Outside magazine, April 1998
Fair enough, I guess, though I have never seen such a warning anywhere else, not in Srinagar, not in Kabul, not in Nairobi. Gummily (I have been hanging about in airports for two days, which causes frontal-lobe turbidity) I wonder whether, in this shaggy part of the world, semiskilled canoeists are also a shipper's risk. Sure they are. Ah, but Grasshopper, what in life is not a shipper's risk?
I board a bus for Teslin, to the west-southwest near the British Columbia border, drowse for a couple of hours as we roll through wooded river country, and then get off and shake hands with a gent who looks a lot like Buffalo Bill. It should be said right off that Dick Person, mountain man, river guide, hunter, lecturer, writer, rough-and-tumble nutritionist (sugar, booze, feedlot meat, and caffeine are bad, Siberian ginseng and meat you shoot yourself are good), and relentless though good-natured didact (wipe your butt with fresh, moist sphagnum moss, then replace used moss on forest floor, where it will flourish gratefully and greenly for your next visit), has at least as much right to look like Buffalo Bill as William Cody did. He is a lean, weathered fellow who has 68 years of mostly backwoods mileage on him. There is no doubt that he has earned his red plaid shirt and galluses, his bush hat with the gull feather, and his long, yellowish-gray hair and full-monty mustache. For one thing, he lived contentedly in a tepee for 17 of those years, in a part of the Canadian outback where 30 below is an amiable spring day. For another...
Person interrupts this reverie by presenting photographer Craig Olsen and me with large, empty cartons, a roll of duct tape, and instructions to send half our gear home. This leaves Olsen wild-eyed and twitchy, since it means he must jettison several cameras, and it leaves me grouchy. Hell, I've been in canoes before. You bet. We'll be using a 17-foot Mad River that will float at least 1,100 pounds, and we can't have more than 1,050 tops, if we break the handles off our toothbrushes. My philosophy for wilderness voyaging is to take everything, not excluding VCR and lawn furniture. The Victorian term "impedimenta" describes my hernia-inducing baggage. I will have an ice ax along in the Belizean jungle, a climbing rope in Kansas, and if you need the Oxford English Dictionary or Rilke's poetry in the original German while on a camping trip, just ask me.
I'm prepared, in other words. Some would say neurotically so. Person is prepared too, but in a different way. His notion, doubtless justified, is that he can confect any artifact or foodstuff he may need in the bush out of spruce roots or Ursus arctos horribilis vertebrae. This is not backwoods machismo (Mosquitoes? What mosquitoes?); it's backwoods Zen. And although our river trip is not set up as a live-off-the-land survival course of the kind that Person sometimes gives, achieving serenity in the bush (Mosquitoes? What mosquitoes?) is a condition of philosophical balance toward which our journey will nudge us. It's true that 1,100 pounds of crew and freight could leave our canoe's gunwales awash and rule out any assertive motion, such as paddling. So we swallow our insecurities (I might need that cordless cappuccino maker) and send half our junk home from the Teslin P.O.
This sorting-out occurs at the fine-looking cabin on Teslin Lake that Person shares with his partner, Sharron Chatterton. She's an athletic 48-year-old, an escaped suburban matron ("Oh, yes, very proper, Waterford crystal for 12") who, after her life stalled out at a crossroads, came to visit Person in his tepee 12 years ago. After their tepee idyll came to a close — the Indian tribe that controlled the land eventually terminated their lease — they moved to Teslin Lake. Now their cabin is every city dweller's dream of a north woods hideaway. There are meticulous raised vegetable beds, a barnful of canoes and camping gear, a one-hole reading room stocked with New Yorkers and Outsides, and a no-running-parts fridge (an insulated hut over a four-foot-deep pit in which tubs of water are set to freeze in the winter). And, on the deck of the cabin, a wilderness gadget that any mountain man would groove on: a small, round trampoline on which Person does his daily bouncing. He also flexes through a long and learned yoga routine and rambles for miles in the bush, hunting grouse or simply watching the seasons turn.
Not ours. We're planning to head downstream from Telegraph Creek, below the canyon, through the Coastal Mountains, shared by Alaska and B.C. In 1879, on his first trip to Alaska, John Muir saw the outflow of the Stikine through this range of granite peaks. (His spelling was "Stickeen," also the name of a quirky little dog that traveled with him.) Muir was struck by the abundance of spectacular glaciers. "Counting big and little," he wrote, "about 100 came into view, the smallest perhaps a mile long, the largest 15 or 20."
