The Sacred Headwaters: BC’s Land of Genesis

An exploration of British Columbia's Sacred Headwaters with anthropologist Wade Davis reveals a beautiful land under threat.

Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park in Northern British Columbia

The Sacred Headwaters © John Zada

“LEAN FORWARD AND GRAB a handful of mane,” our guide, Esther McGhie, shouts. “The horses won’t feel it.”

Following a well-worn trail, our steeds begin the steep climb towards a high, treeless plateau. Doing as Esther says, I stand on my stirrups and lean into the animal’s crest. My mare snarls and snorts as she ascends the rocklittered path. Twice she falters, but regains her footing before she can stumble and throw off her reluctant rider.

As the trail levels, I relax back into my saddle and take a sideward look down the valley. Below us, a boreal Nirvana filled with creeks and lakes sprawls at the feet of undulating mountains. Sheets of rain graze the iron oxide-coloured peaks in the distance.

Esther and I stop at a cluster of spruce at the tree line. Above us, the trail peters out in a rolling upland of rock and grass. Three other riders, my companions, steadily make their way up the grade behind us. When they arrive, the five of us quietly take in the view.

“Every time I see it from this vantage, I’m reminded that this is my true home,” one of the men says, solemnly. “We now have a place on Bowen Island, but it’s not the same.”

The man, whose words strike a chord in me, and who’s no stranger to these parts, is Canadian anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis. Though having trailed silently at the back of our caravan, the inveterate world traveller and champion of indigenous cultures is co-leading our daytrip with Esther. We are in Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park, one of the largest, wildest and most far-flung protectorates in British Columbia. Regarded as BC’s Serengeti (for its staggering array of wildlife), the park lies tucked away in the province’s northern Interior Mountains. It is a place out of sight and out of mind for most people. But for Davis, there could be no place closer to his heart.

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SINCE DOING TWO SEASONAL tours of duty with the first park ranger team at Spatsizi in 1975, the National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence has returned to these wilds time and again like a prodigal son. His first years in the park were so formative that Davis chose, early on, to make the area his summer home. He’s come back almost every year — no small thing for a man who’s been virtually everywhere, and can be anywhere he wants in the world.

Portrait of ethnobotanist, Wade Davis

Wade Davis © John Zada

If you don’t know Wade Davis, you probably should. An academic and adventurer, Davis has spent his life studying indigenous peoples and their traditional knowledge. As an ethnobotany student, he cut his teeth studying sacred and medicinal plants in South America. His 1985 book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, a work about Haitian voodoo rites and zombies (which was made into a Hollywood film), gave him his first taste of fame. And further licence to roam the world.

In the decades to come, the seasoned ethnographer would traipse around the globe adding to an intrepid list of remote places visited: Borneo, the Arctic of Canada and Greenland, Tibet, Polynesia, the Sahara and Mongolia. Along the way he would author numerous books, articles and photographs, acquiring a reputation as a kind of scholarly polymath with a flare for the poetic.

But all journeys come full circle. And in the last several years, Davis has increasingly turned his attention towards matters on the home front. In addition to starting a professorship in the Anthropology Department at the University of British Columbia last year, Davis has become involved in First Nations territorial rights issues tied to the thorny issue of industrial development.

And that’s part of the reason we’re all here. Our amble through Spatsizi is part of an annual field trip, led by Wade and a local wilderness lodge, to help bring awareness to a place they say is under threat by misguided industrial projects.

We dismount and tie our horses. The plateau, the jewel in Spatsizi’s crown of wonders, is our destination that afternoon. Before we embark, consideration is given to the bad weather headed our way. The exposed plateau will be miserable in a storm, one member says. Will it be worth the climb if our views are obscured?

“It wouldn’t be much of an adventure without discomfort and uncertainty,” Wade says, matter-of-factly.

With that, we push up the last bit of trail on foot. As we do, a large curtain of precipitation follows on our heels like an army in hot pursuit.

*

SPATSIZI’S NORTHERN PLATEAU may have been our objective that day, but the park’s southern and western flanks are garnering more attention of late. That area, in and around the park’s borders, is known as “The Sacred Headwaters” — a place revered by many of BC’s First Nations, including the Tahltan, whose territory encompasses both it and Spatsizi. It’s a name you won’t find on any official map, but one well suited for the features it describes.

Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park in Northern British Columbia

A headwaters creek that feeds the Klappan and Stikine Rivers © John Zada

In a strange and wonderful twist of geography, the area’s matrix of ponds and creeks gives rise to a troika of great salmon rivers: the Skeena, the Nass and the Stikine. All are born within excruciatingly close range of one another. The Sacred Headwaters is where these three causeways to the Pacific, each a bounty for all who live in their path, find their genesis. The Tahltan call the area “Klabona,” the land of beginnings, where the Big Raven forged the world at the dawn of time. Apart from  being an anomaly and a place of spectacular fragility, it is where the Tahltan have hunted, traded and buried their dead for millennia. It is a Holy of Holies whose raw beauty, its defenders say, underscores everything practical and essential about the place.

