Where the World Might Find You
Searching and Fleeing and Hoping are the verbs that populated Atlin, an almost-mythical town at the very end of the road. Here, the free spirits blew in and settled like random leaves, dreaming of a life amid the wilderness. But society, it turns out, isn't so easily escaped.
Before the end of the road there was no road. There were the eraser-strokes carved down the hillsides by avalanches and the sooty geometries slashed through the woods by lightning fires. There were no gravel embankments and no silted stream crossings and no switchbacks and no tire treads in the dried mud. There were the grooves worn through the bush by mountain caribou returning to their calving grounds. There was a footpath beaten between coastal fishing grounds and inland retreats, along which nomads came, when there were nomads, bearing oily fish for winter. There was no road. There were no treasure-hunters with drills and ore-carts and no refugees from urban ennui and no latter-day woodsmen seeking to authenticate themselves in the wilderness or New Age sculptors seeking to unleash the spirituality of a block of wood. There were no heli-skiers. There were no parolees and no escapees from child-support payments and no one laid off from the oil fields and no one sleeping in the back of a station wagon and no one fleeing a war in Vietnam. There was no town at the end of the road with clapboard shacks slanting down a hill toward an icy lake. Alcoholism, chronic poverty, spouse abuse, suicide, and incest had yet to become chapter headings in relevant sociology textbooks. There were Indians — the Indians say they have always been there — but none worked in grocery stores and none worked in offices and none of their children had been shuttled away for forced instruction in Christian living. There were no satellite dishes. The penny-ante mineral speculators and the pious environmentalists and the left-leaning government with deficit headaches and headaches from clamoring unions had no road down which to descend with their pamphlets and publicists. For a long time there was no road. Then came the road and the end of the road and — this is where we come in — the end of the end of the road.
Many roads lead to the gleaming stop sign on the verge between the human and the wild. Stephen Badhwar, who is in his early ’30s and sports the costume of the self-imposed exile from middle-class society — the ponytail and random facial hair and embroidered sweater and well-worn Birkenstocks — pointed his truck north and west and set off from the outskirts of Toronto one day seven years ago, leaving behind a failed organic farm and a degree in political science. Where was he going? Away.
He drifted through the Yukon and Alaska, and like many other searchers without destinations who end up at the end of the road, he heard windblown whispers of an enchanted wilderness in the remote northwestern corner of British Columbia, where a village that might have dropped intact from some frozen nineteenth-century idyll hugged the shore of an ethereal glacier-fed lake, guarded by grizzlies and wolves, and where horses were said to amble through sloping lanes of Old West architecture. An untamed sweep of land, unbruised by human touch.
So Stephen followed the tremulous needle on the inner compass that leads to the place where there is no going forward and no turning back. He took his truck off the Alaska Highway at a spot east of Whitehorse called Jake’s Corner and headed south through a valley of black spruces and aspens and vibrant wildflowers, catching glimpses of lake water the surrealistically lacquered-blue shade of a suburban swimming pool. The hard-packed gravel yielded to cracked blacktop, and 60 miles later the blacktop came to an abrupt halt and there was no place left for Stephen to drive.
Atlin, the town in which he had dead-ended, resembled the set for a serene acid trip. Mount Atlin rose across the lake like a monumental beached sea creature. A picturesque old steamboat, long disused, swayed at its moorings at the foot of town. Rusted mining equipment lay sunk in weeds around an old one-room schoolhouse. The air was still and silent and the porous light seemed painted on the sky like a ghostly fresco.
It’s as if the place found him, Stephen tells me. He seems moved as he talks. It’s midnight, and the late-spring twilight seeps into the nearly vacant bar of the Atlin Inn. The wilds of the north, Stephen says, maintain an undiminished allure for free spirits. No one tells you what to do or who you are or gets in your way or holds you back. Accordingly, Atlin sometimes has the proud knack of striking newcomers as a piece of improvisational theater — Our Town gone bushwhacking — with its cast of 500 players slipping in and out of archetypal poses: Trapper and Artist and Adventurer and Healer and so on. Stephen pauses between sips of club soda, staring out at the windswept lake where his wife, Heidi, has been kneeling in a canoe for some hours, posing as a genuine canoeist in a commercial for hiking boots. I’ve met Heidi. Her hair is long and wheat-colored and her teeth are very, very white, and I’m reminded that Atlin likes to call itself the Switzerland of the North, which has a pleasing and misleading ring of neutrality to it.
