Finding Home

Today is the 20th anniversary of my migration west.

The mental and emotional migration west started a few years before when I contemplated running away from home as a teenager. Being a fan of both Led Zeppelin and John Muir, I called Yosemite National Park and requested some pamphlets and maps of the park (going to California with an aching…).

But I didn’t run away. Not for a few more years. And when I did it was only after I’d secured a job, not in Muir’s Sierra Nevada, but at Tom Wilson’s Lake Louise.

When I got the job I didn’t even know where the place was.

It went like this: I was studying Parks Management at Sir Sandford Fleming College and knew that I wanted to work outside, preferably in the wilds, possibly in the mountains. Somewhere. But I was in south-central Ontario, and had never been west of Wawa; what did I know from mountains?

After my first summer at SSFC I got a great job, possibly my best job ever, at a small provincial park called Murphy’s Point. It was on the Frontenac Axis which is an arm of the Canadian Shield that reaches down through the southern lowlands around Kingston, Ontario and connects New York states’ Adirondack Mountains with Algonquin. Murphy’s Point was on this spine of rocky uplands and it was magical. Sometime, when nostalgia strikes again, I’ll write more about it; suffice to say, early mornings in a canoe watching loon chicks hatch and snapping turtles patrol the shore left an indelible impression on my 20-year-old heart and soul. I fancied myself a modern Henry David Thoreau, minus the pencil business and the theodolite.

The following spring I cast my lure wide looking for more permanent employment. I sent out more than eighty applications to provincial and federal parks across Canada. I got two bites: St. Lawrence Islands National Park, just an hour from Murphy’s Point, and Banff. Some considerable distance further away.

My interview went well for the position in Banff. I had studied hard, practically memorizing everything on the Park in my college’s library. This consisted mostly of old Park Management Plans and Parks Canada policy documents. I drew heavily on my experience at Murphy’s Point during the interview and a few weeks later I was offered the most junior position possible in the Park’s interpretive service. I’d be stationed in Banff, and would work at the Parks information centre, pointing tourists to the bathroom. If I did a good job of it I might get to lead a hike or two by the end of the summer.

I was ecstatic. This was my ticket west! I continued to study for the job. My father bought me a copy of Ben Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies and it became my bible. Then, three days before I was to fly to Calgary I took a call from someone identifying themselves as Mike Kerr. He said he was my boss. He asked if I would mind working in Lake Louise instead of Banff.  I would lead hikes and do campground talks instead of telling people how to get back on the highway. I said an enthusiastic yes.

The first thing I had to do after hanging up the phone was figure out where the hell Lake Louise was.

I knew it was in Banff, but I had spent all my time studying the Hot Springs and the Cave and Basin and the history of Canada’s first National Park. I found Lake Louise on a large scale map in the Management Plan but failed to note that the TransCanada Highway ran straight to it.

I’m going to be living on a lake again, I thought. I can get up early and canoe with the loons.

How right I was.

My dad drove me to the airport at 4 a.m. on May 4th 1992 and I remember waving goodbye. And then I was gone. Doug Brown, another park interpreter, met me in Calgary. On the way out of city he asked if I wanted to stop and get something to eat. We were going to arrive in Banff just as a meeting of all the Park’s interpreters were being held at a popular picnic site outside of the town of Banff so we stopped at a Subway I bought two foot long sandwiches: I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get groceries in remote Lake Louise.

Then it was on to the mountains. I fell asleep. I recall waking somewhere around the Morley flats and being gob-smacked as the sheer face of Mount Yamnuska pressed into the sky; then I drifted off again. It would be another week before I ventured into Calgary for a training session and got to experience the Eastern Slopes rising up from the foothills in all their magnificence once more.

We arrived at Cascade Ponds and I met my fellow interps (including Joel Hagen and Nadine Fletcher, who I have remained friends with ever since.) For whatever reason I had chosen to dress in my Toronto clothing that morning: black dress shoes, fashionable jeans, a dress shirt and my impracticable oilskin coat. Everybody else sported fleece and hiking shorts. I didn’t wear those clothes until I got on the plane the following September.

I tried to stay awake as Charlie Zinkan told us about the important role we would play in presenting the park to the millions of visitors that came to Banff every year. (So important, in fact, that the following summer half of the interpretive positions in the Park were cut.)

What I was really inspired by was the luminous form of Cascade Mountain rising up behind the Superintendent. I asked my new friends about the mountain names and wondered how I would ever remember them all.

