Deep North—British Columbia's Stikine River Valley

It took more than an hour to find the old grave, now hidden beneath a spruce sapling, its wooden headstone no longer legible, its picket fence a mere shadow on the soil. "Love Old Man Antoine Died 1926" was the simple inscription. I knew it from memory, having stumbled upon the site as a young park ranger, part of the first team hired in 1978 to explore and map the newly created Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park. Often described as the Serengeti of Canada, the Spatsizi is British Columbia's largest roadless preserve, more than 1.6 million acres encompassing the headwaters of the mighty Stikine, the river known to the native Tlingit as simply the Great River. The mist and rain that swirled about Antoine's grave would in time swell the headwater lake of Laslui, giving rise to a wild mountain stream that flows first east and north before turning west and finally south on its 400-mile (644-kilometer) run for the sea.

Along the way the river plunges into the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, a raging torrent that flows more than 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) beneath cliffs of basalt and sedimentary rock rising a thousand feet (304.8 meters) straight up from the water's edge. Below the canyon the river runs wide, cutting through the glaciers and jagged peaks of the coast mountains before finally reaching a pristine estuary where each spring bald eagles gather by the thousands to feast on sparkling runs of smelt. When John Muir traveled the lower third of the Stikine in 1879, he called it a Yosemite a hundred miles (160 kilometers) long, and he counted some 300 glaciers along its tortuous course. It's a land where Canada could hide England, and the English would never find it.

My job description had been vague: wilderness assessment and public relations. In two seasons I saw a handful of visitors. My partner and I explored the park freely, mapping the trails used by outfitters and by caribou and sheep.

In these wanderings we had come upon Antoine's grave, perched on a bench above the willow and birch thickets that hugged the shore of Laslui Lake. Curious about the history of the grave, I had crossed the lake to the mouth of Hotlesklwa Creek, where Ray and Reg Collingwood, outfitters for the Spatsizi, had established a hunting camp. There I found Alex Jack, a legendary native guide, whose birth name means He Who Walks Leaving No Tracks. Alex knew of the grave, and he knew who had laid the body to rest: his own brother-in-law. Old Man Antoine, Alex told me, was a shaman, crippled from birth but filled with the power of clairvoyance.

Intrigued by this link between a living elder like Alex and a shaman born in a previous century, I left my job with the government and went to work for the Collingwoods. As Alex and I cut wood and fixed fence and led the odd hunter after moose or goat, I would ask him to tell me the old stories of the land and his people. He talked of his youth, of hunting trips and winter trading runs by dogsled to the coast. But of the myths of his people he appeared to recall nothing. He spoke often of survival, of winter winds so strong the caribou froze, of times when his people ate nothing but spruce bark. I remember passing an encampment on a sunny afternoon, and Alex acknowledged that his people had settled there for several years, but he didn't describe it as a place they had lived. "Here," he said simply, "is where we survived."

One morning I went out to retrieve the carcass of a moose shot by a hunter. Strapping a canoe to the float of his plane, Ray Collingwood had dropped me beyond Laslui, further up the valley at the head of Tuaton Lake. A pack of wolves drew me to the kill. When I returned with a canoe full of meat, Alex was waiting. As we unloaded, he said quietly that he remembered a story. To this day I do not know what, if anything, was the significance of the gift of meat. But that night I began to record from Alex a long series of mythological tales. It was the beginning of a friendship that would last until his death at the age of 92.

Returning now to the Spatsizi, two years after Alex's passing and more than two decades since we first met, I found his memory everywhere, in the willow thickets and along the streams, in the wind and the scent of the fire haze that softened the sun, upon the open prairie where the Collingwood horses grazed, their manes quivering like sheets of distant rain. The land, of course, was unchanged: a broad mountain valley draining to the east, cerulean lakes beneath the dome of a vast sheltering sky, soaring undulating ridges running away to the north and south, uplands skirted at the base in white spruce forests, their skylines dusted even in summer with fresh snow.

One thing that had changed was the scale and character of the Collingwoods' operation. Nestled in a hollow on the southern shore of Laslui, their main lodge and outbuildings fronted a small fleet of floatplanes that each morning carried clients to quiet waters, which, more often than not, had never seen the shadow of a fly rod. Each night at dusk the guests returned to a cobalt lake and a warm hearth where over candlelit dinners they regaled each other with fishing yarns that required no embellishment.

