“I planned on dying here,” Skeed Borkowski, owner of the Northern Lights Lodge, told me. “But not from drinking the water.”
The lodge, located on Quesnel Lake, is one of many local homes and businesses left to hang precariously in the aftermath of the Mount Polley mine spill that released billions of litres of mining waste into the local environment, including Quesnel Lake.
On August 4th a massive tailings pond holding waste water and sediment from the Imperial Metals gold and copper mine breached, sending a mixture of contaminants including arsenic, mercury, selenium, zinc and lead into Polley Lake and Hazeltine Creek, which flows into Quesnel Lake.
“I’m 66,” Skeed said. “My wife is 64. This was the time that we were going to…take it a little easier.
“I don’t see that in the cards right now.”
The day I went to visit Skeed at the Northern Lights Lodge, eight days had passed since the spill.
“I think it hit me more yesterday for some reason,” he said. “I made my first disconnection from the lake.”
When I drove up Skeed was working next to a water pump, one of four that feeds the lodge with water pulled directly from Quesnel Lake. Seeing the water pump slumped on the lawn bothered Skeed like an exposed nerve. Surfacing those pumps was all too much like pulling up roots.
“And I’m not an emotional guy. I wrestle grizz,” he laughed. “I mean, look at this,” he said, surveying his property. “The work that we have done here, all these docks, everything you see, all these cabins…”
Skeed and his wife Sharon bought the 1942 lodge 18 years ago and spent their life savings rebuilding it into one of Canada’s premier fly-fishing destinations.
A sign welcomes visitors to the Northern Lights Lodge on the shore of Quesnel Lake. Photo by Farhan Umedaly.
He walked me up to the main lodge. The exposed wooden beams were decorated with colourful flies in the kitchen. The main room had all the rustic allure of a classic fishing lodge: dark wood, stone arched fireplace, mounted moose heads, board games.
Fishing flies on the kitchen walls of the Northern Lights Lodge. Photo by Carol Linnitt.
For 16 years they have been running fishing tours, Skeed said as he flipped through a photo album of past guests. “Look at them,” he said of a couple laughing, holding up a rainbow trout. “This is what we give to people.”
The fireplace mantel at the Northern Lights Lodge. Photo by Carol Linnitt.
The common area at the Northern Lights Lodge. Photo by Carol Linnitt.
The last cast
At the beginning of the summer Skeed and Sharon made a big decision. They were going to switch over to long-term renters and host their final full-scale fly-fishing tour.
When the couple sent out email invitations to former guests, the response was overwhelming. “In nine days we sold 42 trips,” he said, setting them up for a busy final season.
To commemorate the event, Skeed even had hats made. They read: “The Last Cast.”
“This was going to be our year,” Skeed said. “I tell people that we’re going to slow down a bit, because we’re cramming for finals. This is the time and it’s ironic that this hat says the last cast,” Skeed said, holding onto the memento.
All but one of the groups cancelled their trip. Although, Skeed said, only two individuals wanted refunds. “Everybody has become such good friends, saying ‘let’s just hold off until next year – don’t worry about it right now, you’ve got a lot on your plate,’” he said.
But for Skeed, the promise of a return to normalcy isn’t anywhere on the horizon.
Skeed said he and his wife Sharon received a phone call at five in the morning from Sharon’s brother who worked at the mine. The mine’s tailings pond breached, he told them.
“We went out on our deck and it was like standing next to Niagara Falls. I’ve done it – and it was that loud here,” Skeed said. “One of the guys in town described it like a jet and that’s what it was like. That went on…probably 12 hours.”
Skeed and his wife put their boat in the water and travelled up the lake to warn other residents and campers. When they approached Hazeltine Creek, where tailings waste was flooding into Quesnel Lake, they were stopped by rough waters and debris.
“We could view the Hazeltine from probably half a mile away and you could see the slurry and the waves boiling out over the logs at that point,” he said.
The couple settled on using a blow horn to warn others on the lake. Skeed said they didn’t know what they were facing at that point.
“We didn’t know what to expect.”
Skeed returned to the mouth of the Hazeltine a day later to survey the wreckage.
