February 11, 2010

The Flathead: a celebration

British Columbia's Flathead Valley is a special place. In fact, it might be my favorite special place on Earth. The last undeveloped and uninhabited valley in southern Canada, it's one of the wildest of our remaining wildernesses. An international border bisects the valley, and its southern half lies in Montana where my family has a small cabin. The North Fork of the Flathead River flows through the valley bottom and forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park. (It's also a river I had the pleasure of fording a few days ago on a ski trip into the park, but that's a story for future entry.)

For now, it's enough to know that the Canadian Flathead is a stomping ground for grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, mountain lions, and every kind of toothy creature that lived there when Columbus landed. But for years this sprawling nursery for everything wild has been under threat. Turns out it's rich in more than animal life and soaring mountains. First there were proposed coal mines, then coalbed methane, then gold mines. Things didn't look good.

I started heading up to the Flathead for adventures — and for stories that could help inspire people to demand its protection. Then, just yesterday, out of the blue, the B.C. government announced that they've decided not to allow mining or energy development in the valley.

To say that I'm jumping out of my underwear with excitement is an understatement. I'm rocketing out of my underwear until it's just a speck far, far below me and I realize, wow, it's really cold up here with no underwear, but I'm so excited it doesn't matter, so I just keep rocketing and rocketing.

In other words, I'm excited.

The Flathead, wildness itself, is being protected. It may be a small victory in a world desperately in need of big ones, but it gives me joy and hope. Which are always nice to have.

To celebrate the news, I'm sharing pictures from a day last summer when my friend Greg Peters and I rode our bicycles to the top of a mountain overlooking the headwaters of the Flathead River. A coal-mining corporation had proposed a massive mountaintop-removal mine there and the B.C. government was giving them a tacit green light. We wanted to see the mountain for ourselves before it was gone. So we loaded up backpacks with spartan camping gear and set off...

As we climbed higher up the mountain we began seeing coal seams in the exposed rock.

Met this porcupine along the way. He reminded me of the Lorax somehow. Like he was the guardian of the forest.

Navigating a maze of exploratory tracks cut by the mining company, we found our way to the mountaintop.

There are actually twin summits; one is behind Greg. The cleavage between the summits was spilling over with coal.

We hiked up to one of the summits for dinner. The view was head-spinning.

For the previous five days we'd been biking and packrafting in the valley bottom, so dinner was a nice chance to get a bigger look at the world we'd been exploring below.

Looking west towards Fernie.

The view from one summit to the other. Both would have been destroyed by the mine.

This is me. In my ultralightiest clothes. At first I tried to smile, but given that we were standing on a mountain that was in danger of being decapitated, it didn't feel like the right thing to do. So I decided to look serious instead. Very serious. Now that the mountain is saved, I wish I'd smiled.

I hiked up to the other peak and slept there, back to the ground, the Universe overhead. Just before I fell asleep, wolves howled in the valley below.

Took this at 2:00 a.m. Camera was resting on a hand-built column of rocks. That's the moon on the upper right. The orange light behind my pack is actually coming from the city of Calgary, about 150 miles distant.
Brightest stars I've ever seen. Lying there felt like floating through space.

This was taken just before sunrise. The distant mountains are in Montana and Glacier Park. The forested mountains along the ridge ahead would have been destroyed by the mine.

But thankfully, they won't be. Those mountains aren't going anywhere. We can still climb them. We can still ride bicycles down them. All the explorers and lovers of this place, and all of the magnificent animals that live there, can rejoice in the knowledge that the Flathead Valley is still one of the wildest wildernesses we have left. 


  1. Thankyou for that tale. Coal should always stay in the ground. I think this is a valuable time to think about the environmental cost of all our lightweight gear, and remember that it is creating the energy, largely from coal, to make this stuff, that has a hand in destroying our planet.

  2. Great photo story Aaron. What an epic landscape... I need to go back and really explore that place one day.

  3. Love the 'active exploration' image. Send that one to Frends of the Flathead! Do you think Class A NP status in there would ever favor opening the border again? A free-flowing (like the N. Fork) top-to-bottom Great Divide route would be a dream come true.

  4. Teas: great story!! i love the 2am photo. am i violating any copywrite if i make that my desktop pic for a while? ie, want to avoid you single-tracking over my face. i know, my cycle-speak is so advanced.