"It's not quite like the old days," I laughed as Ray joined me for dinner.

"No," he smiled. He is a short man, with a kind face, a trim beard, and eyes that sparkle yet remain distant, as if peering somewhere else, a distant horizon or a place in the past where he dared not go.

After dinner I wandered from the lodge across the prairie flat that ran up toward Hotlesklwa Creek and the site of the old camp I had known. Only the tin-lined cache remained, a brokendown platform perched in a copse of spruce above the stream. Still, in the fading light I sensed the presence of old friends, saw in my mind's eye their silhouettes against the canvas of the tents that once lined the bench overlooking the creek. The Collingwoods always hire good and decent people, but the guides today are of a different generation, highly educated like Ray's son Chris and his friend Kent, both veterinarians, and well traveled like Kate, a wrangler who spends her winters backpacking across Africa. In the old days the crew were cowboys, men who lived where their hats fell, rough-cut diamonds who worked the northern hunting camps all fall, drank away their earnings in a weekend, and retreated to the line camps of the Chilcotin River to tend cattle through the long and impossible winters of the southern interior.

Many of them, including a lanky wrangler named Lester Miller, came from Clinton, which was not an ordinary town. In the 1960s a Vancouver motorcycle gang named Satan's Choice made a habit of roaring into unsuspecting communities, terrifying the local populace, and retreating to the coast. One summer they selected Clinton as a target. Emerging from the old Frontier Hotel, having been thrown out of the bar, they were greeted by a semicircle of rifles, according to Lester. Slack-jawed, they watched in horror as the cowboys blew apart their Harley-Davidsons. To get home, the entire gang had to take a Greyhound bus.

Lester is still going strong, but as I made my way back to the lodge, too many faces came to me of those who had passed on. Guiding on the coast, Jack Cherry took a plane that hit a mountain in the fog. Mike Jones, Ray's closest friend, went through the ice on his trapline, and it was six months before the Mounties could recover the body. Near 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 youngest son, Chad, killed in a plane crash that also took down the pilot and his son and two others. Only Ray's daughter, Carrie, survived, cushioned by the family dog that died in her lap, protecting her from the impact.

"It's hard work," Ray's brother Reg said when I asked him how they kept going after so many personal losses and setbacks, freak accidents like the time Ray had his arm broken in 16 places when the prop kicked back on him as he tried to jump start the plane on an autumn morning.

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

Ray and I had one of those good days, and it began in the morning when we flew up the valley to make a delivery to his camp at Buckinghorse Lake, 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) west of Laslui. Ray is not one to fly in a straight line if there's a more interesting option, and as his Piper Cub rose like a dragonfly out of the mist, the Spatsizi unfolded below us, and we followed the Stikine to its source. I found myself embracing the landscape from two perspectives. From the air it was a stunningly beautiful mosaic: the fens and meadows at the head of Laslui, the meandering stream draining Tuaton Peak, and the prairie beyond. There the river, a mere brook, carves a serpentine path through a valley of stone and grass that rises toward the Skelhorne Pass and the snowfields on the flank of Mount Umbach where the river is born. All around are soaring massifs, mountains without names, hidden valleys that give rise to so many great rivers, the Skeena, Nass, and Finlay, which is itself the source of the Mackenzie, greatest of all Canadian rivers.

At the same time I knew the land with a startling intimacy. Moose were grazing in meadows where Alex and I had hunted. Goats and sheep frequented ledges and knolls where I had walked. As Ray banked in a steep turn across the flank of Umbach, I remembered the afternoon when I drank from the source, a trickle of water the width of a boot that in time would become a river carving a path through mountains and canyons to the sea. From the Skelhorne we spun west, across the headwaters of the Ross River, where Alex's wife, Madeleine, had wintered as a child, in caribou-hide tents in temperatures so low that breath cracked in the wind. At Klahowya Lake I looked down upon the remnants of one of our old camps, beneath the flank of a ridge where four grizzlies were sleeping in the morning sun.

Ray saw the land not through memories but through the eyes and habits of the animals. A salt lick that drew moose had a pattern different from the one that attracted caribou. A mound of earth camouflaged a den of wolves. And this knowledge was nothing compared with what he saw in the moment: the flash of a hawk, a wolf pack scattering by a stream, a sow grizzly bolting into the brush, a thousand such sights few others 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.

