US-Canada Wildlife Corridor Proposed

ON ONE OF THE FINAL LEGS of his 3,400-km trek between Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park and Watson Lake, Yukon, Karsten Heuer watched helplessly as his travelling companion and future wife, Leanne Allison, struggled to follow him across the churning, bone-chilling Akie River in the northern B.C.

US-Canada Wildlife Corridor Proposed

ON ONE OF THE FINAL LEGS of his 3,400-km trek between Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park and Watson Lake, Yukon, Karsten Heuer watched helplessly as his travelling companion and future wife, Leanne Allison, struggled to follow him across the churning, bone-chilling Akie River in the northern B.C. Rockies. Allison had managed to swim only halfway across when she drifted past the point where Heuer knew the press of rapids could sweep her into a narrow, jagged canyon - risking serious injury and perhaps death. "It was my best friend in there," Heuer would later write, "and it was more than responsibility that twisted my heart." At last, Allison escaped the river's grasp and, after a few tired strokes, kicked bottom hard enough to break the surface of the water and land on shore. "That's it," she muttered as Heuer hugged and kissed her, "that's my limit."

For Heuer, the drama on the river provoked some soul-searching about the expedition he undertook in support of an ambitious proposal to carve out a conservation corridor from Yellowstone to the Yukon. It was one thing to put his own life on the line, hiking, skiing and canoeing through wilderness where ferocious storms, the threat of avalanches and encounters with grizzly bears were an almost daily fact of life. It was quite another to put those he loved at risk. But Allison, 34, who first met Heuer, also 34, in kindergarten in Calgary, is plainly his match - and soulmate. Sharing Heuer's passion for what is often dubbed the Y2Y initiative, Allison joined him in 1999 for the most perilous part of the trek, from Jasper National Park in west-central Alberta to northeastern British Columbia. This spring, the Calgary-based couple will embark on a similar adventure, following the migration route of the 120,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd from central Yukon to northeastern Alaska.

As with Y2Y, the motive for the coming trip is to raise public awareness - this time about President George Bush's stated desire to lift the prohibition on drilling for oil in the caribou's Alaskan calving grounds near the Arctic Ocean. And once again, Heuer and Allison will hike and ski for up to 3,000 km along potentially treacherous terrain. "Accepting physical risks is all part of it," explains Allison. "Otherwise you become paralyzed by fear."

As Heuer recounts in his recently published book, Walking the Big Wild: From Yellowstone to the Yukon on the Grizzly Bears' Trail, fear is a frequent companion when you venture into the untamed spaces that still exist on the edges of modern society. A wildlife biologist who works as a seasonal park warden in Banff National Park and Ivvavik National Park in the northwest corner of the Yukon, Heuer was inspired to do his trek after learning about the Y2Y initiative, which was first proposed in the early 1990s. It has since evolved into a binational campaign involving over 160 conservation organizations. The idea behind Y2Y is that wide-roaming predators at the top of the food chain, such as bears, wolverines and wolves, require extremely large habitats. For example, scientists estimate that, for grizzlies to thrive, at least 2,000 individual bears must be able to interact to avoid inbreeding and to absorb and recover from food shortages, disease and disturbances like fire. To sustain that number of grizzlies, they say, would require more than 120,000 sq. km of land - an area 20 times the size of Banff National Park.

Setting aside that amount of land is untenable, so conservationists propose a series of corridors linking existing parks and reserves from central Wyoming to the northern Yukon. In the context of the 1.2-million-sq.-km expanse of the Y2Y study area, that means creating a series of passageways up to 50 km in width through which animals can, in effect, move from one wilderness island to another. Already, though, development pressures in regions like the Bow Valley, near Banff, Alta., have choked off such routes.

