Site C campers settle in, but what happens next is anyone's guess (with video)

There are three ways to get to the Rocky Mountain Fort, the remote historic site on the banks of the Peace River where a band of Site C opponents are intent on holding the line against the dam.

You can drive, a roughly three-hour one-way trip from Fort St. John that involves unpaved, unplowed roads and a 20-minute snowmobile ride into the valley.

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You can take a boat upstream, if you can find one this time of year, through the fog and the earth movers working in the freezing river, to a frozen bank upstream from the Moberly.

Or, you can take a helicopter.

campWhen I arrived at the camp Saturday (I went with option two), I did a double take when Ken Boon, a prominent dam opponent, eagerly offered to show my guide the landing pad he had bushwhacked on the banks of the Peace. When environmentalist David Suzuki and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip dropped into the camp on Tuesday, they took option three. 

In the past week, it's become clear: the Rocky Mountain Fort is well-equipped, gaining profile and probably not going anywhere anytime soon. What happens next is anyone's guess.

Over the weekend, I tagged along on an upriver supply run to the fort. For 20 freezing minutes, I sat in the fetal position in a pile of cargo—hand warmers, a tent, some frozen food, cans of gasoline, and, crucially, a box of fresh fruit.

When we launched from Taylor, the temperature hovered around -25 C. My guide is Bob Fedderly, owner of a trucking company and a critic of the dam. Our captain, who wished not to be named, is a businessman who has some skin in the game with Hydro. Fedderly mentions in passing that if we're stopped by a Hydro riverboat, he and the captain will switch places to avoid potential fallout.

The fog is thick, and I spend the first 15 minutes or so hunkered down, wondering why I did this and debating (melodramatically, it turns out) the merits of drowning versus freezing to death.

camp2I snap out of it when we spot the first crane. It appears out of the fog on the south bank, where the forest is being cleared to build a temporary construction bridge over the river. To our right there are excavators wading in the water, dredging up river bottom and dumping it into haul trucks.

Soon, we're upstream from the dam site. The mouth of the Moberly River comes into view, along with a deforested section of the south bank. This is the work the campers have brought to a halt.

We nose into shore by a pair of signs. One, hung from the foliage, reads "Infringement on Treaty Land" in green paint. Another, driven into the river bottom and poking out of the waterline, declares the area a B.C. Historical Site (Rocky Mountain Fort was an 18th century fur trade post).

We've found it.

Fedderly lashes the boat to a tree, and he and the captain begin to unload. I claw open a box of handwarmers, desperately trying to restore some feeling. The captain looks at my puny ski gloves and offers a pair of mittens from the glovebox. They extend to my elbows, as gloves in this part of the world should, and I realize I'm not good at this whole winter thing.

We begin to clomp through the bush, and cross a frozen backwater of the Peace. Later, when we're crossing this ice on the return trip, we hear a helicopter overhead. Figuring it's BC Hydro, someone suggests we duck into the bush. I don't think they were being dramatic.

camp7Soon, we reach a sled trail. The adrenaline wears off and a sense of the surreal sets in. Tied to the trees are red ribbons, marking the right-of-way for a logging road slated for the flat, as well as road signs advising of impending tree felling. Then, other signs come into view—the counter point. They've been placed there by members of Treaty 8, the association that represents six area First Nations. Two of those nations are in court to stop the project. One of the signs reads "NO CUTTING: TREATY 8 TERRITORY." Another: "NO SITE C DAM." It's a PR battle in the wilderness.

"This will all be underwater, right?" I ask dumbly, knowing full well we're upstream from the dam. Yes, says Fedderly, reckoning the reservoir will be about 120 feet deep here. The stand of birch trees we're walking through average 80 feet, he says.

After a few minutes, we emerge at the camp.

Four or five people are crowded into a yellow shack with a wood heater. There's a tent or two, a snowmobile, a few boxes of supplies, including some barbed wire. Inside, clothes are hung to dry. There's a radio, a stove, and a book of card games. Down an embankment is the "helipad" and the camp's water source, a frozen section of the Peace that Boon found by stepping through.

