Revealing the mystery photo


Wood Buffalo National Park is Canada's largest park, and the second in the world for size. At nearly 45,000 square km its dimensions are just about the same as Switzerland's. And yet, very few visitors--roughly around 3,000 a year--get the chance to experience it.

Canada has 10 parks inscribed on UNESCO's list of natural World Heritage sites. Wood Buffalo is one of them. Phillip and April Vannini travelled to Wood Buffalo National Park for fieldwork during August and September as a part of a SSHRC-funded research project focused on the culture of Canada's natural heritage. Wood Buffalo was the sixth Canadian stop on their research journey, and their 12th overall worldwide (international sites so far have included the Galapagos, Tasmania, New Zealand, Belize, and South Tyrol).

At its core, Phillip and April's project is driven by a seemingly naive and yet incredibly challenging question: what does "wild" mean?

UNESCO natural heritage sites are recognized for their outstanding universal values. They are reputed to hold untouched, pristine, wild nature and are arguably the world's prime containers all all things called wild. Or so it would seem.

Phillip and April conducted 21 interviews in two weeks at Wood Buffalo, in and around the communities of Fort Chipewyan, AB, and Fort Smith, NWT. They have now conducted 145 interviews over the last two years, but few of the stories they've collected so far were as poignant and as timely as those they heard in Canada's second largest park. Wood Buffalo's ecosystem integrity hinges on the health of the Peace-Athabasca delta: the largest freshwater inland river delta in North America.  Wood Buffalo may feel wild on the surface, but once you dip your toes in the water you soon realize things aren't quite what they seem. Upstream on the Peace river stands the Bennett Dam, a hydroelectric project (yes, the same that feeds much of the electric power you are using right now) that since 1963 has severely impacted the quantity of water running through the delta. And upstream on the Athabasca there is the subject of that mystery photo: Alberta's tar sands.

Hunters and fishers in Fort Chip depend profoundly on "country" foods--the few flown-in groceries are unbelievably expensive--and they know first hand about the consequences of tailing ponds leaking into the Athabasca river. Every single interview yielded stories of two-headed fishes and moose with rotting innards. Things have gotten so sour that lately the Mikisew-Cree First Nation has petitioned UNESCO to add Wood Buffalo National Park to its list of sites in danger, a move that has caused profound embarrassment to the Alberta and Federal governments.

Phillip and April's project, "In the name of wild," is not just a story about wild places being threatened by industry or modernization. It is also a story about conservation efforts often resultuing in human right violations (e.g. traditional indigenous dwellers around the world and Canada have often been and are still evicted when a park is formed). It is also a story about the different ways of understanding wildness across different cultures. And it is a story about finding wildness in places and forms that you would least expect. All these stories will be told in two books and two documentary films as the project coms to a completion over the next three years. And in the meantime, anyone interested can follow the research journey on Facebook.     

The mystery photo was taken on September 8 right above the Syncrude tar sands, north of Fort McMurray. On their way back home Phillip and April chartered a flight to film and photograph the tar sands from above--interestingly, that flight is a bit of tourist magnet in Fort Mac! The shot was taken from about 2500 feet of altitude with a 105mm lens, so the size of that patch of gloop is actually several acres. The tailing ponds were amazingly large lakes and the industrial plants were the size of small towns. The smell of sulphur became more and more ntense as we got closer to the ground, and the smoke in the air--wildfires were nearby--was so thick that it took a lot of de-hazing to get the photo to look as wild as it does. Wild, yes, in a different sense.

The winner was Beverly deVries, from the School of Leadership Studies. Devina Dandar and Simon Pulla also guessed it right, but a day later, so the prize goes to Beverly. Among the most creative guuesses were: a poorly made cappuccino, the mixing of different sediments in an Icelandic river, and the Eramosa marble slabs that adorn the walls of an Air Canada Maple Leaf lounge!