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Stirring up the Stikine River


There are twenty glaciers visible when we decide it’s time for juggling lessons. The Stikine River flows past camp at a steady four or five knots. It’s warm, in the low fifties, and we’re all in t-shirts, pasty from a week in rain gear.

The beach where I look for smooth juggling rocks is covered with bear and moose tracks. Yesterday, I’d found myself on a beach with a seventeen-inch-long grizzly track, and, honestly, my first thought was, “What the hell is Bigfoot doing clear out here?” My second thought was that I was alone and a mile from the boat. I turned around fast.

Forget the Tatsheshini/Alsek–even if you can get a permit (better chance of winning the Powerball). The real action on northern rivers is on the Stikine, the best kept secret in Alaska and British Columbia.

In the average year, only a handful of guided expeditions head down the Stikine; maybe another few dozen people paddle down by themselves. It’s the fastest free-flowing river left on the continent, part of the biggest undammed watershed in the hemisphere–draining over 20,000 square miles–and you get the place to yourself. In five days on the river, we see a grand total of three other boats: two canoes, one jetboat headed up to Canada.

The Stikine rises between the Skeena and Cassiar Mountains, about halfway up British Columbia; it threads south, past Mud Glacier, Snowcap Mountain, and Icecap Mountain, before finally turning almost due west, crossing the Alaska border–visible because the climate change from Canadian dry inland to Southeast Alaskan rainforest turns the landscape from a dark green to a thick blue green.

Along its route, the Stikine breaks into hundreds of winding channels and threads, and there are endless fields of snags, logjams, and sweepers put into the river during winter ice storms that snap off the tops of the forests lining the water. Still, from the put-in at Telegraph Creek down, it’s 150 miles of gentle river, nothing more than a class II float downstream fast enough that unless the wind is kicking up (August brings a nasty headwind), you only use the paddles for steering.

Telegraph Creek is a town with a dozen or so houses standing, a few dozen more houses falling down, one church, a general store/restaurant, and a Mountie’s station with its sign pained on a moose antler. A hundred years ago, it was supposed to be a boom town from the Klondike gold rush, but planners kind of glossed over an extra mountain range between the river and the gold. Once early travelers arrived, most of them turned back in sheer horror.

This left the river to the local Tlingit and Taltan, who fished the river and used it for a trade route. There are still fish camps staked out on the banks. Some are houses, abandoned most of the year; others are little more than drying racks and tent sites.

It’s a miracle that salmon can survive the Stikine. If you trail your hand in the water, your fingers come up cold and muddy with glacial silt. But on every single beach we stop at, there are bear tracks and salmon skeletons, and the goggle eyes of a harbor seal bob up behind the raft, checking to see if we’re just a really, really big fish.

As the river braids, it gets wilder. We beach at a collapsing miner’s cabin, nearly swallowed by berry bushes. There’s only about four feet between the roof and the floor; the cabin was built for maximum heat conservation. Even with an entire forest outside your front door, you don’t want to waste firewood, because it’s too cold to go out and get more. The miner must have huddled over his fire, counting days until thaw. The cabin disappears, hidden in the woods, before we even round the next bend in the river.

Our last night, we pull onto a sandbar for camp. The sand is better than a tropical beach, the grains as soft as snow. There’s still a lot of traveling left; tomorrow we’ll stop at Great Glacier for a hike before the jetboat comes to pick us up.

The Great Glacier once covered the Stikine. Way back, when the Tlingits came to it, they found the wall of ice blocking their passage to the sea. But they found a cave in the ice, so they sent an old woman through to check it out. When she didn’t come back dead, the rest of the tribe figured it must be okay to follow.

They must have come out near where we hike past mushrooms the size of dinner plates.

Tonight, we’ve got that last-evening mania that even a soak in one of the two hot springs (only one has leeches) wouldn’t help, the need to get in one more river epiphany. The river does not disappoint: there are wolf tracks all over the beach where we land. Three wolves were here, not more than a few hours ago. The largest of them left tracks bigger than my hands, big enough that my dog could fit half her body into the plaster cast of the track we made by mixing plaster with Stikine water.

I walk back a mile or so, following the line of the wolves, past goose tracks that look like hieroglyphics, through low willow, bear tracks, and thousands of moose tracks–new willow growth is like a buffet to a moose–to where the sandbar meets the mainland.

I stand out until dark, waiting quietly. Nothing. But that’s okay. I’ve got my tent pitched on top of wolf tracks, people to juggle with, and a mountain full of glaciers in the moonlight.

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