  5. Great comments.

    Sarah: couldn't agree more. And it's not just lightweight gear, of course, but all manufactured products we buy, electricity we use, etc. Ironically, the coal from that mountain was going to be shipped to Japan and used in the steel-making process. We might not have wanted the mountain mined, but we rode there on steel bicycles. Less consumption, more recycling, and green energy sources will all help us move forward.

    Cass: when you go back, I'll join you.

    ML: I'd be surprised if they ever opened the border again. On one hand I want them to -- it would make it much easier to get in there. On the other hand, it would make it much easier to get in there.

    Jer: Of course you can use it as your desktop image. You can send a check to me at...

  6. Truly a great post Aaron. And the comments are interesting as well. It is difficult. We live in a world that really promotes consumption. And yes, some consumption is necessary. But lots of it isn't. Hell, I work in the bike biz and part of my job is to encourage consumption. That is sometimes a tough spot for me to be in. Knowing humanity, I don't know how this could ever happen...but wouldn't it be nice if we could raise the standard of living of the poorest by X amount. And at the same time decrease the standard of living of the wealthiest by X amount...and find some sort of middle ground. That might mean less consumption...and a better chance for the future generations.

  7. Aaron,

    What a great read - and great photos. Having lived in Glacier for a couple seasons, having skiied at both Fernie, and having hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail in its entirety I'm in love with the Flathead valley, and the entire area surrounding the Waterton/Glacier Peace Park.

    The stories of the coalbed methane mining that loomed when I lived up there were so incredibly disheartening and now, the waters of my home state of Minnesota are being threatened by Sulfide Copper mining. To hear the news that B.C. has opted to protect this relatively uninhabited wild place is news positive enough to plant a little glimmer of hope in my liberal, tree-hugging brain. Thank you.

    - Sam

  8. WOW! just found this blog, I could only hope to explore places like that someday, thank goodness this country was left alone, there's too much country being torn up for all the wrong reasons.

  9. Stellar, Cuz. Mountain removal mining is such a scourge and seems to continue marching through and mowing down Appalachia (while "clean" and "coal" have somehow been inserted into the American lexicon), so this is indeed great news, especially given the location of this particular mountain.

  10. Interesting. Working for the B.C. Forest Service, I had the pleasure of spending much time wandering the length and breadth of the Canadian Flathead valley during the 1950's. At one point about a day and half hike north of our common boundary I stumbled onto a cave that I would have missed walking 5 or 6 ft. either side. It was high on the mountain. Inside there were stalagtites and stalagmites. At one point there was a hole in the floor about 10 feet across. I dropped a grapefruit size rock into it and never heard it bounce or hit. I packed home a beautiful yellow crystalized stalagmite weighing about 20 lbs., a tough go with all my other gear. I had a co-worker with me and to this day we have never revealed it's location nor will we lest someone vandalizes the stalagmites etc.

  11. Anonymous,

    That's an amazing story. Thanks for sharing it. That must have been a great experience in the valley in the 1950s.

    I've explored some caves on the Montana side of the border, but never anything quite like what you're describing. I'm sure there are plenty of others that haven't been discovered.

  12. Read your letter to the editor in British Columbia magazine and looked up your blog. Awesome story and photos! Thank you for sharing. I live in Vancouver B.C. and I used to visit a friend in Deer Lodge until his passing. Montana was always beautiful and people friendly. I'll certainly cherish my memories of Montana.

  13. you will more then likely enjoy this article, "Agreement to protect North Fork of Flathead from gold, coal mining finalized" posted Feb 15 2011.


    Your post was well written with great images. I hope to get to this corner of the world this summer.

  14. Beautiful Aaron! Love the photos! As a BC girl living in Montana, it's awesome to see a Montanan share his love of my home province. Having spent the summer in Missoula and this winter in Bozeman, I now consider Montana my second home!
    My mom came across your letter in the British Columbia Magazine, read your blog then told me to check it out, so glad she did! My boyfriend and I are always on the lookout for new blogs about this beautiful land we call our playground!

    Check out our blog humanpoweredmountaineers.blogspot.com

    happy exploring!


  15. Great pictures and write up. I'm interested in knowing more about how you did the packrafting w/ the bicycles and the logistics of the trip? Sounds like a great trip!!!

  16. looks like a great place to fish