Stikine Splendour

Jim Baird

From BC’s Interior to the Alaskan rainforest, the Stikine River is a North American masterpiece.

We flew low, under the stormy clouds, our breath vanishing as the beauty of the surrounding scenery captured us. Beams of warm golden light shone through holes in the clouds, illuminating features on the land. It felt as if we had crossed into another realm and were trapped in a perfectly drawn landscape painting. My girlfriend Nicole and I flew in a DeHavilland Beaver on floats with our gear, a pilot, and our canoe, which was strapped on the outside of the pontoon plane. We were looking out over the spectacular Cassiar Mountains of northern British Columbia.  We flew towards our drop- off, the headwaters of the mighty Stikine River. After a safe landing and the discovery of a caribou skull with antlers attached, Nicole and I set up camp and hiked to get firewood.

We soon heard the roar of the floatplane again and saw it slipping through the massive snow-capped mountains that tightly circled the lake. The plane landed and delivered the other two members of our party, my cousin Brad and longtime friend Arie, strong paddlers with experience in backcountry travel.

Our drop-off was at Happy Lake, a location sure to influence your attitude by more than just its “matter of fact” name; it is quite possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen. We planned to spend a couple days there, to take it all in before we ventured towards the Stikine. In the 23 days that followed, we would travel 326 miles on the Stikine as it floated us into Alaska and finally the Pacific. Our paddle would end at the town of Wrangell, but not without a plan to dodge one of the largest hazards on any river, anywhere, The Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Here at Happy Lake we felt alive, and excited amidst the remote wilderness.

A fine catch of mountain whitefish and three variations of rainbow trout from the headwaters.
Float plane drop-off, Happy Lake. Take-out, Wrangell.

Wilderness Massif

Looking north to Tuaton Lake atop an unnamed mountain adjacent to Happy Lake.

“Which mountain should we climb?” I asked on the morning of the second day. We all looked around and conversed until one was chosen. Four exhausting hours and 7000 feet later, we stood atop a peak and took in our surroundings. I looked at the panorama in complete awe. To the west was a valley, its bottom a stream and a high lake that touches the foot of a mountain called Umbach. Mount Thor also stood to the west, another dignified summit in the montage of Cassiar peaks. Serpentine creeks meandered their way through this jagged mountain landscape, flowing northward to the backdrop of Tuaton Lake and eventually the Stikine. To the east, wild and unnamed mountains stretched to the horizon and a swollen mountain stream thundered its way through a deep valley 5000 feet below us. While standing there, I wondered what lesson the Stikine would teach me. I always seem to return from a remote river trip more enriched than when I departed. It’s as if the subtle teachings of the wilderness infuse with my sub conches and leave me with a feeling of deeper wisdom, calmness, and oneness with the earth–no wonder monks meditate on mountain tops. Pushing my introspection aside,

 

I quickly led the group down the mountain, excited to be working with the force of gravity as opposed to against it. Shortly after we reached the bottom, we were greeted by a woodland caribou bull that came crashing out of the alder bushes only fifty feet away from Arie and Brad as they fished for rainbow trout. We would see another one before we left Happy. Here it was only our second day and we had already banked memories that would fulfill us for a lifetime. That evening, in the warm glow of the day’s end, the caribou swam across the lake as we watched. There would be more wildlife to come.

Arie Vanderheyden atop Mt. Sister Mary one of two mountains the crew climbed along the upper river.
Woodland caribou at Happy Lake

Second Time’s A Charm

On Day Five, our adrenaline amped up significantly when Brad and I found ourselves in a nasty rock garden, mid way through the ledgy 765 yard Class Three Chapea rapid.

“Back paddle! Back paddle!” I screamed as I saw a partially submerged boulder right in front of us.

“Hold on!” Brad shouted over the roar of the rapid, and then, “Wham!” We ploughed straight into a boulder and all kinds of problems ensued. Our bow made it up onto the boulder and was held there as our stern swung around in the current and we were dislodged.

Now facing backwards, I yelled out, “Draw! Draw!”  in an attempt to 180, but it was no use; the river is too narrow and the current too fast.  We straightened out again (still going backwards) front-ferrying as we crashed backwards down one ledge, then another ledge, and then, a glimmer of hope entered my head.

We are going to make it, we are going to run this thing backwards, I thought as we neared the last ledge.

