On Ancient Ice

Photo Credit: Matt J. Simmons

On Ancient Ice

👤Matt J. Simmons 🕔Feb 17, 2018

Portions of this article were first published in Wend Magazine. To learn more, check out the recent publication, Kwaday Dan Tsinchi, edited by  Richard J. Hebda, Sheila Greer, and Alexander P. Mackie, and published by the Royal BC Museum.

A cynical wind sweeps down the mountain, reaching out with icy fingers to freeze my dripping toes. My feet have never been so cold. Crossing a creek barefoot in the shadow of glacial ice is, well, a chilling experience. Still, I have to smile. I lean against my pack and look around at the landscape.

Rocks everywhere are balanced on bizarre, unnatural perches, jumbled hills of them looming up from the flat, narrow valley like piles of pebbles gathered by a giant child. Directly in front of me the creek tumbles past, dark with silt and as near to frozen as possible while still moving. Beyond it, a steep, seemingly impassable wall of loose rock climbs a hundred feet up to the tundra, a striking strip of bright green that melts imperceptibly into the greyness of the low-lying clouds. I strain to pick out the route we walked down. The dark dirty foot of the glacier descends down towards the rocky valley on my left and in the distance it disappears into a wall of fog. To my right, the creek continues down to the main arm of the glacier, our intended route through the landscape.

Movement is everywhere: water hurrying past, scree slopes giving way in little slides, and that cold wind pushing the fog and clouds around. The glacier groans across the landscape, the geological equivalent of Aesop’s tortoise. Even the rocks grumble, settling and shifting like restless souls in an uncertain world. I stretch lazily—time for me to move as well. I slip back into socks, lace up my boots, and strap the gaiters back onto my legs.

My friend and climbing partner Darcy and I started out from our base camp in the impenetrable early morning fog, and we’ve already walked a few kilometres. Beyond the tent it’s a day’s walk to the lonely strip of remote highway that carried us here in the first place. We’re in the far northwest corner of British Columbia, between Alaska and Yukon Territory, trekking across a formidable landscape to visit the site of one of North America’s most amazing discoveries. In this part of the world, here in the mountains, we are insignificant specks in an endless landscape of rock, snow, and ice.

Tatshenshini-Alsek Park is iconic Canadian wilderness. It’s rugged, remote, and truly remarkable. Perched on a confluence of borders—BC, Yukon, and Alaska—the park is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the largest protected natural area in the world. Grizzly bears and black bears, wolves and wolverines, foxes, coyotes, and caribou, lynx, Dall sheep, shrews, mountain goats, moose, martens, marmots, ground squirrels, lemmings, and snowshoe hares all call this place home. A rare sub-species of black bear found nowhere else in the world lives here, and the big northern skies are filled with over 125 species of bird including eagle, falcon, and ptarmigan. Those same skies light up at night with the northern lights, a spectral phenomenon that captures the imagination of locals and visitors alike in a way that nothing else can.

This is a seriously wild place. But to call it wilderness is not entirely fair. The Tatshenshini region is neither uninhabited nor inhospitable, the two defining characteristics of wilderness. Wild mountains and vast rivers might define the physical landscape, but its human occupants define its spirit.

British Columbia—especially in the north—is often considered an “empty” landscape, a place of daunting terrain and even more daunting wildlife. But it’s not empty. Traditional “grease” trails that extend inland from the Pacific coast are ancient routes on which Indigenous groups traveled vast distances to trade items like dried seaweed and eulachon oil for caribou and moose hides. Many overland routes have disappeared back into the landscape, reclaimed by nature in their disuse. Others are still there, just buried under asphalt—roads and highways that follow logical paths through mountain passes and up river valleys are often built on traditional trade routes. A few are still used as trails today.

In Tatshenshini-Alsek Park the landscape itself has been used for millennia, both as a home and as a means to move people and goods from one place to another. Present-day hikers roam the tundra with ground squirrels and grizzly bears, and tourists from around the world float down the park’s namesake rivers. Most visitors are unaware of the ancient paths they trace with their movements. First Nations may have lived here continuously for thousands of years, but because their mark on the landscape is subtle, it’s all too easy to ignore their traditional presence.

