Flash Back Fridays

CHANGING OF THE GUARDS or The Birth of the Friends of Strathcona Park By Marlene Smith, 1985

It was in the fall of 1985 when Myrna asked me to go and visit Jim upstairs; he wanted to talk to me.

I was a relative newcomer to the Strathcona Park Lodge scene. My experience in teaching mountaineering in the European Alps, including teaching rock climbing, map and compass, crevasse rescue and guiding made me fit in real quick. Jim had been battling pancreatic cancer for a few years. The regression of his cancer through diet and the use of various herbs most certainly were of great interest to me as a veterinarian engaged in western medicine and studying Traditional Chinese Medicine! Sadly enough the cancer had returned with great vigour and aggression, something I would learn in the future is not uncommon in aggressive forms of cancer.

I wonder why Jim wanted to see ME!

When I entered Jim’s room I reflected back on his strong presence in the Whale room talking to school groups on the importance of the wilderness and what nature could teach us! In a short flash I was back again on the trail near the bog in a downpour. Everything was wet and the participants of our small group of dedicated students looked like wet cats or rats! Suddenly Jim stopped and told us to make a fire here and now. Those who could not get a fire going and get a can of water boiling within 1⁄2 hour were doomed to die of hypothermia! Dan MacKinnon next to me smiled and whispered he had done this before and we would pal up together! I learned within 10 minutes about the pitch stick, about how to find dry wood and how to get water boiling within 20 minutes! And how to survive in the wilderness!

I smiled with this thought in my mind and looked at Jim. He looked at me attentively as if he was trying to catch my thought!

He then explained to me that his time on this earth was limited and that he was at peace with this. However there was one task he could not take with him and it was not completed. He told me about his old friend Roderick Haig Brown and the wilderness and Strathcona Park protection they both had been engaged in.

I remembered the 1985 “Wilderness Mosaic “process Jim went to in Campbell River and where he had a “let go rip” as my English friends called it. The government Advisory Committee engaged in this Wilderness Mosaic process was proposing to cut large sections out of Strathcona Park and other BC Parks and protected wilderness area’s, or downgrade their parks status to facilitate logging or mining claims and explorations. Jim told them in no uncertain terms that one could not sell “second class wilderness”. I remembered admiring Jim for his flair to speak up never mind if it was a school students or a minister.

Jim carried on explaining how he vowed he would carry on Rod’s passion for protection of the wilderness when it was Rod’s time to move on to other pastures. Now he (Jim) needed to hand over the torch to someone else!

Why did he choose me I asked? He looked at me long and hard and then his face softened and he smiled as he said. “Because you have that same stubborn streak in you as I have; you never give up once you get your teeth into something!”

I felt honoured as Jim was one of those rare teachers on my path of life who understood the role nature and wilderness play in the human school of life. He had done wild and crazy adventures on the West coast and always brought everyone home safe! He knew how to listen to nature, how to read the weather and when and how to stay safe in the wildest of conditions. He understood that nature is a part of our own inheritance. To learn how to connect with nature was the most useful life lesson a person could receive! I remembered him yelling about the “rubber raccoons and Gortex space cadets” after he came back from an Expo show! He valued the wilderness for its wild and untamed nature and he had the ability to bring that across to those who were willing to learn, accept the discomfort of survival in adversary conditions and how that could strengthen a person in their daily life! He also did not agree with altering nature to suit the humans entering the wilderness or to replace the real thing with a tamed or artificial version. I admired Jim for that. His strong belief and willingness to stand by his beliefs and fight for it reminded me of my parent’s generation being engaged in the underground resistance during the Second World War in Holland. Is that why Jim asked me, the newcomer to the lodge?

Jim laughed as if he read my mind!

“The Park is under great threat”, he said, “they are going to chop it up, have mines and roads in there and destroy the wilderness. There will be nothing left for future generations to learn from….and the animals, what is going to happen to their habitat?”

We looked each other long and deep in the eyes. Never before did I have a request like this from someone close to passing over to the other side. Intuitively I sensed that this was not a job like going to the corner store to pick up some groceries! This likely could mean a lifelong commitment!

He smiled as if he was reading my mind! “One thing I want you to know; you may have to compromise at some point”

Here he struck a Dutch “underground resistance” chord in me. Dead seriously I said”: “I will take it on if I don’t need to compromise as this word is not a part of my heritage nor my dictionary!”

He laughed and we shake hands. And this is how the Friends of Strathcona Park was born! In the year following my life partner Steve and I (+ the dogs) looked at all the area’s that were proposed to be deleted in the committee’s document: “Wilderness Mosaic”. It looked grim for Strathcona! The middle section was proposed to be downgraded to a class B park allowing mining, road building and the draining of Cream Lake!

We visited the communities adjacent and affected by these deletions and found people who were interested to talk about this. We visited every area and spent time to connect with the land in the way we both had learned from Jim and our good friend Rob Wood who is so passionate about this connection.

