Sacred Headwaters, Now and Forever

John Muir saw many beautiful things during the course of his life, so it’s worth noting when Muir, lover of exhilarating views and exalted language about said views, was truly floored by an experience of the natural world.

Such was the case when Muir visited a remote region of western Canada in 1879, just short of Alaska, in what is now British Columbia. Traveling by boat, he found himself near the headwaters of the salmon-thick Skeena, Nass, and Stikine rivers, amid the spiky backs of soaring mountains, the crevices of which held glaciers and spruce forests, waterfalls and clouds of cottonwood down.

“I never before had seen so richly sculptured a range or so many awe-inspiring inaccessible mountains crowded together,” Muir wrote. With night drawing near, he “ran down the flowery slopes exhilarated, thanking God for the gift of this great day.”

These days, many humans are interested in gifts of a darker, more bituminous kind. The area remarked upon by Muir, called the Sacred Headwaters, was the subject of a series of photographs by Paul Colangelo in the March/April 2012 issue of Orion, which both celebrated the place and warned of its impending development by energy companies. The most recent company to take an interest in the area was Shell Canada, whose plan to extract methane gas from shallow beds stretched across a million acres—acres that are home to mountain goats, moose, and grizzly bears, canyon after peak after canyon, and the people of the Tahltan Nation.

But we’re happy to report that the possibility of energy development in the Sacred Headwaters looms no longer: as part of a tripartite agreement among Shell, the Province of British Columbia, and the Tahltan Nation, Shell Canada has announced plans to withdraw immediately from natural gas exploration in the region. In addition, the B.C. government says it “will not issue future petroleum and natural-gas tenure in the area.”

According to the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, which coordinated much of the campaigning to bar Shell and others from developing energy extraction projects in the Sacred Headwaters, this tremendous success is due to the hard work of the communities that live in the region:

Most importantly, it has been successful because of the Klabona Keepers—a group of Tahltan Elders who blocked the only access road to the Sacred Headwaters. These Elders are the reason the Sacred Headwaters have not been industrialized. They have been arrested, dragged through the courts and have even been sued by Shell. They have remained vigilant as the protectors of the Sacred Headwaters.

We encourage readers who encountered the story of the Sacred Headwaters in the March/April 2012 issue to visit those words and images again with this good news in your hearts. We think you’ll find they take on a new beauty, reflective of both the place and the struggle of the people who call it home.

Purchase the March/April 2012 issue of Orion to read “The Sacred Headwaters” in its entirety, or view a few images from the series below. Photographs by Paul Colangelo.


  1. That story has lifted my spirits, thank you. I live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and we are in the same struggle. The George Washington National Forest is the headwaters of both the Potomac and James watersheds that provide most Virginians their water. The Forest Service is preparing a new Forest Plan which will allow fracking in the GW. It’s going to be up to the people to save it.

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