Then, at last, it was onto Lake Louise. That’s when I learned the awful truth about my new home. Two million people would visit Lake Louise that year, and all but one or two who couldn’t find their way out of the shopping mall parking lot would venture to the lake shore. Dreams of another summer in peaceful contemplation of nature were replaced with the reality of motor homes belching diesel fumes. Worst of all: someone had built a seven-story hotel where my log cabin was supposed to be.

Memories of my home on the shore of Loon Lake were dashed when I saw Charleston Residence where I would live for the next three summers; a massive log structure owned by the ski area and used in the winter to house the grunts who operate the ski lifts and work in the concessions. In the summer Parks rented a few dark rooms with ski-wax stained floors for their transient staff. It was year round party central. The upshot: I met lifelong friends Jim, Jack and Josh there.

Despite these annoyances, it was a glorious summer. It was magical. I lead hikes and did campground talks about grizzly bears. I got firsthand experience in that subject matter when I was bluff charged by a notorious female grizzly named Blondie just a few weeks after I arrived. I climbed my first mountains and took up rock climbing to overcome my fear of heights. I logged nearly a thousand kilometres on trail and off in the backcountry and up and down the Plain of Six Glaciers. I fell hopelessly, madly, bottomlessly in love with the mountains.

I struggled to square my love for the backcountry wilderness with my disdain for Lake Louise itself. The scenery was magnificent; it was the scene that drove me bonkers. People bustled for a snap-shot of the lake, or of the penitentiary-like facade of the Chateau Lake Louise, and then blasted off for the next appointed attraction. It was a zoo. It was loony. It soured my disposition and I my outlook on National Parks. From time to time it made me grumpy.

Twenty years later I don’t like it any more than I did in 1992, but age and miles have taught me some patience and compassion, and I no longer grow frustrated when I stroll into that picture-postcard scene. People come to appreciate nature in their own way, in their own time, at their own speed. Who am I to judge?

Before I had left Ontario for Banff and Lake Louise I’d secured a job for the following winter as a “sustainability consultant” at my college. The summer tourist season drew to a close and on September 4th I put on my city clothes, tucking my hiking shorts and fleece deep in my pack, and Jim drove me to the airport. I remember watching the mountains grow distant as we drove over Scott Lake Hill. I thought: I’ll be back. I’ve found home.

And I had.

For the next four summers I was employed by Parks Canada. Just before Christmas in 1996 they grew tired of my grumpiness and my relentless activism on behalf of Banff and Canada’s National Parks and told me that I wouldn’t be offered a job the following summer. I didn’t leave; not for good. I just did what everybody else who had been canned by Parks for being too pro-nature did: moved down valley and got a new job.

I’ve come and gone a great deal over the last twenty years. For more than five years I lived on the west coast. While still the “West” it never felt like Alberta, like the Eastern Slope, like home. During that time I drove back and forth dozens of times, missing the feeling of peace that the mountains provided. Having been back in the Rocks for more than a year now, I know for certain I am home once more.

There will be more coming and going. But for twenty years this place has been my heart’s true home; every day here is a gift. Every sunrise is a delight and every eventide perfect. I wake and am grateful for the blessings in my life; principal among them is the opportunity to call the Rockies home.

Now my children are coming to love the mountains as I do. When I walk with Rio and Silas in the mountains, and they take my hand or run ahead on the trail, skipping, or crouch down on the fragrant earth to admire some wonder I become dizzy with gladness. My love for this landscape is now inter-generational.

Rio, Silas and Jenn at Buller Pass, Kananaskis Country, 2011

I recall during my fourth summer based out of Lake Louise meeting a pair of horse wranglers and guides deep in the backcountry along the Red Deer River. They were towering men, more imposing from the saddle, and as we chatted one of them looked down and asked: “So, just how far east are you from.”

In a rare moment of quick wit I responded, “We can’t all be born in the place we call home.”

You might not come from the place you call home, but you can be born when you find it.

And so, I have.

1st anniversary: Stephen Harper’s war on nature

I was wrong.

One year ago I wrote a blog post in which, among other things, I advocated trying to find a way of using the ancient Chinese philosophy of “capturing whole” to minimize the damage a Stephen Harper majority government might do to the environment.

Here’s what I said:

We’re going to have to, as Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, suggests: “capture our opponent whole.” That means moving carefully to make it so our values, our vision, our passion, slowly becomes their own. We must find what they respond to – be it positive reinforcement or public accolades, as difficult as that may be to stomach – and exploit them as an opportunity to advance a progressive vision for Canada.

If we do not, we’ll find ourselves on the outside looking in, and watching all that we cherish about this beautiful nation slipping from our grasp. And we will only have ourselves to blame for its loss. Every moment in life is a choice. This choice is clear: accepting the reality of a polarized politic and gaining what we can, or raging against it, and losing it. It’s that stark a dichotomy.