And then we dumped.  The water was frigid! I grabbed the throw bag and swam to shore. Brad and I held on tight as we swung our loaded canoe into a safe eddy.

Nicole, who had wisely decided to stand aside and shoot pictures rather than rapids, seemed excited with the photos she snapped. “You should have seen the look on your faces,” she said.

“Just priceless,” Arie chimed in, and the two of them had a good laugh. I was still trying to catch my breath when Arie looked at me and said, “So are you ready to go again?”

“What?” I said. “Are you serious?” I couldn’t believe Arie wanted to run it after seeing the show Brad and I put on, but I’m not one to resist a challenge.  Rather than sitting it out, I scouted again and pinpointed my mistake. Ten minutes later, Arie and I made it down successfully with the second boat and I let out a joyous cry of redemption.

Although we ran the river in high water, this was the only serious rapid challenge the Stikine River threw at us. We made our way down countless Class Ones with stretches of long intermittent Class Twos but nothing that needed serious scouting, save one more boiley canyon run, right before the take out on the upper river.

Where Time Has Slowed

Many of us have heard of the infamous “Grand Canyon of the Stikine”, the violent torrent of raging rapids, dubbed the most challenging white water run in North America.

A waterfall pours into the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.

Running this heart pounding hydro serge is only something that has been accomplished in recent years by white water pioneers in kayaks. Needles to say, it would be a devastating experience for any non-suicidal canoeist, but above and below the excellent mountain goat habitat that the canyon walls provide lays the upper and lower Stikine, a paddler’s serene dream, there is a road around the 70 mile long canyon, and we had prearranged a vehicle shuttle.  The topography of the canyon was created during increased periods of volcanism when rivers of magma, pumped from the centre of the earth, were deposited in the canyon.  While the upper and lower Stikine eroded at a normal pace, the canyon was sent geologically backwards and remains significantly less eroded than the preceding and succeeding river. This, along with a significant drop, is what gives the canyon its power, as the high volume river is forced into the narrow gap of the canyon. The rapids are so powerful that they block the migration of anadromous salmon and steelhead from navigating into the upper river from the Pacific.

Looking up Mess Creek Canyon reveals several mountain goats.

Diversity Abounds 

The river is also divided by four striking climactic zones, which appear vastly different from each other. The beginning of the upper river is lined with bushes and dwarf vegetation, as frigid air is forced into the valley bottoms during the winter months, crippling the growth of larger trees. We needed to hike to higher ground in order to collect firewood here.  As the river descends, it flows into a dense spruce forest and the temperature warms slightly.  At the community of Telegraph Creek, where our journey down the silt-laden waters of the lower Stikine started, the river lies in a rain shadow and the climate is very dry.  Tlingit natives from the damp coastal regions of Alaska would make a yearly upriver voyage to dry their catch of Salmon in the arid climate. We saw many drying houses in the first mile or so of the lower Stikine, as the tradition of drying fish still exists with native peoples of the area.

Saw tooth range on the lower river

Amazingly, the parched climate of the rain shadow transforms into northern rainforest within the blink of an eye, after passing through Klootchman Canyon, two days paddle from Telegraph Creek. In the rainforest, mist gently caresses the mountains, and a slight drizzle seems ever present. Moss clings to the massive, thousand-year-old hemlock trees and blankets the ground. Large deep green ferns are abundant, and devils club, a plant that left burning spikes under our skin when touched, is to be avoided at all costs. Nestled deep in the rainforest is where Great Glacier can be found. We portaged into its outwash lake and weaved our canoes through the surreal and quixotic glowing blue icebergs that had calved off the glacier, each ice formation individually unique and intriguing. We paddled up near the face of the glacier which seemed to pour out of the mountains. The deep rumble of its movements could be heard at a distance and confused us at first; we thought we were hearing thunder as we looked to the skies for storm clouds that were not present on the rare, cloudless day in the rainforest.  270 miles upriver, the rainforest was foreshadowed by a lush microclimate created by the mists of Adoogacho Falls, which we reached by hiking a short distance from the banks of the upper river. Here, we watched enchanting rainbows dance and flutter in the falls as varying thickness of mist rushed through their spectrum, yet another breathtaking spectacle.

Arie Vanderheyden looks down from the top of Adoogacho Falls.

