Nate Matthews
Clinging to a lichen-spackled knuckle of Northwest Territories granite, I wedge my left boot into a crack in the rock and test the hold. The ducks are wheeling around a ridge of stone and aspen so quickly that there’s little time to swing the gun. I need another few feet of landscape before the scaup, scoters, and common goldeneyes – “whistlers” to the Dene natives – streak out of range. It’s a crazy duck blind, but this is crazy duck hunting. I feel as though I should be glassing Dall sheep, not gunning for waterfowl. From my makeshift rock blind on a channel, water slices through an archipelago of islands cloaked with spruce, their cliffs reflected in deep water. A mile away, white haystacks pile up where wind-driven waves explode over the reefs of Great Slave Lake. A dozen decoys float between me and my two hunting companions. They’re all it takes to draw the attention of ducks that have never seen a plastic bird. Nate Matthews
With the wind behind them, diving ducks, sea ducks, and puddlers bank around the rocky corner with blistering speed. I bring the gun up just in time to lose their gray-black forms against a shady granite wall 50 yards across the channel, then pick them up again when sunlight flashes on white wing patches. We unleash ringing volleys, but few birds fall. Instead, whoops and hollers of admiration echo against the cliffs, the water, and the endless sky. “Have you ever seen ducks fly so fast?” Fritz Reid yells, shaking his head. “Those birds were doing 50 miles per hour, easy.” Nate Matthews
He should know. As director of conservation planning for the western field office of Ducks Unlimited, Reid sees more ducks in a season than many hunters will see in a lifetime. My other hunting companion is no newcomer to waterfowl, either. Gary Stewart is a biologist and consultant to the Pew Environment Group, working to build awareness about the future of Canada’s vast northern forests. As it turns out, our expedition is no mere buddy trip. Stewart and Reid are trying to convince me that average American sportsmen – bass and trout anglers socking away spare change for a trophy pike trip, deer hunters with caribou dreams – are a critical factor in the future of North America’s greatest remaining wilderness. Their strategy: to take me duck hunting on Great Slave Lake and, in a few days, lake trout fishing on Lake Athabasca, and then let me judge for myself if this is a place worth protecting. Nate Matthews
It’s not a hard sell. Great Slave Lake is massive, the 10th largest lake in the world, and forms part of the headwaters of the Mackenzie River. It lies smack in the middle of Canada’s boreal forest, a 1.4-billion-acre swath of woods and waters that mantles northern North America like a green crown, from Newfoundland all the way to the Yukon. “The boreal,” as it is known, is one of the planet’s last healthy and whole landscapes. It holds a quarter of the planet’s intact forests and freshwater resources. No surprise, then, that the region is critical to a vast array of wildlife. All five herds of barren-ground caribou use the boreal, as do some of the world’s largest populations of grizzly bears, wolves, and woodland caribou. Dall sheep and mountain goats clatter across the ramparts rising above the Mackenzie. The world’s best trophy pike, lake trout, and walleye fishing are here. There are brook trout rivers where the fish top 9 pounds. And a feathered storm of 3 billion to 5 billion birds flies out of the boreal every year, including some 40 percent of North Amer¿ica’s waterfowl. For hunters and anglers, Canada’s boreal forest – the size of four Alaskas – is an irreplaceable trove of some of the most sought after outdoor experiences. “It’s North America’s Amazon,” says Stewart. “And for now, it’s enormously wild.” Nate Matthews
For now. Canada’s boreal region is facing an unfettered rush for oil, gas, timber, uranium, diamonds, gold, and hydroelectric power, and it is transforming this landscape in an astonishingly brief span of time. Canada’s oil reserves are second in the world only to Saudi Arabia’s, but much is locked up in “tar sands,” a subsurface slurry of clay and oil. In the tar-sands region of northern Alberta, planned pit mines would clear-cut, drain, and strip-mine nearly 1,200 square miles of boreal forest. Another 53,000 square miles could be gridded with roads, pipelines, well pads, and 37,000 miles of seismic lines, cleared paths where explosive charges are used during oil and gas prospecting. To help fire up the factories required to turn tar sands into crude oil – and to help feed U.S. demands for liquid gas – a $16.2 billion, 800-mile-long gas pipeline has been proposed for construction down the Mackenzie River Valley, a region revered by sportsmen and Aboriginal tribes. The pipeline would fragment what many consider to be the greatest wilderness river ecosystem remaining on the continent. MAP KEY 1. Trout Rock Lodge, Great Slave Lake 2. Indian Head Camp, Lake Athabasca 3. Fort McMurray 4. Edmonton Green Area: Boreal Forest Red Dots: MacKenzie Delta Gas Fields Brown Area: Tar Sands Solid Red Line: Existing Pipeline Dotted Red Line: Proposed Pipeline Nate Matthews
