I have a good excuse to cover one month of the 15 that have sped by since the last post here. I managed a 30-day spell in British Columbia in the September / October just gone. This included some exploration of the north-west of the province around the port of Prince Rupert, the one part of BC I had not been to before.
The weather along the coast was not great and I had to abandon thoughts of taking a ferry over to the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Haida Gwaii. Fortuitously this pushed me inland to the vast trackless wilds broadly known as Kitimat-Stikine, a jumble of rivers and mountains that grips the panhandle of Alaska. The rivers here are the most magnificent I have ever seen. The very names make for ‘found’ poetry: the Skeena and the Nass are the main watercourses, and they are variously fed by such as the Kleanza, the Zymacord, the Exchamsiks, the Exstew, the Kitsumkalum, the Ishkeenich, the Kinskuch to name but a few of the main contributors…oh, and the Cranberry River. It’s hard to find out the names of the smaller creeks, but I particularly like the Slickenslide.
This is an area that does not get much attention in the guidebooks, but I will be eternally grateful to the whim that took me north of the plain pit-stop town of Terrace into the Nass Valley. Grateful because this is an area of thrilling beauty, and the one road in provides a gateway to untold delights on both sides, as well as access to the Nisga’a communities grouped around the Lava Beds at the point where human penetration into the mountains comes to an end.
And grateful because parts of this area are under dire threat from pipeline proposals that seek to transport oil from the controversial Tar Sands exploitation in Alberta to the west coast. Even the huge grizzly bear sanctuary of Khutzeymateen (designated as recently as the 1980s) is included in the Harper government’s mercenary plans. I managed a glimpse of something that may not exist for much longer, though that does nothing to diminish the sense of loss, or the desire to support whatever can be done to amend the plans.
What follows is a brief account of a two-night excursion into the remote area north-west of Terrace. I left the Nisga’a Highway just south of the gorgeous Kitsumkalum Lake and parked the van in a clearing, surrounded by red alder and cottonwoods. I left it at dawn in the care of an elderly raven, who promised to protect it from bears if I slipped him or her some porridge.
The immediate area is dominated by Mount Kenney (2073 m or 6810 ft) and this was my objective. The weather was good and seemed set fair for the next two days.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The voice in my head after 6 hours of bush-whacking and laborious height-gain: “Stupid bastard! You’ve forgotten how hard it is to get above the tree-line in Canada…yep, all this undergrowth and the Sitka spruces, cedars, hemlocks and lodgepole pines are wonderful, but oh for a clear view and some granite underfoot!”
A couple of hours later I emerged into a bewitching landscape of dwarf conifers, bonsai scrubby shrubs and colossal trawler nets of pastel green lichen. Despite the height the ground was surprisingly boggy and spongy, though the dry summer and early autumn had ensured that it was all easily negotiated. I recalled the drunken First Nations man flailing around in the middle of the downtown area in Terrace yelling “Dry river sucks! Dry river sucks!” at the limpid, limping Skeena. Finally, around 6 pm I reached a sweeping ridge of clean volcanic rock.
Striding upwards over clear rock after hours of earth, root, shale and muskeg felt like a transfusion of pure energy, an energy further fed by the unfolding panorama of peaks and ridges to the north, east and south. However, I knew that I had a decision to make: the sun was dipping fast and the topmost ramparts of Mount Kenney looked far away and forbidding. I found a comfortable enough shelf of rock and, over a big meal and endless brews of tea I turned my gaze towards the darkling outline of the adjacent Sleeping Beauty Mountain. I had not wanted to eat in the forest in case a bear picked up the smell of food. This region is home to the rare Kermode Bear, or Spirit Bear, a cream-coloured genetic variant of the black bear. I longed to see one, but not quite so far from a safe vantage point.
I amended my plans. Across a wide, shallow col from the top of my ridge was a mountain top slightly lower and less well defended than Mount Kenney. This was Sleeping Beauty Mountain.
It was a cold and cheerless night on the eastern flank of Mount Kenney. The clouds had massed and merged as darkness fell and I read and did a crossword by torchlight, dozing only occasionally in my bivouac bag. The silence felt deeper and more absolute than I could comprehend. Any movement I made, especially the sporadic blood-warming exercises, created a ripple effect that took many minutes to become smooth again.
