PHOTOS AND STORY BY NICK GOTTLIEB
It’s not uncommon to arrive at a river and find a local paddler at the takeout, waiting to hitch a ride back to the put-in after a quick solo lap. But to see that scene in Telegraph Creek, the small First Nations community at the northern British Columbia takeout of the Stikine, was unexpected. After a 40-hour drive north from Utah, looking to set shuttle at the end of the haul, I found French paddler Jules Domine hanging out at Telegraph Creek. He had just completed one of the most significant milestones in whitewater paddling: the first solo one-day descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. He wasn’t sure what time he had put on and said he stopped a few times for some side-hikes. He had a much more relaxed attitude about the whole thing than I did, about to commit to my first (three-day) run down the storied stretch.
For years, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine has been shrouded in mystery, the realm of elite expedition kayakers that most of us could only dream of becoming. It's been called "the truth" by numerous paddlers, and prompted Willie Kern to make one of the most profound statements kayaking has ever heard: "Nothing is different, but everything has changed."
After more than 30 years as the "Everest of rivers," a place where even the best paddlers in the world fear for their lives, the relationship paddlers have with the Stikine is changing. In 2012, Ben Marr ran the rapid Site Zed, becoming the first paddler to complete the entire puzzle. In a busy 2014 season, that rapid was run by at least 10 people, many of whom ran it more than once. Nouria Newman became the second woman (after Nikki Kelly) ever to paddle the Stikine and the first to notch a "full descent" (no portages). There were multiple single-day runs including a handful of complete (no portage) one-day descents. Nine people put on the day I arrived at the Stikine in 2014, and three groups totaling 17 people put on the day I did. The summer saw Aniol Serrasolses and Marr paddle the river six times in 11 days with no portage, casually setting a new one-day speed record (5 hours, 37 minutes; shown below). Marr did some of those laps in a playful Liquidlogic Braaap. If you don't know why that's even more impressive, watch the video.
I asked a couple Stikine veterans about paddling’s evolving relationship with the Stikine. John Grace, who first paddled the river in 2004 (as part of the descent made famous in his ‘Lunch Video Magazine’) and most recently in 2012, called it "a natural progression," comparing it to how paddlers are now racing the entire Green Narrows in 4 minutes, a feat Tom Visnius would’ve scoffed when he first explored the river in 1989.
By the time Grace ventured to the Stikine in 2004, a lot more information was available about it than 10 years prior. His group had seen some video footage and had hand-written notes from Willie Kern to guide them. "That collection of knowledge made a huge difference in how we paddled the river,” Grace said. “We knew what to look for, where the eddies were, sequence of rapids, scouting locations." Grace’s group in 2004, and most of the groups in the early- to mid-2000s, had the benefit of information from the previous 20 years of exploration and that made the river tremendously more accessible.
That trend has continued and accelerated dramatically over the last couple years. Substantial Media House has released multiple videos showcasing the Stikine’s rapids, such as the one shown below, as well as the Serrasolses brothers (above), who released a labeled rapid-by-rapid POV edit of the entire river - a move that certainly caused a cringe in Doug Ammons, a strong advocate of ‘withholding beta’ about the Stikine. The amount of information available has made tackling the river much easier. When I paddled it with Rafa Ortiz and Isaac Levinson, our group was able to complete the entire "first day" in less than two and a half hours despite the fact that none of us had ever paddled paddled the section prior. We’d all seen the videos and spoken to friends, allowing us know our location relative to named rapids and, thus, route rapids blind that otherwise would’ve required a much more cautious approach.
Todd Wells first paddled the Stikine in 2010 and has been back numerous times since to document the river and its local Native stakeholders. He described his first trip as life-changing - it was also his first-ever self-support kayak trip, an indicator that even in 2010, things were changing. “Beyond [being] just an avenue to push myself physically,” Wells says of what he gained from the trips north, “whitewater kayaking can be utilized as a unique avenue to discover some of the most remarkable and unknown places on our planet."
In that vein of discovery, Wells captures what matters most about the Stikine. And not just for me, but for any paddler who cares about access to wild places. The Stikine is magic, and we need to work to ensure that magic is never lost. Kayakers are some of the only people who can access the Stikine, and equally remote waterways. As such, we have a unique obligation to protect them.
Wells points out that as expedition paddling evolves, the benchmark that is ‘the great Stikine expedition’ risks being downgraded to the status of “another classic Class V overnighter.” Losing its elite mantle as the ‘Everest of Rivers’ is one thing. But if the Stikine can stay wild, it will remain one of the most spectacular river trips in the world. And even if the white-knuckle whitewater locked within the canyon becomes more attainable, that message and that obligation to protect its character cannot be overstated.
The impacts of an increased number of paddlers on the Stikine are already here. While portaging Site Zed this year, I came across a pile of human waste, a climbing harness, and a Mountain House meal. Both campsites had trash left behind. Wells noted recent trips ending with his boat weighing as much as five pounds heavier - filled with trash collected at the two campsites paddlers typically use. That isn’t OK, and with more and more paddlers visiting the area, it becomes only more important to follow leave-no-trace standards. As some of the only people able to access this remote gorge, it’s critical we do our best to keep it clean and wild, both for the sake of preservation for the next first discoveries--and for the sake of preserving our reputation as kayakers.
And even then, just visiting the area in a sustainable manner isn’t enough. For paddlers to have a positive effect, we need to take it one step further. We can and need to take responsibility for this place that is only accessible by us.
As a group, we also need to take more interest in the larger struggles that the region is facing. When I was there in 2014, a group of local First Nations people were fighting the construction of the Red Chris mine, a huge operation perched between the Stikine and Nass headwaters. Since then, the Tahltan people lost a major court case; Imperial Metals completed construction of the Red Chris mine and it commenced operation in 2015.
(While you're on the Imperial Metals website, note that the Mount Polley mine -- the cause of what may have been the largest environmental disaster in recent North American history -- has received the go-ahead to return to "normal operations" from the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines and Ministry of Environment.)
Suffice to say that the battle against the Red Chris mine has been lost, but there will be more to come. As paddlers who enjoy visiting regions like this, it's imperative that we take an interest in its protection. Stopping to simply listen to members of the Tahltan tribe about their fight goes a long way. Really it’s the least we can do to support their efforts to protect this great resource. We travel to the Stikine from all over the world and are in a unique position to disseminate information about the perils faced by one of the most untouched wildernesses in the world.
And don’t let my preaching keep you from heading north. As Grace put it best, "I think the world would be a better place if everyone paddled the Stikine," adding that, "the more paddlers, hikers, fishermen, hunters and others who cherish wild places that go up there, the longer it will take for [resource extraction] to destroy the place."
The Stikine and the greater Sacred Headwaters region has survived a few onslaughts - including an attempt to dam the Grand Canyon at Site Zed - but the region is so remote and unpopulated that very few people are aware of the need to protect it. So, yes, the more people who see the Sacred Headwaters region, the better. The more awareness, and the more protection, the better. And as more and more paddlers are making the journey every year, in faster and more unbelievable ways, the Stikine may one day fail to be the ultimate test-piece for whitewater expedition paddling that it once was. But, as Charlie Munsey once said to Doug Ammons, "It’s still the truth," and as whitewater paddlers we’re still uniquely positioned to help protect that truth for generations to come.
-- Read more on the history of paddling on the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, from Rob Lesser’s exploratory ’80s missions (highlighted below) to Marr’s and Newman’s complete descents.