After the ice broke up and the ferry began running on the Liard River, two rangy Indians with weathered faces and easy gaits shouldered a sack of beaver and muskrat pelts for the spring fur auction and took a rifle for bear protection.
On their short hike through the woods to the ferry landing, Jonas and Roy Mouse paused as they often do, heads bowed and caps in hand, at a rosary-draped cross that marks the spot where their aged mother collapsed and died several years ago. The cross stands alongside an oil pipeline that was dug through their forested homeland and that the brothers say for eight years drove away animals that they hunt and trap for a living.
Today, the brothers, members of the Dehcho First Nations, are facing another encroachment on their aboriginal way of life: an even bigger 800-mile-long natural gas pipeline that would bisect the tribe's traditional territory and help spawn industrial development in Canada's vast boreal forest, one of the last intact stretches of the Earth's original forest cover.
For three decades, the Dehcho have been resisting the $7-billion project, which is backed by other native groups in the Northwest Territories. But the Dehcho are under mounting pressure to drop their opposition to a project that would serve North American energy markets as the United States strives to reduce dependence on the Middle East. Canada is already the largest foreign supplier of natural gas to the U.S.
The companies that want to build the underground pipeline — Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil Canada — estimate that it would carry 1.2 billion cubic feet of gas per day, which industry experts say is enough annually to heat more than 3 million homes for a year.
Recently, officials of Canada's newly elected Conservative government signaled their unwillingness to let the Dehcho stand in the way of the project, which proponents want to start building in 2008 and finish a few years later. Jim Prentice, minister of Indian affairs, declared that the pipeline, which still needs regulatory approval, would be built along the Mackenzie Valley with or without the tribe's blessing.
However, Prentice's remarks only stiffened resistance from the 4,500-member tribe, the largest native group along the pipeline and the only one with an unresolved claim to its traditional lands.
Grand Chief Herb Norwegian said that if the government tried to expropriate Dehcho land for pipeline construction, the tribe would retaliate with litigation and possibly blockades.
"People think of a pipeline like a garden hose in your yard," Norwegian said. "But a pipeline of this magnitude is like building a China Wall right down the valley, and the effects will be there forever and ever."
Many Dehcho fear that hundreds of trucks would disrupt their quiet communities, that construction camps would breed drug and alcohol abuse, and that the massive project would drive away caribou, moose and other wildlife that sustain people like the Mouse brothers.
In the long run, they fear the project would spur a wave of oil and gas prospecting that would bring more pipelines and roads and so many newcomers that the Dehcho could become a powerless minority in the land they have occupied for many centuries.
The pipeline would tap into 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in three well fields north of the Arctic Circle. It would move the gas south along the Mackenzie River to Alberta province, where it would be used to fuel a massive oil extraction project or be sent directly to markets in Canada and the United States.
"It is a significant new supply source," said Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser. One trillion cubic feet could serve all of Canada's gas-heated homes for a year, he said.
The project is expected to spur development of other natural resources in the Territories, an area that is almost three times larger than California but has only 42,000 inhabitants.
"You are going to get a lot of lateral pipelines built into the system," said Chris Theal, research director at Tristone Capital Inc., a worldwide energy investment bank.
But about 40% of the pipeline route crosses land claimed by the Dehcho, and before approving the project, they want a power-sharing agreement over 80,000 square miles of ancestral territory, allowing them to preserve lands for cultural or environmental reasons, to control industrial development and to collect royalties and taxes.
Dehcho leaders acknowledge that withholding support for such a significant project gives them leverage to secure unprecedented authority.
Government officials say their demands are unrealistic. "It would give 4,500 people the power to govern an area about half the size of France," said Tim Christian, the chief federal negotiator. "And we certainly have not done that anywhere else [in Canada] and do not believe that is an appropriate model."
The government recently offered the Indians $104 million and ownership of about 18% of their traditional land, but Norwegian called it a "low-ball" offer.
Conservation groups are concerned about the pipeline's impact on one of the continent's great natural resources, Canada's 1.4-billion-acre boreal, or northern, forest. It is home to many of North America's land birds and big wild animals and is a major storehouse of fresh water.
"What is extraordinary is you are opening one of the last great wildernesses of the world," said Stephen Hazell, a lawyer with the Sierra Club of Canada. "The oil and gas companies will want every last scrap of land for exploration."
The Canadian Boreal Initiative, a conservation organization, has been working with the government, industries and tribal groups to identify land that should be protected from development. But the organization's executive director, Cathy Wilkinson, said that only about 35 million of the Mackenzie Valley's more than 400 million acres of boreal forest have interim government protection. "The worry today is the pace of developing is outstripping the pace of protecting areas," she said.
Although the pipeline's right-of-way would be constructed during winter to minimize permafrost damage, scientists working for the energy companies acknowledged that it would increase the exposure of wildlife such as grizzly bears and woodland caribou to hunters or predators.
In addition to a 120-foot-wide pipeline right-of-way, the project calls for constructing staging areas, barge landings and camps for thousands of workers.
But scientists hired for the project contended that the disruptions would be short-term or limited to permanent facilities such as compressor stations.
