The Sacred Headwaters The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2011-12-27
  • Publisher: Greystone Books
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In a rugged knot of mountains in northern British Columbia lies a spectacular valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, three of Canada's most important salmon rivers -- the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass -- are born in close proximity. Now, against the wishes of all First Nations, the British Columbia government has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development. Imperial Metals proposes an open-pit copper and gold mine, called the Red Chris mine, and Royal Dutch Shell wants to extract coal bed methane gas across a tenure of close to a million acres. In The Sacred Headwaters, a collection of photographs by Carr Cliftonand members of the International League of Conservation Photographers -- including Claudio Contreras, Paul Colangelo, and Wade Davis-- portray the splendour of the region. These photographs are supplemented by images from other professionals who have worked here, including Sarah Leenof the National Geographic. The compelling text by Wade Davis, which describes the region's beauty, the threats to it, and the response of native groups and other inhabitants, is complemented by the voices of the Tahltan elders. The inescapable message is that no amount of methane gas can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that could be the Sacred Headwaters of all Canadians and indeed of all peoples of the world. The Sacred Headwaters, is a visual feast and a plea to save an extraordinary region in North America for future generations.

Author Biography

Wade Davis is explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and is the author of numerous books, including One River and The Serpent and the Rainbow. He has lived and worked in the Stikine as a park ranger, guide, and anthropologist since 1978. He and his wife, Gail, own Wolf Creek Lodge, the closest private holding to both the Sacred Headwaters and the proposed site of the Red Chris mine. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. serves as Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and was named one of Time magazine's "Heroes for the Planet" for his work in the fight to restore the Hudson River. Kennedy has worked on environmental issues across the Americas and has assisted several indigenous tribes in Latin America and Canada in successfully negotiating treaties protecting traditional homelands. Carr Clifton, landscape photographer and award-winning documentary filmmaker, has spent thirty years exploring endangered, wild landscapes. A native Californian, Clifton began photographing in 1977 and his portfolio showcases landscapes from Arctic Alaska to the Amazon Basin.