There are of course other roads to the road to Atlin. The quest for the landscape that corresponds to one’s inner wildness has been known to assume religious dimensions. “This place is heaven,” says white-haired 80-something Irene Coleman, for whom heaven is neither an unpleasant nor a remote prospect. Irene tells me that she hopes to reach the end of her personal road while sitting here, on her porch, gazing over her poppy patch. She was brought to Atlin from Vancouver 61 years ago by her husband.
Back then, the Alaska Highway did not exist, and thus Atlin could best be reached by floatplane or, in winter, by a caterpillar train plying the frozen lake, or by dogsled. Atlin was one of those rare isolated dots on the map, a fortress protected from the distant world of poverty and strife by endless impassable wilderness. It was the feeling of having crossed over into a private wilderness — corridors of ice-capped granite receding into the horizon, moose tracks dropping into weathered limestone canyons, sullen waves of untouched woodland that seemed to absorb one’s inescapable harrowing secrets — that proved most seductive. “I feel so lucky to be sitting in this beauty spot,” Irene tells me, while a warm breeze off the lake stirs the plastic bags that are clipped to her clothesline. “I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else since the day I arrived. Oh, I’ve found paradise here.”
If you live in Atlin or the surrounding wilderness, whose unpopulated and unaccommodating expanse allows you to celebrate the insignificance of the human society that you have rejected, chances are that you live as most people did before the wild places were crosshatched with roads: hand to mouth, with few resources and few needs and plenty of experience in cobbling together a bare-bones living from the ragtag materials at hand. You chop wood, hunt, bang nails, garden, work construction, paint houses, fish, sell homemade crafts from your living room, lead tackle-laden German tourists to pools of enormous lake trout.
“People in Atlin are pioneers,” says Nan Love, who spent a few winters in an old portage cabin with her then-husband, a wannabe-trapper, and their baby 25 years ago. She remembers how ermines nested between the logs of the roof and how the gin froze during two weeks of minus-68-degree days. “It was terribly romantic,” she says.
Love, who returned to Atlin for good in the early ’90s and now hires herself out for secretarial work, is typical of those who accept the bargain of Atlin’s stalled free market. She earned about $10,000 last year. “I don’t have a vehicle,” she says, “but I live very well. I can look at the lake anytime I want to. I don’t have running water in my cabin, but I have a beautiful view down the channel.”
It often feels a little like the drowsy end of the last day on the calendar in Atlin, that fading hour when one’s vigilance is lowered and unruly dreams begin to assert themselves and one’s sleep is haunted by increasingly urgent intimations of the end of the illusion of paradise. It had to happen, one supposes. Progress is coming to town with its fleet of earthmovers, anxious to scoop a long and meandering industrial byway out of the roadless expanse on whose edge Atlin is perched, the better to reach a spot in the wilderness just below a glacier where there stands a mountain brimming with gold and silver and copper and lead. Suddenly, the charmed oasis at road’s end finds itself in danger of becoming a truck stop, overrun with transients and with miners out for a payday binge.
As they wind down from the perpetual day in their gleaming log chateaus and their vinyl-sided ranch homes, lulled to sleep by migrating songbirds and alcohol, Atlin’s residents are forced to brace themselves for the road-borne collapse of their communal fantasy. Gone is their extended and largely unexamined reverie in which the streams run with gold and salmon and their neighbors — the blue-collar types who live in town, the artists and retirees who’ve staked out the nearby hills, the Indians who live in two isolated subdivisions called reserves — are no more at odds with one another than they are with nature.
Where work is scarce, as it always is in Atlin, the designs of an upstart mineral exploration firm such as Vancouver’s Redfern Resources can stimulate old-time gold-rush fever, preparing the way for hostilities of race and class and lifestyle and environmental ethics to come barreling down the road like a runaway ore truck. Redfern aims to parachute into the 4.5-million-acre watershed of the Taku River, an unprotected wilderness the size of Massachusetts, current home to glaciers and intact forests and disarmingly unmanaged rivers, and through this homey terrain build yet another road, a hundred-mile access route from Atlin deep into nowhere, all for the sake of reopening a mine that went defunct in the fifties. (Ore transport through Atlin rather than through nearby Juneau averts Alaska’s opposition to the mine.) During the anticipated nine-year life of the mine, 40 jobs may come Atlin’s way.
