In the great north woods (part 8)

Day 12
I�m tired during the last stretch into Fort St. John. It's cold and the sky is overcast. It was sunny when we started, but a storm is building in the south and so we bike towards the dark gray of the storm on the horizon.
Small signs of civilization start appearing as we approach the outskirts of town. A school bus stop warning sign. Cows in a mowed field. The smell of wood smoke. I have never been so happy to see a Super 8 Motel billboard. We hit the first traffic light 10 kilometers from downtown and the Alaska Highway is joined by frontage roads cluttered with the sprawl of oil town industry.
We sleep inside for the first time in almost two weeks. Tony, from the local environmental group, has agreed to host us. It rains all night, the temperature hovering around three degrees Celsius. In the morning I wake up and wash my face with hot water and feel wonderful.
The Peace River Environmental Association, as the group is called, is trying to stop the BC government from building a hydroelectric dam across the Peace River. The Peace River Valley is already a bottleneck in the wilderness corridor that stretches between the Yukon and Canadian provincial parks further south because of its heavy agricultural use, and if the dam is built, I am told by Melody, one of the bright-eyed local activists, the resulting reservoir would only further restrict the migration of moose and other large wildlife through the valley.
Because the valley is a microclimate, the dam will also destroy an irreplaceable habitat, Melody tells me. When big storms are coming, she explains, the wildlife migrate down into the valley to stay warm, and in the spring, the south facing banks of the river are the first place the moose and other large herbivores can find fresh plant growth.
Brian, an ecologist and long-time Y2Y activist, pulls out a map and shows us how the Peace River is the only river that transects the Rockies east to west along the proposed Yellowstone to Yukon corridor. He traces the river�s path through the Rockies and north into the Mackenzie and into the Arctic Ocean. It�s strange to think of a major river flowing north, but Bryan explains that unlike in the U.S., where there are two main drainages off the Continental Divide, the rivers from the Northern Rockies drain three ways: north to the Arctic, south through the Missouri, and west through the Columbia and Skagit rivers.
They prepare us a potlatch � vegetarian and non-vegetarian chili. I have two bowls of the meat one, and comment Melody how deliciously meaty it was. She looks appalled and I quickly discover she has recently become a vegetarian for ethical reasons. I don't want to have to murder things so I can eat them, she tells me as I scrape the remains of hamburger bits from my chili bowl.
The following day the Peace River activists arrange for us to tour the Peace River. We pile into two small "riverboats" � overpowered jet skis with Teflon hulls that can coast over sandbars and skim rocks and logs in mere inches of water. Hugh and Lee, our boat pilots, are local farmers in their mid fifties, but they rooster-tail and lobster-roll like seventeen-year old boys. I cling to the front railing as we plowed through whirlpools and jumped cliffs of current.
When Hugh slowed down enough to allow me to release my white-knuckled grip from the railing, I did begin to appreciate the beauty of the river. The water had eaten away the packed sandstone sides of small islets, leaving narrow birthday-cake like slices of sandstone islets with a tree or two struggling to maintain a grip on the topsoil. All this will disappear, Hugh informs us, sunk under the placid waters of the reservoir.
The next day as we ride we see herds of cattle and fields of hay planted in the rich alluvial soil of the Peace River valley floor. It's haying season, and we pass a field of wheat that has been mowed in stripes, the gold of the tall wheat contrasting with the green of the mowed shoots. Occasionally, we pass placards nailed up in trees or attached to signposts marking the water level of the reservoir if the proposed "Site C" damn is built. The government-run hydroelectric company originally proposed the idea in the 1960s, but local opposition kept the project at bay. Now, with the rising cost of energy, BC Hydro has renewed interest in completing the project. The engineering evaluation should be completed by 2009, with construction beginning in 2011.
Opposition to the project is not universal, even in the Peace Valley. BC Hydro is one of the major employers in the area, and Hugh admits he is getting income from renting a house to a BC Hydro engineer. Later, at a presentation about our bike ride in Prince George, a reporter for the Prince George Citizen points out that hydropower is renewable power. The truth is, he says, despite the steps we�ve taken to conserve, British Columbia needs more energy. And we need it not only for our own use, but because your country, the United States, wants to buy it from us. When the choice is between building the Site C dam or surface mining in the Alberta oil sands, flooding a few miles of river valley that�s already being used for agriculture and ranching seems like the less environmentally destructive option.
Photo: Water (Isan Brant)

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