My Dad and The Stikine - By Matt Eckfeldt
After seven or so years of university, I finally finished school with a degree in geology, but was pretty worried that a life of work without rest awaited me. So before I could become a full fledged member of the rat-race, I needed to chalk-up another epic trip. After talking with a few river inclined people, I chose the Stikine River, for its professed beauty and balance between fun and mellow. And so for two weeks this summer, myself and my dad Charlie Eckfeldt, took time off from our jobs to float down the Stikine. Within that time we hiked under the sun in the alpine meadows of the Spatsizi Wilderness Park and rafted through the canyons and forests of the Great River, witnessing the beautiful transition from Sumer to Fall.
As is the norm in the Eckfeldt household, the trip came into fruition by talking about planning the trip followed by a long period of not planning the trip. Then with a few days to spare some panicky arrangements were made, crappy food purchased, and many skeptical looks from mom were had. Our final decision was to raft only the upper Stikine, given that we didn’t know how our raft would fair through the portages and rapids usually travelled by canoes. We would fly to Tuaton Lake in the headwaters, and pull out at the bridge on Highway 37, which we estimated would take us our entire three week vacation. On top of the crappy freeze-dried meals, some of the more important items included well over a dozen family sized chocolate bars, several bottles of hard liquor, bannock mix, and 3 lbs. of specially ground coffee from Mercedes Beans, of which at least 2-3 cups were needed in the morning or the oars wouldn’t touch water before early afternoon. As for high-tech gadgetry, Alf Brady had already lent us an elaborate system of pulleys and ropes to hang our food above the reach of hungry critters (which we forgot in the car), my employer had lent us a personal satellite beacon (never worked), and I had just purchased a new, albeit cheap raincoat (didn’t even stop the wind). And so it was that on September 6th, before Brady’s rooster crowed, before Smith’s Mill began milling, and even before Louise Lefevres llamas whinnied or brayed or whatever it is they do, an over-loaded silver Volvo headed down the highway in a half-wheelie, headed for Tatogga Lake for one more night of fresh food and warm beds before being deposited far from either.
In reality I think we were on the road at the crack of noon, and arrived at our cabin, the Wolf’s Den, around 7 pm or so. Treated to blueberries and whip-cream by the cook, we waddled to bed that night to stare at the lovely framed jigsaw puzzles of wolves adorning the walls. In the morning we awoke to a clear sky and a lake free of fog, a perfect day to really start our trip. We had met Doug, the Beaver pilot in his trailer across from the lodge the night before, but had been warned by Tina, Tattoga’s new owner from down south, that he might be a bit slow to get going in the morning. We were happy to find him at his plane bright and early.
The first and last time I had been in a float plane had been almost 10 years before when dad, myself, and Jeff Holland had flown with Murray Woods out of Tatogga and into Ediza to go hiking. I remember Murray starting the plane on a cold morning and with me in the passenger seat, we chugged around the lake until the motor stopped loping and started roaring. I had been really worried because Murray seemed to have one of those old guy ticks where his head kind of nodded up and down and back and forth a lot, and he didn’t talk much. At the time I was thinking to myself that if he had a heart attack, it would be pretty tricky for Jeff, who had been in the air force, to wiggle his way up front to where he could safely land us. Comfort came when I noticed Murray’s tick was in time with the chugging motor, and I thought maybe he’s just really in touch with his plane.
Doug on the other hand, was maybe in his late 60’s to early 70’s and a lot more talkative. But I was too busy looking to see if he had an old guy tick to hear what he and dad were talking about. We taxied back and forth across the lake a few times before taking off, the first time to check on some hunters he’d dropped on the other side, and then a second time to defog that last bit of windshield that Dad’s arms couldn’t reach with paper towel.