Heuer wanted to experience the terrain first-hand and draw attention to the Y2Y vision. On June 6, 1998, he set out from Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs in the company of his former girlfriend, Maxine Achurch, and his intrepid six-year-old border collie, Webster. The plan called for 190 travel days over an 18-month period through the Rocky, Columbia and Mackenzie mountain ranges. Most of the trip was to be on foot, but there would also be 400 km of skiing, 500 km of paddling, and 80 km of horseback riding. There were, as well, several stops at communities along the way to promote the Y2Y vision through town hall meetings and talking to the media.

Unhappily, the stress of planning the trek left Heuer and Achurch barely on speaking terms. Their bickering only intensified on the trail and, after about 300 km, Achurch pulled out. Heuer and Webster continued on until Jasper, after which Heuer knew he needed human companions for the tricky ski trip and river crossings that lay ahead. Two old friends, Jay Honeyman and Allison, joined him for the ski portion, with Allison staying on for the final push to the Yukon.

Early on, Heuer decided to rely on grizzly tracks as his best guide through the wilderness. To his surprise, he found fresh evidence of the bears, including scat and paw prints, along 85 per cent of the route. There were also several encounters of the closer and scarier kind. At one point, a 300-lb. grizzly ambled within 20 m of Heuer, as he sat terrified and still, praying Webster wouldn't bark until the bear passed by (his prayers were answered). At another, he became aware a black bear was stalking him, as if looking for an easy meal. With only a creek separating him and the bear, Heuer unleashed a torrent of screams and madly tossed rocks across the water. One hit the bear with a thud, sending the animal scurrying. "After a few minutes," recalls Heuer, "I could hear the creek over the sound of my heartbeat again and, mustering up some nerve, shouted my way back to camp."

At other times, Heuer and Allison threaded along avalanche zones, ever aware of the apocalypse that could strike at any minute. "I feel small on these slopes," Heuer later wrote in his journal, "looking up, always looking up, waiting for the world to come crashing down. All around us are reminders of the dangers we court, places where the debris from past avalanches lies in jumbles of broken trees and chunks of ice and snow. It's impossible to get across such devastation on skis, and so we crawl around them on all fours, hurrying as fast as we can."

A few months later, the snow long gone, Heuer and Allison faced a different challenge - swarms of bugs so intense that even headnets, long pants and thick-sleeved shirts couldn't protect them. "This evening," Heuer wrote in his journal, "I lie on my back cheering as a wasp on the nylon roof stuffs mosquito after mosquito into its tiny mouth. It makes me so happy I can't help but wonder if I'm already going a little crazy."

Overall, Heuer was impressed by how much of the Y2Y area remains wild. Creating the proposed corridors, he says, has more to do with preserving what exists than restoring and reclaiming land. But there are some stark exceptions. Perhaps the worst, says Heuer, is the Crowsnest Pass region of southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia, where a potent mix of tourism, logging, mining and oil and gas development is putting wildlife on the run.

Not surprisingly, the Y2Y concept has met with vigorous opposition from some resource companies in the region. During his community presentations, Heuer had to contend with a major campaign by the B.C. Forest Alliance, a lobby group funded by the logging industry. Among other things, the alliance claimed the Y2Y initiative would result in the loss of 80,000 jobs as well as $5.4 billion in provincial gross domestic product annually. Heuer says such figures are based on the assumption that Y2Y means the creation of one huge 1.2-million-sq.-km park, instead of a reserve network covering only a fraction of that. While there would be a significant economic impact, Heuer maintains that, with proper planning and foresight, resource extraction, human activity and wildlife can all coexist.

For Heuer and Allison, the Y2Y trek was an affair of the heart in more ways than one. The trip confirmed they weren't merely friends; the couple wed this fall. With the upcoming expedition to Alaska, which Allison intends to document on film and Heuer hopes to recount in another book, they are taking their partnership to the next level. "It feels like a real privilege to be able to work on projects like this," observes Allison. "And I think we've just scratched the surface."

See also WILDLIFE CONSERVATION AND MANAGEMENT.

Maclean's January 27, 2003