In the summer of 1879, John Muir went prospecting for glaciers, a journey that led him a thousand miles up the coast of British Columbia to Alaska and the mouth of the Stikine River. He disembarked at Wrangell, gateway to the interior, but was not impressed. Gold had been found on the lower reaches of the Stikine in 1861, and a later, richer strike farther inland in the Cassiar had brought a rush of dreamers and drifters, thousands of miners whose presence stunned the native Tlingit and transformed Wrangell into a "lawless draggle of wooden huts." Once upon the river, however, moving by paddle wheeler steadily through the islands of the delta, where eagles gathered by the thousands to feast on salmon runs so rich they colored the sea, his mood shifted to delight. In every direction he saw signs of the wild. Immense forests of hemlock and Sitka spruce rose to soaring mountain walls adorned in waterfalls and ice. Grizzly bears and white wolves walked the shoreline amidst clouds of cottonwood down. The entire valley, wrote Muir, was a flowery landscape garden, a Yosemite, as he described it, a hundred miles long. In a long day's journey, he counted over a hundred glaciers. Reaching the tent settlement at the head of navigation, Muir was keen to see more. As soon as opportunity permitted, he climbed Glenora, a rocky crag rising directly from the river to seven thousand feet. From the summit this veteran of a thousand strolls in the Sierra Nevada looked west toward the Coast Mountains, through which he had just traveled. "I never before had seen," he later wrote, "so richly sculptured a range or so many awe-inspiring inaccessible mountains crowded together." From this vantage, he tallied another two hundred glaciers. With night drawing near, "I ran down the flowery slopes exhilarated, thanking God for the gift of this great day." Returning to California, Muir named his beloved dog Stikine, after this river of enchantment. Standing today on the summit of Mount Glenora, in an August snow squall, with raptors scraping the sky and ravens yielding to the ice, one cannot help but think of this grand old man of conservation. His visit to the Stikine was fleeting, mere days, and what he saw of the river was but the lower third. Had his eyes turned north and east, down the snowmelt gullies and past the tangled spruce, beyond the rivers, lakes, and jagged peaks, they would have fallen upon uninhabited valleys larger than entire countries, a wild horizon where Canada could hide England and the English would never find it. What would he have made of the soaring plateaus of the Spatsizi, land of the red goat, a vast wilderness aptly named the Serengeti of Canada for its herds of Osborne caribou and great populations of Stone sheep, mountain goat, moose, grizzly bears, marmots, and wolves? Or of the depths of the Grand Canyon, Canada's largest, where the Stikine disappears into the earth, a raging torrent that flows for more than sixty miles beneath cliffs of basalt and sedimentary rock rising twelve hundred feet straight up from the river's edge? To the south of the canyon looms Edziza, Ice Mountain, a towering dormant volcano veiled perpetually in cloud and capped at nine thousand feet with an ice field eight miles across. To reach Edziza from the north can mean crossing a lava field so rough that local guides whimsically measure distance not in miles but in pairs of boots worn out by the effort. For the Tahltan people, whose traditional territory encompasses all twenty thousand square miles of the upper Stikine drainage, Edziza was said to be alive; like a wild animal, it could only be approached from downwind by those who had earned the right, through ritual purification, celibacy, and daily immersion in cold water for eight months. It was a place to hunt, to seek visions, but also a source of wealth, for beyond the southern flanks are vast fields of obsidian, what the Tahltan call the "black blood of the mountain." Scattered for miles are tens of thousands of shards and worked stones, great boulders of volcanic glass, and everywhere evidence of ancient sites that sent this precious commodity along trade routes that reached across the sea to Haida Gwaii and east and south as far as the Great Plains. Had John Muir been free to follow the Stikine into its canyon, he would have found canyons within canyons, great walls of vertical rock and immense individual buttresses, each cut off from the next by deep clefts that defy easy passage. Two miles on the map consumes a day, assuming a track can be found through the deadfall left behind on the rim by the fires that regularly sweep the mesas, fueled by stiff winds that blow each afternoon from the coast. Muir would have relished the isolation, the sense of emptiness. Beyond the muted rush of the river far below, and the odd cry of a kestrel, there is a silence so profound that small stones dislodged by wildlife ring like bells as they drop against the canyon walls. Stepping toward the edge of the precipice, he would no doubt have been enchanted as scores of ravens spun ever and ever-tighter spirals above his head. It is the way the birds kill mountain goats, dulling their senses until, dizzy with vertigo, the animals fall to their deaths on the rocks below. If Muir had emerged from the Grand Canyon of the Stikine and followed the traditional trade route to the interior, within three days he would have reached the most enchanted land of all, Klabona, a wide and high, stunningly beautiful valley known to the Tahltan and other First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. Thanks to the labor of Tseskiye Cho, the Big Raven who forged the world, Klabona is the land of origins, the birthplace of all waters, the source of three of North America's most important salmon rivers: the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass. The Stikine begins as snowmelt trickle on the flank of Mount Umbach, just above the Skelhorne Pass, doorway to the Spatsizi. The Nass is born of a lake nestled in a rugged knot of mountains across the valley just to the south. At the very heart of the Sacred Headwaters lies a still cobaltblack pond. From one end issues a creek that flows into the Spatsizi, a high affluent of the Stikine. From the other side, the waters go east to birth the Skeena. Nearby is a remarkable stone, as elegant in form as a Henry Moore sculpture, cleft perfectly in half as if to mark the divide. A leaf floating on the surface of the pond could go either way, 340 miles down the Stikine through the canyon to the sea or down the Skeena some 360 miles to Prince Rupert and out to the salmon waters of Haida Gwaii. Thus, in a long day, perhaps two, it is possible to walk through open meadows, following the tracks of grizzly, caribou, and wolf, and drink from the very sources of the rivers that inspired so many of the great cultures that cradled the civilization of the Pacific Northwest: the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en, the Carrier and Sekani, the Tsimshian, Nisga'a, Haisla, Tlingit, Tahltan, and Haida.

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