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Stikine River On Assignment

Stikine River On Assignment

Stikine River
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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By Wade DavisPhotographs by Sarah Leen

What do you call an unforgiving land whose beauty can be fatal? The people of the Stikine River Valley call it home.

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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 (650,000 hectares) 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 (650-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 (100 kilometers) beneath cliffs of basalt and sedimentary rock rising a thousand feet (300 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."

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Online Extra
Plan an adventure to the Stikine River Valley with these handy travel tips.

Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, a bird's eye view of British Columbia's frozen wilderness.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
While the name Stikine, meaning "great river," comes from a Tlingit Indian word, the Spatsizi region, where author Wade Davis worked as a park ranger, gets its name from a Tahltan Indian word meaning "red goat." The goats are actually coated with red dust that comes from the iron oxide-rich slopes there. Goats are said to collect the dust on their coats by rolling around or bedding down in it.
The Tahltan name for the Stikine, on the other hand, which begins in the Spatsizi and winds for 400 miles (650 kilometers) to the sea, is Tudeath'ah, meaning "long water." 
—Mary Jennings
Did You Know?

Related Links
Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park
Get maps, history, and information on visiting one of Canada's largest protected wilderness areas.
Friends of the Stikine
Learn about the history and some of the major conservation issues of the "Great River."
Tongass National Forest
Read more about the many birds and wildlife at the delta of the Stikine, or reserve a cabin on one of the National Forest's islands.
Cassiar Iskut–Stikine Land and Resource Management Plan
See  plan allowances for possible development in the region, including mining and timber operations.


The Alaska Geographic. The Stikine River. The Alaska Geographic Society, 1979.
Davis, Wade. Shawdows  of the Sun. Island Press, 1998.
Fiegehen, Gary. Stikine: The Great River. Douglas and McIntyre, Ltd., 1991.
Muir, John. Travels in Alaska. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915.
Schneider, Howard. "Canada Creates Its Own Rockies 'Serengeti.' " Washington Post (October 9, 1997). Available online at
Paquet, Maggie. Parks of British Columbia and the Yukon. Maia Publishing Limited, 1990.


NGS Resources
Willoughby, Scott. "The White Water Report." National Geographic Adventure (March/April 2000), 22-6, 28.
Scidmore, Eliza Ruhamah. "The Stikine River in 1898." National Geographic (January 1899), 1-15.


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