And then we were aloft into a clear with a view for miles around. As we gained altitude, our perspective changed. Nearby mountains shrank back while others grew from beyond the horizon. It was almost fall, and the mix of green and yellow leaves of the buck brush gave way to the tan coloured alpine meadows above. Where the mountains were cut-away into cliffs and slides, we could see the bedrock stacked in layers like a cake, with the harder sandstone poking out like ribs from the softer crumbling shale forming the rounded shoulders of the mountains. The geologist in me took about a hundred photos of these rock bands, which I had to wait for patiently whenever the wings would dip down in the way.
We flew past the fabled Red Goat Mountain, where a big slide of rust-red sand and rock came down from a spine-like ridge and into the valley bottom below. Doug was pretty adamant that he’d never seen a red goat, never heard of anyone seeing a red goat, and had damn-well never seen so much as a picture of a red goat. But what is the North if not a collection of wonderful stories you never quite know the truth behind. We banked around the ridge and dad and I snapped as many pictures as we could, Doug said we could be rich if we got the first photo. I still haven’t been able to spot a goat in my photos, but maybe they are just blending in, after all they are red goats on a red mountain.
After flying over plateaus, valleys, alpine lakes, and the Klappan rail-grade, we entered a shallow valley that was the headwaters of the Stikine. Contrary to the picture in my mind before we left on the trip, the Stikine headwaters is seperated from the beginnings of other rivers such as the Skeena by several small valleys and some open valley bottoms including Fire Flats, a vast area burned by fire many years ago. Flying slow turns over the Stikine, it slowly pulled itself together from a shallow marshy valley, maybe a few hundred meters across, into a thin ribbon of a creek just before it came into the broader valley holding Tuaton Lake. The Stikine then fed into the larger outlet of Happy Lake which twisted and turned its way into Tuaton Lake just to the north. Tuaton was so flat and clear, that the sky was clearly reflected back. We landed with a bounce and sent a wake across the lake wiping clean the sky’s reflection. I heard Doug say something muffled about jumping, so I walked out on the pontoon and met the shore to pull in the plane. After we had unloaded all our gear, about 400 lbs not including dad and myself, Doug lit up a cigar and assured us that we wouldn’t see another person for a long time since he had no one else booked to fly in.
Before heading down the river to the unknown of rapids, river fording moose and trigger happy hunters, we thought it was necessary that we spend a few days exploring the ridges and sub-alpine meadows around Tuaton and Happy Lakes. This was quite literally a slap in the face. The meadows weren’t really meadows at all, but moose pasture full of face high buck-brush, more affectionately known as f**k-brush. Luckily having grown up clambering through slide alder and devils club, either hiking over Moonlight mountain on my way to the Kitwanga Valley, sliding down the back of Sedina on my butt, or simply following dad on one of his famous “Forest-march’s” through the thick to a random spot on the map, we were well adapted to getting poked in the face. And so for those first few days, we got to see the green leaves disappear, and the oranges and yellows of fall take over. We were lucky to have clear weather, and a few times the sun made some impressive thick banded rainbows in distant sheets of rain. We listened to wolves howl, and watched lone moose pull weeds from under the water. And we thought about how we brave men would conquer the rapids ahead.
When we finally got in the raft, we had to row our 800lbs of raft, food and man across 2 and 1/2 lakes to where you could really begin to call the Stikine a river. Many hours into the rowing affair we decided to rig-up a sail using our tarp, which every now and then actually gave you the impression of doing something. The Stikine that far up was a creek between the lakes, and it gave all kinds of opportunities to scrape off rocks and bounce off beaver dams. That whole leg of the journey had a heavy concentration of canoe paint on the rocks, making me glad to be lying back looking through binoculars from the raft. At the end of the lakes we started down the lazy Stikine, where the water was still clear enough that you could see rich green algae growing on rounded pebbles at any depth. We marked our camp on the map that night in bold blue, which we repeated for the rest of the trip. The camp was just above Fountain Rapids and opposite the start of the 1km portage. I was really eager to get to this first rapid because I thought we would be able to prove that the rapids would be tiny speed bumps under the raft. After all, the guide book had only a stick-drawing with some loopy lines and squiggly lines. What we found was the entire river cascading down a rock slab before tightening into a thin 2-4m wide torrent that reminded me of a roller coaster as it smashed into boulders and sucked into holes. At the bottom of the rapid was a garden of boulders packed so tightly that I was pretty sure a kayak wouldn’t fit. Needless to say I was extremely relieved to find an undeniable argument for not running that section, and one I could relate back to the hardened river rats of the Kispiox Valley if they asked why I didn’t run every inch of the river.
