oil sands

You have to start somewhere…

A beautiful double rainbow gives pause for reflection.

…so why not start at the beginning? My journey into a systems-thinking approach to life started in 2004. I was most of the way through an undergraduate degree (Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership) at Mt. Royal University, and helped plan and participate in a month-long paddling expedition on the Athabasca River (the longest undammed river in the province at 1230km).

Designed as a learning expedition, the objective was to get a first hand look at what was really going on, above and below the surface of this heritage waterway, and to communicate this knowledge to the broader public. To that end, we planned numerous stops along the way, including a festival in the town of Athabasca at the halfway mark (complete with live country music and native hoop dancing!). The trip up to this point had been full of incredible experiences. From wildlife encounters (bears, wolves, eagles, elk, deer), to encounters of the human kind (hitchiking into Hinton in the pouring rain, walking into Tim Horton’s in wetsuits and PFD’s, having the server exclaim “you’re those guys from the radio!” was quite the highlight), the trip had been an adventure of grand proportions. 

Unfortunately this blog post isn’t for telling the story of this trip, but of one peak moment that occurred near the end. A moment that has forever altered my perspective on environmentalism, sustainability and society.

We had just finished paddling through the Athabasca Oil Sands, a journey that took an entire day (we were averaging about 50km/day at that point). Needless to say, us 5 young college students (and one of our Mom’s!) were feeling pretty down and out. The scale of environmental impact was beyond anything we had ever seen or imagined. After 21 days of basically wilderness paddling, entering an industrial complex was a shock to the system. You could smell the diesel in the air from the giant trucks. Heck, you could smell the bitumen. Bird cannons were going off on a regular interval. It really felt like another planet. We were horrified and dismayed.

Not as horrified and dismayed mind you, as when the conversation that evening turned to the reality of what we had seen. With one look at our plastic canoes, plastic paddles, gore-tex jackets, gas-burning stoves and innumerable other plastic “conveniences”, we had the simultaneous realization that we were the problem. Yikes, talk about a reality check. Of course we’re the problem. Suncor and Syncrude weren’t digging that oil out because they thought it would be a nice thing to do. They were selling it, and we were buying it. Faster than they could get it out of the ground and into the pipeline. And for the first time, I really understood that. In a much more than academic sense, I felt it.

The interesting part of this story is where and how this realization came about. It was not in the classroom. It was not at the coffee shop. It was not during one of the many conversations we had engaged in about the oil sands, prior to actually experiencing the oil sands. I’ll be writing a lot about experiential learning, and its role in the change and transformation process. That trip, and the experience of the oil sands, has changed the course of my life and guided many later decisions.

Could I have come to the realization that I did on that trip without viscerally experiencing first-hand the impacts of my action on the land? Maybe. Would I have felt the realization in my gut? Pretty unlikely. Would I be blogging about it? Nope.

Food for thought…when was the last time you felt connected to the land? Where were you? What were you doing?