It was an amazing period of learning! The land connected with us and took us on as its human caretaker! We got to know Strathcona Park very well and all its weather changes, highlights, beauty and seriousness!

This became clear in my first visit to Cream Lake with some friends from the Rockies. The weather was great and Cream Lake with Nine Peaks in the back ground displayed its stunning breathtaking beauty. We felt we were transformed into paradise and I suddenly became aware that paradise is right here and we simply don’t see it! Suddenly the tranquil peace was rattled by the sound of a helicopter. The chopper landed right at Cream Lake and out came Ron Lampart (then regional parks Manager) with another official looking person I later got to know as Mel Turner, senior park planner and a third parks person. In a euphoric stage of mind I greeted them and invited them to thoroughly take (I think I called it drink) in the absolute beauty of this place. The official looking person said with a harsh laugh “yes you better enjoy this now because it will be drained and be gone in the future” I shuddered back into reality and saw Jim’s and Roderick’s face in front of me and blurred out before I realized it: “No way! Over my dead body! I will protect this place till my very last breath!”

And so it happened that the Friends of Strathcona Park was formed. Hundreds of people joined the organization when the government allowed mining companies to enter our beloved park and start with mining explorations in early 1988. 64 people were arrested, Kel Kelly, Carol Latter and Gordon Caer being the first three people ever arrested for defending a park from being destroyed by human activities! People camped out three months in the winter under harsh conditions in snow and rain. The blockade in Strathcona Park was on the daily news for the three months of its duration! Ann Haig Brown ordered her doctor, Bruce Wood, to get the hell out of the hospital and get himself to the blockade as that would have been the wishes of her late husband Roderick! Well known environmental activists as David Suzuki, Vicky Husband, and Colleen McCrory joined us at times. And of course our own beloved Ruth Masters was present at every arrest screeching “Oh Canada” on her harmonica while the cops put the protesters in the paddy wagon!

Jim meanwhile had joined Roderick at the other side. This did not mean he left his post in the Park!

A few days into the blockade, a bright light lit up the sky at night; a very large meteorite landed in the Thelwood valley, just behind the blockaders! We all felt it was the fiery sign of Jim’s landing! He was still with us!

Eventually the government looked at the legal opinion presented by the Friends of Strathcona Park, which gave them a good way out to reinstate the previous moratorium on mining and logging in the park. The political climate also became hot, close to elections. It was the end of the blockade and the new NDP government re- instated the Class A status “In Statue” for Strathcona Park!

We all celebrated. However…there was one area that was not returned to the Park; the Bedwell valley!

I started working hard on getting the valley back into the Park. I went to the Ahousat First Nation people in Tofino and met with Peter Webster, hereditary Chief of the Oinmitis People; the Bedwell was their traditional territory and I recognized this. We talked about who owns the land and he explained to me that the land chooses its people; once you were committed to protecting the land it would always call you back if it felt under threat He told me how his people used the Bedwell and how their shamans would travel up to Cream Lake were the waters flow in three directions. Al this time Jim’s voice echoed in my head that I had to recognize when to compromise!

I did not!

I continued to learn, Peter gave us his blessing (and his book) to rebuild the trail and connect it to Bedwell Lake. I visited sweat-lodges in the Ahousat territory and had amazing visions on Vargas Island while I was asking for guidance on the Oin- mitis/Bedwell Valley We even named our new kitten Oinmitis!.

Jim finally agreed and let me go and not compromise!

With the help of many other committed people the Bedwell was finally returned back to Strathcona Park, where it will remain in Jim’s legacy and as a commitment to the land itself! Also our dear friend Colleen (who meanwhile has joined Jim, Roderick and Melda), whose father was one ofthe mining explorers in the Bedwell, will guard over the wellbeing of the valley.

Bedwell Lake

Bedwell Lake

Now as I write this in 2009 in celebration of the 50th birthday of Strathcona Park Lodge, I am reminded of the valuable teachings I received from the lodge and Jim, teachings that had a deep impact. It confirmed my passion for nature, the wilderness, the animals and the value of the untamed and unaltered wilderness this country still has. It reconfirms the importance of protecting this wilderness and our parks (especially Strathcona of course!). The social and physical landscape has changed in the last 20 years dramatically. To go out in nature, connecting with it, learning about self reliance, how to survive and how to stay alive. Finding the answers to these questions in nature, the sun, the stars the clouds and you own intuition. That desire and recognition is disappearing fast as we clear-cut and road our last remaining wilderness area’s, built comfortable places for people to stay and make the wilderness experience safe and comfortable with low or no risk.

Hopefully the spirit of Jim, Roderick, Melda Buchanan, Colleen and many other dedicated wilderness protectors will live on and at some point come back to this earth to pick up their plight where they left off.