At Telegraph Creek the big ice, somewhat diminished in the unusually warm century since Muir saw it, is still ahead, around some days' worth of river bends. An oddity of history is far behind — history that didn't happen. For a brief period in the late nineteenth century, what is now a drowsy settlement with a three-figure population seemed certain to be an important junction in the first telegraph cable system from North America to Asia and Europe. Ambitious and apparently feasible plans were well advanced for a line north from Telegraph Creek through the Yukon and Alaska, across the Bering Strait, and then westward through Russia. But in 1866 the Atlantic cable was laid by shrewder and more agile competing interests, and nothing was left of the Stikine project except a town name that no longer fit.
A few miles to the south along the Stikine, there's a campsite called Glenora, with a no-figure population, where history did happen. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, it was a blastoff settlement for several gold rush stampedes, including the Klondike fever. Paddle wheelers from Wrangell Island landed here, swarming with gold-crazed dry-goods clerks and farmers, sons from the Lower 48, all eager to enlist in a Robert W. Service poem. The northern lights saw some 3,000 souls festered along Glenora's steep, muddy valley walls, with additional mobs bivouacked at Telegraph Creek. Nearby place names suggest disillusion: Stinking Lake, Bad Creek, Mess Creek. Now underbrush hides all the evidence that may remain of a roaring camp, and there's no sign of primate life except for three big pickup trucks parked at a boat launch. We set up our own small tent city, rustle up dry wood for a cooking fire, and enjoy grouse-and-moose bourguignonne, prepared by Chatterton with game shot earlier by Person, a good combination.
Next morning we leave our gear at Glenora and truck back upstream to Telegraph Creek, where we've stashed our canoes. The idea is to get some practice on a tricky, idiosyncratic river with empty canoes before the real trip starts and we're loaded down with two weeks' worth of impedimenta that would not be improved by being dumped. "We" consists of Person and Chatterton in one canoe; in the second, Chatterton's 25-year-old daughter, Nicole, and Richard Geiger, a 30-year-old economist from Anchorage who has traveled with Person on other river trips; in the third, Craig Olsen and myself. Person and Chatterton are experts, and the rest of us know which end of the paddle goes in the water.
From Telegraph Creek downstream, the Stikine is seldom less than 100 yards wide, and often two or three times that. An enormous volume of water bashes down, gray with rock flour ground by the hidden hydraulics of glaciers and as opaque as industrial floor tile. There isn't much whitewater, the stuff that thrashes through the shallow, rock-garden streams I know in New England and the Yellowstone region. But the Stikine doesn't need to lash white to dump disrespectful canoeists. It rolls its big, loose shoulders and sneers, like the villain on a TV wrestling show. Logs pinwheel downstream in the bruising current. Occasional chunks of glacial ice bob along, melting slowly in the cold water. All of this is perfectly canoeable, if you and your adrenaline are paying close attention, and if you and your partner are prepared at all times to do a crisp, no-argument, 180-degree turn to the right or left. So we practice eddy turns, obeying Person's rules: (1) no polite "d'ya think maybe" discussion, just "draw!" or "cross-bow!" and (2) all maneuvers start from the stern paddler's dominant side (I'm stern, and a righty), and the bow paddler's other side. Beyond technique, what we're doing is "learning the will and flow of the river." That shrewdly exact phrase, from an article Person wrote a few years ago for the Yukon News, says most of what needs to be said about the Stikine. Because the river is so wide and fast, we scope constantly with binoculars and start setting up several hundred yards upstream to avoid surprises. Disaster does not befall.
A black bear cub, this year's model, fuzzy and cute, weighing no more than about 50 pounds, shows up a few steps away from me on the near shore while we are still at Glenora. It ducks quickly back into the bush, leaving behind obvious questions: Where are its relatives, and how hungry are they? Our food, most of it stowed in a large cooler, is too bulky for tree-stashing, which isn't always bearproof anyway. We have pepper spray, which is said to work, maybe. And Person has a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot, but nobody wants to hear it blasting across camp at 3 A.M. I sniff the air for omens; Person, who's done a lot of river trips without bear mischief, seems untroubled. Good sign.
We settle in to our journey. After a couple of days, we've worked out a rough sort of competence. Tents go up and down smoothly. Firewood collects itself. River water for cooking and drinking gets hauled. (This gray stuff would clog any filter in five minutes, so we let it stand for a while and call it clean.) I have memorized my pack and can find my bowl, spoon, toothbrush, bug goo, binocs, and flashlight without a search party. We've figured out how to stow our drybags in the canoes allowing for the weight of paddlers, so there will be the same freeboard fore and aft.