Atlinites moon over the promise of steady jobs, though there’s little doubt that almost anyone who moves to the end of the road does so in part to avoid the shallow rapids of consumer society. A self-reliant contempt for big business and big government is more common than frostbite scars in Atlin. This despite the unsavory fact that the Switzerland of the North also happens to be the prettiest little welfare state around, with some 55 percent of the adult population drawing relief checks to make it through the dark, workless winter.
Those months offer more time for enforced meditation than the most evolved guru would request. Daylight dwindles to five or six hours a day, and a murky shroud that the locals call ice fog blows in off the lake and stays for a month or two, and cocktail hour gets earlier and earlier, and the stasis at the end of the road becomes hard for hardy souls to bear.
When you’ve been sprayed by enough waterfalls and felt sufficiently disoriented by the hovering woods, and have gone long enough without hearing another person’s voice and begun to find your own mild baritone mildly unfamiliar, and have admitted to being a little frightened by the nighttime choirs of sharp-toothed mammals that seem to be observing you dispassionately from their concealed perches, then you’re ready for the cosmopolitan respite of Atlin. So you hang a right at the end of the road, and you discover that you’re on Discovery Avenue, central Atlin, and if your eye is caught by a sagging commemorative banner strung from a light post, you’ll learn that you’ve arrived in time for a party, since 1998 marks the centenary of the gold rush that prompted thousands of Klondike fortune-hunters to shift course and flock this very way, like bewitched migratory birds.
Present-day Atlin doesn’t give off much of a celebratory sheen. Atlin likes to recall the glory days of its first decade, when 10,000 folks beat their way through the bush to huddle in tent cities along the banks of mineral-clogged streams, but the town’s more recent history of near-obsolescence exerts a stronger pull on local sentiment.
As recently as the 1960s, Atlin’s population had slipped to about 75, and where there had once been all the amenities of a boom town — shops and banks and a movie theater and a newspaper — now the storefronts in the center of town were boarded up. That Atlin has stubbornly held on to its acre of hallowed ground is testament to the irresistible appeal of being the last stop on the road to luminous oblivion. For Atlinites there are two lifestyle options: Atlin or “outside.” And the more suffocating one perceives the world “outside” to be, the more rarefied is the aura of the few remaining Atlins in the atlas. So Atlin dips and swoons, but like a beautiful misguided idea it is never snuffed out entirely.
In Atlin’s latest bout of soul-searching, though, the notion has begun to take root that to save the village, the village has — in psychological terms, at least — to be destroyed. “We’d be just another town if we weren’t at the end of the road,” one of Redfern’s milder opponents tells me.
Not surprisingly, a different refrain was being offered at the Atlin offices of Redfern Resources, located in the living room of Terry Zanger’s double-wide trailer. Zanger, a soft-spoken man who scrapes together a living overseeing exploratory drilling and surveying for Redfern at the proposed mine site, was joined by a sorrowful character named Stuart Simpson, who mans Redfern’s local public relations effort. Simpson sported a graying crew cut and wire-rimmed glasses and a denim shirt bearing a logo for motor oil. He and his commonlaw wife, I had been told, craft elegant ornamental boxes, but Simpson did not arrive at the trailer bearing his handiwork. He came, instead, equipped with the graceful manner and eager catchphrases of the drone who’d been hired to move among his neighbors and proselytize the bounties of hard-rock mining.
Simpson seemed war-weary. The Redfern project, he believed, was a no-brainer, its environmental beneficence confirmed by science, its goodwill toward the sensible folk of Atlin utterly self-evident. Even the leftist government of British Columbia, which often pledges itself to aggressive environmental stewardship, issued a project approval certificate for the mine last March, after reviewing the findings of an environmental assessment committee. So what’s to argue? “People are getting so sick of this issue,” Simpson said. He and Zanger nonetheless roused themselves for a display of the required zeal. “This is one terrific mine,” Zanger told me. “It’s going to be an award-winner.” Repeating one of Redfern’s favorite claims, he revealed, “There’s actually an improvement in the environment that will come from opening the mine.”
