Stikine—a paradise beyond improvement

🕔Sep 22, 2005

In the summer of 1879, John Muir went prospecting for glaciers, a journey that led him a thousand miles up the coast of British Columbia to Alaska and the mouth of the Stikine River.

Gold had been found on the lower reaches of the Stikine in 1861, and a later, richer strike further inland in the Cassiar had brought a rush of dreamers and drifters.

Once upon the river, moving by paddle wheeler steadily through the islands of the delta, where eagles gathered by the thousands to feast on salmon runs so rich they coloured the sea, his mood shifted to delight. In every direction were signs of the wild. Immense forests of hemlock and Sitka spruce rose to soaring mountain walls adorned in waterfalls and ice. On canyon bluffs stood mountain goats, fearless as if innocent of human predation. Grizzly bear and white wolves walked the shoreline amidst clouds of cottonwood down. The entire valley, wrote a bedazzled Muir, was a flowery landscape garden, a Yosemite a hundred miles long. In a journey of but 18 hours, he counted over a hundred glaciers.

River of enchantment

From the summit Glenora peak, he looked west toward the Coast Mountains through which he had just travelled. “I never before had seen,” he later wrote, “so richly sculptured a range or so many awe-inspiring inaccessible mountains crowded together.” From this vantage, he tallied another 200 glaciers. Returning to California, he would name his beloved dog, Stikine, after this river of enchantment.

Standing today on the 7,000-foot summit of Glenora, in an August snow squall, with unseen raptors scraping the sky and ravens yielding to the ice, it is impossible not to think of this grand old man of conservation. Had his eyes turned north and east, down the snowmelt gullies and past the tangled spruce, beyond the rivers, lakes and jagged peaks, they would have fallen upon uninhabited valleys larger than entire countries, a landscape where Canada could hide England and the English would never find it.

Serengeti of Canada

What would he have made of the soaring plateaus of the Spatsizi headwaters, land of the Red Goat, a vast wilderness preserve aptly named the Serengeti of Canada for its immense herds of woodland caribou and stone sheep? Or the depths of the Grand Canyon, Canada’s largest, where the Stikine disappears into the earth.

To the south of the canyon looms Edziza, Ice Mountain, sacred to the Tahltan Indians, a towering dormant volcano veiled perpetually in cloud and capped at 9,000 feet with an ice field eight miles across. To reach Edziza from the north can mean crossing a lava field so rough that local guides sometimes measure distance not in miles, but in pairs of boots worn out by the effort.

The Stikine is more than a river; it is a wilderness of the spirit, a free-flowing stream running through drainage roughly the size of Switzerland. More than 29,000 people run the Grand Canyon of Colorado each year. Since the first successful descent in 1981 by Rob Lesser, often described as the Edmund Hilary of white water kayaking, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine has permitted the passage of but 21 individuals.

Trail of blood

A single road, the Stewart-Cassiar highway, a narrow ribbon of seal-coated dirt that skirts the inner flank of the coastal ranges and links southern British Columbia with the Yukon traverse the Stikine.

A spur drops into Telegraph Creek, a vestige of the gold rush, a warren of ramshackle buildings clustered around a wooden church and a RCMP post that paint alone keeps from slipping into the Stikine. The town recalls a failed attempt in 1866 to lay a telegraph line overland through Canada and Siberia to Europe, an epic scheme that collapsed with the successful laying of the Transatlantic Cable.

Telegraph came alive again with the Klondike, when the Stikine was promoted as the proper and effortless British route to the Yukon. In 1898 miners returned by the tens of thousands, only to encounter an impossible portage that became known as the trail of blood. Steamer trunks and pianos, along with granite blasted from bluffs, provided the fill that protected the town from the ravages of the spring floods.

The Tahltan, the canyon people of the upper Stikine, watched all of this rabid activity carefully. Trade and commerce they fully understood. For generations, they had shared the river with the Tlinglit, allowing their coastal neighbours to move into their territory to dry their fish in the rain shadow of the interior. But the greed of the miners, men who lived without women and children, was something new.

Neighbourhood of caribou

A hundred years later the Tahltan still struggle to come to terms with the ways of another world. It is their presence that gives meaning to the valley. For them, the Stikine is not a wilderness; it is a remote and wild, vibrantly beautiful homeland, a neighbourhood, albeit an odd one with more caribou than people, but a neighborhood nevertheless where man, woman and nature have over the years come to terms with each other, and those terms involve a set of relationships to the land that demand the luxury of space.

Those that live there prefer to speak of survival, of winters when the winds blew so hard the caribou froze, dogs died, and stories were told of people reduced to eating spruce bark, and parents forced to choose which of their young would live and which be abandoned to die.

As it has for a long time, Spatsizi serves as home to guide outfitters. Nestled in a hollow on the southern shore of Laslui, the Collingwood main lodge and outbuildings front a small fleet of floatplanes that each morning carries clients into the remote reaches of a commercial territory that, more often than not, had never seen the shadow of a fly rod.

Rough-cut diamonds

In the old days the crew were cowboys, men who lived where their hats fell, rough-cut diamonds who worked the hunting camps all fall, drank away their earnings in a weekend, and retreated to the line cabins of the Chilcotin to tend cattle through the long and impossible winters of the interior.

Many of the old-timers are still going strong, but too many faces have passed on. Guiding on the coast, one man took a plane that hit a mountain in the fog. Another died in a crash that also took the lives of his young children. Ray Collingwood’s closest friend went through the ice on his trap line and it was six months before the Mounties could recover the body.

