Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Day on the Stikine River

In the past, I had been hesitant to describe the Stikine to people as the last river of its kind in North America.  Now, I regularly describe it as such with no hesitation and no feeling of exaggeration or grandiosity, it is just the truth.  There are, of course, many rivers in North America larger, longer, and much more well known than the Stikine but that to me, just adds to the mystery and magnificence and importance of this river.  The Stikine is born from Tuaton Lake on the Spatsizi Plateau of British Columbia and starts out small and fast like any other pristine mountain river.  From there, it passes through some of the most uninhabited and unaltered country left on the continent while increasing in both size and volume from the many tributary rivers feeding into it.  The total length of the Stikine from source to sea is approximately 360 miles, Tuaton Lake to the Pacific Ocean just north of Wrangell, with a watershed draining approximately 25,000 square miles.
In all of this vast area, along this river's entire length there is only one highway bridge, Highway 37, crossing the Stikine and one old and unused railway bridge.  There is also only one community along the river, the village of Telegraph Creek, BC, which has a year round population of about 100 people.  There are a few scattered homesteads along the river and a fish cannery on the Canadian side but other than those few human habitations, this is as uninhabited and pristine a place as you could hope for in North America in the 21st century.

This photo is not of Tuaton Lake, my apologies for the deception but I have never been there so do not have a photo of it!  These lakes are somewhat similar though and are the headwaters lakes of the Iskut River which is the largest tributary of the Stikine so hopefully give an example of what the headwaters country of the Stikine looks like.  This photo was taken from high up on the Todagin Plateau looking over at the mountains of the Mt Edziza Provincial Park.

More pictures from and of the Todagin Plateau.  There is unfortunately some new mining activity going on in these beautiful remote Canadian plateaus which has a lot of us who live downstream of these activities concerned for the future health of several transboundary rivers including the Stikine.  There is a mine called the Red Chris Mine currently in production just on the other side of the high point in the photo below with part of the mine's operating plan to dump tailings into the small, barely visible lake on the right side of the above photo.  That lake is also one of the headwaters lake of the Iskut River.  These mines are primarily gold and copper mines made financially viable by some shady "green energy" projects funded by the Canadian government.  Since I am currently typing this blog on a computer which requires the metals being mined in these mines, I'll avoid hypocritical and heavy handed condemnation of the resource extraction which allows the vast majority of us to have all the "conveniences" that we now think we need.  Just don't be fooled by Canada!  It is not the polite, innocent country it likes people to think it is!

This photo is of Mt Edziza, a dormant volcano that is a prominent feature of the Stikine River country.  This region has a significant amount of volcanic influence with many dormant volcanoes, basalt cliffs, thermal springs, and a very high grade of obsidian found on Mt Edziza that was traded up and down the coast and all the way out to the Aleutian Islands.

The one and only road crossing the Stikine River marks the end of the Upper Stikine and the beginning of the Lower Stikine.  This is Canadian Highway 37, also called the Cassiar Highway which will eventually connect to the Alaska-Canada Highway further north. 
The physical feature which separates the Stikine into an Upper portion and a Lower portion is the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, a truly grand canyon in everyone sense that has only been run by some of the best whitewater kayakers in the world, it is very difficult and challenging whitewater and has been called the Mt Everest of whitewater kayaking. There are several interesting YouTube videos of kayakers in the canyon as well as a very interesting one of a helicopter flying through its entire 60 mile length that are well worth watching.

Looking upriver from just passed the bridge into the headwaters country of the Stikine River.

Looking downriver with the Highway 37 bridge in the background and my friend Jen who joined me on a bicycle trip on the Cassiar Highway.

Looking down at a portion of the canyon from the rugged, remote, and occasionally very steep road leading to Telegraph Creek.  The river is hidden deep within.

A couple views of the very end of the canyon where the Telegraph Road allows for an easy view.  These basalt cliffs give way to the more typical granitic rock found here in Southeast AK as you travel further downriver.

Just a few photos from a past float trip down the 160 miles of the Lower Stikine to show the changing geology, vegetation, and volume of the river as it travels through the Coast Mountains to the sea.

This is one of several glaciers that contribute their sediments to the river's flow and have carved these beautiful valleys.  This one is called Great Glacier and is a short way across the border in Canada.

