In the summer of 2020, I joined a talented film crew on a trip into British Columbia's remote Muskwa-Kechika region (M-K for short) to help capture the production of a documentary called In the Land of Dreamers. The film follows two friends of mine, Ryan Dickie, a Dene-Kwagul photographer and filmmaker from Fort Nelson, and Wayne Sawchuck, a logger-turned-environmentalist and guide, as they journey by horseback into the heart of the region. Together, they explore the symbolism of Dechinn; an ancestral Dene marker erected by Dreamers—those who first predicted the coming of the Europeans—that safeguarded sacred areas to fall back on in case their peoples ever came into hard times.
Approximately the size of Ireland, the Muskwa-Kechika (pronounced 'musk-quah-ke-chee-kah') is one the largest and most biodiverse areas in the Rocky Mountain range, yet very few have heard of it. This unique land management area is located in Northeastern British Columbia, far from any major cities, and with minimal road access. That doesn't mean it's uninhabited though; the region is the home territory of the Kaska Dena, Treaty 8, and Carrier-Sekani peoples who have been stewarding it for thousands of years.
To help put the distance and scale into perspective, you can drive from Vancouver to Los Angeles in less time than it took us to get from Vancouver to our starting point at Muncho Lake. From there it’s a scenic hour-long flight via floatplane to Wayne's camp, deep in the heart of the M-K. By horseback, it takes Wayne and his crew at least a month to reach the base camp, from which they host guests on expeditions through the summer months. People return from these trips with a deeper appreciation for the land and its inhabitants, and often describe the experience as life changing.
"The balance might be swaying off its fulcrum—with renewed interest in oil, mining, and timber harvesting in the M-K."
I visited the M-K for the first time back in 2016, where I met Wayne while working on a tourism project. I had never been somewhere so remote in my life. Actually, I hadn't even heard of the M-K, nor learned about the unique approach to land management there and the act that was established back in 1998 to solidify the commitment of different stakeholders to maintain wilderness values in the region while allowing some resource development to take place in certain areas. The Muskwa-Kechika Management Act is upheld in a fine balance by government, industry, parks, First Nations, tourism operators and conservation groups through agreements and strict regulations that aim to meet each party’s needs. It's a rare example of compromise.
On my second and most recent visit, I learned that the balance might be swaying off its fulcrum—with renewed interest in oil, mining, and timber harvesting in the M-K, more concrete protection may be necessary. It’s a constant battle for conservation efforts as our dependence on and need for natural resources grows, but a line must be drawn to keep places like these protected for the sake of future generations.
Thankfully, that's in the works too. An Indigenous-led conservation plan and proposal called Dene k’éh Kusan (which translates to "Always Will Be There") is currently in motion to obtain government support for long term protection to ensure their ancestral lands thrive for generations to come.
It was an absolute privilege and honor to spend 12 days off the grid with Wayne and Ryan documenting both of their stories about this land and what it means to them, both culturally and personally. As they point out in their film, the symbolism of the Dechinn remains ever relevant today, and it also may hold the key for what's needed in the Muskwa-Kechika now.