Frontier still with us, author says

By Liz Snell

Bruce Kirkby looks like a typical surfer dude: tall and tan, with a ready smile and grown-out blond hair. The Kimberley, B.C. writer, explorer, and photographer is certainly familiar with the ocean; he recently paddle- boarded from Vancouver to Victoria over four days, enlisting a high school student to film the trip.

But Kirkby’s adventures stretch far beyond the sea. Speaking at a recent event for Nature Conservancy Canada, he rattled off fantastic tales of his world travels, from hikes in Canada’s far north to traveling the Republic of Georgia by horseback with his wife and young children. Spectacular photographs accompanied his stories. He barely stopped for a breath as he spouted comments and jokes about his adventures in Myanmar: “We ultimately ended up trying to escape from [the military] and getting tossed in the clanger. But that’s a different story.”

Kirkby frequently dropped names, but rarely people’s titles; rather, “vetch,” “locoweed,” “reticulated python,” and “plain-pouched hornbill” freckled his stories as naturally as the rest of us might talk about TV show characters. His language made it clear he feels at ease in nature, though he appeared equally at ease speaking in front of a crowd.

During his stories, he frequently seemed overcome by enthusiasm: “You can hardly believe what you’re seeing.” Describing Burma, he said, “I can’t believe it. It feels like Eden; it’s like the books you read as a child.”

Kirkby communicates a deep passion not just for foreign travels but also for preserving Canada’s natural beauty. He frequently discussed the “archetype of the frontier,” which people first applied to the west coast, then to the far north. “It feels primal and enduring,” he says of the north. People  assume, “There’s always one more valley to go over.” But, Kirby says, “There is no more next valley. The frontier’s given and given and given, and now we’re at the point where we need to protect the frontier.”

In 2011,  Canadian Geographic published Kirkby’s article on the Darkwoods wilderness conservation area in BC’s Selkirk mountains. At 55,000 hectares, Darkwoods is the largest area in Canada ever purchased for conservation, and its caretakers face unique challenges. Kirkby visited Darkwoods 10 times over one year.  He exuberantly described the incredible vastness of the landscape and his encounters with both animals and the humans involved with the property. “I was just beside myself,” he says of swimming with bull trout in Darkwoods.

Kirkby noted his frustration over the politics surrounding conservation, saying that the ‘60s and ‘70s produced a view that “you either cared for the environment or cared for the economy, but not for both.” The two are not mutually exclusive, he said. “I don’t think a love for the environment makes you leftwing or rightwing; it makes you human.”

He encouraged people to develop an appreciation for nature and wilderness in themselves and those around them, as a first step toward conservation. He described the incredible opportunities we have for exploring in Canada, paradoxically stating, “We still have the frontier with us.” (

Liz Snell is the editor of Campus Confidential:  A UVic Modern Love Anthology.