Such statements don’t come cheap. Redfern claims it spent more than four years and $5.4 million studying the mine’s effects on an array of human and ecological concerns and had arrived at nothing but unambiguously optimistic conclusions. The access road and its 69 stream crossings and its night-and-day traffic would barely be noticed by the area’s wildlife, I was assured, and the economic boom wrought by the mine and its promised jobs would ensure a bright future for Atlin, and what’s more, Redfern’s abiding concern for its brothers and sisters in the aboriginal community would be exercised through the disposition of scholarships for the Atlin-based Taku River Tlingit Indians, whose ancestral territory was to be crossed, but in no way upset, by the little big-rig freeway.
“We live here. We care,” Simpson told me in imploring tones. “Who’s going to be a better guardian of this land than the people who are here to stay?” An Indian woman hired by Redfern as a liaison to the Tlingit community sat mutely in her armchair in a corner of the trailer like a long-suffering Indian in a New West version of an Old West movie, taking notes and rolling her eyes with impressive discretion.
“People in town are getting really frustrated with outsiders who don’t understand us coming in and telling us how to live,” Simpson said. Amen, nodded Zanger, complaining of the “propaganda mill” fueled by environmentalist elites, who have produced slick anti-Redfern brochures and videotapes, and who persuaded American Rivers to place the Taku River on its much-publicized endangered rivers list, and who organized raft trips down the Taku for celebrity nature-lovers, and who were said to have funded the local Taku Wilderness Association, which purports to be a grassroots organization but, according to Simpson and friends, operates in secret like a disreputable cabal.
The road and the mine, I came to understand, had attained the status of embattled symbols in a holy war for Atlin’s identity. The terms of the dispute might have been couched in the predictable, mind-numbing exchange of conflicting data, but the underlying and disquieting struggle being waged in Atlin was for control of the magical ethos of a magical if dwindling place. The petty politics that stained communities everywhere had spread to the end of the road and the forest beyond in disappointingly familiar form. “The people who want to put a stop to the mine,” Simpson said, “are trying to change Atlin from what it’s always been — a frontier mining town — into a romanticized lifestyle retreat. The community,” he continued, affecting a look of pouty indignation, “is beginning to suffer feelings of helplessness.”
Atlin has a high tolerance for eccentricity, but the color-comics oddities of the bush advertised by TV dramadies are little in evidence. Atlin’s weirdness is less superficial, and darker. “You don’t move to the end of the road at the edge of the wilderness if you’re normal,” says Don Weir, president of the Taku Wilderness Association and self-appointed sacrificial lamb to the agents of plunder come to tread on his ecosystem. “Atlin,” he says, “is totally free-form.” I’ve joined Weir for coffee on the deck of his cabin outside town, overlooking the greenhouse and the plots of dirt where he grows potatoes and broccoli and currants, just downwind from his outhouse. Weir, who is in his mid-40s, wears a Grateful Dead cap over his silver hair and sits with monkish indifference to the fat mosquitoes clambering over him.
“We don’t earn lucrative salaries here,” he tells me, “but hey, we live in Eden, so it’s OK.” Weir grew up in Oregon and packed his car after graduating from college to set out for the un-trafficked zones. He’s lived in the region for about 20 years, half of which were spent in isolation deep in the bush, where he was the winter caretaker at a jade mine. He would go months at a time without seeing another person and, like other solitary types scattered through the deserted valleys, would come to Atlin for downtime. He recalls that, when he first arrived in the early ’70s, “Atlin was a wild anarchistic town. There were no rules. If you wanted to garden in the nude, then you gardened in the nude. Horses roamed through the streets. We raised some hell back then, but most of us have lost the energy for it,” he says nostalgically. “Now we raise raspberries and flowers instead. Atlin has become gentrified.”