“Shhhhhhh, there’s a bear, it’s a grizzly,” I whispered to Nicole as we looked towards the bank one evening on the upper Stikine. The cinnamon colour bruin slinked its massive body behind some bushes and popped its head out to look at us. In a low voice, I suggested we get closer, to which Nicole, with a tone of due respect, responded, “Um, not too close, Jim.” The grizzly heard my paddle make a noise as it struck a rock, and with that, the timid creature let out a snort, whirled around and bounded into the woods. Less than ten minutes later, we saw a Bull Moose swimming across the river. We were able to get quite close, closer than we wanted to get actually, within thirty feet; we were close enough to see the power and definition of its muscle tone. The moose inquisitively followed us down river for a little while after we passed.

Bull moose follows us on the Upper Stikine

The striking diversity of animal species that call the region home rivals the diversity of climactic changes we encountered. We saw caribou, moose, mountain goats, stones sheep, a grizzly bear, numerous bald eagles, eight black bears, wolf prints, and seals which we saw several times on the lower river.  Also, we were fortunate enough to see a breeching grey whale on the Pacific.  Many variations of beautiful and delicious rainbow trout are abundant in the river, as were the even better tasting arctic grayling. Looking at the striking iridescent shimmer of the grayling is what I figure a small acid flashback would be like, as colours seem to glisten out of nowhere.  While the trout and grayling added sustenance to our diet, my favourite was the fresh salmon we caught, straight out of a glacial stream in Alaska and savoured riverside.

The author cuts fresh salmon steaks on the Lower Stikine.
Sheer cliff in the the coast mountains that surround the lower river.

Good Medicine

On our second last day on the river, one of my favourite moments of the trip came to fruition. While observing two huge salmon-filled black bears on one side of a slough, we also watched a nesting pair of bald eagles perched in a dead tree on the opposite bank; they would take off and fly in circles from time to time, always returning back to the tree.

While we watched the eagles and bears, three curious seals were fishing around our boats and would sometimes pop up surprisingly close to our canoe. Brad and Arie saw a rustle in the bushes below the eagle tree. They pulled up to the bank and were somewhat alarmed to realize they were now in close quarters with a black bear that was eating berries off branches. It was sitting like a human would while bending each branch down with its paw, eating the berries one by one. I would definitely not recommend getting as close to a bear as Brad and Arie did here. The bear, focused on his berries, paused and stared down at them for a few seconds, as they sat there motionless in their canoe.  But the bear seemed to literally shrug them off and turned its attention back to its meal, figuring they weren’t a threat. Here we were, watching bears, eagles, and seals all at the same time in a beautiful mountain setting.  Nicole and I paddled toward Brad and Arie, and as we neared, a white tail feather from one of the bald eagles fell, in the way that feathers do, fluttering down before laying softly in the water near our canoe. “Good medicine,” I said, plucking the feather out of the river and sticking it in my hat. Then we pointed our bows down river and headed for the coast.

Fallen trees leave room for new growth, an important process in the life cycles of mature forests.

The Relentless Force 

We timed our paddle out of the mouth with the corresponding tides, and our canoes touched salt water as we began the open water crossing to Wrangell Island. Our trip was coming to an end, but our experience would still continue. From Wrangell we would sail up the coast for thirty hours, stopping in communities like Sitka, Juno, Nome, and finally, Skagway, where we would then drive back to Whitehorse, Yukon to catch our flight home. As our ferry departed from Wrangell, and we began sailing northwards up the Alaskan Panhandle, I looked back toward the mouth of the Stikine and pondered what I had learned.  One thing we can learn from all rivers is in the direction they take, the path of least resistance. They follow this path with so much determination that there is nothing anyone can do to stop them from reaching the sea. Sure, we can slow them down by diverting them into canals or building dams, but sooner or later water will reach the ocean, even if it has to flood an entire continent first. Paddlers know this power and respect it more than anyone. We witness it in the sheer tonnage of water that pins a canoe to a boulder, or while guiding our boats down a raging rapid. The river will let us use its power to our advantage, if we learn how to. We learn never to fight against its unstoppable force but to work with it. The power of water cannot be discouraged–it is constant, relentless, and true to its course. Like the Stikine I learned to travel my own determined path of least resistance when it comes to my aspirations, both paddling and other.

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangle Island, Alaska Photos by Jim Baird

Learn about the ongoing fight to save the Stikine River here http://www.forestethics.org/sacred-headwaters