Beetles, Trees, and Riding the End of the World
words :: Feet Banks – photography :: Mark Gribbon
The Future – Dec 31, 2012
We should have seen this coming. As snowboarding grew from hand-dug pipes and whiskey-fueled bad-assery into energy drink ads, private training pipes and Winter Olympics we barely noticed the tell-tale signs that something was amiss.
Besides the July heat waves, and ever- receding glaciers no one paid that much attention to the earthquakes and hurricanes in the tropics or the sinkholes opening up around the world. It still snowed enough most years and we had sponsors and video parts to worry about, rent and sled repairs. We used to laugh at those Americans living in trailer parks that would get ravaged by tornados each year. Poor suckers in wifebeaters standing in front of flattened trailer parks or a dude with a BBQ smashed through his truck windshield just staring and scratching his head –What did you expect when you moved into a place called “Tornado Alley”? Did you ever wonder why the rent was so low?
Now, it seems, the joke’s on us. The fires came over the mountains last summer like floodwaters of hot death. Three weeks of continuous lightning storms ensured most of British Columbia went up like a lit fart. Anything that couldn’t ignite simply melted, buildings sagged like melted ice cream sandwiches and rivers evaporated right before our eyes. The famous fresh air of British Columbia was so choked with soot and ash that no one even saw the moon until the October rains started. That’s when the floods and landslides started up. By Christmas it was all over.
Remember back in 2001 when the Mountain Pine Beetle was first eating BC’s forests and everyone talked about how global warming meant the winters weren’t cold enough to kill the bugs anymore? How polar melt and rising temperatures might be the end of snowboarding? I joined the Snowriders Foundation just like everyone else, recycled my empties, even planted a tree with my girl. But it wasn’t global warming that got us, was it? It was the end of the fucking world.
The Present– August 6, 2010
Right here in Pemberton, BC, meltwater from the Capricorn glacier triggers a two-kilometre-long landslide that crashes into Meager Creek and the Lillooet river, blocking it and creating a natural dam. The entire Pemberton Valley, home to some of Canada’s greatest snowboarders, is on evacuation flood alert. Geology taking place in real time right here at home while floods ravage Pakistan, landslides kill thousands in China and savage wildfires tear through the forests of Russia, eerily similar to the fires ripping through our own bug-killed pine forests on BC’s interior Plateau. Bella Coola, perhaps the best heli-boarding spot in the country, is cut off from the world as flames dance alongside highway 20.
But things are looking up– government estimates show that the Mountain Pine Beetle is only decimating 45 million cubic meters of forest a year now, down from 140 million cubic metres in 2008. The question is, what happens to all those trees standing dead, ready to burn, and how many cubic meters do we have left to lose?
Climate experts predict the “tipping point” is a two-degree increase in global temperature. Some say we will reach that point as early as 2015 and the only way to reverse the natural chaos that is expected to follow will be for a whole lot of the earth’s population to die. The good news is, with unpredictable weather becoming the norm and a teetering world economy most ski resorts have put a freeze on lift ticket prices for next season. Good times.
The Past– February 13, 1988
Riding the slow-ass triple chairlift in Smithers BC in -28ºC meant holding your gloves over your face to ward off frostbite. Even with state-of-the-art Gore-Tex the wind blasted right to the bone. Tin cans segments stuffed into Sorel boots to stiffen them up didn’t help keep the toes any warmer either.
It’s a fact, British Columbia winters used to be colder and the powder used to be lighter – freeze dried and fluffy. It was what made snowboarding so much more fun than a day in bottomless snow on skinny-ass slalom skis. Floating vs sinking. The cold sucked but it made for great riding, even on a “Black Snow” Sears board with plastic edges.
That same frigid cold used to kill Mountain Pine Beetles. A few straight days of -40ºC would usually do the trick– freeze the little bastards out of their holes and keep their numbers down, so the trees could defend themselves.
As well, natural forest fires used to wipe out the mature pine trees the beetles find so appetizing, these days we use helicopters and water bombers to combat the fires. Snowboarders work as firefighters through hot, sweaty summers to save enough cash to ride all winter. We save trees from fire, but leave them standing like a beetle buffet.
The past is gone. The dry, light powder is not as consistent, even up at Smithers. Down south, the lower mountain runs of Whistler/Blackcomb only get epic snow a few times a year, more often they’re mired down in crud. It never used to rain to the top, not two or three times a season…
The Future– December 31, 2015
When one door closes, look for another to open….
Canadian Snowboarding has never been known for it’s philosophical musings. Out here in British Columbia about the deepest most riders got is “ Go big or go home.” But now– with floods and fires and landslides and earthquakes ravaging the planet, with death and destruction and chaos all around us– BC snowboarders are being forced to find opportunity in each series of setbacks. We’re finding that the end of the world might just be good for snowboarding. The reset button long needed.
Burned out trees have less branches, we’ve been riding perfectly spaced charred toothpicks for months. The resorts are all closed, abandoned. People, the ones left alive, have to fend for themselves. Few people have the time or energy for recreation so the slopes are always empty, the pow untracked.
Here in Pemby, the few us who remain are stocked up in fortified compounds. Sometimes we find/trade/steal enough fuel for a day of sledding but mostly it’s hiking for turns, staying below treeline and nailing last descents then coming home smelling like campfire. With no trees left the oxygen levels are way lower– high alpine in the Coast Mountains feels like the Himalaya, every bootpack step requiring Herculean effort.
The animals don’t seem to mind though. Rabbit and cougar tracks zigzag across our runs. VDP even saw a black bear scratching at a tree, looking pretty chill. Maybe we are the only species about to go extinct.
In any case, no one ever talks about their sponsors anymore, no one claims, and it’s free gear for anyone brave enough to sneak into the city and take it. Brave because these days the cities are overrun with bandits and cannibals, headhunters stalking an urban jungle because they never learned to survive anywhere else. You can still find brand new boards in the empty condos of Whistler though, tucked neatly under needle-less Christmas trees, a reminder of Dec. 21, 2012 – the start of the ending.
But not for snowboarding. There are very few of us left but those of us who still ride do it for the right reasons. We do it to escape the horrors. We do it to forget the losses. We do it because if we didn’t we’d probably tear each other to pieces like everyone else or fall onto our own swords in desperation. We do it because we must, and we do it because it’s fun. Humanity is fragile these days and life is cheap, but adventure is forever.
Shred or die,
Mark Gribbon and I published this in the Snowboard Canada Photo Annual in early 2011. It’s pretty funny looking back that “the future” in this dystopic nightmare was 2015. Our predictions for the world ending didn’t come to pass (yet) but this piece did give us a chance to get imaginative and go for a certain vibe with our project. We had a good run with SBC and gotta give props to editors Scott Birke and Jon Scarth (and later Jesse Fox and Crispin Cannon) for always being game to print our fucked up ideas (which ski media would copy 2-4 seasons later).
People don’t talk about the pine beetle so much these days but those dead trees are still out there, and the summers keep getting hotter and dryer. And summer without massive fires is considered an anomaly now. Global Warming is still on course to really fuck us all but there are many fighting back. Check out Protect Our Winters, a global effort to curb the rising tides of climate doom.