The real world seems distant. When someone offers this wondering bit of campfire philosophy, Person says, "No, the real world is right here." He is absolutely certain that this is true and that the civilized clutter he has spent his life avoiding is a dull cloud that hides reality. That means, though Person is too polite to say it, that most of us are merely occasional tourists in the real world, which we visit on vacations and the odd weekend. I shift my perch toward the campfire smoke, because mosquitoes don't like it, and then away, because my eyes sting. We hear bits of personal history. Craig Olsen spent a couple of seasons working in Antarctica. Nicole Chatterton has been teaching in a Cree and Chipewyan town in Alberta, where white attitudes and assumptions don't always count for much. Sharron was born in Australia. Richard Geiger, a big, fit, methodical fellow who moves as if each muscular contraction required careful thought, is an economist who wants to be a professional woodcarver. Person, who was raised in Duluth, studied geology and wildlife biology at the University of Missouri but escaped to the hills short of an advanced degree.
We slap blackflies, pass around a deet-and-mineral-oil mixture that works somewhat, and accept one another. Our small battalion seems to have avoided the iron truth of wilderness travel, that in any random group there will be someone who appoints himself to be the expedition's jerk. Of course, a version of the poker player's catechism may apply: "If you can't spot the sucker at the table, it's you."
We're on the water five or six hours a day, and perhaps 20 percent of this time is tense, paddle-like-crazy, react-right-now commotion. Another 20 percent is grateful sagging after one of these quick-water passages. The rest is Stikine dreaming — out-of-body paddling — and lunch. It's a good daily rhythm, with enough hard work to justify an evening's easeful slug of scotch (for me; the others aren't interested) in an inch of Stikine water. We could cover the river's winding distance to Wrangell Island in four or five days of grunting, but grunting isn't the point of the trip. We plan to take some layovers and spend about ten days.
By now, what were wooded uplands at Telegraph Creek have become true mountains, spires and ridges laced by glaciers. Lodgepole pine, paper birch, and aspen have been replaced in what is usually a wetter climate by larger hemlock, Sitka spruce, and black cottonwood. This is a woods-lore trade-off, as Person explains. The yellowish, aromatic cottonwood buds are good for soothing insect bites, but the scarcity of birch means a lack of reliable fire-starter. Spruce gum will serve, and it's worth carrying a supply of the flammable sticky stuff in a plastic bag. That reminds Person, a man who rarely lets a quarter-hour go by without giving a lesson (peeled garlic to prevent mold in cheese; store-bought red meat aggravates arthritis), and Olsen and I learn to make one-match fires. Oxygen is the main ingredient, and a bush hat, waved just so, is the proper tool for supplying it. And that, too, reminds our leader: On Person's person, at all times, are the venerable hat, spoon, bug dope, matches in waterproof case, compass, Swiss Army knife, hunting knife, silk scarf used as a neck- or belly-warmer, cotton bandanna, nylon cord, rawhide thong for use with fire bow, and self-locking small-game snares. Wear wool, he admonishes, not synthetics; wear suspenders and not a belt. This inventory completed, Person upends himself and does a yoga shoulder-stand, efficacious for speeding blood to the head. Then he lowers his union suit demurely and demonstrates an astonishing gut-roil, an exercise called a nauli, that never fails to nudge the bowel toward serene emptiness. For even greater serenity, he says, aerate the latrine or alfresco log with a smudge of burning cottonwood bark to discourage mosquitoes. Don't forget that sphagnum moss...
Person's most impressive gift isn't knowing all this stuff; it's imparting it lightly, without driving everyone nuts. I finish peeling an orange and chuck the peel at the cooking fire, but miss. Person rescues the peel and hands it back to me. "Save these," he says. "The oil is great on cuts."I am a formidable growler, but I amaze myself by nodding peaceably and resolving to preserve this valuable orange peel and all others that cross my path. "Don't clog your enzyme production by eating sugar,"Person reminds me, but at this point polite rebellion sets in. I'm addicted (rush, rush), and I continue to dump sugar on my morning porridge.
And, it must be reported, we see salmon in the many hundreds but catch not a one. By a woeful sociometric fluke, none of us is a much of a fisherman. I've brought a light spinning rod and lures suitable for perch, and later, when we see a couple of hundred sockeyes wagging their tails in a tributary, Olsen tries some casts. The big fish straighten out a couple of hooks without bothering to turn around. Then one of them snaps the line with a shrug. They have business more important than serving as our dinner. As the T-shirts say in Juneau, "Spawn till you die!"
We've had the river to ourselves except for one party of American kayakers. A week or so into the trip we begin to have company. Two World War II bombers, first one and then the other, fly upriver at about 500 feet, with occasional thundering dips to about 150 feet, just for laughs, to keep the pilots and the Stikine wildlife awake. Each plane makes five or six runs a day from a large gold mine just out of sight beyond the river's southeast bank. They're flying ore to Wrangell, where it is shipped to a refinery.
At one point the mine corporation freighted its ore to the coast in big hovercrafts that roared up the Stikine. But the wake caved in the banks, and environmental regulations forced the switch to planes. Weather here is reliably bad, however, and 11 people have died in ore-plane crashes. Now the mine owners are clamoring to spend $100 million for a road into the roadless, unlogged valley.