Kate's Needle, one of the tallest peaks in our region, is one of the border mountains separating Alaska from British Columbia.  Kate's Needle just exceeds 10,000 feet in height and is visible from a boat out on the ocean on a clear day.

What a misleading title to a blog post this one is!  A Day on the Stikine River has used photos spanning several years covering a very large area of land not possible to see in just one day!  This river and its watershed is just too big, too spectacular, and too important to try to sum up in a post covering just one day.  We are almost in Alaska now where the following photos will demonstrate what is easily seen and done in one day from Wrangell.  The Stikine is a favorite destination for many of us Wrangellites, maybe for differing reasons at times, but still it is a physical feature that influences our area, our weather, and our lives.  The very existence and history of Wrangell is intimately linked to this grand river.

I'll start out with some of the wildlife that the river hides.

Hey, this is technically wildlife!  Maybe not megafauna but still Stikine River wildlife.

A calf moose trying to hide in the most conspicuous of hiding places.  Mom was very nearby keeping a close eye on us as we floated safely in the skiff.  It's challenging trying to keep a boat still in current and take a moose picture at the same time hence the slight blurriness of this guy.

I'm going to interrupt the wildlife for a moment to better explain the forthcoming wildlife photos.  This is Shakes Lake which is an incredibly scenic glacier lake that connects to the Stikine.  This area is the epitome of ruggedness but is also the home of a lot of different animals.  It is not uncommon to see both black and brown bears, mountain goats, and marmots either on the shoreline or somewhere high above among the broken cliffs lining this lake.  That beautiful mountain in the distance is another of the peaks separating Alaska and British Columbia and is aptly named Castle Mountain.  These icebergs in the foreground come from Shakes Glacier which is further down this lake to the left.

Glaciers, along with whales, are two things that always make me feel the power and beauty of this place.  I doubt that I will ever get bored with seeing either one.  The icebergs birthed by the glaciers are constantly changing and present such an incredible array of shapes and sculptures that no two days are ever identical. 

And finally, here is Shakes Glacier itself.  It is a rather docile glacier in the sense that it does not calve very often which allows for a closer inspection of it by boat.

Back to the wildlife of Shakes Lake.  This black bear traversed this steep snow field, the remnant of avalanches pouring into the lake during the winter, over to the even steeper rock ledges rising straight up out of the lake.  Bears are more frequently seen here than one would think making me really curious to know what they find for food?  There are no fish runs in this lake and while there are berries, a small population of marmots, and maybe the occasional mountain goat kid or carcass, it just doesn't seem like there would be enough food to support the amount of bears seen here.  I've seen female bears with cubs, and as I mentioned earlier, both species of bears are here together. 

Another bear traversing the rugged terrain above the lake watching us watch him.

Look in the center of this photo toward the top and you will see two young mountain goats perched above the lake.  I've never seen them in this area so it was a rewarding sight!

Seagulls take advantage of the steep rock faces around Shakes Lake to nest.  There are a few places where they nest low enough to safely get to the nest to get a few quick shots while getting divebombed by the irate parents!  It looks like these eggs weren't far from hatching judging by the cracks that look a lot like the kind of cracks a young seagull beak would make as it tries to emerge into the world.

Moving back down to the main river from Shakes Lake, I'll revisit my developing obsession with photographing wildflowers.

This is a pretty plant found on the terminal moraine at the outlet of Shakes Lake called Roseroot or King's Crown.  A beauty but also delicate and not a common plant.

One of the wild orchids found in Southeast AK is this one, the white bog orchid.  It is not the most beautiful of the orchids but is a fairly common one and is still a pretty sight.

A common sight to see on the river at this time of year is local people subsistence fishing for sockeye salmon with small gillnets.  As a rural community, we in Wrangell can obtain a permit to use gillnets to harvest up to 40 sockeye salmon per household which then typically get smoked and canned providing us with a delicious, healthy, and local food to eat throughout the year.  I typically eat salmon of one kind or another 3-6 times per week every week of the year so this subsistence fishery is an important part of my life.  It is also a fun way to hang out with friends and share the labor and the bounty of that labor.

I'll end this post with a sunset shining down on the mouth of the Stikine. 

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