“It just blows your mind,” says Shannon McPhail, director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, a local environmental group. “At first you can’t believe that it exists. Then you find yourself wondering how it is that you’re so lucky to even be there. There are beautiful places in this world but what’s different about the Headwaters is that it captures you.”

BC's Land of Genesis

The Lower Stikine River near the BC-Alaska border (John Zada)

It’s not just nature enthusiasts who find themselves arrested by this Xanadu of the North. Rich in minerals and energy, the Sacred Headwaters has found itself front-and-centre in the politically sanctioned stampede by industry to tap new veins of resources. Its list of endowments reads like the fruits of some legendary mother lode: natural gas, gold, copper and coal.

The Tahltan are resisting this unrestrained reflex to exploit the land. While they say they’re not opposed to industry as a rule, they allege that the sensitivity of the sites chosen and the types of projects slated would both violate and defile the area.

“People think we’re against resource development, but we’re not,” says Chad Day, the elected Tahltan Chief. “We just want to have the final decision over which projects to accept and which to reject. There are sensitive places in our territory that should not be touched.”

For the last decade, the Tahltan have opposed several such projects, managing to stall and even drive away some. Of those that remain, two are imminent. One is a coalmine, proposed by Fortune Minerals for Mount Klappan. It is a mountain religiously revered by the Tahltan, and is situated at the very epicentre of the Headwaters. The other is the controversial Imperial Metals Red Chris copper and gold mine on Todagin Mountain — an iconic massif that’s home to the world’s largest population of Stone Sheep. Both proposed projects lie on the cusp of Spatsizi and its sensitive waterways.

Up until last year, the Tahltan had reluctantly tolerated Red Chris. But when the tailings pond at Imperial’s Mount Polly mine in central BC collapsed just a few days after my trip last summer, releasing millions of cubic metres of sludge into nearby waterways, the Tahltan did an about-face.

Wade, who knows the Tahltan people well, and whose lodge and summer home sits in the shadow of Red Chris, has been a vocal opponent of the projects. In addition to giving numerous media interviews and lectures, Davis put out a book with the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) called The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass. In it, he argues that the area has the potential to become a world-class outdoors and adventure destination on par with any in the world.

“Even should the entire debate be reduced to economics, it would be madness,” he writes, “to compromise a place that could one day be as important to the world as Banff, Jasper, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon of Colorado, or the mountains of Tibet.”

Those were some big comparisons – enough to make me want to see the area for myself. When I reached out to Wade to learn more, he invited me to visit the Headwaters. He’d be guiding a small group out of Spatsizi Wilderness Lodge in the heart of the park that summer. It was the perfect opportunity, he added, to meet up and experience a place that few Canadians had ever heard of, let alone seen.

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THE DAYLONG JOURNEY TO REACH the Headwaters, almost as epic as the destination itself, was like running a gauntlet of wonders.

From the town of Smithers (the closest air hub), I drove north along the lonely but savagely beautiful Stewart-Cassiar Highway — a narrow, asphalt thoroughfare running up the northern half of BC like a backbone. After being bludgeoned by alpine vistas for several hours, I arrived at a range of lakeside mountains whose tops glowed in hypnotic hues of rusty red. This was the edge of Spatsizi Park.

Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park in Northern British Columbia

Floatplane pickup at Ealue Lake © John Zada

I left my vehicle near the Tahltan community of Iskut, and was picked up in one of Spatsizi Lodge’s floatplanes. Travelling in the 1950s-era Piper Cub, a two-seater, was like being flown in a small canoe with wings. The views of the park, and the Headwaters, were a kind of revelation that stilled the initial jitters of being in such a tiny aircraft. Below, sparkling rivers and ponds filled the valley bottoms beneath burly mountains and humps of plateau. The landscape was stately and luminous — an unusual spectacle — like a national park times-ten.

We touched down at Bug Lake, beside a cluster of cabins at the Spatsizi Wilderness Lodge complex. The camp, which has been around since the 1970s, is one of a few in the park run by the Collingwood family. The Collingwoods are considered living legends, the last of an old-school breed of wilderness outfitters, who flocked to this frontier in the manner of determined homesteaders.

People the world-over come to the lodge to be led by its owners — brothers Ray and Reg Collingwood — on fishing and big game hunting expeditions. Both men are old friends with Wade, going back to when the latter became a ranger at the newly minted park in 1975.

Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park in Northern British Columbia

Spatsizi Wilderness Lodge at Bug Lake © John Zada

I was greeted by Reg Collingwood, the 60 year-old fusion of cowboy, rancher, hunter and guide. He wore a baseball cap, down vest and corduroys, and exuded the mental acuity and physical vitality of a man half his age. As he showed me around the camp he told me that Wade and the group had gone on a three-day trek on horseback into the mountains. They were due back the next day, he said. In the meantime, he was trying to locate three of his horses — named “Buck”, “Buster” and “Babe” — that had escaped from the lodge’s stables a few days before.

“Just another day in the outback,” he said, with a resigned sigh.