“Some of those logs, I mean, they were three feet in diameter, and they were just broken like toothpicks,” he said.
A partial view of the debris field at the mouth of Hazeltine Creek in Quesnel Lake. Photo by Farhan Umedaly.
“I’ve been a logger. I’ve done a lot of things out here, being here this long. I don’t think there’s a piece of equipment out there that could break logs like that. The force was so tremendous.”
Skeed said he never received a phone call from any officials or emergency responders about the accident at the Mount Polley mine. But when Premier Christy Clark arrived in town amidst a flurry of cameras, Skeed said locals were assured things would be okay.
“The cheerleaders came to town and told us it was all going to be alright, and we’re going to make sure the tourism industry was going to be saved and they were really going to promote the area,” Skeed said.
But for a business owner like Skeed, the damage to Quesnel Lake has already been done.
“I don’t care what they do up there. Number one, they can’t fix it,” he said.
Quesnel Lake is one of the deepest fjord lakes in the world. The debris field from the Mount Polley mine spill can be seen in the distance. Photo by Carol Linnitt.
The blight of an industrial accident of this scope will remain on the area indefinitely, Skeed said. He said even a basic online search of Quesnel Lake will live with a post-spill “red flag…forever.”
But of even more concern for Skeed is the amount of toxic waste that made its way into the lake, the effects of which won’t be known for some time.
“They can’t take those toxins out,” he said. “They’ll dissipate. They’ll disappear. But I will never, ever, ever drink out of this lake again. You couldn’t convince me.”
“But the reality of it is, we don’t even know what’s going to happen to this. And the unknown is what’ll keep people from coming here. If you had the choice would you want to take your kids swimming here?”
“I would never bring my family here,” he said.
Skeed’s prized fishing spot in September is Mitchell River, up the lake past Hazeltine Creek. He said he would set off with guests early in the morning before dawn, traveling up the lake in the silence to watch daybreak on the water.
“There’s times where I’ll go up there and you don’t pass a boat, it’s so pristine. And you just put a cup over the side of your boat and drink the water. It‘s astounding,” Skeed said.
The lodge provides bottled drinking water to guests on day trips, but Skeed prefers to carry along nothing more than a simple cup. He said he encouraged guests to drink the water, straight from the lake.
“I would say 30 per cent of the people after watching me do that – and it’s hard for them, they’re just not used to it – they’ll actually take a drink and they’ll go ‘that was just so cool.’”
“There aren’t many places like that,” Skeed said. “Especially this one. It’s gone.”
“Everyone comes around to the, ‘well they’ve got to make this right with you.’ You know, that’s – they do have to make it right with us – but the most important thing here is our water,” Skeed said.
“I don’t know what they can do about it.”
Skeed holds up a photo of gold he and his wife, Sharon, panned at a local placer mine. Photo by Carol Linnitt.
Already Skeed feels resident’s concerns are being overshadowed by officials, eager to reboot the local economy.
“You can’t suddenly bombard [people with] advertising and tourism and deny that this happened. How many people are going to be convinced [by] the government… putting on this big ad campaign?” he said, adding sarcastically, “everybody trusts the government.”
It will take a lot more than a government advertising campaign to win back Skeed’s trust.
“I misunderstood them.” Skeed said. “I possibly misunderstood them, because they mentioned about really addressing damage control and I didn’t realize it was for the mine and for themselves.”
“I thought we’d be thrown in as people that have received damage.”
He gestured to his property, “how many people do you see walking around my lawns?”
Beyond having the concerns of local businesses addressed, Skeed wants to see the provincial government and Imperial Metals, owner of the Mount Polley mine, take ownership of the accident.
“If they would only tell the truth rather than covering their own butts,” he said.
“Man up. Man up and say we made a mistake, we’re at fault. And the word is fault. It’s not ‘we’re taking responsibility for this.’ It’s not responsibility – it’s a fault issue,” he said.
“It’s their damn fault, not the dam’s fault. It’s their damn fault.”
This article is published as part of a joint-venture between the Vancovuer Observer and DeSmog Canada.