Rivers and Roads to the Athabasca Healing Walk, by Ryan van der Marel

“I’ll have a triple-triple”, the man in line at the counter says. Considering the drive we’ve had, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea, although not one we’re used to hearing. Traversing the Rockies draws attention to the subtle and sometimes stark contrasts between the watershed in which we reside and the one we are about to visit. Leaving the Columbia Basin to cross the spine of the Great Divide requires passage through one of crowning gems in protected areas management; the Canadian Rockies’ National Parks. Miles of wilderness allow for us, the travelers, a moment of fantasy in which landscapes devoid of human activity dominate the mind. Wildness prevails enough to feel small among the towering peaks and to feel powerless among the swollen rivers that from the Icefields Parkway flow great distances in three directions. The enchantment is a welcome but brief distraction which is put to an abrupt end by a bend in the road which turns the mountains to our backs and a vast horizon to our front. The boreal forest stretches before us, black spruce looking slightly more haunted than our Canadian affection for them should allow. The Athabasca River, which we’ve followed from its glacial headwaters is nowhere to be seen, as if stretching into this new vastness after the geological confines of its former stony embrace.

We are on our way to the fifth annual Athabasca Region Healing Walk hosted by the Keepers of the Athabasca. Last year more than 500 hundred people joined to walk together for healing of the earth, air and water in the area. The controversial tar sands have created a notoriously mythical place exemplifying to some the devastating extremes of resource extraction. To others it marks Alberta’s triumph over the global economic downturn, spurring Canada’s growth as an ambitious petro-state. Either way it exists with plenty of accounts of toxic outflows, contamination and human rights violations to cast a spectre on the verdant vegetation that lines the long straight highways that slightly undulate among the hints of pipe and steel.

For us, the outsiders, the easiest way to come to the Athabasca is from a place of disdain and contempt. It is a better approach to arrive here out of concern and curiosity. Working on freshwater issues in Canada has thrust us into a national conversation that is both divisive and polarizing, pitting families and communities against each other. On one hand, partisanship has found a stronghold here as has parochialism and greed. On the other hand, the dialogue around environment and economy is recasting Canadian ideals and therefore reshaping our national identity. One needs to look no further than the image on the Queen’s backside on the new, plastic, twenty dollar bill to see this shift.

For us, the outsiders, industry abounds here. White and grey pickup trucks and yellow grease-stained operating machinery litter parking lots and fields. It is hard to separate how different it feels here – like a different country – from the impression that the hiding, now bloated and brown river we are ultimately following is leading us to something ghastly. It is like earlier in the trip when we passed a severe car accident on the highway and watched rescue workers shield the scene with blankets, knowing without seeing that life was lost there.

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