At first light I picked my way further up the ridge and then began a series of contour-meanderings in the direction of Sleeping Beauty. With the gaining of extra height I could see that the route was not as simple as it had looked from lower down. There was now plenty of snow underfoot, a mixture of the dirty remnants from the previous winter and fresher falls. As part of the final pull onto the upper slopes of Sleeping Beauty I had to cross a blue-brown glacier, a fine adrenalin experience but easier than the bush-whacking, though it did shred one of my two pairs of slip-on crampons.
By nightfall I had become familiar with every square metre of the small summit plateau. Mount Kenney was an austere, bulking neighbour on one side, but the fading light revealed white horse waves of mountain ranges in every other direction. And not a cloud in the sky.
Health warning: spending nights out alone in remote locations can become addictive. There is fear, comedy, exhilaration, meditative inspiration, bodily function, sensory ecstasy, challenge, wonder, strength and frailty.
I did not sleep a wink on Sleeping Beauty…there was such an infinite succession of moments to be part of. And it was bloody cold, despite my many layers, my many brews and my many callisthenics! I could not read or chip away at a crossword because the stars were just so magnetic to the eye, so erotic to the mind and the spirit. No light pollution; 5,000 feet of elevation; a slim moon casting enough silver to outline the surrounding peaks; air as clear as a crystal carafe of Hendricks gin – it felt as if the universe was within stroking, tasting distance.
There is a certain level of self-control that is necessary in such situations. I don’t know about you, reader, but I find that the human mind struggles in any prolonged confrontation with cosmic immensity…knowing your limits affords great riches, but it is possible to overdo it. On this night I was saved from any such danger around 3 a.m. by a sudden intrusion of noises off.
The first sound was an outraged roar, swiftly followed by an answering throaty yawning bawl. Even though my brain soon told me that this shocking outburst came from some way off, my entire spine and all its filaments of nerve tendrils turned to ice. And not in a good, calm way. Apart from bird calls this was the first sound I had heard for nearly two days.
Anyone who has slept in a campsite knows that sound travels embarrassingly well at night. It seemed as if this bear encounter was happening just a few yards away. In fact the grizzlies (I was sure they must be grizzlies from the depth and volume of the roars) were about half a mile away and 500 feet below, perhaps just inside the tree-line. Even so, at some points over the next hour or so I thought that I could smell their musky anger and fear as well as hearing their violent expletives. Bears seldom fight as they know they will suffer damage, even if they win, so this must have been quite some turf war. I came to distinguish between the indignant pose noises and the ferocious moments of desperate engagement.
Eventually the bellowing and the brashing-thrashing tailed to a silence that seemed to shout louder than any previous silence.
I waited until the sun was fully up before moving down the slopes that would take me back in the direction of Kitsumkalum Lake and the van. It was a deeply absorbing dawn rather than a spectacular one. To the west and north a broad belt of pinkish-mauve atmosphere separated the mountains from the upper sky. This started as a vivid, hot pink but the rising sun seemed to suck all the heat out of it, drawing in all the colour until the whole sky was a uniform blue.
Interestingly my route of descent took me unerringly to the fringe of the forest where the bears had been fighting. I had my bear-spray at the ready, but for no justifiable reason I had a gut feeling that both had vacated the area. There were large deposits of bear shit all over the place (they must have been just as scared as me!) and lots of broken branches. Fresh claw marks some ten feet up a couple of trees showed that these must be large grizzlies (they mark territory and sharpen claws this way and cannot climb trees like black bears do).
The remainder of the descent was uneventful, but fascinating in the subtle ways that only forests can offer. I even picked up a proper trail for the last few miles, and a dirt-road yomp brought me back to the van by early evening. I slept for 10 hours in the van, and I swear that it was the same raven who watched over my late breakfast and journal writing. I discovered that he or she prefers porridge uncooked.
I have no idea why Sleeping Beauty Mountain was given that name. It is stunningly beautiful, but no more so than hundreds of others in the area. The Princess’s time is yet to come as she has to sleep for one hundred years and the name first appears in the mid-20th century, but maps of the area are crude, and oral traditions are still powerful. In the old story, the union of Princess and Prince produces two offspring, the Dawn and the Day.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
This really is the re-launch of Maintenantman’s wee blog. I have missed writing it, and I have missed the warmth and wit of the emails and comments that it has generated.
Please subscribe, and if you send in a comment don’t worry if it does not appear straight away. WordPress send me an email and I have to ‘approve’ it before it is published. There are some odd characters out there in internetland!
Some of you will have my email anyway and that’s a good channel for connecting too.
If you are a new reader you can click on the various archived entries if you fancy further browsing.