Some of the people here I recognize, some I do not. I speak with a woman from the Sunshine Coast who has travelled here to join the protest, and we discuss the merits of dry versus damp cold. There are complaints about Saulteau Security, Hydro's security contractor, who make periodic passes through the camp (some campers have, unfortunately, taken to referring to this group by its initials). 

camp4I head up to the "front" while the others unload. Along the way, I cross paths with two guards in blue coveralls, headed towards the camp. I identify myself, we comment on the cold, then part ways.

Soon, I reach the high water mark of construction. Two feller-bunchers sit idle near a campfire where three women are gathered. Felled trees lie scattered around a landscape of mud and ice. "Front" is an accurate description.

I approach the fire. One of the women, Yvonne Tupper, welcomes me to Treaty 8 territory. There's a copy of The Inconvenient Indian on a log next to some mittens, and a small frying pan with some burning plant matter for smudging.

We chat about the boat ride, and how my eyelashes are frozen. Somehow, the militia camp in Oregon comes up (there have been some far-fetched comparisons), and they laugh at Ammon Bundy.

Pretty soon, it's clear they've taken exception to some of the reporting on the camp, including my own. In particular, they have a problem with the use of the words "protest" and "blockade" to describe what's happening at the Rocky Mountain Fort.

camp3As much as I see this as a distinction without difference (after all, work has stopped here as a result of the camp), I ask them to explain.

Tupper, a Saulteau First Nations member, takes the lead, telling me about a trip up the Moberly with an elder, and his memories of traplines and campsites.

As controversial as Site C is in Peace Region cities, it's probably doubly so in First Nations communities. People from all the Treaty 8 nations in B.C. have passed through the camp—some who have family members on the other side of the Moberly, logging.

"Now that the construction is real, and we're on it... we need an opportunity to do our ceremonies to thank the rivers," she said. "They need to let go."

I ask whether this means saying goodbye to the river.

Another camper, Verena Hofmann, responds in the negative.

"People are in heavy burden and stress and are going through a lot of emotion and need healing," she said, saying that "some are spiritual that are coming here."

camp5We talk like this for about 20 minutes. At one point during our conversation, the security guards come back. Everyone pulls out their cell phones to document the exchange. There isn't much of one—I assume everything has been said at this point. "Missing something?" asks one of the men, handing me a mitten I had dropped while fumbling with my camera. Again, bad at winter.

Boon soon arrives on a snowmobile, and tells me the captain is anxious to leave. Boat parts are freezing, and daylight is limited. I ask him to give me the five-minute version of the story for my camera, which is nearly dead from the cold. He talks about the court cases, the utilities commission, the three arrests at a Site C protest earlier in the week.

"We're peaceful type people, and we've reluctantly come to this point. But there comes a point where you have to step up—that time has come," he said. We head back on the sled. 


As we push off into the river, I wonder how this all ends. Has B.C., with its history of Wars in the Woods and battles over resource extraction, seen anything like this? There have been protest camps, of course. Dozers and fellers have sat idle over land claims and treaties before. But in -25 C, on a remote riverbank, with a helipad and a group of people experienced in the backcountry? In that way, I suspect the Rocky Mountain Fort is unique.

The campers hope relief will come from the courts, and this is probably the most realistic avenue. So far, though, lawsuits from both First Nations and landowners have struck out.

Camp6Others hope Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have a second look at the environmental permits granted by the previous government, a possibility that seems more remote. Some First Nations leaders have called the dam a "critical litmus test" for the new government's pledge to improve relations with Aboriginal people. When I get home, I do a cursory Google search to see if Trudeau has ever publicly said the words "Site C." I don't think he has.

Or, there's more protest. Many have long suspected this would happen, that a Site C blockade was inevitable. And if the camp is still there in the summer months, more will come.

Some will come because they believe the dam is wrong. Others will come because it is an adventure— being out in the wilderness, railing against an "evil empire"—there are people who live for this type of thing. BC Hydro, for its part, says it's evaluating its options, which could include a court injunction.

With all that in mind, it's not hard to imagine Rocky Mountain Forts up and down the valley. What happens next is anyone's guess.


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