Weir doesn’t strike me as gentrified. He supports himself, barely, as a painter — the walls of his cabin are lined with languid cubist landscapes — and does carpentry and paints houses to fill in the gaps. Since Redfern came to town two years ago, though, Weir has been drawn into the obsessive rhythms of the environmental activist, constructing the logical chain that links the imposition of a restricted-access mining road to global ecological apocalypse. It’s a process beloved of lovers of the earth. (“That hundred-mile road connects Atlin to the global economy,” I was told by one Vancouver-based environmentalist, who is committed to forcing the global economy to take a wider detour around the Taku Wilderness.) Weir describes evidence that documents the shoddiness of Redfern’s rosy environmental studies. Then he links Redfern’s bad science to what he perceives as the provincial government’s bad faith, its undemocratic effort to steamroller the assessment process. Soon the shadowy picture of a broad collusion — the old military-industrial complex of Weir’s Oregonian school days — begins to emerge.
So if you’re Don Weir and you’re bummed by the insight that your backyard, which ranges from glacial outcrops to temperate coastal forests, is on the verge of being ruined by the capricious schemes of a nickel-and-dime exploration company, then you’ve suddenly found that the hours you used to spend on your deck chair studying the gradations of sunlight are now filled with nightmarish outlines of some pretty substantial foes from far and near: The wilderness-colonizing mining industry; British Columbia premier Glen Clark, once embraced as an environmentalist, now seen as a deficit-fearing turncoat; labor unions, more concerned with well-paying jobs than with the feeding habits of bighorn sheep; the suits on the Vancouver Stock Exchange and, by extension, their amoral land-loathing Dow-Jones-boosting brethren on Wall Street, who hound leftist governments into the arms of corporate despoilers. And most poignantly, because most intimately, the very neighbors with whom you used to dance at the Atlin Inn on Saturday nights before the satellite dish came to town with its broadcasts of the world outside — the world from which you sought refuge — and with its beamed-in-from-outer-space sitcoms and game shows, initiated the downward spiral into which the community has slid, so that a few of those neighbors no longer greet you with much tenderness when you cross paths at the post office. And no amount of righteous consternation can alleviate the stress of living in a tiny shattered community, where there is none of the merciful anonymity that comes from living in the large shattered communities that lie on the other end of the road.
But if you’re Don Weir and you’re contemplating some bit of civil disobedience if the capitalist bulldozers start rolling like tanks through the streets of Atlin, then you know that your crusade has cosmic justice on its side. Because the history of roads in the wilderness reveals that roads invariably beget more roads, and the more roads there are, the greater the viability of other activities, like logging the valleys of the Taku watershed to feed the pulp mills of southern British Columbia, or opening new mines, or subjecting the area to gun-toting Lynyrd-Skynyrd-blasting four-wheel-driving good ol’ boys. And none of that will do, since you live at the end of the road, and nothing gives you night sweats in the winter like the spidery image of roads with no end.
I had not been out in the bush, far, far from the nearest road, for more than 10 minutes or so, before I learned that I was responding to the awesome vacancy of the Taku Wilderness in a characteristically white way, since sentimentalists of nature like myself, my instructors implied, are on a distinct continuum with the white armies and anonymous, though white, multinational corporations that stomp out indigenous people wherever they may be found. For the next 48 hours I was to be submerged in the cultural deprogramming machinery that is housed at the Nakina Center for Aboriginal Living and Learning. The CALL, as it’s called, is located on the property of a 44-year-old Tlingit man named Bryan Taku Jack, on a jagged escarpment above the banks of the Nakina River about ten miles above its confluence with the Taku. In summer the river is lit with king salmon returning to nearby spawning grounds, and grizzlies often tramp by Bryan’s cabin on their way to feed at the riverbank, and eagles hover overhead waiting for scraps that the grizzlies leave behind.
Bryan built the cabin in the early ’80s, from dead logs that he milled on site. A few years ago he and his wife, Joan, an Ojibwa originally from northeastern Manitoba, started the CALL as a kind of wilderness-based empowerment center for local Indians and as a retreat for non-Indians interested in purging the cowboy within.
“Most whites don’t understand how privileged they are,” Joan told me when I joined her at the long table that was the CALL’s central gathering place. It was seven in the morning, and she was rolling her day’s stock of cigarettes. “Even the poorest white person is involved in the operations of colonial oppression.” A young white environmental lawyer from Vancouver who was hauling water to the kitchen offered a cry of endorsement before continuing her chores.