Camping above the rapid that night, we strategized on how to get through the portage with the least amount of effort. Our end plan was “Carry heavy stuff from A to B until no more stuff at A”. The hardest thing was the raft, which we deflated and hung between two oars carried on our shoulders. The second hardest thing, for me at least, was an oar on my shoulder with a milk-crate dangling from each end coolie-style, whacking me in the shins, smashing the rocks, and pretty much tossing me from the trail whenever they swung together. I had the feeling that the inanimate milk crates were out to make my life suck. At around 4pm everything had made it from A to B, the bottom of the rapids. With the day mostly gone, we set up camp for the night, downed a few shots of one hard liquor or another, and marked the next blue camp on the map, about 2 millimeters from the last one. I did a bit of fishing that night. I first tried casting into the current, hoping to catch something along the seam with the big pool where our raft sat waiting for the next day. But I’m an impatient person. So after many minutes of watching ripples on the surface of the pool from whatever fish lurked beneath, I decided to cast like a child straight onto the heads of the damned fish. Amazingly it paid off, or maybe not amazingly since I know almost nothing of fishing other than what I learned of humpy snagging from other valley hooligans many years ago. The fish I caught was the size of a small trout and had a very long dorsal fin, and as evidence of my lack of fishing knowledge I thought it was a mutant. So I released the mutant back into the pool to have more mutant babies. I’ve since been told by Bud and Anne Lorenzen that it was an Arctic Grayling and good eating.
Day 3 on the river took us through some of the prettiest sections of the river that we would see. With the sun and clear weather, we were eager to tackle the next rapid sans portage. Again the guide book offered a simplistic stick drawing of a river with perpendicular lines across it, saying something like “the canoe eating ledges of Chapea Rapids”, and unlike the first set of rapids, gave no indication of grade or difficulty. We alternated from floating through wide and shallow sections with little pine flats on either side, to maneuvering through small boulder gardens. We also learned a valuable lesson on getting out to stretch. Trying to make up for the day lost in the portage, we went several hours cramped in the raft with all our supplies. When the need for a pee break finally over came us, there was some confusion and disagreement on how to get out onto the bank. Dad stood up, and I didn’t pay attention on the end of the rope, so he took a thigh-high plunge. On the up side, we got to marvel at how pants more technologically advanced than denim can dry so fast. A couple hours later and a bright yellow sign, indicating the beginning of the Chapea rapids portage, came into view. We got there and hiked along the river assessing the situation and making our plan of attack. The first ledge was just a smooth little horizon across the river with the slightest ripple at the bottom. The second ledge was a couple foot drop on either side of a fast moving V into the middle of the third ledge. The third ledge was again a couple feet high, with a narrow V on the far right flanked by rocks sort of like a gateway. Unsure of my ability in getting the raft through the hazards, and totally unsure what would happen if we bounced off rocks poking out at the bottom of the ledges, I had the sudden urge to poop. We talked it over and decided that we had no idea if what we were looking at was totally safe or totally dumb. We ended up compromising between safety and excitement by rafting over the first ledge and pulling out on river-right just above the second ledge, opposite to the strong suggestion of river-left made by the guide book. From there we dragged the raft 50 feet through the brush, from the top of the second ledge to the bottom of the third ledge where we put back in. After a straight shot shot through an easy rock garden, we took an easy chute passing between a small ledge on the left and a canyon wall on the right. At the bottom of the small canyon was one half of an Old Town Canoe, a healthy reminder to play safe so we could see the rest of the river. I took a video of this section with the camera stuck in my chest pocket, so when I was rowing the video went “sky-water-sky-water” at a speed that could make you sick.
