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Pointing at the Land • Frequency: The Snowboarder's Journal 2015 • Back

It’s late March, and the ice over Eyāluwe Lake is vocal; the wilds of the Sacred Headwaters will soon begin to thaw. The days of subdued colours, of tracking moose by following their prints on the snow, will be gone soon. Flowers will emerge, grizzlies will wake, and Tamo Campos will put away his splitboard. For him, for the activist community in Iskut, BC, the changing seasons mean unease. The last two summers brought conflict between mining companies and those who oppose their plans for coal, copper, and gold extraction in the area. Both years tensions peaked with blockades and land occupations organized by a group called the Klabona Keepers. Both years, Tamo was here, working tirelessly to help their efforts.

I’m a visitor at Skyfish Cabin, a backcountry house about eight miles from Highway 37. It’s inside the Sacred Headwaters, or as it’s traditionally called, the Tl’abane (pronounced Klabona). The Tl’abane is home to the headwaters of the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine—three of BC’s largest salmon-bearing rivers. The whole ecosystem of these massive waterways along with the fish they provide have formed the backbone of a traditional way of life for many of BC’s First Nations communities for thousands of years. 

My connection to the Tl’abane is corollary to my friendship with Tamo, but is growing steadily stronger. With me are Tamo, Desiree Wallace, Hannah Campbell, Lewis Muirhead, and Micky Nagai. Tamo, Des and Hannah are here volunteering with youth in Iskut as part of a program they’ve spearheaded in conjunction with the village’s parents and grandparents. Lewis, Micky and I are here to see old friends, to learn about their work here, and to snowboard with Tamo. He’s been sending us photos of couloirs in the area, touting the freeriding potential of what’s become his second home in northwestern British Columbia, not far from the Alaska panhandle.

Today, as we skinned towards Eyāluwe, there was no secret as to why Tamo and a growing contingent of folks believe this area is meaningful beyond economic interests. Aside from hiking through Carmichaelesque landscapes in air thick with the latent energy of undisturbed millennia, in the past hours we’ve watched a pack of 11 wolves cross Eyāluwe and taken in the first dance of the Northern Lights. The terrain that Tamo promised, illuminated in greens and purples under the Lights, has us cautiously optimistic for tomorrow—the potential is there, but the crusted, hollow snowpack in the valley concerns us. It’s been a week since the last new snow. For now, my friends sit in a sauna just feet from the lake. By the time I join them the woodstove will have them in a cleansing sweat, and they will likely have resumed the conversation that dominates this visit: the power and conflict that have shaped this region in recent years. 

Tamo and I have been friends for half a decade. For a long time we walked in stride advocating social and environmental justice, until my attention turned to schoolwork and I lost his pace. While I focused on analytical thought, he opened himself to the culture of grassroots activism and solidarity with Indigenous land defense. Along with Lewis, Hannah, John Muirhead, Jasper Snow Rosen, and Langdon Yerex, he set out on a carbon-neutral exploration of the many pristine areas threatened by resource extraction and pipeline development in British Columbia. It was that trip, taken under the Beyond Boarding banner in 2013 and documented in the film Northern Grease, which first brought Tamo to Iskut and the Tl’abane. That summer he spent six weeks here, and helped document and alert media to blockades organized by the Klabona Keepers against a company called Fortune Minerals. The blockades were successful; though it took more than a month of lost wages, foregone comforts, and strains on relationships between industry-employed family members and those opposed to resource extraction, Fortune’s coal project did not move past assessment phase. 

In 2013 I tuned into the story of the Sacred Headwaters. It was via Tamo’s correspondence that I began to see the real-world details of the Tl’abane, the intricacies beyond what I could gather from YouTube introductions. Tamo told me about the Tahltan people, the First Nations who hold traditional claim to the Headwaters. He told me about their lifestyle, about thinking in accordance with the patterns of the region’s animals, following traplines and surviving on the provisions of the land. The direct action movement has given the involved Tahltan, and land defenders from other nations like the nearby Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en, a new connection to traditional ways of life that were compromised by colonization; as blockades and occupations often require long stretches without access to amenities, traditional forms of subsistence have been integral to Indigenous resistance. Tamo, who has visited organizers from a growing number of First Nations, sees the cultural revival as a source of power and inspiration. Still, there are countless pressures, like the economic needs of local communities, which complicate the drive for environmental preservation. I look down at my notebook. The scribbles scattered across my page reflect the social landscape I’m trying to comprehend. I close my book, and stand to join my friends.

The rustling of sleeping bags starts shortly after daybreak. Today is for snowboarding, and we waste little time putting on the oats. After a small breakfast, Tamo, Lewis, Micky and I pull our skins from the drying rack and gear up. Des and Hannah wish us luck. They’ll spend the day preparing for tomorrow’s session with the kids enrolled in their program. They’ll take them snowshoeing and teach them to shoot photos with donated cameras. They want to show the power of photography and storytelling in stewardship. 