Reading those words now, today, on the first anniversary of the Conservative’s majority government election victory, makes me feel both naive and foolish.

The first year of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been the worst 365 days for Canada’s environment in our nation’s history. It’s been that bad. If Stephen Harper and his Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver have their way it’s going to get a lot worse. While I still hold with the philosophy of capture whole – of defeating your opponent without a fight – I must remember one critical disclaimer from the Art of War: avoid a fight if you can. If you can’t, fight hard, and fight to win.

It’s time to fight: to fight smart, to fight clean, to fight fair, but to fight to win. What we’re fighting for is far more than we could have imagined one year ago today. We’re fighting for the soul of Canada: our National Parks, our magnificent wilderness, our wild creatures, our natural heritage: our future. That might sound like hyperbole, and maybe it is. Looking at what we’ve already lost after one year of the most neo-conservative government this country has ever seen, I believe a fair statement. Apparently my friend Tzeporah Berman thinks so as well but then, like me, she’s a radical environmentalist too.

Lets consider for a moment the damage that this government has done in 365 days. As Elizabeth May points out in her widely circulated story “How the conservatives stole the environmental protection in broad daylight,” they have waged an all out war on nature, and on those who protect it. They started by withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord, something that must have burned Prime Minister Harper’s gut during his five years in a minority government. Then they attacked environmental groups, focusing their wrath on those who were opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline, but tarring them all (pun intended) with the same brush: radicals, suckling at the teat of US based lefty-foundations.

Never mind that much of the money used to promote the whole-scale sell off of Canada’s petroleum resources, in the tar sands and everywhere else, comes from the US, Europe, and China. If you take foreign money to continue to narrow Canada’s economic development and destroy the environment, you’re a patriot; if you take money to advocate for the protection of the environment, First Nations cultures while diversifying the economy, you’re a radical, bent on destroying Canada.

Now the Conservatives want to re-write of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, making it easier for industry to win approval of mega-projects like those in the tar sands, and gut the Fisheries Act to remove the scant protections we currently have for nature. Rumour is that the Conservatives have their sights set on the Species at Risk Act, a law that is particularly close to my heart as I dedicated more than five years of my life to its passage.

Budget cuts are a convenient way to disguise the Conservative war on nature. Stephen Harper and his Ministers have cut positions that monitor and clean up oil spills, research the impacts of climate change on the arctic, and most recently, present and safeguard our national parks.

And this is only the first year.

But it’s not. Not really. Stephen Harper is the wiliest and most strategic Prime Minister Canada has seen in a generation. He’s a patient man. He waited. Five years of minority governments and he waited. It must have tried his considerable fortitude not to push ahead with his offensive, but he waited. And when he seized – stole — complete power in May of last year he was able to reshape Canada in the image crafted by the elite, far right wing of Canadian politics who funds his party.

It was almost as if the Prime Minister himself was a student of The Art of War: his war on nature could serve as a text book example of how a superior army confronts an inferior force. His opening attack, delivered by Joe Oliver, and escalated with Senate hearings and the allocation of an additional $8 million to Revenue Canada for “education” and other Orwellian indoctrinations of Canadian environmental charities, is a perfect example of how to use a strategic strike to weaken your opposition in advance of an all out assault.

If I wasn’t so livid I might almost be in awe of the man’s strategic prowess.

What to do? As I said a year ago, and I still believe, there is no time for hand wringing. Capturing whole isn’t going to work either; there is no room to “exploit an opportunity to advance a progressive vision for Canada.”

Many are already acting. Dr. David Suzuki left the board of directors of the organization that he founded a quarter century ago so he could speak with impunity. Forest Ethics, one of the most ardent and outspoken organizations in the environmental community has made the calculated move of splitting in two: one organization will continue to undertake charitable work while another will go head-to-head with those who are destroying Canada’s environment. I say power too them.

But there is more work to be done. The Conservative war on nature has just started. And while I no longer believe we can find a way to capture this enemy without a fight, we must be very careful in how we confront them. They hate us and what we stand for, and they will use every resource at their disposal to eliminate us as an opponent so that their greed and nepotism can endure.

If Stephen Harper is a smart strategist, we must be smarter. If it appears as though his Conservative government has torn a page from the Art of War and is using it against Canada’s environment and those millions of Canadians who stand to defend it, we must learn how to beat them at their own game.

Over the coming months I’m going to continue to write on this topic, and I invite you to do the same. Post a comment, write an essay, send a tweet: if we’re smart and if we work together, we can stop this war on nature in its tracks and reclaim the soul of this great country.