The Mackenzie is hardly the only region in peril. On the banks of the Athabasca River, huge dams hold back miles-square reservoirs of toxic mine tailings. More are on the way. Proposed hydroelectric projects in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec will flood millions of acres of wilderness. And timber harvest continues to eat up the woods. According to the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, nearly a third of the standing forests in Canada’s boreal region have been allocated for commercial harvest. A sobering reality counters the seemingly endless nature of the boreal region: In just one generation, much of a place long taken for granted by sportsmen will be latticed with roads and pipelines, pocked with gas wells, lesioned with open pit mines, timbered heavily, and fouled with massive plumes of smoke from scores of industrial sites. Nate Matthews
For the moment, however, it appears that I am doing my part for conservation, at least as it pertains to ducks. From Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, Ragnar Wesstrom motored our small group through a maze of rocky channels to Trout Rock Lodge, a cluster of small log structures on a pinnacle in the North Arm of Great Slave Lake. We loaded an aluminum skiff with decoys tethered to 5-pound rocks, and threaded another labyrinth of channels and bays along the North Arm’s shore. Hunting Great Slave Lake in the early season is a matter of parries and thrusts, hunting for a couple of hours here and there as we ferret out the birds’ movements. Diving ducks such as scaup are typically active all day, so we hop from sloughs to ledges to island points where we hunker down in blinds made of stacked boulders. Nate Matthews
At our current spot, a spindly spruce tree sprouts, like a bonsai, from a giant 1-acre boulder littered with vole and muskrat skulls. We are not the only hunters here. Nor are we the most efficient; I glance down at my collection of empty shotgun hulls. Suddenly, a large duck careens over the decoys, wing tips so close to the water that it leaves behind a trail of concentric rings. It’s a whitewing scoter, an outsize sea duck prized by local Aboriginal tribes and a classic component of a boreal forest shore lunch. Stewart, Reid, and I are on our feet, guns blazing. The bird flies through a storm of steel shot, the water exploding behind it. Stewart hollers – “That’s our lunch!” – as the bird pours it on, unscathed. I watch it go, white wing patches flashing, until it disappears into the horizon. Going and gone – gone perhaps to Washington’s Skagit marshes, or to Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. I watch it go and think: There are more – millions more – where that duck came from. That’s the promise of Canada’s boreal forest. For now. Nate Matthews
That there is a Trout Rock Lodge at all (its northern pike fishing is beyond excellent) has much to do with an empty chair in a Yellowknife bar. In 1986, Wesstrom, then a Swedish merchant mariner, left home for a yearlong hunting and fishing trip. There was one place he especially yearned to go, and that was Great Slave Lake. As a kid, Wesstrom, obsessed with Jack London stories, had read about this symbolic destination of the Far North. “I told myself that I would go there one day,” Wesstrom recalls. In the summer of 1987, he drove the 900 miles from Edmonton to Yellowknife. “I walked into a bar and there was a table with three native girls and four chairs.” He laughs. “I figured, ‘What the hell,’ and sat down. I met my wife my first night in Yellowknife.” His wife, Doreen Drygeese, is Yellowknives Dene, and the great-granddaughter of a venerated chief. Without the Aboriginal connection, Wesstrom figures he never would have received a territorial permit for his 1,000 square miles of hunting and fishing lands. Even so, it took him two years to gain permission from tribal elders. Nate Matthews
Canada’s Aboriginal peoples are major players in the future of the boreal. More than 600 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities are scattered across the region, and vast swaths of the landscape are in Aboriginal hands. Most of the tribes are taking part in some of the finest conservation thinking on the planet. Under the Northwest Territories’ Protected Areas Strategy, tribes, communities, and organizations are working with federal and territorial governments to preserve special natural and cultural areas. For example, Northwest Territories officials last fall announced the creation of 25.5 million acres of national park and wildlife protection areas, including plans for a possible 8.3-million-acre park on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. Nate Matthews
Despite this, there are still tens of millions more open, wild acres ripe for development, and it appears that some factions in Canada’s federal government are happy to throw open the doors to extraction industries. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, officials in Ottawa recently announced a goal of cutting the average regulatory review period for natural resources projects by half, and introduced regulations that would allow the tar-sands industry to triple greenhouse gas pollution by 2020. We wrestle with the conflicts one night after long hours of chasing boreal ducks. “The world is crying for oil,” Wesstrom laments, over a dinner of musk ox steaks. There is no disagreement. But with the loss of the boreal, I think, many of us will be crying for the wild. Nate Matthews
