Interview with Arno Kopecky: Sailing the Northern Gateway

Travel Interviews: Arno Kopecky spent months sailing along a proposed oil tanker route off British Columbia. Eva Holland talks to him about the new travel book that resulted from the voyage.

04.08.14 | 10:58 AM ET

The misty, storm-wracked tangle of islands and jagged shoreline of British Columbia’s isolated central coast is home to bald eagles, orcas, dolphins and humpback whales, spawning wild salmon and halibut and shellfish, grizzlies and black bears and, most famously, the rare white spirit bear. But these days, the area is best known as the outlet for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry bitumen—a thick, heavy variety of crude oil—from Alberta’s oil sands across the mountains to the small town of Kitimat, B.C. From Kitimat, tankers would take the load across the Pacific to the oil-hungry Asian market. A final federal government decision on the project is due in June—after which, the protestors and lawyers are likely to have their say.

Journalist Arno Kopecky spent the summer of 2012 sailing a 41-foot boat called Foxy from Vancouver Island to Kitimat and back, exploring the waters of the proposed tanker route, meeting the people and observing the ecosystems that stand to lose everything if the project is approved and one of those tankers were ever to rupture. The result is The Oil Man and the Sea, a beautifully written travelogue—backed by careful environmental and political reporting—that has just been named a finalist for British Columbia’s Hubert Evans nonfiction book prize. I emailed Kopecky at his home north of Vancouver to chat about the book.

World Hum: How did this sailing journey come together? Did you consider other options, like hiking or traveling overland along the proposed pipeline route, or was the water really at the heart of it for you?

Arno Kopecky: It was always about the ocean. Not that the terrestrial pipeline route itself doesn’t deserve attention, but the risks of a major oil tanker spill are an order of magnitude greater than those associated with the pipeline; three years ago it didn’t seem like that side of the story was getting much attention. Also, I’ve lived on this coast for almost 20 years. I surf here and I eat local seafood several times a week, so the marine aspect is much closer to home for me. But I wasn’t contemplating any kind of Northern Gateway journey until my friend Ilja Herb, the photographer whose pictures are in the book, bought a 41-foot sailboat at the end of 2011. We were both looking for a new project to take on, and that sailboat was like a backstage pass to this immense coastal labyrinth called the Great Bear Rainforest, where the oil tankers would be sailing in and out of Kitimat if the project were approved. It’s a tough place to report on, because there are no roads and only a couple of airports in an area the size of Switzerland; also, not a lot of motel options. Having a sailboat and over three months to trip around opened a hundred doors at once.

In some ways this is a classic fish-out-of-water (or writer-in-over-his-head) travelogue, in that you didn’t know how to sail when you set out. Was it a challenge to balance the lightheartedness of minor mishaps and ineptitude with the more serious reporting you were doing?

Yep. Why should anyone take my critique of a federally-approved Marine Safety Plan seriously when I can barely tie a bowline? My first draft read like it was written by two different narrators, one a hapless traveler and the other an investigative journalist. Merging those two, or at least smoothing the transitions between them, was a major concern. I’m not sure how well I pulled it off, but I felt I had to try keeping both in there. I wanted “Oil Man” to be fun as well as informative—a book that people who might not otherwise be drawn to politics or environmental science could potentially enjoy.

After reading it, I was left feeling pretty devastated about how vulnerable those culturally and environmentally rich waters are to destruction. But near the end of the book, you were feeling optimistic about their fate. Can you explain why?

For one thing, BC’s central coast has already survived over a century of intense industrial resource extraction; the fishing and logging industries took their pounds of flesh from the coastal ecosystem long before Enbridge [Editor’s note: Enbridge is the Canadian energy company behind the project] came along. But those industries have been scaled back massively in the past two decades, and the extent to which the ocean and forests have recovered during that time is a pretty encouraging testament to the resilience of nature. There’s still some healing to do—many salmon and herring stocks, for example, are at a fraction of their former numbers, and all those logged-out watersheds won’t be old-growth again any time soon. But in general, the system is bouncing back, and just knowing that it can do so strikes me as a source of rational hope.

Now of course there’s another knife at the Great Bear Rainforest’s throat, and that’s the energy industry. With respect to Enbridge, I was optimistic after my trip, and remain so after the Joint Review Panel’s conditional approval, that the project will never actually go ahead. Enbridge badly underestimated the power of First Nations to stop this thing in court, just as they did with the MacKenzie Valley Pipeline. Now the company is hustling like mad to rebuild burnt bridges. My sense is that it’s too little too late. What will go ahead, though, is a big increase in tanker traffic thanks to Liquified Natural Gas, which there doesn’t seem to be any stopping. Natural gas is a far less risky substance to ship through volatile waters than bitumen, but there’s no question that BC’s central coast is heading into a new period of industry. The question is whether we can strike a better balance between ecosystems and human economies than we have in the past. I’m optimistic by nature, and I think we can.

Any plans for another sailing voyage? What is Foxy up to these days?

Foxy is moored in Victoria; she’s Ilja’s boat and as far as I know he doesn’t have grand nautical notions for the immediate future. Neither do I. We had a true adventure, and I would happily go sailing again, but probably not with a book hanging over my head. So I’ll stick to the writing and leave the sailing to those who know it best.

And finally, I have to ask—the Hemingway homage in the book’s title. Your idea?

My idea. Popped into my head a couple months before we set sail. As it turned out, we did have our Hemingway moment, involving a very big halibut that flopped into chapter two, but that’s about the extent of the parallel… It’s mostly just a cheeky title that caught my ear and, hopefully, captured the playful spirit of the book.

Thanks, Arno.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

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