The brouhaha hit full stride when Max Baucus (a gritty Democratic senator from Montana who is notorious in B.C. for his stance on softwood lumber) took up the cause and began expressing concerns for Glacier National Park, which lies just downstream of the Canadian Flathead. (Note: The U.S. file would eventually reach the desk of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and later Barack Obama who, as a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, opposed a proposed open pit coal mine on the headwaters of the Flathead River.) In response, provincial cabinet minister Bill Bennett confronted Baucus on a street in Fernie, B.C., telling him he was not welcome. Later, in the legislature, Bennett wondered aloud, "What unscrupulous, traitorous twit sunk so low as to invite this guy to B.C.?"
Last summer, the United Nations waded in, sending a fact-finding team to the Flathead. The mission: Evaluate threats to the adjacent World Heritage Site. The report, due to be tabled this summer, is expected to recommend a moratorium on all mining, in the area, and the development of a comprehensive transboundary conservation and wildlife management plan. It was in January of this year - just as a new gold strike was being enthusiastically announced in the Flathead - that our team began planning a traverse of the great basin. Our goal: to leave the hullabaloo behind, and simply explore the vast wilderness during its most remote season.
And then British Columbia blindsided everybody (including us) by abruptly declaring a ban on all mining, oil and gas in the Flathead during the Feb. 9 Throne Speech. It is a move that has many people wondering if Canada's next national park could be far off.
I awake with ice and cold nylon pressed against my face. A night of heavy snow has crushed the teepee, only the centre pole keeping it up. We dig our way out to find it looks like a handkerchief being pulled through a small ring.
Our spirits are high. Despite an abysmally thin snowpack across British Columbia - the last persistent patches of snow disappeared around my home in the nearby Columbia Trench more than a month ago - any worries we harboured about completing the journey on skis have suddenly been erased.
Dawn turns to day, and we crest the Galton Range. Descending toward the headwaters of the Wigwam River, we drag our packs behind us atop plastic children's toboggans. Heavy wet flakes continue to plaster the forest, and the storm shows no sign of abating.
Plowing down the trail beside me are good friends Dave Quinn, a local wildlife biologist, and the bull-strong, silver-haired John Bergenske, who came to these mountains 40 years ago as a young homesteader. Both are well-seasoned backcountry travellers.
By late afternoon, cloud and blowing snow have obscured all visibility. Crashing through dense forest, we are unsure of where we are. Lost, I suppose, is the correct word.
"Did you bring a GPS?" Dave turns to ask, and I shake my head. We both look to John, who has just pulled up behind. "Nope."
The route looked so simple from the comfort of home, yet now, less than 24 hours after Ralph dropped us off, we are already lost and exhausted.
Increasing the navigational challenge is the fact we are within kilometres of the U.S. border, and our topographic map ends at the 49th parallel: Meaning the ridgelines and summits to the south that occasionally peek from the swirling storm offer no help in determining our position.
Convinced that the U.S. border must be within a few hundred metres of where we stand, the three of us crash southward, scratched and clawed by a sea of undergrowth and dead branches.
Suddenly the dark woods open up, and we find ourselves standing on an arrow-straight slash. Cleaved through hillside and mountain peaks, it continues due west and east for as far as the eye can see: the border.
A wave of euphoria passes through our team; I don't think I have ever been so happy to see a clear-cut.