Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Expedition to raise awareness about threats to Athabasca River

By Lynn Martel - Rocky Mountains
Expedition to raise awareness about threats to Athabasca River
Jul 11 2007

"Water is the ultimate traveller. It flows off mountains, all the way to oceans, and it can fly too."

After his second day canoeing the Athabasca River - the second phase of a two-month, 1,538-kilometre journey from the river's headwaters at the toe of the Columbia Glacier all the way to the Peace Athabasca Delta - Don Van Hout reflected on the silvery green water flowing below an elevated bank just outside the town of Jasper last Saturday, June 30.

As expedition leader of the Pembina Institute-sponsored Connecting the Drops Athabasca River Expedition, Van Hout's journey began on June 20 with a climb to the upper slopes of 3,456-metre Snow Dome, North America's hydrological apex from where meltwater flows to one of three oceans - the Pacific, the Arctic or the Atlantic via Hudson Bay.

Then, for four days, Van Hout, 29, a Calgary resident who grew up in the town of Athabasca, and Jasper resident Hamish Sanderson hiked through remote and largely trail-less backcountry to the toe of the Columbia Glacier.

As one who is already intimate with the Athabasca River, having paddled from its confluence with the Whirlpool River to Fort Chipewyan in 2004, Van Hout was struck by the sheer wildness of the Athabasca's origins.

"I learned that the headwaters of this river are a major juxtaposition with what's downstream of Jasper," Van Hout said. "It's an outstandingly beautiful place, being in this wilderness, in an area so few people visit, at the foot of some of the biggest mountains in the Rockies - Mount Alberta, The Twins, Mount Columbia. There is ice everywhere."

The area also hosted some impressive wildlife, including a mother grizzly and two large cubs, which left distinct footprints in the sand.

"We were camping among grizzlies," Van Hout said. "It's so wild back there. We didn't filter water; we drank from every little creek coming off the glaciers. You can't do that anywhere else on this river."

Throughout their backcountry trip, Van Hout said he was intensely aware of what he encountered on his 2004 Athabasca journey, as the river flowed though Fort McMurray and Alberta's oil sands development.

"The oil sands devastated me," Van Hout admitted. "After coming off an amazing wilderness trip for a month, it really stuck with me. It's so massively mind-blowing. It's the epitome of how much waste there is in our society."

This summer, as he travels the length of the Athabasca, partnering with several other paddlers for different stretches of river, Van Hout is leading a campaign to raise awareness about the environmental, social and economic significance of the Athabasca watershed and key issues related to its protection.

"I feel like I have to do it," Van Hout said. "It's a bit of a personal quest of mine, to spread the word and experience the river first-hand, to share it as a living entity, and to show there are some major serious threats to it."

Developed in partnership with Canmore resident Danielle Droitsch, who as the Bow Riverkeeper serves as the advocate for the health and sustainability of the Bow River, Counting the Drops aims to raise awareness of the Athabasca as an iconic symbol of Canadian history, and its role flowing through Jasper and Wood Buffalo National Parks, ending in one of North America's most significant migratory bird paths and what is likely the last stand of free-ranging bison still engaged in a natural predator/prey relationship with wolves.

The campaign aims to highlight the Athabasca as likely the most threatened river in Canada as a result of oil sands development, through irreversible destruction of the boreal forest and massive water withdrawals from the Athabasca.

With existing oil sands mining operations licensed to divert 349 million cubic metres of water per year from the Athabasca - twice the amount of water used by the city of Calgary - and with 3,000 square kilometres of boreal forest already leased for oil sands surface mining, Droitsch said the developments are poised to directly affect 21 per cent of Alberta - an area mostly contained in the Athabasca watershed.

"The Pembina Institute has done some polling, and we know people are concerned about this," Droitsch said. "People want this to be slowed down. We're asking the Alberta government to set a limit that will better balance economic, social and environmental issues. Right now it's full steam ahead, and we're asking, what is the plan? If we develop a plan and adhere to it, Alberta will be a better province."

Van Hout, Droitsch and the Pembina Institute are not alone in their concerns. Also paddling the length of the Athabasca River this summer is Canmore resident David Lavallee, as he films a documentary highlighting the threats of climate change and the oil sands to the Athabasca.

Working in partnership with Riverwatch, which runs environmental education programs for youth in the Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray regions, through his film Lavallee hopes to raise awareness about how human activities are causing glacial recession, and subsequent lowering of water tables, while demands increase.

"We're facing a perfect storm of water issues in Alberta," Lavallee said.

A hiking guide certified through the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides who recently created the association's first environmental stewardship committee, Lavallee is on leave from his position as a Canmore family counsellor.

In his quest to capture film footage, and also in an effort to gain a better understanding of the Athabasca, Lavallee climbed to Snow Dome's summit before embarking on his river journey. Travelling simultaneously with Van Hout, Lavellee's film, titled White Water Black Gold, will incorporate portions of the Connecting the Drops expedition.

"What I'm hoping to discover is, if a drop of water is born at the hydrological apex of North America, what does this drop have to deal with, what does it encounter on its way to Lake Athabasca?" asked Lavallee from the banks of the Athabasca outside Jasper townsite last Saturday.

Starting on July 9, and throughout the expedition, Lavallee will record his experience on his blog, titled Water Dossier, at http://nfb.ca/citizenshift/index

Following Jasper's Canada Day parade, both Lavallee and Van Hout paddled away from Jasper toward Hinton en route to the oil sands and the communities affected by the development.

Throughout the expedition, Albertans are invited to share their own thoughts about what the Athabasca means to them, by submitting written and oral stories to www.connectingthedrops.ca/stories/add

At the conclusion of the trip in August, the stories will be delivered to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

"Through our trip down the Athabasca, we really want to give voice to the people who live along the river and to share their stories and concerns - with Albertans, the online community, and our politicians," Van Hout said. "We know people are concerned about this, and we know a lot of talk goes on behind closed doors. What we'd like is for people to tell us."

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