Wade Davis, Wandering Spirit
Credit: Photograph by Michael Edwards
Davis mentioned Daniel Taylor more than once, so I was curious to know what Taylor thought of the book he had helped inspire. Although he is now a professor at the Future Generations graduate school in West Virginia, Taylor's family has lived in the Himalayas for almost a century, and he has helped found nine national parks in the region. When I spoke to him on the phone, Taylor pronounced the book "brilliant" and a "tour de force." Davis, he said, "realized that the really amazing story is not whether Mallory made it to the top but what made the men [go there]." He also pointed to a theme that has yet to appear in reviews. "The book is about the making of a man," he said. "It is a very serious anthropological investigation into masculinity." Taylor, who has made 44 trips into Tibet, knows the Himalayas as well as anyone, and he emphasized the rigor and seriousness with which Davis approaches his subject. "Wade brings the anthropological method to what is otherwise an adventure narrative. So it adds depth. It's not a narrative of exploits." I asked him about Davis' field methods, the way he approaches exploration in the field. Out on an expedition, Taylor said, by way of illustration, "when you arrive at camp in the evening, most people will go for the hot mug of tea. Wade goes right over to the yak herders. He doesn't sit with the other white folks."

Taylor's point was echoed by Johan Reinhard, one of the world's foremost mountaineers and explorers, who in 1995 in Peru discovered the Incan Ice Maiden mummy. "I know a lot of explorers," Reinhard told me. "I've been on a lot of expeditions, but I haven't seen many like him." There was something fitting about Davis' attraction to the early Everest expeditions, Reinhard said, because "he's like the old British explorers." Reinhard emphasized the range of Davis' abilities – his physical strength and endurance, his talents for writing and lecturing, his empathy and ability to gain the trust of his subjects – with a sense of wonder. "Wade himself is a disappearing species," Reinhard said. "He is one of a kind, a rare breed."

If Davis represents a vanishing type, perhaps it's natural that he gravitates toward others who are threatened by the long march of modernity. Indeed, here is a theme that runs like a bright thread through all of Davis' work: the spiritual and moral and aesthetic value of cultures, languages, plants, animals, whole landscapes, regardless of their practical use, a value that inheres in their very existence. This thread ties Davis to the Tibetans, the peoples of the Amazon, and those of Borneo, Australia, Polynesia – all the cultures and languages, places and landscapes that animate his books, and especially to the headwaters of British Columbia's Stikine, Skeena, and Nass rivers. It is there – on the Spatsizi Plateau, the surrounding mountains, and in the valleys, lakes, and streams radiating outward from it – that Davis' journeys really began, where he wandered as a young man, working as a ranger and a guide. Today this landscape is threatened by the global commodities boom and the heedless scramble to extract Canada's natural resources at untold environmental and social cost.

Back in the Explorers Club lounge, which itself feels like a throwback to an earlier, more heroic age, Davis and I talked about his commitment to saving the Spatsizi. Surrounded by paintings of an extinct woolly rhinoceros, an endangered polar bear, and a long-dead arctic explorer, Davis spoke of his youth guiding and fighting fires in the Canadian wilderness and of his great friend Alex Jack, a native guide whose Gitxsan name, Axtiigeenix, means "he who walks leaving no tracks." Davis' dream as a young man was to write a book about the Stikine country, and it was there that he first began to record mythology. "There was a mountain above our camp and, it's funny, because I was just back there last summer for the first time in years, and I looked up at this pyramid mountain, with these terraces on it, and I couldn't believe the memory of how fast I climbed it that time. I mean, it was this big mountain, and Alex had sent me up and said, 'Go see how fast you can climb that,' and I got there in like half an hour or something. That would take me three hours today." Alex told him to stay at the summit, without food or water, until his vision arrived. "And so I did, and then I saw something. And when I came down, he said, 'How long it take you?' I said half an hour. He said, 'Ah, pretty good. It took me 20 minutes when I was a kid.'"

Now, more than 30 years later, Davis has finally written his Stikine book, 'The Sacred Headwaters,' lavishly illustrated with photography, and he intends it to catalyze a campaign, led by the Tahltan people who inhabit that land, to save what has been called the Serengeti of Canada from live burial under more than 400 million tons of toxic tailings and waste rock generated by open-pit gold and copper mining. Mountaintop-removal coal operations are also planned, and Shell Canada was issued a lease to pursue coal-bed methane extraction throughout a vast territory. "It's not just a regional issue," said Davis, almost sputtering with outrage over the scale of the proposed devastation. "It really speaks to what's happening to wild lands all over the world."

Saving this wilderness is not just another cause for Davis – it's also about saving his home. "When I really began my lifelong engagement with the place was in 1987, when I tried to write that book again and, more important, took my wife, Gail, up there. And she fell in love with the country." She did so in spite of suffering a fairly serious injury on a long hike. "The first day out, Gail stumbled, and her heavy pack drove her face into the rocks. At first I thought she had fractured her skull. We were four days from the nearest dirt road, and it was before satellite phones." Her eyes swelled shut, and the two still had 10 days of hard walking in front of them, but Gail carried on, insisting all the while that she was fine. "It was that spirit that I fell in love with," Davis said. She still bears a scar from that trip, "a slight indentation in her forehead above her eyes." Davis, one might not guess from reading his books, is a great family man and devoted father. One of the first stories he told when we met was that he had just received a call from an NGO in Panama where his eldest daughter had been working. "Your daughter is missing," they told him. "Then we got an email a couple of hours later – by chance she wrote us – to say that she had gone off to explore a volcano." He was so proud. "When she first went down to Panama to work with the Indians, I said, 'Honey, you're only 23 years old.' She said, 'Daddy, what were you doing when you were 20?'"Listening to Davis talk about his family, his wife and daughters' love for their mountains and rivers in British Columbia, I could understand why the struggle to save the sacred headwaters is so important to him. The same could be said for the Tahltan and the other victims of modernity who just happen to live atop the minerals craved by the global commodities markets. They are fighting for their homes. But the fight is far larger than that, and Davis returned to his point that saving the Canadian wilderness, opposing environmental atrocities like the extraction of the Alberta tar sands, is not a local issue: It's a matter of stopping or slowing or at least mitigating global climate change.

There was a moment, Davis said, not so long ago, when environmentalists and scientists hoped that humanity might just run out of oil and natural gas and begin the transition to noncarbon sources of energy before we pushed the climate over the edge. Such hopes were in vain. "Now," Davis said, his voice rising, "it looks like unconventional sources are going to buy us another couple hundred years." If that happens, he continued, if we're willing to do anything, even "drilling for oil in the Sistine Chapel," as he put it, thus obliterating the most dramatic landscapes on the planet to feed our hunger for hydrocarbons and precious metals, then it's likely, because of the huge quantities of carbon released, that human civilization will succeed in destroying itself along with the Osborne caribou, red goats, Stone sheep, moose, grizzly bears, and wolves that for now still populate the Canadian northwest.