I asked him how he and Wade had become friends. Reg told me that when Spatsizi was established, part of Wade’s job was to keep an eye on his operation. It was a bit of an antagonistic relationship, at first.

“I thought he was just some smart-ass from the city,” Reg said. “Then one day we went sheep hunting together. Wade skinned and packed out one of the animals on his own. I was impressed and thought, ‘Gee, this fellah’s actually a pretty good guy.’ We’ve been like family ever since.”

*

I WAS HELPING REG PUT UP a new gate on his corral the next day, when Wade, the guides and the six guests returned.

We all met in the cookhouse early that evening. The conversation was lively. The guests, a smattering of travellers from Vancouver, Smithers and Washington State, swapped images from their camera display screens over wine.  As we mingled, Anita, the lodge’s tireless young cook from Switzerland, put the finishing touches on a meal fit for the toughest bushman.

I finally met Wade, and his wife Gail (also an anthropologist). Wade invited me to accompany him and a few guests the next day to the top of the plateau. “It’s one of the more stunning parts of this area,” he said. “Once you’re up there you’ll get an even better feel for the place.”

After a feast of roast elk, mashed potatoes and a salad that had more bacon in it than greens, Wade showed us images from his various travels to the Arctic. The first photos were from a trip to one of the northernmost settlements on Earth, a village in Greenland. That place, he said, refused snowmobiles and continued to use dogsleds to keep their traditional culture alive. He also recalled the story of the “shit knife” in which an Inuit man from Baffin Island had frozen his own feces to use as a tool to skin a dead dog. The man built a sled out of the dead canine’s body.

As fascinating as that was, even more intriguing was the banter between Wade and Reg after everyone else had gone to bed. Over tumblers of whiskey, the two spoke about Tahltan politics, the divisive Red Chris Mine that was set to open in 2015 and how the area’s skittish caribou were beginning to move out of the area. Those serious discussions morphed into lighter banter about the lives of Spatsizi’s early pioneers — larger-than-life characters, some of whom Wade considered mentors. Wade said he intended to write a book about the history of the area, a project he hoped to begin soon.

I told him I was interested to know why, of all the places he’d been to, the Headwaters had grabbed him the most.

“We all have fond memories of the places that most impressed us in our youth,” he says. “The time I spent here was very much a part of my coming-of-age. It’s a place, in a sense, where I became a man.”

But what was it about the land itself that hooked him?

“The extent of the wild,” he said. “Much of the world now is so worn out. In the Lower 48 states of the U.S. the farthest you can get away from a maintained road is just 20 miles. Here, in the northwest quadrant of BC, an area the size of Oregon, there’s just one road. And within a small radius of this place you have all these great wonders: Spatsizi, the Spectrum Range, Mount Edziza and the greatest canyon in Canada: the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. It’s a place of international significance. And the only thing our leaders can think of doing with it, is to plough it down.”

*

OUR HIKE UP THE PLATEAU the next day turns into a test of endurance. Halfway up from the tree line, we are overrun by rain and gales. The temperature plummets, and the water droplets lash us like sleet.

Whether deliberately, or by way of disorientation, we all fan out in different directions. Soon everyone vanishes from sight, engrossed in his or her own personal scramble to the top. For the final few metres I am forced to get down on all fours to navigate a steep and treacherous patch of basalt rock.

The top of the plateau, an exposed platform of poetically undulating contours, affords a commanding view of Cold Fish Lake and the valley to our south. Nearly on cue, the wind dies down and the rain abates. I find a cluster of caribou antlers, piled together like a rock cairn.

Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park in Northern British Columbia

Wade Davis atop the Spatsizi Plateau looking down onto Cold Fish Lake © John Zada

Soon I see Wade come over the hill. He has swapped his baseball cap for a knitted hat, probably a souvenir from one of his Latin American travels. Once up top, he takes in the view of the valley, savouring a rare moment alone with the landscape.

When Wade sees me, he walks over and inspects the pile of antlers with interest. I ask him what he’s thinking.

“I’ve travelled the world, writing about indigenous cultures under threat,” he said, turning one of the antlers in his hand. “But when push came to shove I’d often bug out of those places. Now these industrial interests have come to a place I consider home. I’m just struck by the irony of it all.”

I quietly lament the situation, and wonder how long — if at all — it will take human cultures to learn to bridge the differences at the root of these taxing and regrettable conflicts.

The rain clouds pass. Esther and the others appear over the hill.  We meet and decide to head north across the plateau. With any luck we might catch a glimpse of one of Spatisizi’s fabled herds of thundering caribou – while both the weather and the opportunity still allows.

This story ran in the Spring 2015 issue of Explore magazine.

Since the piece went to print in early March, the Tahltan Nation voted to accept an agreement that would have them co-manage Imperial’s Red Chris mine.

A few weeks later, the Government of British Columbia bought all coal licenses in the Mount Klappan area to halt large-scale development in the region for the next few decades. The Tahltan and Province will be working on a long-term plan for the Sacred Headwaters.

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