From beauty to horror and back again: the Athabasca River Pilgrimage

Posted October 10th, 2013 in Featured, Zine Comments Off on From beauty to horror and back again: the Athabasca River Pilgrimage
Photos, video, text by Margaret Swedish

From September 3 – 18, six of us, five Canadians and me, traveled from the headwaters of the Athabasca River in the Columbia Icefield of Jasper National Park to Ft. McMurray and the tar sands region of Alberta. What we saw was stunning. What we learned was a lot. I have been forever changed by what we witnessed there, what broke open our hearts, the message we received from this place we call home, our precious Earth.

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The journey begins at a Franciscan Retreat Center in Cochrane, a half hour outside Calgary. We meet for an evening of sharing our hopes and expectations, to get to know one another, to prepare for the journey. On the horizon, the mountains beckon.TRAVEL

 

 

 

 

 

We encounter our first contradiction between Nature and industrial society not long after leaving the next morning. Across this river, a mountain is being dismantled for industrial use, mostly road construction. The placard reads:  “These mountains are moving! They’re being turned into products…” A perfectly apt description of what the human economy is doing to Mother Earth. Worst thing, they are so proud of it!TRAVEL

 

 

 

And then the beauty – stunning, stark, magnificent.

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Peyto Lake – we stopped here not because we planned to but because it called us to.

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Glaciers mean waterfalls.

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We arrive at the Columbia Icefields, the glacier that is the headwaters of the Athabasca River. What we see stuns us – or at least it does me – because I had been to this place in 1969 and could not believe what I was seeing – an enormous glacier, the source of one of the continent’s great rivers, melting away, receding before our eyes, leaving this vast space of rocky debris.

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And the markers to show exactly how dramatic and accelerated the receding has become. The park service is not shy about the message. They say the glacier is disappearing because of climate change. A few decades ago, my fellow pilgrims here would be under many feet of glacial ice.

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The Columbia Icefield glacier – going, going…

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How the river begins…

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How the ice keeps on collapsing…

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Someone before us left some thoughts on what’s happening on the wall above the pit toilet at the park. For clarity, Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada.

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Then to Sunwapta Falls. The river joins the Athabasca farther downstream.

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Meeting up with the Athabasca River, this beautiful, beautiful river.

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TRAVELSome critters had come down to the river before us for a drink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like this guy.TRAVEL

 

 

 

 

 

 

And these guys.

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Then to the breathtaking Athabasca Falls, one of Alberta’s natural wonders.TRAVEL

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The lower end of the falls…TRAVEL

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRAVELAnd when the river leaves the mountains, it becomes this…

 

 

 

 

 

TRAVELAnd this…

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in my heart, as we traveled along the river, this voice from deep within kept saying within me, “River, don’t go there!”

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On one side of hwy 63, the 2-lane highway to Ft. McMurray is being made into a mega-super-freeway, a huge tear through the boreal forest.

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On the other side, more wounds being dug for pipelines, pipelines everywhere.

And then it went there…

 

 

 

 

 

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Makes driving up there an interesting experience… I have never shared the road with such enormous pieces of machinery, a sign of the frenzy of industry expansion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, we come upon Mordor, or Dante’s Inferno. We drive into the heart of the tar sands industry.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-qAcdlD8gQ
[Sorry for the noise in the background. I’m holding the camera out the van window, the only way to get this film.]

The video continues along a Syncrude tailings pond, a massive body of stored toxic water.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPIuqRRziHI

All of this was once forest and the hunting grounds for the First Nation Cree community downriver from this site.

Then we drive 40-minutes downriver to Ft. McKay, center for a First Nation community of Cree and Métis people. They are surrounded by the industry, their water poisoned and undrinkable, the air toxic to breathe. Elder Celina Harpe welcomes us into her home and serves a meal of moose  stew and banik bread. Delicious!! For the next three hours she shares stories of the old ways, the coming of the oil men, the sicknesses, the struggle to survive even as their way of life is being destroyed. “We used to die of old age…”

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Sr. Maureen Wild, SC, who did incredible work to coordinate our journey, is working with Celina on her memoir.TRAVEL

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celina’s house sits right on the river. They used to bring buckets to collect water for drinking and washing. Now they drink bottled water only and taking a hot shower for more than a few minutes causes rashes and sores. She showed me her scarred hands and arms.TRAVEL

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One afternoon, Celina takes us up a dirt road to a cliff in the woods overlooking a deep canyon, the Red River running far down below. It is a sacred place for them. It is a beautiful moment for us. TRAVEL

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day we leave Ft. McMurray is a hard one for all of us. We can leave the toxic river and air behind. We can leave behind this vast scene of ecological devastation. Celina and her sister Clara opened their homes, their hearts, their families to us. Yes, the day we left was hard for all of us. We stop by the river. We take time for a little ritual. We throw stones and branches into the water and send them downriver to Ft. McKay – with love, with our hearts broken open.

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We return to Athabasca falls. And this is exactly how we are – overwhelmed, in need of inner stillness and rushing water, taking in all that we have seen and heard at one of the most destructive industrial projects on the face of the Earth.

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The mountains call us back. I feel their power in a different way now, as refuge, as perspective. They will be here when we are long gone. Whatever we do now, they will still be here. I find that reassuring. I know that the Earth will live on, will recreate life over and over again long after this human species has vanished. It’s just a question of whether that vanishing happens sooner or later, of how long we want to be a part of this.TRAVEL

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our last night back on the Sunwapta River, at a wilderness hostel, the air grows chilly, cold. It begins to rain. The temperature plummets. In the morning when we awaken, the mountains come out of the clouds. A little snow has fallen. With the sorrow and grief, now comes this indescribable delight, sheer wonder at it all.

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Back to the origins of the Athabasca River.

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…where the ice is still collapsing in the record warmth. One of our days in the town of Jasper, the temperature was 87 degrees. And on one of the mornings in Ft. McMurray, the CBC weather report included this news, that temperatures records had been shattered all across western Canada while we were there.

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Finally, a quick stop at Lake Louise – because we had to.TRAVEL I’d been wanting to go back to this place for 44 years.

 

 

 

The world is still so beautiful. How is it possible that we are doing so much damage to such a beautiful planet. What will stop us?

Do you know?

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnEX7wN1WY4
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