From Chapea we floated on through a changing world, towards the final two rapids, and eventually our take-out more than a week away. The pine flats began to disappear, giving way to thicker forests of mixed evergreen and deciduous trees. The river valley became deeper, limiting our view of surrounding mountains, and the river itself broadened and became faster with each additional river that joined it. At times the lack of view during easy portions of the river became a bit boring. But the boring bits were always broken by a variety of interesting things. We passed through several narrow canyons, including Pink Granite Canyon which was very pink, and hiked up other canyons that were cut by small tributary creeks. We cautiously wound through serpentine sections of river with almost every tree on the bank overhanging into the water. We explored the many small collapsed log cabins that would occasionally peek out from the bush, and even camped beside a few drinking liquor around the fire. We had been lucky with weather until arriving at Chapea Rapids. From there onward, it was generally overcast but rarely rained. It was however cold enough that we ended up paddling and rowing at the same time to keep warm. You might think that paddling would just kind of help the rower, speeding our progress downriver. Instead it just threatened to spin us in circles, so whoever was rowing got a really good one armed workout until the paddler got tired of the one side. As for wildlife we saw the rare beaver, and many moose, which seemed to be in greater numbers further downriver.
Looking back, the moose encounters were pretty funny. At one point floating lazily down a shallow and wide stretch, we interrupted a bull trying to interest a cow in his big rack. As we drifted closer and closer, the river getting shallower and shallower I might add, the cow took off into the bushes much to the disappointment of the bull. This is the point where my interpretation differs from dad’s. I claim that since I had a telephoto lens, I could see the flaring nostrils and the pissed-off look in the bull’s eyes. Keep in mind the water was probably neck deep for us and ankle deep for the moose. Dad on the other hand claims that I forgot to take my eye away from the lens and didn’t see how far away the moose actually was. In any case dad reluctantly listened to my calm, if not polite urging to row us into deeper water, and eventually the bull decided he better catch up with his hot date. This encounter seemed to set the tone as far as moose for the rest of the trip, dad was always at the helm trying to run them down just to take a good look. Another case in point was just before we met with the Spatsizi River. On one bank was a cow with a not too young calf eyeing us up, trying to decide if she could cross the river before dad could run her over. Well we kept getting closer and she kept coming out into the river, and before long dad was back paddling, the moose were splashing with wide eyes, and I managed to take some really good pictures of really close-up moose.
The second to last rapid is named Jewel Rapids, and didn’t worry me until I read a short blurb in the guide book that said something about water on the downstream side of the numerous rocks being several feet lower than on the upstream side. Again the guide book gave little indication on how this rapid would compare to the others. In retrospect I can see this section being a bit tricky for a canoe, but in the raft it was a simple task of rowing one way or another around and through the boulders. The river was moving pretty lazily for most of this section, which was good since most of the boulders were bigger than cars, and we managed to do the whole thing while eating a delicious array of crackers and cheese.
It wasn’t long after Jewel Rapids that we started to share the river with jet-boats, the river at this point reminding me a lot of the Skeena. With the Highway 37 bridge getting closer, more and more boats began to pass us heading up river, and it wasn’t long before many of these boats would pass us again heading down-river with a fresh bloody moose rack on the front, and garbage bags of meat in the back weighing the boat down to just a few inches above water in some cases.