Bryan and Joan had arrived back at the Nakina a few days earlier, having led a dozen ragged pilgrims on a five-day trek from Atlin along the Grease Trail, the migratory path trod by the Tlingit when they were hunter-gatherers who wintered on the dry shores of Atlin Lake. This year’s journey was part ritual, part political theater. Redfern’s proposed road will cross the Tlingit path five times and run parallel to it for a long stretch. Those Tlingit who challenge the new road — and Bryan and Joan Jack are the most vociferous opponents — have made noise about raising barricades, not because they share the environmentalists’ obsession with ecological purity, but because they’re bent on preventing another repeat of the centuries-old European land-grab. “Redfern is just beads and trinkets, ’90s-style,” Joan told me. A hummingbird whirled at a feeder outside the window. “Now, instead of shiny pots, they want to give us four-wheel-drives.”
Bryan wandered from the table and let Joan talk. Joan is a prodigious talker. She described a dream she had just had, which involved a dead dog and a hostile white man and a white woman who kept changing form and a carefully wrapped package that was full of animal shit. “My dreams are often prophetic,” she said. I nodded. Joan was a blend of ideological bully and den mother, her bulk draped in a paint-spattered housedress, her hands occupied with the beads she was sewing into a square of deerhide. She was making a medicine bag and was aware of the symbolic power of her stitching. “Every day of my life,” she announced, “I’m either making good medicine or bad medicine. We’re all medicine people.” The non-Indians in attendance lapped it up like good medicine.
Bryan returned and began to speak in his high-pitched, mournful voice. He is one of the few Tlingit who have an intimate knowledge of the traditional territory, and this lends him a particular authority among members of the tribe. “The Grease Trail,” he told me, “is the bloodline of the Taku River Tlingit people. Between the time you start in Atlin and the time you get here, your spirit is changed. Our ancestors are buried all along it, and they’re watching us to see what happens. Guaranteed, if Redfern puts that road along our trail, they’re going to dig up our people.”
Joan claimed that many Tlingit were resigned to defeat and had grown accustomed to having roads built through their lives. “We’re so full of self-hate,” said Joan. “The idea that we’re dirty savages has been ingrained in us. We’re ashamed of ourselves.” Lacking self-love, the Tlingit community in Atlin has suffered the same painful divisions over the Redfern issue that have marred the white community. Many Tlingit are eager to extract some community benefit — a hockey rink, for instance — from Redfern while the company is in the spirit of making peace-offerings. Many Tlingit are anxious for jobs. And not a few continue to harbor bitterness toward environmentalists for successfully redefining fur-trapping as a despised and sometimes illegal practice, thereby forcing Indians off the very land that the environmentalists now want to save.
What Joan knows, though, and what the Tlingit know, is that the Indians are, for a brief moment, poised to determine the Redfern issue for themselves. As the result of a recent ruling by Canada’s Supreme Court, the Tlingit essentially hold veto power over the mine. So the Tlingit are being courted by Redfern and by environmentalists, but they find themselves frustratingly unable to determine their self-interest. The assurances of well-meaning white people echo through Tlingit deliberations with a familiar corrosiveness. While the Tlingit wring their hands and stare off into the traditional territory beyond the end of the road, territory that many of them have never set foot in, preparations are underway for the ground-breaking of the Taku basin’s new migratory route. Spiritual bulldozers are afoot.
Atlin is a wounded town, but it’s not wounded worse than other towns, and it’s not wounded differently, and it may hobble along with mortal wounds for so long that the wounds become part of its posture, and it may, over time, grow so accustomed to its wounds that attempting to distinguish the town from the wounds proves futile, and the wounds become the town, and the town forgets why, or where, it ever was wounded. Then, it would be nice to think, Atlin will be back where it started in the rapturous high latitudes, road or no road. It never was paradise, though for a while it seemed like a good scale model.
