The crisp offshore breeze makes its way through a small opening in my hammock tent, waking me up in my winter cocoon, my happy place. In the city, I toss and turn and each night, struggling to get to sleep. Out here, despite the excitement of the deep groundswell filling in from the Aleutians, I drifted into Dreamland the instant I zipped my sleeping bag closed.
Rested and frothy, I emerge from my cocoon slung between ancient trees and take a step onto my favourite cobble beach in the whole world. Qwa:qtłis, a place with unmeasurable significance to the Pacheedaht First Nation, who have used its bounty of resources since time immemorial. It’s still dark, but glistening orange light rises from behind the towering Sitka spruce in the east.
Something is different, the usually fresh air is laden with a heavy chemical smell. I write it off as burning creosote from a neighbouring campfire from the trippers down the beach, hunkered around the fire like fungus fueled zombies.
After cowboy coffee and a banana, I squirm into my nearly frozen wetsuit. The wind is funnelling down the river valley and the tide is mid-high and rising, optimum for the peak which sustains us 75% of the time. With my wetsuit on and campfire stoked, I make my way west along the beach in the faint light of dawn. I jump into the cedar stained river and take the freshwater escalator into the sea. I am shocked by what I experience next.
As the first set wave breaks in front of me, I notice it is black and viscous. It’s not the usual yellow-brown colour it gets from trickling through ancient cedar roots. Right then it hits me, the smell I was experiencing was not from zombies down the beach, but toxic sludge from the tar sands of Alberta.
The impact of the wave jolts me awake, still in my cocoon. I fall out of my hammock, covered in sweat, groggy and confused.
The morning air is fresh as it gets.
I make a bee line for the shoreline. Wearing only long-johns, I wade into the water. It’s crystal clear and I can’t hold back. I belt out a YEW! at the top of my lungs. As I shiver back up the beach to my happy place, soaking wet from the 6°C water, I ponder what I have just experienced.
News of oil spills in faraway lands, and memories of those more local, leave me with a heavy heart. But this was different. This was my backyard, my playground, my refrigerator, my meditation hall and – sometimes – my girlfriend. The saying “not in my backyard” hit me like a bolt of lightning, and I felt a sense of urgency. The Salish Sea is at a tipping point, the choices we make now will affect the future of this unique and priceless place.
On November 29th 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the greenlight to a project that could change the face of this area forever. Approving the Kinder Morgan TransMountain Pipeline expansion would lead to an 700% increase in oil tanker traffic transiting these rich waters. Supertankers would enter my beloved Juan de Fuca Strait, travel through the San Juan and Gulf Islands, across the Strait of Georgia, into the Burrard Inlet to the export terminal in Burnaby, and then back out again. Each carrying up to 75 000 barrels of tar sands – oil, bitumen that must be diluted simply to pass through a pipe.
As surfers, we know the unpredictable character of this coastline as well as anyone, with 4 meter tides interacting with violent and sudden changes in winds. While “they” may tell us that tethered tugs and local pilots reduce the risk of incident, it is up to us to decide what risk is acceptable.
Raincoast Conservation Foundation conducted a study from 2013-2016 looking at the potential spread of oil from locations identified as “highest probability of spill events”. Releasing thousands of coded plywood cards carrying the message “This Could Be Oil”, they relied on local beach-goers to call in the destinations of these drift cards. Without exposing our local secrets, I can tell you that these cards found their way to essentially every surf spot throughout the bottom half of Vancouver Island.
Take a moment to let that sink in.
That means that in the case of a large spill, potentially every single spot we rely on to feed our froth could be laden with thick, carcinogenic sludge. Affecting not only those of us who spend our lives in the sea, but also the intricate web of life with which we share our local spots. The gray whales, bufflehead ducks and stellar sea lions, whose localism can be more aggressive than the crusty old fellas down the road. This includes the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Their population sits on a fulcrum at around 80 individuals.
Recent accidents like the relatively small diesel spills further up coast in Bella Bella and Echo Bay have shown that these spills cannot be contained, cleaned or prevented in our unpredictable waters. I am not naïve to the reality that we rely on oil for many aspects of our surfing lives. From boards, wax and wetsuits, to the long and windy road which brings us to the goods, oil is ever-present. While we do need to reduce our consumption and look for alternatives to petroleum wherever we can, the Kinder Morgan proposal is about supplying foreign markets with oil at a discounted rate. After the initial construction buzz has worn off we will be left with 50 permanent jobs in BC, in contrast with the 20 000 jobs in nature based tourism in the Salish Sea alone. Why should we risk our vibrant coastal economy and environment to benefit so few?
So what now? Raincoast, other NGOs, and several First Nations have already launched lawsuits to stop the pipeline expansion. Their efforts are worthy of our support. This August the new BC Provincial Government stepped up its involvement in the process, and is now an intervener in the court process. While this is a positive step forward, the options in their toolbox to halt the project are limited as construction permits are being finalized and construction is slated to begin this September. Beyond the courts, the most effective vehicle to stop projects is protest. While an uncomfortable option to consider for some, recent protests against bigotry, political corruption and other environmental struggles have attracted large, diverse groups. And change has come at a furious pace. For Kinder Morgan, a combination of the looming threat of non-violent civil disobedience and rising costs, the feasibility of their proposal dwindles. As people of this coast we stand to lose so much, and gain so little. When the time comes, where will you be? Will you be on the streets, peacefully standing up for what matters to you?
A version of this article was publsihed at SBC Surf.