It doesn’t help that much of the landscape is covered in ice. The UNESCO site is home to the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. Still, trade and migration routes wended their way through the treacherous terrain as glaciers surged across the landscape. People found ways to make glaciers work for them: they climbed over them, paddled under them, camped beside them, and drank their icy waters. But traveling on glaciers has an inherent element of risk, exponentially increased by the long distances over which these glaciers span. A single misplaced step out on the ice can mean the end of a journey…and the end of a life.  

“I think we should walk on the ice,” says Darcy, in his quiet but emphatic manner. I knew it was coming but I’m still unsure: half of me wants desperately to scramble up onto that glacier but the other, more sensible half, rails against the idea. Still over ten kilometres from the site, our intended route follows a massive, ice-filled valley, bordered on the near side by a steep ridge of loose rock. For about eight kilometres—as far as we can see—the evidence of falling rocks (including boulders the size of small trucks) is scattered along the edge of the glacier like a trail of monolithic breadcrumbs. Our options: walk the side slope and risk being crushed by a falling rock, or walk the glacier itself. It might seem like an obvious choice, but neither of us has much experience on ice. We are carrying ice axes and crampons, but we didn’t bring ropes, harnesses, or ascenders. Glacier travel has its allure, sure, but part of that allure is the danger inherent in the experience. Glaciers are dynamic, restless giants subject to sudden change, sometimes violent, always dramatic. Crevasses open and close and hidden rivers of water travel unseen, dangerously undermining the surface of the ice. I’d always imagined I would take on a glacier for the first time in the company of mountaineers, equipped with both gear and knowledge. Equipped with neither, I nervously look at my friend.

“Are you sure?” I ask.

Darcy explains his point of view: the loose moraine is infinitely more dangerous than the ice. In a recently de-glaciated landscape, boulders the size of backpacks move at the slightest touch; without time to settle, the unpredictable terrain has the potential to break a leg, or worse.

I shrug my shoulders and let a grin slip carelessly onto my face.

“Ok, let’s do it.”

We work our way through the last of the boulders and I take my first steps on glacial ice: moment of truth. The sound of water is, if anything, louder, and the implications of that are disconcerting. The ice itself is definitely not the clear stuff of ice cubes. Instead it’s dark, glimpses of glistening blackness through a thin veil of dirt and rock. Moving slowly and deliberately, I pick each footstep with care. Eventually, we get out onto the main body of ice, away from its rocky edge. While the sound of water still burbles enigmatically around us, the frozen mass under my feet feels reassuringly solid. The patches of ice that peek through the dirt are bluer here, a brilliant turquoise that is startlingly vivid. The moment washes over us like a cold wind: looking up the broad glacial valley is like looking at an empty road.

“This is easy,” I admit sheepishly.

“Like walking on a highway,” Darcy replies, looking up from his camera with a wry smile. “And the best part is we’re away from that bomb run of boulders.” He looks meaningfully over his shoulder at the edge of the glacier, littered with the rocky refuse of loose scree.

I spin around, drinking in the landscape and relishing the strange atmosphere. Everything gleams in the sheen of adrenaline. The ice flows down from spectacular snow-covered mountains that poke their toothy peaks up into clouds that hang low over the alpine. We’re so close now—just a valley away from the site—and I feel an intense connection to both the landscape and its ancient occupants, as I stand here and try to take it all in. A few rays of sun plunge from the sky and glitter at the foot of the glacier. Distant dark clouds glow as if the sun is burning them away from the inside out. The light is luminous and otherworldly, the scene so spectacular my mind fizzes from the sheer exuberance of the moment. It’s the kind of scene that has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years, and I wonder if the way it makes me feel—staggered by its immensity and awestruck by its raw beauty—is the same way ancient travellers felt when they walked out on this ice thousands of years ago. And what if it was the last scene they ever saw?