Donna Hall is a nurse at Atlin’s Red Cross Outpost. Her mother was the town nurse before her. Her family arrived in Atlin in 1908, when the gold had not yet played out. “Being in Atlin,” she says, “is being home. You’re not passing through. It’s your destination. You might find a town that’s just as beautiful, but not one with as perfect a layout. Everything is in its ideal place. Atlin Mountain is just where it should be. The lake is just where it should be.” And, though the nurse won’t say so in as many words, she seems to suggest that the road ends where it should end.
I had a vision of a town of 500 people that could be understood with the standard diagnostic tools. You talk to an old-timer, a newcomer, a miner and a tourist, an Indian and a construction worker, and you begin to trace the connective tissue that binds the town together. But there is no connective tissue in Atlin, only a road, the one road in and the one road out, and if Atlinites have chased themselves to the end of this road for any good reason, it is to forgo the available ways of thinking. Where is Atlin? The more closely one looks, the more the place changes shape, disappears, reappears at the edge of a different wilderness, the wilderness one needs at this moment, and may need again. There are stories within the self-contradictory stories that people tell when they try to explain why they’ve landed in one absurd place rather than another. There are places as remote and as isolated as Atlin, and sometimes they’re not as remote or as isolated.
Bob Couchman and his wife, Carolyn Moore, led me for a walk on the broad rocky beach along the shore of Atlin Lake, and then we drank scotch at four in the afternoon in their glistening log house, in front of which is parked an old Volvo and a new Pathfinder. They’re from Toronto, as are many of their nearest neighbors. Bob works as a consultant for nonprofit foundations far from Atlin and has spotted black wolves in the meadow outside his office window. Bob and Carolyn are the old new world come again to the end of the road.
Jamie Carlick is a 17-year-old Tlingit who dropped out of school five years ago and whose mother moved away from Atlin because Jamie drank too much. Jamie started drinking at age 11. I find her in a tent, where she is lying in overalls eating sunflower seeds. She says she hopes to work for the government, or to be a lawyer.
Katja, from a town near Cologne, arrived at the end of the road a little more than a year ago in a German military-surplus truck. What she had in mind when she set off on her obsessive drive through the north was the goal of reaching something like an idealized clearing on the other side of the false wall at the limit of mundane existence. She had to drive for a long while. “This place,” she says, “is a magnet for mad people.”
Perry hitchhiked to Atlin in search of work as a miner. As a child in New Zealand he’d read all about prospecting. He tries to sell me a sketch he’s been working on, for $200. The sketch, he says, is called “Lost #9.””It’s an abstract response to the landscape,” he tells me, and I agree.
James Williams, an Indian whose wife owns the local grocery store, remembers being beaten as a six-year-old for speaking the Tlingit language with a friend at the church-run Residential School for Indians that he was forced to attend. He says he would like to relearn his forgotten language, but is afraid. He’s 49 years old. He supports the road.
Leonard Parisien is a salmon fisherman and former trapper who describes coming out of the bush one winter on his snowmobile, dragging the bloody carcass of a wolf, and crossing paths with a fallen cross-country skier. He feels cross-country skiers resent him, and he resents them for this. Nonetheless he stopped to help the woman. He says she seemed confused by his assistance. He supports the road.
There was a woman who refused to talk to me on the empty street because she was afraid of being seen with me.
There was a man in a fishing cap who told me to fuck off when I asked him for a moment of his time.
Guy Anttila is a Finnish-born bush pilot who took me in his two-seat floatplane over the largest stretch of unroaded landscape I’ve ever seen. He flew me over the vagrant channels of a river in flood stage, where the murky water bore the debris of washed-out beaver dams, and he flew me past sunwashed pictographs of sea canoes painted on granite cliffs, and he flew me over the steep canyons and the arid plateaus along which Redfern is set to build its road. It will be an astounding feat of engineering prowess, this road. It will be well worth making the long trip to Atlin in the next century, if there is a next century, after the mine has closed and the road has been paved and widened, to take a leisurely drive through the homeland of the Taku River Tlingit. Guy points to his outfitter’s cabin, down below, at the confluence of two rivers that braid themselves into the Taku. He’s got a good thing going, leading wealthy tourists from around the world on hunting and fishing expeditions. I would bet he’s a expert guide. He knows the best marshy spots to find bull moose and the best rocky outcrops to find mountain sheep. He’s nearly booked through the turn of the century. He opposes the road.