And, as I walked back to the lodge, I stopped by one of the cabins, a simple log structure elevated to the sublime by a copper plaque on its wall, etched with a poem that remembers Ray’s oldest son, Chad, killed in a plane crash that also took down the pilot, his son, and two others. The only survivor was Ray’s daughter Carrie, who was cushioned by the family dog that died in her lap, protecting her from the impact.

“ It’s hard work” Reg said when I asked him how he and his brother kept going after so many personal losses and setbacks, freak accidents like the time Ray had his arm broken in sixteen places when the prop kicked back on him as he tried to jumpstart the plane engine on a cold autumn morning.

“ But then there are those days when you’re up on a ridge looking into some basin and there’s a bull caribou over there, and a sheep over there, there’s goats up there and an eagle flying across the sun and everything is going okay and you think, this is pretty good. You’ve got to strive for those good days because life, life is tough, period.”

Ray saw the land not through memories, but through the eyes and habits of the animals. It was astonishing what he knew.

Every slope had a story, every wrinkle in the landscape revealed a hidden fact of wildlife biology that no scientist had noticed. A salt lick that drew moose had a pattern different than the one that attracted caribou. A mound of earth, an esker, a kame, camouflaged a den of wolves. And this deeper knowledge was nothing compared to what he saw in the moment, the flash of a hawk, a wolf pack scattering by a stream, and a sow grizzly bolting into the brush, a thousand sights that few other men in the moment would have seen. But he did, because for 30 years he had made observation his mission, and no matter what else occurred in his life, he was not about to miss a chance to engage the sublime vision of the wild.

For the ancestors, Edziza was considered to be alive, like an animal. Those who had earned the right, through ritual purification, celibacy and daily immersion in cold water for eight months, could only approach it from down wind.
It is an ancient belief, from the time when the people accepted as a given the mythological account of the victory of Tseskiyesho, Big Raven, who vanquished the devouring spirit of the mountain and thus freed the people from their fear and misery.

“ The mountain is sacred,” Oscar Dennis, a Tahltan student of anthropology said. “For us no place is more sacred than another. Even the house of Tseskiyesho, that bluff above the Tahtlan river, where we fish, what my Dad calls our Bethlehem, has no greater meaning than a simple meadow, for nothing is more sacred than the land itself. My mother once said that the measure of a Tahltan should not be race for many of us have white blood. What counts is the relationship one has to the land.”

Such wisdom comes from hard experience. As a boy, Oscar grew up in the mining town of Cassiar, where the Indians bagged asbestos and lived apart from the whites, in a warren of shacks by the dump. His first home was a tent, but then an aunt gave his family a house, which for a year was perched on a hillside, at a steep angle, without a foundation.

The kids invented a game, opening the front door to any drunk who appeared and then watching as they stumbled downhill and smacked into the opposite wall of the house. School was a series of humiliations, white teachers who beat the native kids with rulers and rods. By the time the Dennis family moved back to Iskut, the parents were drinking hard, and the children had to fend for themselves, slipping into the priest’s pantry at night to steal food.

Knife in the chest

Oscar used to drink, as did his father and mother, but they have all been sober for years. Oscar’s life turned around on the night he took a homemade knife in the chest, a six-inch blade buried to the hilt.

“ I knew I was in trouble when he twisted it. I pulled it out and it looked all rusted but it was my blood.”

It was nearly three hours before Oscar got medical attention, in a clinic in Dease Lake where the doctor dismissed the injury as a flesh wound. Jimmy, Oscar’s Dad, saw the frothy blood and knew from all the moose that he had killed that it was a lung wound. But no one listened. By morning he was cold, on the edge of death. A lung had collapsed, the chamber was full of blood, and there was no time for an anesthetic.

Nurses held the patient down, but his strength flung them away as the doctor probed the wound. Oscar placed a strip of leather between his teeth, and asked for a moment to pray before the doctor thrust the scalpel into his side to drain the blood. In time he recovered and, with the encouragement of his sister, enrolled in the University of Northern British Columbia where he found in anthropology a context for understanding all that had happened to his people.

The wind picked up and I turned to the sky. I knew the power of this mountain. Anything was possible: sudden violent gales in the darkness, a foot of snow on an August day.

On the summit icecap I once fell through a crust of snow into a crevasse that nearly took my life. On another attempt, close to the peak, I had slipped on a thin sheen of sleet, and tumbled to a ledge overlooking an exposure of a thousand feet.

The first thing you notice in the canyon is the silence. Beyond the muted rush of the river far below, and the odd cry of a kestrel, there is an emptiness so profound that a small stone knocked over by a goat rings like a bell as it drops off the canyon walls. And then there is the sense of isolation. There are canyons within the canyon, and the rim above the main channel is rarely continuous. There are sheer walls of vertical rock, but they generally adorn the faces of immense individual buttresses, each cut off from the next by a deep drainage.

Walking the length of the Stikine Canyon implies traversing each of these subsidiary cuts or, alternatively, staying above them and slogging for hours back toward their sources through an almost impenetrable tangle of deadfall left behind by the fires that regularly sweep the mesas, fuelled by stiff winds that blow each afternoon from the coast.

United in the fight

There had indeed been serious plans in the late 1970s to plug the canyon with two dams, one of which was to have been the largest concrete arch structure ever built. Millions were spent before the initiative collapsed—under the weight of its own stupidity, some say.

There was no market for the power, and no desire on the part of the people of the Stikine to see the river violated. Everyone was involved in the fight, the Tahltan and the guides, the trappers, homesteaders, fishermen and cowboys.
In the end the community prevailed, a rough gathering of people who had little in common save some random mutation in their family past that coded for stubbornness and strength—and a deep conviction that the Stikine is a paradise that cannot be improved upon.