Setting out from the cabin, the hollow snowpack has gotten worse. We figure our objective—a nice set of chutes, all of which mellow out before reaching alder—will be unattractive once we’ve felt the alpine snow. But we continue on, if only to have a look. As we gain elevation, talk returns to land-use issues. We’re high enough now that we can see the size of Eyāluwe. It stretches for miles across the feet of multiple peaks and ridgelines. We stop for lunch, still talking as we eat. “The Red Chris Tailings Pond is just over that hill,” Tamo tells us, pointing across the lake. “That’s the Imperial Metals mine. The dam is on the left, above Coyote Creek—it’s this thin creek above Mini Klappan River, which flows into the Klappan, which flows into the Stikine Watershed, which comes around to Telegraph and then goes down to Wrangell, Alaska. That’s what will be affected if there’s a tailings spill here—when there’s a tailings spill here.”

It’s hard to shake his words as we continue. I glance back and take in the Sacred Headwaters. I see why Tamo seems to carry more than his board and pack as he climbs through the snow, now hard and isothermal.

We reach the subalpine, level with the basin at the bottom of our lines. With questionable snow, we decide to leave the chutes for another day. There are some rocks below us when we turn around, and Tamo moves to line them up. As he does, his steps get easier, as if he’s walking out from under heavy thoughts. He fills with the distinctive energy of Tamo the snowboarder, the guy who spent 10 consecutive years avoiding summer, the dude whose style has always set him apart. Tamo drops, ollies the rocks and butt-checks on the unforgiving snow. He laughs and calls up, “Man I wish it was soft.”

Back in Iskut we stay at Jenny Quock’s house. She’s one of the Klabona Keepers, and has lived here her whole life. Jenny’s welcomed Tamo, Des and Hannah to live in the house her late husband built while she endures the cold northern winter with relatives in Terrace, a four-hour drive south. Her hospitality is a sign that my friends have earned a place of trust in this community. They’ve just returned from their snowshoeing and photography session, joined by Ryan Na-Dene, a local and a lifelong explorer of the area. Ryan’s in his mid-20s. He casually alludes to time spent blockading Fortune Minerals and Imperial Metals. As we make lunch, I look more closely at Jenny’s decorations. There are photos of people of all ages spending time at the Headwaters, not only at blockades but also hunting, camping, and fishing. There are as many shots of people smiling as there are of protests. 

It’s clear that the connection Iskut’s locals have with their land is alive and well, and it’s bizarre to think that they should have such persistent challenges from companies born of a culture so external to their own. BC’s mining laws, though, allow people and companies to stake and develop mining claims anywhere without conflicting designations such as reserves, parks, and existing mineral claims. There’s hope that the tide may shift in this regard: in June, 2014, a landmark legal ruling decided that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation holds title to the lands they used (traditionally and exclusively) at the time of Canada’s initial colonization. It’s the first time First Nations claims to land outside of reserves has been legally recognized in Canada. While Provincial and Federal governments still have some jurisdiction on lands such as those affected by the case, the ruling gives groups like the Klabona Keepers an important precedent and a grounds for stopping unwanted development; their consent now matters, in a legal sense. Challenges remain, though, such as deciding which bodies control said consent, and funding the legal processes that bring precedents and theoretical claims into tangible tools for stewardship. Blockades may be unnecessary some day, but for now my friends remain ready to answer calls to defend the land.

A knock at the door brings Caden Jakesta, an 11 year-old whose credentials as a woodsman far outstretch any of ours; last week Caden got his first moose. His track record as an activist speaks for itself, as well; in 2013, he joined his community in the Tl’abane, outspoken in his opposition to Fortune Minerals. Caden got a snowboard for Christmas this year, and when Tamo introduced us as boarders he looked at us like maybe we could hang. “Going snowboarding today?” he asks Tamo, “sliding hill?” A quick survey of the room has everybody in, and we grab our boards.

It’s a strange feeling, walking through Iskut towards the toboggan hill. I feel as if I’m out of place with my board under my arm. The locals we pass, though, are not phased; they wave hello. It seems they’re used to snowboarding, more so since meeting Tamo, anyway. He’s happy and energetic, the same as he is walking through Whistler Village or Farellones, Chile. I’m glad to know that side of him exists up here.

We take a few runs on the small slope, laughing and helping Caden learn to ollie, before fashioning a slalom course with bucked rounds of wood. For hours we lose ourselves to the rhythm of moving up and down the hill. Tamo looks at me and sees the smile on my face. There’s a sort of satisfaction in his eyes, like he’s managed to express himself. “This is snowboarding,” he says, before heading for another run.

In this moment, Tamo has a sort of venerable air—he’s one of the people who spreads snowboarding as a wonderful and unlikely expression of the human spirit. He’s a diplomat, an ambassador for snowboarding. He’s showing grassroots communities that the energy inherent to our way of life can be channeled into meaningful contributions to the preservation of our planet, and by riding with people like Caden, who told us that he’s going to ride every peak we could see, he’s spreading our sideways method of interpreting the world. Tamo sees the same thing in the Sacred Headwaters that he sees in the Kootenays, in the Andes, in the Coast Mountains. He sees gravity, slope, and snow. And because of his work, Caden does, too.