“Hold it. I got the bottom.” I glance toward the stern of the boat. Ten minutes earlier, photographer Greg Sweney and I dropped lines in 50 feet of Lake Athabasca water, trolling spoons the size of lapdogs. Cruising off a long, thin island 6 miles from the mainland, we’d marked fish after fish as the bottom came up, but there were no takers. Now my rod arcs over the gunwale. At the tiller, Doug Golosky, a Metis native and owner of Lake Athabasca’s Indian Head Camp, squints at the screen. “Twenty feet of water,” he says. “I don¿t think that’s the bottom.” He’s right. Suddenly the rod bows so deeply into the handle that the graphite fibers groan. I stand up to put more pressure on the line and feel the unyielding pull of a serious fish. Lake trout, especially big lakers, eschew aerial antics and sheer speed. Hook a big one, and you grind it out. Nate Matthews
This one comes up from the black-green depths like an anchor, sees the boat, then sounds. On its second run I check it with as much side pressure as I can muster, turn the fish, and bring it to the boat. Golosky leans over with the landing cradle, and I slide the trout in. At 28 pounds, this fat-bellied prespawner is a trophy by many lake standards, but it’s only slightly larger than the average autumn fish on Athabasca. Still, Golosky frets, anxious to extricate the fish from the cradle and get it back into the water. He has poured a small fortune into a lodge sited in remote country, and he shepherds the lake’s fish with a mother’s care. Indian Head Camp maintains a barbless-hooks policy and a two-fish limit, more restrictive than territorial law. After a few photographs, I lift the giant overboard, washing its gills with water. It thrashes from my hands. Instead of a round of high fives, we quietly watch the surface where the fish disappeared. Golosky breaks the silence. “These fish grow maybe a pound a year,” he says, his lilting voice rising at the end of each phrase. “That’s a 30-year-old fish, eh? Here long before I got to this lake.” He doesn’t say what we know he is thinking: And here, he hopes, long after he is gone. Nate Matthews
Framed between northern Saskatchewan’s Fond du Lac River to the east and the enormous Peace and Athabasca Rivers to the west, Lake Athabasca has a mythic hold on the boreal region. It’s some 260 miles long and averages 40 miles across. In places, it plummets to nearly 400 feet deep, and most of the lake bottom is sheathed with reefs and shoals that provide perfect lake trout habitat. In 1961, gillnetters pulled a 102-pound laker out of the water. Thirty-pound fish are common. On Golosky’s first trip to Athabasca, in fact, his 10-year-old grandson landed a 36-pound laker. That’s all it took to hook Golosky, who in 20 years had turned a one-man welding operation into a massive 3,500-employee northern Alberta conglomerate. He bought a lease on gorgeous, cliff-sided Stewart Island and sent a Bombardier snowcat and seven pickup trucks to plow a 350-mile-long ice road to what is now Indian Head Camp. These days, anglers in the early-fall spawning period can land mind-boggling numbers of big lakers. On our second day on the water, Stewart and Reid boated 40 fish, 13 over 20 pounds, and one pushing 30. Nate Matthews
It’s not always that easy. One morning Sweney and I troll baits along the tall rubble cliffs of an offshore island. During the September spawn, trout move from the lake’s depths into the shallows, and I watch as green-gold boulders pass under the boat in water so clear that I brace for a collision, even though the depthfinder reads 15 feet. We horse in half a dozen small fish, then switch tactics, picking up 8-weight fly rods and hurling 50 feet of lead-core line, dragging the biggest Clouser streamers we can scrounge. For the next three hours we fly-troll for cookie-cutter 10-pound lake trout. We can feel the fish smack the flies once, twice, sometimes three times before we finally get a hook to stick. The fish shake their heads all the way to the boat, then rip line from the reels when they figure out what’s in store. This type of flyfishing may not be what Izaak Walton had in mind, but it goes down pretty easy. Nate Matthews
“Our catch rate hasn’t suffered since we switched to the fly rods,” I say, watching Sweney work another laker into the landing cradle. “What’s the score?” “Thirteen to 12,” he says, grinning. “I’m up. Not that we’re the kind who count.” Sure. But now we’re fishing with a zeal any hardcore angler would recognize: It’s just about over for the afternoon, and it doesn’t matter that there’s a full day of fishing slated for tomorrow. This is our last chance for a fish before the sun sets, so we fish as if it’s our last chance for life. Nate Matthews