In 1999, just a few kilometres from where we’re standing on the ice, three hunters from southeast BC—Bill Hanlon, Mike Roche, and Warren Ward—made the discovery of a lifetime while sheep hunting in the park. As they walked along the edge of a receding glacier, they found “sticks” lying on the ground. Anywhere else a few bits of wood would go unnoticed but in the alpine, organic material is conspicuous. After a few minutes puzzling over the objects it dawned on them that these weren’t just branches snagged on the coat of a caribou, they were artifacts. Roche picked up a curved piece of notched wood that reminded them of traditional hunting tools. “We were trying to remember the word atlatl,” Hanlon recalls. Ward, looking through binoculars at the ice, silenced their excited conversation. He had found the owner of the tools.

The hunters climbed up onto the ice to get a closer look—Hanlon says it was one of those moments where everything comes into focus. “There were tingles up our spines,” he says. “We could see the legs going down into the ice.” Partially emerging from the receding edge of the glacier, the body was a bizarre and chilling sight, and unmistakably human. Though headless, the body was mostly intact, still cloaked in a robe made of ground squirrel fur. “You could tell it was old from the stitching,” Hanlon continues. There were artifacts scattered everywhere around—in the ice, on the gravel, and emerging next to the body from the surrounding snowfield. The hunters knew it wasn’t anything contemporary, but out there in the mountains they didn’t yet know that they had stumbled on one of the most significant archaeological finds in North America—a teenager that scientists believe had been frozen in the ice for hundreds of years.

The hunters snapped a few pictures, marked the location on their map, and immediately took news of their discovery back to the appropriate authorities in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. A few days later, a group of archaeologists and local First Nations visited the site. Within a few weeks, the news was global.

Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi (Long Ago Person Found) trekked in the Tatshenshini landscape about 300 years before Europeans first explored the mountains of the northwest. Because the glacier he was found in had moved very little since his death, his body was remarkably well preserved. “It was a quiet part of the glacier pinned down by nunataks, immoveable hummocks of bedrock,” says Al Mackie, a senior archaeologist involved in the project from day one. Mackie has been studying Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi for nearly twenty years; he says the significance of the find in scientific terms is immeasurable. “There aren’t many examples of archaeological sites with frozen human remains,” he explains, and fewer still where the remains are found intact. While there are older skeletal remains, Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi is the oldest preserved human remains in North America. Because of this significance, the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations agreed to allow excavation on the condition that, after a predetermined length of time, Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi was returned to his natural burial place in the mountains.

The ensuing scientific studies pieced together a theoretical route—in his stomach were minerals that matched those found in a lake one day’s walk away and, slightly older, salmon and beach asparagus. On a map, it makes sense. Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi left the coast at Lynn Canal, climbed into the alpine, then trekked across the glaciers either to trade, to access another point on the coast further north, or simply to scope out a route for his family to later travel together. Whether a storm blew in and trapped him in the mountains or an avalanche buried him on top of the ice, tragically, wherever he was going, he never got there.

An intimate connection to the landscape is a good way to stay safe in an otherwise volatile environment. As British bush guru and survivalist, Ray Mears puts it, “Knowledge is the key to survival and the best thing about that is it doesn’t weigh anything.” The world in which First Nations lived, prior to contact with European explorers, was an intimate existence, where the natural environment had “sentience”. It’s easy to give glaciers animalist characteristics; anything in the natural world that reflects our own fickle nature is best described in human or animal terms. While endearing in a literary sense, there’s also some practical truth to these comparisons. Glaciers’ movements are, like the movements of animals and people, predictably unpredictable.