We hear this from an unusual activist/businessman named Bob Gould, a former assistant professor of economics at British Columbia's Simon Fraser University, who somewhat to his own surprise has spent the last two decades running a salmon processing plant on the Stikine. He and a group of fellow profs and students started it as a demonstration project back in 1979. Pressure was growing to build hydroelectric plants on the Stikine and to log the watershed's old-growth forests. The professors figured if they could show that sustainable, nonintrusive economic activity was possible on the Stikine, it might stop the dams and help postpone onetime cutting of the old growth.
So far it has, says Gould, a burly, animated fellow in fisherman's rig, as he shows us around the spotless plant of Great Glacier Salmon, named for a monstrous ice mass that fills a sizable lake about half a mile above the Stikine's northwest bank. He is especially proud of a Pelton water wheel, scrounged from the Wrangell city dump, that drives the factory's 60-kilowatt generator. At the height of activity, during the July sockeye run, the plant filets and freezes up to 5,000 fish a day and keeps 41 employees busy.
Salmon are in trouble too, says Gould, who agrees with the claim by Canadian fishermen that Alaskan fishing boats have been taking too many Canadian-spawned salmon. It's partly the fault of geography, because salmon spawned in British Columbia circulate slowly about the Pacific in a counterclockwise rotation. This means they reach Alaskan waters and Alaskan fishing nets before they return to Canada. If too many are taken, too few will swim up the Stikine to spawn (and to be processed by his factory, says Gould, as he guts and wraps a fine sockeye for us). So when this year's fingerlings are due to finish their slow circle around the Pacific, four or five years from now for sockeyes, up to seven for chinooks, their population may have crashed. But that is far in the future — Gould rolls his eyes and throws his hands in the air — well beyond politicians' range of coherent thought, and never mind what country's politicians you're talking about.
We cross the line into Alaska — IT'S AN actual line, shaved ruler-straight into the forest with a 20-foot safety razor — and begin to hear the commotion of big outboards from Wrangell. Two hundred horses on an 18-foot hull is about what a real-guy boat driver wants this year. There are several of these, full of polite, neighborly folk, at a hot spring we visit. Downriver, one of the hot-spring boaters roars up to our riverside camp. He has news: One of the bigfoot outboards hit an iceberg at top speed. A woman went through the windshield; fortunately a nearby tour boat carried a medic and a neck brace. "Here's the driver," says our friend, flipping a tarp to reveal the drunkest man any of us has ever seen. "He's probably through for the day."
The river is broader here, braided around islands. We stop at a place called Garnet Ledge and warm up around a woodstove in a Forest Service cabin. The children of Wrangell Island own a garnet mine here — it was deeded to them for scholarships and school projects — and several of them and a couple of parents are whacking away at an outcropping ten minutes up a forest trail. The garnets are purple, complex geometric nuggets the size of large marbles, locked in a flaky gray matrix. We buy some, for a few dollars a chunk, and the rest will be sold to tourists at the Wrangell ferry landing.
No one wants to camp in a bog, which is what's available at Garnet Ledge, so we chug on across the Inside Passage toward Wrangell Island. As islands go, Wrangell isn't Capri, but it has its points. We stack our canoes and heavy gear outside the ferry office — "Nah, they're rednecks, but they don't steal things," Bob Gould assured us — check in with U.S. Customs by phone, and sag into a motel called the Roadhouse, equipped with hot water, a bar, and all good things. The next morning I ask proprietor Dottie Olson for the checkout time, because our ferry north to Juneau and Skagway doesn't leave till 7:30 that evening. Her answer is one not often heard from an innkeeper: She doesn't believe in checkout time. Guests shouldn't feel rushed. Keep the rooms as long as you need them. And "take the van into town. I don't need it. See the petroglyphs, see the Tlingit tribal house." In downtown Wrangell, those of us from the big world frisk about buying stuff we don't need and cranking ATMs. Person is quieter than usual, not entirely comfortable. He's no rube, and he'll walk on pavement when that's where his feet have led him, but he doesn't much like doing it.
That night we spread sleeping bags on the deck of the ferry Matanuska and awaken to sunrise over a long line of mountains to the east. Whales spout and leap. A seabird of some kind, visible by the glint of sunlight on its beating wings, keeps exact pace with the ship. At Juneau, we exchange addresses and agree to do it all again. A few weeks later a big envelope arrives in my mailbox. It's from Person, and it holds a batch of his newspaper articles Ihad asked for. And one thing more, unasked:a fragrant green twig of spruce. Sitka spruce, maybe, although I'm not sure. I'll ask him the next time we meet.
John Skow is a longtime contributor to Outside.
Photographs by Craig Cameron Olsen