Later that night, I find Golosky and Joe Marcel, a camp guide and Athabasca Chipewyan native, trading smokes and childhood stories in the guide quarters. Both grew up in the bush, trapping lynx and beaver for fur, snaring rabbits for food. Today, the ties that bind many Aboriginal peoples to the land are increasingly frayed by the region’s new industrial reality. Even Golosky, who has benefited from the boom in resource extraction, understands that the current trajectory of development will result in a northern Canada that no one recognizes. “Divide and conquer,” he says as Marcel nods. “The ducks people, the fish people, the big-game people, the timber people, the preservation people will all fight among themselves for their own agendas. Meanwhile, the oil and gas and tar-sands people, they just keep on chewing through the country. We have to get together and figure out what we want this place to be in 50, 100, 200 years. It’s out of balance right now. It’s just take, take, take.” Nate Matthews
From the window of a Cessna Caravan, Lake Athabasca stretches from horizon to horizon, a sweep of water and woods and lichen-clad rock, stitched together with tawny fingers of aspen, seemingly endless, seemingly eternal. I’m on my way home, but after eight days in the boreal, I’m still awed by the scale of the landscape. Nate Matthews
I see the first seismic line as we cross into the 1,500-square-mile Peace-Athabasca Delta. Perhaps a million birds refuel in its wet woods and marshes each autumn, spreading out from the Mackenzie River lowlands to populate a million duck hunter’s dawns. In a landscape of serpentine esker ridges and elliptical bogs, the ruler-straight seismic lines draw the eye like a stain. Stewart nods toward the ground below. “There are thousands of miles of those lines. That’s why there is no wilderness left in northern Alberta,” he says. “Seismic lines, winter trails, gas pads everywhere, and a road to every one of them.” The transition into the tar-sands region occurs with startling speed. Underneath the plane lies an endless sheet of trees; five minutes later, town-size clear-cuts pock the forest. Fires burn from slag piles the size of shopping centers, plumes of smoke rising like smudgy columns to hold up a low sky of yellow smoke. There are two ways to get oil out of the tar sands: clear-cut the trees and strip-mine the soil, or inject gargantuan quantities of steam underground and force the bitumen to the surface. Either way, the raw material has to be treated in gigantic “upgrader” plants, enormous contortions of pipes and smokestacks and ponds of toxic goo, large enough to be seen 20 miles away. We fly through a yellowish cloud that spews from the upgraders – it contains lead, benzene, who-knows-what. Four mining operations compose the garish view beneath the plane. Stewart says that eight more are on the way. Nate Matthews
Equally unsettling are the tailing ponds. To upgrade tar sands, more water is pulled from the Athabasca River than is used by the city of Calgary. Once fouled, it can’t be put back, so some of the world’s largest dams now hold reservoirs of toxic sludge measured by the square mile. Earthen dams and dikes nearly edge the Athabasca River shoreline. The Cessna banks, and my eyes follow the river to the horizon. The connections are ominous. From here, the mighty Athabasca flows to Doug Golosky’s lake, which in turn is connected to Great Slave Lake, which empties into the Mackenzie River system. Nate Matthews
Stewart sees my furrowed brow. “Look,” he says, over the plane’s growling whine. “The conservation side of this issue is not anti-industry. I like driving a warm truck to work when it’s 40 below. We’re just asking that the pace of conservation catch up with the pace of industrialization. With good planning and vision, the boreal region still offers a chance for conservation on the scale of what’s been done in Alaska. If not, it could be gone in a generation.” Nate Matthews
I turn away from the window. My brain is drifting back to a particular dawn on Great Slave Lake, to the idea of another generation. After leaving Trout Rock Lodge, I hunted one morning with Bruce MacDonald, a federal biologist, along with a DU staffer out of Yellowknife. We motored up a winding creek that emptied into a massive bay ringed with horsetail marsh. No fancy lodge, no $500 floatplane, just a Grumman canoe, a temperamental outboard, and one guy whose world had been rocked by two indomitable forces: the industrialization of the boreal forest, and the recent birth of a first child. MacDonald and I hunkered down on a rocky point as snowflakes fell. Mallards were soon storming our simple set of two dozen decoys. “One day I want to bring my daughter out to the bush and show her what an amazing place this is,” MacDonald said. He was clean-shaven and boyish but for the look in his eyes. “But when I think of how quickly my world is changing, I can’t tell you what will be left by the time she”s old enough to sit in a canoe.” He looked out across the marsh; my gaze followed. Just the day before I’d watched a double rainbow arcing across Great Slave Lake, its multicolored prism falling from the sky, down through breaking clouds, disappearing somewhere miles into the distance, into the yawning green-black maw of North America’s greatest chance for meaningful wilderness: the boreal. It seemed, to me, a kind of promise. I wished he could have seen it. Nate Matthews