The Road to Hope — Part 2: Dawson Creek
Four years ago I decided to travel across Northern British Columbia with my two kids and a veteran cinematographer to learn more about where our energy comes from. Along the way, we spoke to local residents about the ways their communities are being impacted for better or for worse.
Departing for Dawson Creek
Things began to move quickly once we left Smithers. We drove until we reached the town of Chetwynd, which proudly states that it is the chainsaw art capital of the world. They back up this claim with a plethora of chainsaw art pieces placed prominently throughout the town, some of which were staggeringly intricate and detailed. I couldn’t imagine how someone had actually “carved” these statues with a chainsaw, but the only other explanation — that the entire town was in on a massive ruse — seemed even less plausible.
We stopped at a local Japanese restaurant for some dinner before calling it a night. I have to note what a treat it was to find a Japanese restaurant. Other than Smithers, which also had a Japanese restaurant, the food options so far had been extremely limited. If we weren’t happy eating fast food, our other options were generally slightly fancier diners. The one Chinese restaurant that we had found in Vanderhoof looked like it was straight out of the 1970s, and when we were informed that they had run out of rice, the kids and I decided to go elsewhere. Louis opted to stay, a decision he ultimately regretted.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to live with such limited options every day. After less than a week, we were already starved for the widely available, varied, and high-quality cuisine that we could find at home.
The next morning we left Chetwynd, driving past a massive lumber yard which seemed larger than the town itself.
Bound for Dawson Creek, we took another long windy road, now in the comfort of our late-model rental van. The landscape had changed considerably over the course of our travels. From the fertile farmland of the Fraser Valley, to the arid terrain of the Thompson Okanagan, to the rainforests of BC’s coastal areas. Now that we were staying near the same latitude, the amount of vegetation didn’t change as drastically, but the actual trees and plants were different. We also hit our first patches of rain. As the rain slowed, we spotted a pipeline at the side of the road, and stopped to take a closer look. Although there are a number of pipelines throughout the province, they’re generally hidden away from view, so this was a unique opportunity. Up close it was surprising how large it was. I don’t know what type of fuel it carried or what line it was a part of — there was no signage — so we simply observed, grabbed some images, and moved on.
By late afternoon, we were nearing Dawson Creek. As we approached, the first things we spotted were the wind turbines, high on a ridge that stretched for miles. We didn’t know the route to the wind farm, but the turbines were at such a high elevation that we were able to use them as our north star. As we traveled closer, we managed to get a bunch of shots of the turbines from different angles. When we finally started ascending towards the ridge, the van nearly got stuck, as the road was extremely muddy and full of potholes, but we finally made it to the top where we were able to get some stunning images of the turbines in action. We could not believe the massive size of these apparatus in person. It’s difficult to convey the massiveness of the machinery, but one way to put them into perspective is through a photo that I captured. One turbine blade had been removed and loaded onto a semi-trailer for repair. On its own, the one blade was the full length of an extended flatbed!
We took another route back to town, as we were entering “magic hour” when the light is particularly beautiful, and we managed to get some shots of more turbines in the distance. These shots were difficult to get though, as the wind on the ridge was incredibly intense, and even with sandbags holding our tripod down, there was quite a bit of camera shake. Nevertheless, we got what we could, then headed into town to get some dinner and rest.
Dawson Creek was the largest town that we’d been to since venturing north (with the exception of Prince George, where we had arrived late at night and left early in the morning). That being the case, they had more dining options, and we intended to take advantage. We stopped in at a high-end chain restaurant, the idea being that each of us (especially the kids) could get what they wanted. It struck me how busy the restaurant was, and how many brand new trucks were in the parking lot. We weren’t sure if these were all long-time residents of the area, or if many of these people were there for short-term work in oil and gas, but there was clearly money flowing into town. The atmosphere was loud and boisterous, and we didn’t last long before we decided to head back to our hotel to prepare for the following day’s interview.
Bright and early the next morning we were at the office of Don Pettit. Don was quite an enigma. He had long been a commercial photographer in the area, and had photographed most of the major industry near Dawson Creek; however, at this stage, he had all but retired from commercial photography and was involved in a number of renewable energy initiatives. One of these was focused on solar energy for residential use, and the other was a local cooperative that co-owned the wind farm that we had seen outside Dawson Creek. We initially chatted at his office but decided to conduct the interview outside his home. We followed him to the outskirts of town and onto a small road surrounded by trees. After following a winding foot path, we spotted his house in a clearing. It was clad with solar panels, of course, and yet had the appearance of a tree house. It seemed to fit him perfectly.
Don was a fascinating fount of knowledge. He shared a wealth of information that we couldn’t fit into the video, including the history of the wind farm cooperative and the intricacies of feeding power back into the grid from solar panels on your home. Some of the most fascinating information was related to natural gas in the area. It seemed that the industry was pervasive and had impacted the entire region. Everything from the impact on local farms, where farmers were being paid to let pipelines run under their fields, to the bloating of the population with temporary workers who were putting a strain on services. One of the most striking things that I wish I could have seen for myself was the fracking stations. According to Don, these could be found every few miles, and could be seen quite easily from above; basically a patchwork that covered the entire area. We could attest to this; the fracking station access roads are easily identifiable along the highway, and they were literally every few miles. That said, if you didn’t know what to look for, you would simply not know where these roads lead. The fracking stations themselves are almost all hidden away behind the trees. We were lucky enough to see one fracking pad, which appears in the video, but if we were filming today, I would have hired a drone to film from a bird’s eye view.
After parting ways with Don, we spent a few hours investigating Dawson Creek. We visited the centre of town, which featured well-preserved early twentieth century architecture and a monument marking “Mile 0” of the Alaska Highway. We also spent some time at a historic area that was a recreation of Dawson Creek at the turn of the century. Louis and I had been so busy up to this point, especially with all of our technical difficulties and being behind schedule, so it was a real treat to have some time to unwind and explore with the kids.
The next morning, we traveled to Tumbler Ridge to try to get a look at the mine located there. Much like Kitimat, Tumbler Ridge was a town purpose-built for industry, in this case to support the local coal mine. The mine, however, had been closed for some time and, not surprisingly, the town was in decline. The town itself had an eerie quality; everything was quite new, but it also had a ghostly feel to it, like it was there but not there. Perhaps this was in part coloured by my knowledge of the local economy, but the lack of energy felt palpable. We quickly realized that we weren’t going to be able to get anywhere near the mine, as it was accessed by a private road. We turned back toward our last stop, Hudson’s Hope. (The mine has since been purchased by a foreign investor and is producing coal again.)