Mount Edziza

🕔Jun 04, 2009

The glacial water churns past faster and deeper than I’d like. Its boisterous clamouring, as it makes its way down from one of Mount Edziza’s glaciers, is deafening. I shudder involuntarily despite the warm sun, and simultaneously shrug at the inevitability of it—I have to cross here and I have to cross now.

Holding my breath, I pick up my ice axe and step into the creek. The water thunders against me at thigh-height, splashing at my waist as it tries to rid itself of this obstruction in the only way it knows how—brute force. My foot almost gets stuck under a boulder that rolls past, and my stomach rolls over with it. But gingerly my feet seek out and find more solid ground and then, without any real drama, it’s over. Relieved, I quietly put my socks and boots back on. A grinning grizzly skull lies by my feet; I guess he or she wasn’t so fortunate.

Shortly after, I find myself alone at the top of a valley and I’m so staggered by the scene that I drop my pack, sit on it and laugh out loud. Part of the mountain looms up back from where we came, framed by an ethereal light that reflects up from the massive glacier. Beyond, lies the immense alpine tundra plateau where cinder cones punctuate the landscape like towering reddish-black cairns left by an ancient race of meticulous giants, their indelible mark on a volcanic landscape. Whether it’s the light, the tiredness in my legs, the satisfaction of seeing the distance I’ve covered on foot at a glance, or the endorphins the creek crossing flooded my body with, I feel…vivid. It’s like I’ve been in a shadow and suddenly stepped into the sunlight, defining myself, making myself more real than ever.

Part of the landscape
There are a few moments in life in which you feel completely and utterly alive: the birth of your children, the moment after an accident that could have killed you, the rush of defying death by way of some extreme sport. And backpacking. I know, backpacking is hardly comparable to skydiving or birth, but it’s more than just the act itself that heightens your sense of life. It comes from being self-sufficient, removed from the trappings—and luxuries—of ‘normal’ life, and so immersed in an untouched natural environment that the simple act of moving across it makes you irrevocably part of the landscape itself.

Mount Edziza Provincial Park is a landscape that functions on another plane as well. While Canada’s second largest volcanic complex is remote, undeveloped, and looks as if it has existed outside of human reference for millennia, it’s actually somewhat of an archaeological Mecca. I’m here because my archaeologist friend, Darcy Mathews, invited me. Darcy’s interest in Mount Edziza, apart from its allure as an incredible backpacking destination, is its obsidian. The black volcanic glass is one of those rare substances: easy to work with yet extremely effective as a tool. In its more active days, the volcano spewed masses of obsidian across the landscape and First Nations have been coming here for thousands of years to gather the valuable rock.

In the early 1980s, archaeology professor Knut Fladmark visited and researched Mount Edziza’s many extensive archaeological sites. His subsequent 1985 publication, Glass and Ice: A Report on the Archaeology of the Mt. Edziza and Spectrum Ranges, Northwest British Columbia is the seminal report on Edziza’s cultural heritage. It’s also the only report. And despite his scientific intent, Fladmark occasionally slips into the lyrical, especially when describing the landscape. “From the air,” he writes, “the mountains rise above the dark green blanket of boreal forest, like islands from a sea.”

It’s hard not to be inspired by the view here. While the physical evidence of human occupation in the Edziza area is obvious, Fladmark struggles to find mythology or other ethnographic links to its cultural past. He does dig up a story of a supernatural toad called “E’dista,” who lived underground and breathed out of “holes and cracks in the mountains.” Leaving the myth open to interpretation, he concludes, “It is interesting that giant supernatural subterranean forces, associated with mountains, ‘breathing holes’ and deadly fire, would have a name [so] similar to ‘Edziza.’”

Scattered shards
The First Nations influence on the landscape is visually unobtrusive, but distinctive. “These trails are probably around 5,000 years old,” Darcy tells me as we hike up to the plateau from the floatplane drop-off, in knee-deep ruts worn by innumerable feet. Along our route across the plateau that surrounds the mountain, we encounter countless tool-making sites, the discarded shards of obsidian scattered around a spot that was likely used as a campsite.

Interestingly, obsidian tools originating from Edziza have been found on the other side of the Rockies, as well as up and down the coast. At the south end of the park there are enormous quarries where one can’t take a step without treading on artifacts. Speaking about one of these sites, Fladmark writes of the “countless numbers and generations of human beings who lived and worked here in the past, and who seem to have stamped the valley with a real feeling of human familiarity and presence.”

It’s an incredible feeling, connecting to the past so intimately like this, especially here where cultural history can sometimes remain obscure and intangible. I imagine the people walking this exact route, like me, carrying food and shelter and supplies on their backs, but somehow leaving room for painfully heavy amounts of rock. It makes me wince and smile.

The first time I had this feeling of connecting to the past through my feet was in England. My wife and I were hiking in Dartmoor when I suddenly realized that I was hiking the same route favoured by one of my literary heroes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And at the same time, I was walking in the footsteps of the prehistoric inhabitants who erected massive complexes of stone rows and circles all over the moors. Edziza likewise carries a continuous history, but here, instead of sheep, pixies, and wild ponies roaming the moors, there are caribou, wolves, and grizzlies.

As the sun sets, we set up camp in the dust at the foot of Cocoa Crater. Caribou sniff at us curiously just a few metres away as we cook dinner. I can’t believe that earlier I felt such a heightened state of reality; now it all just seems surreal. The snow-patches on the two mounds on either side of the otherworldly crater are gleaming in the kind of light that photographers die for, and a little creek chatters quietly nearby as it winds its way through the debris of the explosion that made Cocoa Crater a crater. It’s so over-the-top spectacular that I can hardly accept that I’m sitting here. I take pictures—my boots sitting on the strange, porous ground; animal prints next to our makeshift clothesline; our dehydrated dinner perched on a chunky lava rock—trying to capture the reality of being here through the banalities of hiking.

In the morning, I get up before sunrise and head off to climb one side of the crater, a short but tough slog up a steep, loose slope. Darcy, battling stomach flu, stays in his sleeping bag to store up strength for the day’s walk. I reach the peak at the perfect moment as the sun erupts from behind the tortured terrain, piercingly bright and utterly magnificent. I can’t tell anymore if it’s the view or the climb that leaves me breathless.