"The ecosystem integrity will not be compromised," environmental consultant Petr Komers told a recent hearing. "Wide-ranging species will continue to move through the area and will continue to survive."
Lisanne Forand, assistant deputy minister for northern affairs, said construction "will go ahead only if the environmental assessment process indicates effects can be mitigated [and] if producers can make it economically viable."
Rolheiser, of Imperial Oil, which is the lead company, said whether the pipeline is built hinges partly on the cost of any government-required environmental mitigation and on the final tab for agreements with aboriginal groups. "It is an economically challenging project," he said.
In this frontier region, where tundra and timber lands unfold to the horizon, the economy already depends heavily on products that come out of the ground.
The diamond mining industry is one of the world's largest, but natural gas development could eclipse it, according to Joe Handley, premier of the Territories. "This is a good time," he said. "The price is right. The demand is there."
Handley believes the pipeline would generate billions of dollars in royalties for Canadian governments, as well as spur population growth, jobs, hydroelectric power and the first highway through the entire Mackenzie Valley.
Nonetheless, Handley said the project must balance development with protection of the environment and the traditional ways of life of the aboriginal people who constitute half the population.
Fort Simpson, where the Liard and the Mackenzie converge, was founded in the early 1800s as a fur trading post. Today, the town of 1,200 is home to hundreds of Dehcho. Like the rivers, their feelings about the pipeline run deep and wide.
"The land will be ruined," said 15-year-old Jacqueline Thompson. "The animals won't walk through it anymore."
"We were First Nations people before the government and made do with what we had . So we are not too worried if the pipeline does not happen," said the grand chief's cousin, Keyna Norwegian, the local chief in Fort Simpson.
But the grand chief's brother, Bob Norwegian, is the community liaison for the Mackenzie pipeline project, and he believes it would encourage economic development and job training. "Folks are romanticizing about when we lived off the land," he said. "We are not going back to snowshoes and dog teams."
Last year, unemployment was 5.4% in the Territories — but twice that among aboriginal people. "The Dehcho is one of the have-not regions," said Kevin Menicoche, who represents six of the tribe's 10 communities in the legislative assembly. "There is no new money coming in."
The other tribes along the route have established an Aboriginal Pipeline Group and would acquire up to a third of the pipeline ownership. They have set a July 31 deadline for the Dehcho to join or risk losing many millions of dollars in gas profits, but the tribe has indicated that it would not decide by then.
"They are walking on pretty thin ice, because at the end of the day they could end up with no ownership in the pipeline and it could be built without any settlement of their land claim," said Fred Carmichael, chairman of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group.
But University of Victoria law professor John Borrows, an expert on aboriginal legal rights, said the Canadian Constitution, court rulings and treaties provide the Dehcho with strong protection against government expropriation of their traditional territory.
"If it went to court, it could be tied up 10 to 15 years," Borrows added.
The pipeline's impact could be greatest for people like Steven Jose-Cli, who supplement their diet or income by hunting, fishing and trapping. One of about 30 Fort Simpson trappers, Cli works part time for the town's housing agency but prefers to be at his cabin 32 miles downriver, where he was raised.
Recently, Cli loaded an aluminum skiff for his first trip of the spring. Ice floes still drifted down the Mackenzie. A black bear rooted around a muddy bank, and a beaver cruised along before diving with a flip of its tail. In a biting wind, Cli swiftly lifted a shotgun and brought down two mallards as gifts for a neighbor.
"I don't want the pipeline to go through because it will destroy it all, and this is all I have," said Cli, who has little schooling and has been trapping since boyhood.
"They are going to make roads into my trapping area," he said.
Officials for the pipeline project said subsistence hunters and trappers would be compensated for relocation costs or any loss of game. Addressing concerns that the project would aggravate substance abuse, they promised that workers would stay in drug- and alcohol-free camps.
Fort Simpson Mayor Duncan Canvin, a former Mountie who owns the town's only liquor store, said he wants business from pipeline workers to stimulate the stagnant economy. "Even an aging [person] with a coronary would like a pulse now and then," he said.
The last big pulse for Fort Simpson came in the mid-1980s, when a pipeline company buried a 12-inch oil line along more than 500 miles of the Mackenzie Valley.
The line was built over the objections of the Dehcho, recalled Menicoche, the legislative representative here, who said the project provided some jobs but not much lasting economic benefit.
The proposed high-pressure gas line would run through largely undisturbed areas parallel to the existing oil pipeline near here.
From a helicopter, the old right-of-way looks like a grassy roadway through an endless expanse of forest. It passes about 100 yards from the Mouses' cabin on the Liard.
Although the brothers take charging bears and subzero temperatures in stride, coping with the pipeline was a traumatic experience.
When the moose and beavers disappeared for seven or eight years, Roy, 59, said they had to move to a second cabin deeper in the woods.
If work on the new pipeline gets too close, the brothers said they would move to a third cabin. And if the game is scared off again, they would have to repeat the arduous task of cutting a new trap line. "We are going to be older and may not be able to hunt," said Jonas, 63. "But until we can't do it, we will be out there."