On our second to last day we pulled out on river-right of a big sweeping bend where the river gradient steepened just before dropping into our last obstacle, Beggerslay Canyon. Hiking alongside the river, we took a path that led us to the mouth of Beggerslay creek which fingered its way through smooth bedrock before pouring into the Stikine. The same path took us through a pine flat a short distance up the creek, across a metal suspension bridge, down another winding path and into the bottom end of the canyon where the river slowed into deep glassy pools and the occasional small boil. Walking back up the path we took a fork and walked out on the bedrock, jumping over the fingers of the creek as they sloshed down into the river. An experienced river person might have seen something completely different than myself, but what I saw was the Stikine dipping down from where our raft sat upstream, traveling through an S-curve with medium height waves on river-left, and then river-right on the next bend combining with fingers of Beggerslay creek as they poured over a rock ledge. The water pouring over the ledge met with the main channel making waves and sizable whirlpools. The inside of this last bend, river-left, was up against a rock face and had a raft-sized eddy where you could skirt around the tricky meeting point of the creek and the river before being spat out at the bottom into the lower end of the canyon with its deep calm water. Standing there with noise from the rapids, I tried to imagine us hitting the eddy perfectly, skirting calmly around the rapid then rowing out of the eddy just below the limit of what I thought looked tricky, and maybe some wind blowing in our hair to make us look extra good. The longer I stood there though, the more times my mind would play an assortment of scenarios starring us in trouble. If we didn’t get over to the eddy we could hit the whirlpool on river right, which if it didn’t eat us like a giant octopus, could push us back into the water pouring over the rock ledge, which my mind easily told me would flip us. After fighting back the familiar urge to poop, dad and I headed back up the path to where it was quite and we could think without the ominous noise of a freshwater monster. Of course we decided to run it. It was a pretty simple rapid unless you really screwed up. With my heart beating solidly in my throat, we jumped in the boat and I turned on the camera to record more nausea enducing rowing action. I startled myself as I missed a couple of oar strokes rocking up and down the waves as we ferried over to river-left. Hoping to make up for lost ground as we accelerated down into the last bend and the rapid, I ended up pulling too hard and we almost eddied out into a small recess in the rock face. It was simple matter to nose back into the stream, and slowly turn the corner into our all important eddy. We sat there for a while getting pushed around by boils, watching the two bodies of water push up occasional waves and small walls of water representing the outer edge of a whirl, or so I thought. Dad took a few pictures, none of which look like anything other than flat water, and I failed to turn my body hard enough so that the camera on my lifejacket could get a shot. It was the one that got away. What did get recorded though were funny things like dad yelling, that I should yell paddling instructions as if he were deaf. The camera also got me saying dumb things like “I’m going to giver’ and punch through the bottom here”.
With Beggerslay behind us, we floated under the Klappan rail feeling like kings, and another hour or so downstream we spent our final night camped on a sandy beach, drinking the last of the booze, and doing our best to polish off the remaining chocolate. One final bit of moose comedy was that our tent was pitched beside a set of moose tracks that came in a straight line out of the forest, smack into a hazel bush not 20 ft. away, which had been totally and utterly gored by the moose, and then continued on in a straight line down the beach before disappearing into the forest again. The morning of the final day we took our time to get ready, and watched as at least 9 boats travelled up and down the river shuttling moose carcasses here and there. I don’t know what time we got to the car, but it was late enough to head back to Tattoga and rent the Wolf’s Den for another night. In the morning we gave an unused pound of Mercedes beans to the chef, and headed home after 13 days of not bathing.
Looking back we don’t have many regrets. Had we known in advance how fast we would travel on the water with both of us paddling to keep warm, it might have been nice to stay longer in the headwaters and do more hiking and exploring in the alpine. On the other hand it was only a few days after leaving the area that the weather changed for the worse, and it was nice to see some of the more interesting parts of the river in good weather. I am not sure I could recommend either a canoe or a raft over the other. Both have their benefits, and I think dad and I both would like to try the trip in a canoe for a different experience. We might end up doing more portages, and taking a few spills, but it would add to the excitement. On the other hand it was nice to be able to face each other and talk or make food in the raft and eat on the fly. Not to mention the ability to lie back, stare, think, or even read. I think I would choose to do the trip in fall again. The variety of colours up there was an awesome sight. On top of that we were the only people floating the river at that time of the year, until of course we met the jet boats.
If anyone is interested in seeing pictures, we have a ton, or if anyone would like info on the trip, feel free to drop us a line. Shannon Mcphail was also a good resource since she did the lower half of the upper Stikine and the entire river from Telegraph Creek to Wrangell, Alaska.