After skirting the flank of Tuaton Peak, alive with mountain goats, and making our delivery at Buckinghorse Lake, we flew back to Laslui, where we dragged a white-water raft across the beam of one of his skiffs and set out down the lake toward the outlet at Fountain Rapids. As the lake narrowed, the Stikine slowly took form, its surface dappled by hundreds of whitefish rising to feed. The entire sky was pink, and the air scented with smoke that had drifted thousands of miles from forests burning in Siberia. When the water grew too shallow for the skiff, I cast off in the raft to join a small group of friends camped out below the portage, intent on floating the upper reaches of the Stikine.

"Say hello to Tom," Ray said as we parted.

Before Tom Buri was a lawyer, he was a pioneer of the primitive. Of the thousands of young people who went back to the land in the 1960s, he was one of the few to choose the Stikine as a destination. His odyssey began one frosty morning on a farm in Vermont when he realized that his flock of sheep, harassed but unharmed by a pack of wild dogs, had literally died of fright.

"That was it," he told me as we huddled by a fire just above the roar of the Fountain Rapids. "It was the ultimate proof that domestication had destroyed all instincts, that breeding had left nothing of the spirit. I was living in the Neolithic, gardening. What I wanted was the Paleolithic, a time before civilization had dropped an iron curtain over the imagination, a place where dreams did not stop at dawn."

To the horror of his wife's father, who told Tom that his debutante daughter was a poodle and not a sled dog, Tom and Deborah embarked on a journey that landed them an hour by boat downstream from Telegraph Creek-the historic center of the Stikine. "We drew a small circle around us, built a home, and created a universe," said Tom.

They had help, of course, from the Tahltan, especially an elderly couple, Roy and Eva Call-breath. From Eva and other women, Deborah learned to tan moose hides, heal with plants, and put up berries and salmon in the summer, meat in the fall. Roy showed Tom how to work dogs, build sleds, trap, and prepare skins. But above all Roy taught Tom the ways of the animals, the nature of a hunter. When Tom came back one day from a hunting sojourn, he recounted to Roy a curious story. Standing on a rocky bluff perched above a precipitous exposure, he had been suddenly surrounded by ravens, dozens of birds spinning a tighter and tighter spiral just above his head. Tom took it as a spiritual epiphany. Roy just laughed, explaining that what he had experienced was simply the way that ravens kill goats, confusing them until, dizzy with vertigo, they tumble down the canyon walls.

For ten years Tom and Deborah lived by the seasons, cutting wood in the fall, fishing in the spring, raising a family. In August Tom shot a mountain goat, in the fall a stone sheep. Two moose got the family through the winter; a black bear brought variety to the table in the spring.

"Food and heat," Tom remembered. "That was it. It was a life of wandering and puttering. A free-form drift like berry picking. You forget where you are. You're just following the berries."

In all his time on the river Tom never explored the Spatsizi, never visited the headwaters, roughly 120 miles (193 kilometers) east of Telegraph. "When you lived down below Telegraph," he explained, "the upper Stikine was in a sense unthinkable. The canyon was this huge barrier, not just physically but psychologically. It was this place that destroyed any boat that tried to head up into it, this land where even the Tahltan rarely went."

As we talked, it was clear that the Stikine still haunted Tom's imagination, even though it had now been some years since he had got a divorce, moved south to Vancouver, studied law, and started a new family.

"Why did you ever leave the Stikine?" I asked.

Things were beginning to change, he explained. When he had first arrived in 1970 there had been no electricity, only a couple of vehicles and snowmobiles. And there had been space for the newcomers in the lives of the Tahltan. But eventually when 40 families arrived, the largest influx since the gold rush, the young white newcomers began to look and sometimes act like invaders. The community became polarized between whites and natives.

There was something else going on. The journey into the wild is ultimately a journey into the subconscious, and the months of isolation are not without psychological risk. The outsiders most successful at adapting to life in the bush were those who organized themselves methodically, even rigidly, in a regime of the practical and deliberate, with no time for thought or reflection. They created order in the wild.

"Eventually you end up re-creating Vermont in Telegraph just to stay sane. That was the dilemma. As long as I was going in that direction, I decided to go all the way, return to the city, and begin a new life.

"For the Tahltan this was never a problem," Tom said. "They never thought of the Stikine as a wilderness. It was home, and the people carried their culture with them wherever they went."