Travel for the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest has been an integral part of seasonal life for thousands of years; during the Little Ice Age, surging glaciers had a profound effect on their route finding. While a glacial route might be easily walked one summer, providing a quick connection from one valley to the next, a year later the snow might melt to reveal an impenetrable maze of crevasses. Anthropologist and author Julie Cruikshank explains: “Aboriginal elders who speak knowledgeably about glaciers refer to observing, listening, and participating in ritualized respect relations [respect ceremonies] with glaciers.” Traditional knowledge accepts that glaciers are changeable, she says, and more like people or animals than we might like to admit. Even if it took a lot of energy, First Nations went out of their way to avoid disturbing the ice. But respect isn’t always enough.

Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi was young, healthy and he carried enough provisions for the journey: food, hunting tools, a waterproof hat, and warm clothes. The discovery of pollen particles attached to his clothes suggests he was traveling in the summer—the best time of year to attempt crossing the ice alone. He would have undoubtedly observed the required respect rituals for the glaciers he was traveling on. So what happened? Initially scientists thought he may have broken his leg, leaving him trapped on the ice, but later studies showed that the trauma happened after his death, caused by the movements of the glacier itself. The current theory is that he died from exposure, but it’s impossible to know what forced him to stay out on the ice, whether a sudden snowstorm, an avalanche from surrounding snowfields, or something else entirely.

The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations consider Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi to be a direct relative and therefore have no interest in discussing the “gory” details, which to them, is unsettling in the same way that it’d be unsettling to talk about the details of your grandma’s death. When I discussed this article with them I was told that some people feel very strongly about not telling the story at all. Now, we can only guess what happened.

Exposed to the wind between two otherworldly valleys, each covered by contorted masses of the same ice, Darcy and I sit down on a mound of boulders to rest, eat food, and drink water. In the next valley the glacier is a cerulean blue, covered in places by drifts of snow. A shallow creek trickles unhurriedly down from a distant notch in the mountains—where Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi walked half a century ago. There’s something humbling about this valley and only part of it is the ethereal power of the mountains and the ice that scours a path between them. There’s a residual memory of travel here, an imprinted sense that we’re not the first to pick a route over the barren terrain.

“I think we should walk up there,” I say, pointing at an arc of blue that climbs up and over the glacier, avoiding wide patches of snow. We stare up into the dark valley, sizing it up. Darcy agrees with the route and we quietly repack our food. Once we head into this stark place, we are completely committed to the trek. I mutter a nervous request to the glacier itself: “Please don’t kill me,” and start to move up the valley.

I can’t get enough of the scenery—there’s something compelling about all this bleakness. A river of ice crashes down the mountainside above me, fiercely crevassed and piercingly blue. Equally contorted rock bursts through the ice and climbs towards the clouds, steep cliffs that disappear into the stormy sky. Rock and ice are usually static, but here they seem suffused with an angry energy. The whole valley seems to resonate with it; it’s the kind of place where you instinctively speak quietly.

By walking the ice here and by connecting the tundra to this slightly savage mountain valley, we tie ourselves irrevocably to the past: every step a step in the footsteps of the people who call this place home. I feel an intense connection to Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi by following his route through the mountains and as I work my way up the valley, I imagine how he must have felt—purposeful and single-minded, aware of the dangers around him and in that awareness, connected to the landscape in a way that few people experience. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m out climbing mountains or trekking across a wild landscape.

We breathlessly climb the final slope to find ourselves in a strange and beautiful place. An intense wind scours the cracked and tortured rocks that push their way out of the perpetual snow in chaotic, jagged heaps. Shuffling at the edge of a pristine and windswept snowfield about half a mile from the site, mindful of our promise to the direct ancestors of Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi to maintain a respectful distance, we burrow under layers of fleece and think about what happened here. A young man died, alone with the ice, snow, and rock. To get here, we followed the paths of the people who have traveled in these mountains for thousands of years, climbing into the clouds and crossing glaciers as a part of normal life. Most made it safely across the ice; a few didn’t. I squint my eyes as a few weak rays of light reflect off the snow. The wind whispers cold thoughts over my shoulder and I shiver, maybe because I’m cold, maybe not.

Gwänaschis to the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations for permission to travel through their traditional territory, and to retrace a portion of the route walked by the Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi ancestor.