The Lower Stikine pays a compliment to Yosemite

Photo Credit: Dave Quinn

The Lower Stikine pays a compliment to Yosemite

👤Dave Quinn 🕔May 30, 2014

“When you first see the lower Stikine, it’ll make you want to puke,” exclaimed a canoe guide friend when I told him our plans to spend 10 days paddling 240 kilometres of the lower Stikine River from Telegraph Creek to Wrangell, Alaska.

“The river just rips by, all these huge boilers and whirlpools. You’ll be wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. My advice is, don’t paddle or you’ll get to the end too soon.”

With this strange warning, we packed our gear—paddles included—and headed north to canoe the lower Stikine.

The Stikine is born on the Spatsizi Plateau before squirting violently through the officially unnavigable (though it is occasionally run by expert kayakers) 100-kilometre Grand Canyon of the Stikine near Dease Lake. It is a river like no other. Controversial mine proposals, oil and gas exploration threats and international Salmon Wars all add chapters to its rich story. In addition to its role as a major route to the interior gold rushes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the river is a focal point in the interior Tahltan and the coastal Tlinglit First Nations’ world. Somehow, through all this, the Stikine has retained its wildness.

From the bottom of the canyon at Telegraph Creek to its communion with the Pacific at Wrangell, the river drops nearly 1.5 metres per kilometre—making it the fastest navigable, free-flowing river in North America.

As we pack canoe barrels and dry bags in Telegraph Creek, the size and strength of the Stikine stuns us. Nobody is puking, but we’ve all got Day 1 butterflies. Here, the Stikine is a 100-metre-wide channel of silt-laden water that churns by at more than 20 kilometres per hour. The power of this seemingly impossible volume of water both intimidates even experienced boaters and has helped fend off repeated attempts to tame it.

In 1879, legendary naturalist John Muir visited the lower Stikine, calling it, “a Yosemite 100 miles long” whose “views change with bewildering rapidity.”

As we bail out the water from Buck’s Riffle (actually, more like Buck’s Huge Wave Train) and work our way downstream, we leave the drier pine forests of the interior behind and enter into the granite and glaciers of the Coast Mountains. Muir’s words, we think, are a great compliment to Yosemite. The river becomes a boiling, coffee-with-cream-coloured ribbon several hundred metres across.

We heed my friend’s advice and stow our paddles, feet dangling over the gunwales in the icy water. Our canoes spin a lazy dance, showcasing a 360-degree panorama of peaks, as the Stikine’s cargo of mountain-moving silt hisses on the hulls of our canoes.

Every sand and gravel bank we visit tells the tale of this valley’s wildness. Wolves, grizzlies, black bears and moose have all scribbled their stories here. In the confused waters of the 100-metre-deep Little Canyon—a notorious challenge both to the sternwheelers that ferried 19th century optimists inland to the Cassiar and Klondike gold rushes and to modern canoeists alike—we spot what looks like a bear swimming through the boils and whirlpools. Suddenly we realize that here, 170 kilometres from the sea, we are seeing our first seal.

Like its scenery, the Stikine has a rich and storied past. An artery of trade and travel for millennia, local legend tells of a vast ice wall that once blocked the valley, under which the entire Stikine flowed through a gaping ice tunnel. To test whether their canoes could safely pass, travelling groups of the indigenous Tahltan would send an old woman through in a canoe. If she emerged unscathed, the tunnel would offer safe passage downstream to trade with, or raid, the Tlinglit villages on the coast.

Today a remnant of this ice wall lies in a pool of its own melt-water—a large iceberg-choked lake separated from the river by a thin, treed moraine. Resisting the downstream pull of the river, we portage to this hidden lake and pass a Suessian day playing chess and reading in the warm, white sand beside grounded icebergs.

Fading pictograms and well-tended salmon nets hung from long pine poles document the past and present First Nations presence on the lower Stikine. All five wild salmon species return each year to the Stikine to spawn, a sustaining food source that has, in recent decades, become a source of international conflict. Alaskan, Canadian and First Nations salmon fishers have all angled for, and argued over, the eagle’s share of the catch. Although the so-called Salmon Wars ended with the 1999 Pacific Salmon Treaty, it is an uneasy truce, and tensions are still palpable on both sides of the border, each net blaming the other for declining salmon stocks.

Along the lower Stikine in late summer, the carcasses of spent salmon line every tributary, mocking our efforts to catch even a single one. We feast regularly on fire-grilled Dolly Varden, caught easily near the mouths of the Sitkine’s many tributaries, but it is only the charity of a commercial fisherman that finally fills our bellies with salmon.

The salmon squabble was nearly rendered moot, twice. First, in the late 1970s, BC Hydro proposed Site Z, a plan akin to a Zombie Apocalypse that would have seen five immense dams along the Grand Canyon of the Stikine and the Stikine’s main tributary, the Iskut River. After nearly a decade of opposition, the dam plans were scrapped, and Stikine River Provincial Park was created.

As residents of the Columbia Basin, where dam construction halted salmon migration nearly 75 years ago, we still feel the ecological pain of losing this pelagic lifeblood and are thankful beyond words that rivers like the Stikine still run free. More recently, Shell Canada proposed a mammoth coalbed methane development in the Sacred Headwaters of the Stikine, Nass and Skeena rivers, a plan scuttled in 2012 after the Tahltan and other interests stood their ground and said “no.”

After another side trip to iceberg-choked Shakes Lake, we finally heed the call of the Pacific and give in to the last leg of our journey, entering Alaska’s Stikine-LeConte Wilderness.

Here the river meets its match and finally slows as it runs into Pacific tidewater, and with tide comes fog. We feel our way by compass through nomadic sandbars and finally across five kilometres of Pacific swells from the mouth of the Stikine to the barnacle-caked dock at Wrangell, a rough-and-ready, deep-fried town full of bumper sticker variations on the right to bear arms.

From here, the Stikine seems pristine and permanent: unbreakable. It has persevered through glacial assault, First Nations battles, two gold rushes, the Salmon Wars and BC’s plans to shackle her with hydroelectric projects.

However, even BC’s most remote rivers are never far from the crosshairs of industry, and the sights of two industrial giants are set on the Stikine’s resources. In the headwaters of Galore Creek, Teck Cominco and NovaGold have permits to create the world’s largest copper-gold mine. This open-pit copper and gold mining operation would produce 95,000 tonnes of ore a day, hauled out through a 12-km tunnel to be trucked to port in Stewart. With potential startup not until 2018, Nova Gold is currently trying to liquidate its share of the project, and the future of this complex proposal is far from certain.

Like paddling too enthusiastically on the fast-moving waters of the wild Stikine, if we rush to industrialize our last wild areas, we may find we come to the end too soon. The lesson of the Stikine, and rivers like it, is the importance of knowing when to stow your paddle.