Creekstone Press

Northern BC's publisher


Review of Crossing the Divide: Discovering a Wilderness Ethic in Canada’s Northern Rockies

Part biography, part love story, Wayne Sawchuk’s new book offers a glimpse at the history of Northeastern BC. Sawchuk grew up around Chetwynd,
and spent his early years travelling around the north with his father, a local logger. But those experiences in the bush, in the wilds of northern BC taught him “that some places were just too important to log.” So Sawchuk and a group of compatriots formed the Chetwynd Environmental Society, whose work helped establish the Pine LeMoray Provincial Park, as well as expand Gwillim Lake to include Elephant Ridge.

The book, is organized partially by time passing, partially by theme. So a 14 year old Wayne, asked by his father to put down a wounded black bear leads to reminiscing about the nature of death, including a flash forward to watching friend Greg Duke (yes, the one the lakes are named after) suffer a fatal heart attack. “When the paramedics laid him on the stretcher and carried him out the door, all the trappers knew he would not come back. We’d seen the light fade in his eyes."

It’s a profound moment, and defines the flavour of the book, flickering images of a life lived in the north, sometimes as fleeting as a ghost, sometimes as present as a mountain. Like most guides, Sawchuk can tell a good yarn. Fortunately, that gift for spinning tales makes its way to his writing, too.
Sawchuk’s big accomplishment (so far), was helping spearhead the creation of the Muskwa Kechika, a special management area where industry and preservation have discovered a unique mix, so of course his first (near-tragic) trip through the area is one of the book’s defining chapters. As he and his then-girlfriend make their way through the Northern Rockies on horse, they meet a guide who recommends a better way back to civilization than the one they had planned. Unfortunately for the young couple, it starts to snow, and they get onto the wrong route. One of their horses breaks a leg and needs to be put down and the pass they thought they were supposed to go through leads to a cliff.

They finally make their down into the Prophet River Valley, a near-spiritual place for Sawchuk. As they approach the highway, the pack trail they are following abruptly climbs up and out of the valley. To avoid a swamp or a canyon? But no. “We broke out into a long and linear clearing in sharp contrast to the natural, sinuous trail we had been following. This was a cutline pushed through the forest by Caterpillar tractors to provide access for natural gas exploration. Having just spent so much time in wilderness, the vicious scar hit me like a fist, its destruction a massive insult to the natural landscape we had discovered in the Northern Rockies.”

It is in moments like these that we see Sawchuk’s perception shift, ever more sharply, to conservationist, by way of guide outfitter. For me, one of the most profound thing is the sense of history the book contains. Sawchuk’s travels are not ground breaking explorations to areas untouched. True, there are times when his are the first tracks in an area, but there are other moments where his explorations are a continuation of hundreds of years of
history. On one of his first adventures he strikes out along a First Nations trail. On another, he discovers old slashes and penciled notes from trappers who came through before. On still another, he finds a low, U shaped wall. “This structure wasn’t like anything that would be built today. It had taken a lot of work and with no water or wood nearby, it was a poor place to camp. The structure’s horseshoe shape could have been used to shelter hunters as they waited to ambush animals crossing the pass or making their way along the crest of the ridge. It might even have been the site of a spirit quest, a rite of passage for some First Nations. The wall could have been hundreds of years old or more, a relic of another time, another people who had used this route.”

Indeed, he says, another local trapper has posited that this was the route taken by the first travellers from Asia, 10,000 years ago.
“With the coming of the white man,
catastrophes of epic proportions, including
several epidemics, devastated the First
Nations.” He writes. “Their communities
are rebounding now, growing in numbers
and vitality. But each time I find a flake,
a chip, or point upon some remote piece
of ground, I am transported across an
immense gulf of time, grief, and dislocation.
Those few stones remind me that
First Nations carry the cultural memory
of 10,000 years of living on this land.”
While there is a lot of plot through the
story, there is not a lot of character. Yes,
you get a sense of Sawchuk, his family,
and the life he lives as he moves from
adventure to adventure, and frequently
from danger to danger. But as he goes, he
is followed by a string of nondescript and
mostly interchangeable companions and
paramours—partners, girlfriends, wife.
It’s not that they are not interesting, but
they are rarely present. This is hammered
home during a chapter while Sawchuk
is out on the trap line for months on
end, mentions in passing that he is there
with wife Donna Kane. This is her first
appearance in the book, other than a few
cryptic references to “we” earlier in the
chapter. And, after a few paragraphs (and
a photo), describing a canoe trip together,
she disappears for most of the book, only
to show up for a few paragraphs in the
I mention this not as a good thing or a
bad thing, but just to point out that the
human element of the book is not at the
fore. People come and go, but the real
hero, the real star of the story is the land
and the creatures upon it. I described the
book as a love story, and indeed, there is
romance to be found in the book, but it
is one of a man falling in love with the
land. The human relationships are just
asides in a lifetime spent in the Northern
Rockies and one can’t help but feel a
little jealous of the time he gets to spend,
hundreds of kilometres from the rest
of civilization. Of his relationship and
experiences with the landscape.
One of the best parts about the book
is the fact that he has set down things
he’s learned—knowledge gleaned from
watching animals, understanding from a
lifetime in the bushes, and conversations
with old trappers—as a record of his time
in this land. And as a record, the book is
frustratingly short at 176 pages. I would
love to hear more stories about his time
on the land, about his encounters with
The book also features more than a few
of Sawchuk’s photos, which is wonderful.
Sawchuk is an amazing photographer and
his first book was a photo journal of his
travels in the Muskwa Kechika.
After spending most of its time in the
wilderness, the book’s antepenultimate
chapter is a bit jarring, as it documents
the creation of the Muskwa Kechika
Management area. As such, it is a
chapter full of people sitting around and
The next chapter is also a bit of an
outlier, as it makes the book’s most clear
conservationist plea: we are residents of
this planet, and if we destroy it, we don’t
have much of a plan B. But, unlike the
arguments spouted by Gortex wearing
college kids from the Lower Mainland
who don’t understand life in the North
and which can be waved off, Sawchuk has
more bush-cred than nearly anyone alive.
He has seen firsthand how the landscape
has changed, seen firsthand the impact
humans have had. Participated first hand
in some of that impact. This is not some
ten-thousand foot view by an outsider,
but a ground level look at this area, warts
and all.
But he doesn’t dwell on it. He is not
preachy, letting the message he has to say
mostly come from his experiences in the
bush, something he himself acknowledges.
“It would have been easy to turn
this book into a polemic, a rage against
the forces that continually degrade our
natural world in the relentless pursuit
of profit,” he writes as he comes to the
book’s conclusion. “Except that I am
one of those forces. And to one degree
or another, we all are. No, rage is not the
Indeed, the book’s subtitle carries the
weight of the book’s message. Discovering
a Wilderness Ethic in Canada’s Northern
Rockies. Rather than spell it out for us,
he invites us to join him in this journey
of discovery, and along the way, maybe
learn something ourselves.
Crossing the Divide is published by
Creekstone Press, and is available around
the Peace Region or online (but not at
Amazon). Find out more at www.creekstonepress.
com or

Web link to full review