FORT McMURRAY, Alberta - As we start the 14-kilometre Healing Walk through the heart of the tar sands on July 6, the mood is sombre, and many walk with faces down in solemn silence.
I've studied the impacts of dirty oil extensively, but nothing prepares me for the sheer scale of the devastation I see. I can feel in my gut the desolation that extends over 100 kilometres in every direction.
The First Nations elders and Dene drummers in the lead stop at points for prayer and ceremony, the rhythms and singing reminding us that the surrounding wasteland was once the fertile hunting grounds of native peoples. Viewed from the road, what was once pristine boreal forest is now a lake of sludge so toxic that wild animals are killed merely by coming into contact with it.
We pass Syncrude's open pit mines, toxic waste ponds and massive industrial processing facilities. Our group takes up half the roadway, forcing mud-stained trucks to line up and wait to slowly make their way past us to the Syncrude complex. They kick up brown-grey clouds of dust and exhaust. After the first third of the walk, my lungs are burning from the petrochemical stench blowing off the waste ponds. Children and grandparents wear masks to protect their lungs.
As Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) tells the trekkers, "We cannot argue [about the fact that] the tar sands bring employment, but the pace and scale of development also bring destruction, risk and devastation." A few minutes later we learn that a large oil slick has been spotted on the Athabasca River, forcing the shutdown of the community's drinking water plant.
As we continue, we hear the firing of cannon blasts, part of a system intended to keep birds from landing in the toxic waste. Nearly as unnerving are the mechanical fake hawks, complete with flapping wings and strobe lights, attempting to scare away wildlife that might stop to rest.
Walking along, I think about how at all hours of the day the oil industry is ripping out trees, drilling wells and scraping the soil from the earth. It's incomprehensible that Big Oil wants to triple the size of the tar sands in coming decades.
Yet through all of this, we keep our spirits up. Millions of people are working together to stop the Keystone XL, Northern Gateway and Line 9 pipeline projects and to keep dirty fuels out of Europe. Our mood is also lightened by the unexpected outpouring of support we receive from hundreds of tar sands workers who honk, wave and give the thumbs-up to us as they roll past.
As we finish our seven-hour walk, our feet hurt and our clothes smell like sulphur. But the elders and children are smiling. We have made it through the darkest place in Canada and come out stronger and more united to stop the expansion of one of the world's most destructive projects.
Adam Scott is a Toronto-based climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence.