Save the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River

For the Welland Tribune: by Adam Shoalts

Deep in the Canadian wilderness, some 400 kilometres north of Lake Superior, I paddled along a wild, majestic river with my friend Wesley Crowe in the summer of 2004. We were awed by the river’s remoteness its ancient forests, the abundance of wildlife, and the intensity of the white water rapids.

As a lover of wilderness travel, I knew I had found a gem in terms of pristine, unspoiled wilderness—something that is increasingly difficult to find these days.

Unfortunately, in the twenty-first century the world’s once vast reaches of unsettled wilderness are by and large a thing of the past. The population explosion of the twentieth combined with industrialization left the previously green spaces of the earth ravaged, depleted, and in many cases, altogether vanished.

Humans have trampled over every last corner of the earth’s land surface, and roads, human habitation, and pollution of one sort or another can be found even in the deepest pockets of remaining wilderness.

Yet this river we were travelling, the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat, seemed to be a miraculous exception to all this. Here in Canada, successive provincial and federal governments have been guilty of taking the country’s wilderness for granted; erroneously believing it was sufficiently vast to endure forever.

As a result of this major misconception, comparatively little of Canada’s great stretches of wild were protected, and hence the reason it is hard to find much pure wilderness remaining today.

It therefore came as welcomed news when the federal government recently announced that the fame Nahanni River in the North-West Territories would be further protected by the expansion of the existing Nahanni National Park Reserve.

The Nahanni River is a sublime place of towering limestone canyons, raging white water rapids, and spectacular waterfalls.

While I personally have not as of yet canoed the Nahanni River, I have canoed a river that surpasses the Nahanni in remoteness and nearly equals it in majesty, but has nothing of the Nahanni’s renown.

After graduating from high school, my friend and I wanted to attempt to canoe the remotest, most untouched river that we could find.  Naturally then, we focused our attention on one of the largest intact areas of wilderness left on earth, the vast stretch of boreal forest and muskeg that covers the far northern part of Ontario.

We selected for our trip the almost unheard of Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River system, a 750-kilometre waterway that slices through the heart of this last great wilderness before emptying into James Bay.

I was awe-struck by the beauty of this wild river, and afterwards recounted the tale of our journey in my book, Sense of Adventure, published last year by Cedar Tree Press.

While the upper section of the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat is partially protected by a provincial park, the lower section is Crown land and thus remains unprotected from industrial projects.

As a result of poor, short-term polices, or rather a lack of polices by the provincial and federal governments, Ontario’s far north is now under ever-increasing threat from industrial development projects, especially mining and logging. This includes the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River.

De Beers, a South African diamond conglomerate, has plans to establish what would be Ontario’s first diamond mine, on the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River, approximately 90 kilometres inland from the James Bay coast.

Despite calls from numerous conservation and environmental groups to halt this ecologically destructive project, De Beers has been granted the go-ahead and construction is expected to commence in 2008.

If built, the mine will necessitate the construction of roads and hydro corridors penetrating into the depths of this wilderness, a giant open-pit mine over two kilometres in width, as well as an industrial complex.

The muskeg surrounding the proposed site of the mine must be drained, which will irrevocably destroy the area’s natural environment. A massive amount of water, 100,000 cubic metres or roughly 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools, is expected to be daily pumped out of the diamond pit and into the nearby river.

It is believed that at least 5,000 sqaure hectares will be affected by the mine, thus forever runing this magnificent land. The river itself is almost certain to become contaiminated, and numerous animal species, including the threatened woodland caribou, will lose a huge portion of their habitat.

With the Ontario provincial election looming, now may be the last chance for concerned citizens to make their voices heard on this urgent issue.

I for one think it is high time to make our politicians realize that wantonly destroying the last great wilderness of the world in order to satisfy the greed of foreign mineral companies is little short of madness.

Pristine, unspoiled wilderness is rarer than diamonds these days, hence the reason I believe we should save this river—the real gem—from suffering the same fate of all too many other wild places.