.C.’s economies. Proponents on both sides of the international border have long called on B.C.’s government to better protect this valuable water resource from pollution.
A longer, stronger voice is that of the Indigenous people for whom this land has deep cultural, spiritual and economic ties: Within B.C., the Taku is in the traditional territory of the Taku River Tlingit, a nation that has lived, fought, survived, and celebrated in this wilderness since the retreat of the last Great Ice Age. In Alaska, the Douglas Indian Association overlaps the Taku.
Three Tlingit youths became young men and river guides on the Taku River with us: Jerry and his brothers respectfully took the opportunity as a responsibility to represent their people and, in essence, to vet the rest of us to the spirits who had gone before.
After ten days of paddling some 150 miles of this traditional Tlingit highway, we would oar hard against wind and currents to access the turquoise outflow of Kwashona Falls. Cascading 1600 ft from its alpine birth to the lush rainforest floor below, there is definite power here. Historically, young Tlingit men came to let the ice water pound their bodies, transforming them into fearless warriors — warriors who proudly warded off hundreds of years of invasions by neighbouring nations and Russian fur barons of the late 18th century.
Impressive Tlingit sail-canoes are historically painted as faded red pictographs on granite cliffs hidden off back channels. Downstream, past eagle nests and mossy cut-banks, we would whisper pass the mostly overgrown form of a dead house, a small structure complete with windows. Inside were the cedar-boxed remains of a Tlingit ancestor who once hunted and fished within a community of thousands here. We wouldn’t stop to investigate. Jenny Jack, a lawyer for First Nations rights in unceded territories such as the Taku, expressed: “This is not a museum. It is the resting place for my people, demanding every respect and peace.”
In the mountains that flank the river, where ancient blue glaciers twist around towering mountain sentinels of the Pacific coast, Jerry pointed out the throat, the elbow, the shoulder of a slain giant of oral Creation Days whose body, laid as a memorial, formed the Taku Valley. Now, Jerry says, the giants sleep under the mountains.
But industrial frontierism is a giant of a different making. For too many years, the ongoing dormant-mine pollution of this irreplaceable watershed has not been a priority for government.
A plan for closure and cleanup of the mine needs to be comprehensive. It needs to take into account the shifting nature of this waterway by properly and permanently cleaning up and shutting down the mine so not one more litre of toxic mine waste makes its way into the Taku.
And it needs to happen soon.
For the sake of such an important, intact ecosystem, its traditional First Peoples, and its wildlife residents who have no easy voice, I’m calling on and counting on the B.C. government to ensure that the Tulsequah Chief mine is cleaned up and closed down for good.
In addition to raft guiding, Patricia Thomson has also worked for B.C. Parks, Parks Canada, and spent 14 years as executive director of the Stanley Park Ecology Society. She is a steering committee member with Rivers Without Borders Canada.
Read the opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun here.
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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