"That's where my grandmother gave birth," Oscar said, as our helicopter swept over the tundra and rocky escarpments of the Klastline Plateau. To the east in the distance rose the sweeping uplands of the Spatsizi; to the north was the canyon. But our direction was south and west toward the fire and ice of Edziza, a towering, dormant volcano capped with a glacier 8 miles (12.9 kilometers) across. It was a foreboding view, even in the soft morning light.

"She had five other kids with her, and she just kept going on the trail."

Oscar Dennis, a Tahltan student of anthropology, and his brother, Murray, and their father, James, had joined me on a survey flight that would carry us in an arc south and then north in a broad sweep up the west side of Edziza. We were looking for the obsidian fields I had encountered some years before, when I had walked the length of the massif, a 12-day journey through rugged, imposing terrain. Obsidian is volcanic glass, and a properly chipped arrowhead or scraper has an edge sharper than a razor. Once an important trade item for the Tahltan, obsidian from Edziza has been found throughout western Canada, at sites east of the Rockies and west beyond the Pacific shore on the island homeland of the Haida. Edziza is the mother lode, and there are vast expanses on the high plateau where it is impossible to walk without stepping on shards of what Oscar calls the black blood of the mountain.

None of my companions was especially pleased by our means of transport. Helicopters make James Dennis anxious. His grandfather was sliced in half by a rotor in an accident at a mining camp. Oscar too would have preferred to be on foot. For his ancestors, Edziza was a sacred being that could only be approached by those who had earned the right through ritual purification, celibacy, and daily immersion in cold water for eight months. 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 is said to have vanquished the devouring spirit of the mountain and thus freed the people from their fear and misery. Such references are part of Tahltan reality, and they slip in and out of conversations even today.

As a boy, Oscar grew up in the now abandoned mining town of Cassiar, north of the Stikine, 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 he 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.

His life turned around the night his ex-wife's boyfriend attacked him, and Oscar took a homemade knife in the chest, a 6-inch (15.2-centimeter) 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."

The next thing he remembers is a cold winter sky above the tarmac in Whitehorse as he was evacuated to a hospital in the south. In time Oscar recovered and, with the encouragement of his sister, entered university, where he found in anthropology a context for understanding what had happened to his people.

Low to the ground, with the sun behind us, we scanned the slopes of Edziza for flashes of light, indications of glass. A glint drew the pilot's attention and he swept low over a field of black stones in a braided glacial stream. Setting down, we stumbled out of the chopper. Obsidian was everywhere, crystal stones, boulders three feet (0.9 meters) across. On the sandy slope above the stream were tens of thousands of shards, worked stone, evidence of an ancient site thousands of years old. We wandered like children, dazzled by each new discovery.

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.

Oscar took no notice of the wind. He moved across the rise with the motion of a night cloud. Picking up shards, he spun them in his hand, discarding them with a snap of the wrist. Suddenly he stopped, knelt down, and slowly rose, holding a piece of obsidian to the sun.

"I know how to do this," he said.

Three days later I went to visit Oscar at his brother's place. From a leather pouch he removed his tools, an awl of steel and antler, a block of bone. Then out fell a perfect obsidian blade. I was astonished. It had been generations since a Tahltan had chipped an obsidian tool from glass found on Edziza.

"It's in my blood," Oscar smiled. "That's what my brother says."

I held Oscar's blade in my hand and placed in his hand a tool carved from caribou bone, a gift Alex Jack had given me the summer before he died. Smooth as new ice but stained dark from decades of handling, it fit comfortably in Oscar's grip, the round serrated tip protruding between finger and thumb. I told him Alex had carved it more than 80 years before, following the lead of his father. It was designed for skinning out the eyelids of wolves.

Every year since those first seasons in the Spatsizi with Alex, the Stikine has called me home. I return for the wild: grizzly bears and white wolves, clouds of cottonwood down, summer snow squalls, and raptors scraping the sky. And I return for the land, and a chance to sit on a high ridge and look in every direction to valleys larger than entire countries.

But mostly I return because the Stikine has become my neighborhood, and I like my neighbors. They have little in common save for some random mutation in their family pasts that coded for strength and authenticity—and a deep conviction that the Stikine is a paradise that cannot be improved upon. And sometimes I think about the tool Alex gave me, the one used to skin out the eyelids of wolves, and I wonder if the eyelids were not in some way my own. Perhaps Alex, having taught me so much about how to see, was in his own way saying goodbye.

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