Words by Tyler Wilkinson-Ray.
Photos by Colin Arisman and Tyler Wilkinson-Ray.
Aerials by Luke Kantola.
By the numbers:
• Distance traveled: 400km (Roughly 150km of bike packing, 250km or packrafting)
• Days in the Wilderness: 9
• Number of aggressive Grizzly Bear encounters: 1
• Bikes used: Ibis Tranny29 x 2
Look at a map of northwestern BC and it’s both shocking and relieving to see the lack of roads. At the heart of this vast area is a place known as the Sacred Headwaters – one of the only pristine wildernesses of substantial size left in North America. It’s serves as the headwaters of B.C.’s three great Salmon rivers and supports an ecosystem so rich in flora and fauna that it has been coined the Serengeti of the North. Part and parcel of the allure of the Sacred Headwaters is that it is nearly impossible to access without a bush plane. Nearly.
Fortunately, my adventure companion and fellow filmmaker Colin Arisman found the only route inside – a roughly 100 mile dirt road that was built in the 1970’s as a railroad grade. The project was abandoned before completion and what remains is an unmaintained railroad grade,resulting in a perfect gravel grind that would take us directly to the heart of the Sacred Headwaters. It would serve as the first leg of our journey.
With our Tranny’s packed and fully loaded with 9 days worth of food, packrafts, camping gear, and repair kits for all of the above, our last interaction with civilization was with the owner of a nearby lodge. His message to us was direct – he thought we were insane. It was big country up there and if even the smallest thing went awry, it would become a life-threatening emergency very quickly.
“It looks nice now, but things can change very quickly up there,” he warned. We didn’t need his warnings to know this, but it was a sobering note to leave on.
As it turns out, the abandoned railroad grade was in great shape and for the most of two days we had what felt like a gravel highway to ourselves. At the end of day two we turned off the smooth gravel and onto an old canoe portage. Despite the heavily loaded bikes, it yielded several fun single-track descents. And, a few muddy bogs to remind us where we were.
By evening we had reached the banks of the Spatsizi River, where our journey would turn north and start it’s second phase – a six-day packraft covering almost 150 miles of river wilderness. We broke down the Tranny’s – front and rear triangle separated, both wheels off, mindful that we would be needing them in working order again before the trip was over – and strapped them to the newly inflated rafts.
Floating was a markedly different pace than biking as we watched the landscape drift by from our boats. At the entrance of any large tributary we stopped to fish and to little surprise found that the trout had not seen many flies pass overhead.
During our first three days, the Spatsizi had grown from a small brook that was barely passable to a large, rumbling river, and soon it converged with the mighty Stikine, one the B.C.’s largest rivers. From the Stikine confluence we turned West, and for first the first time on the trip we were headed back towards a road and not away from one. Fast moving and large, this new water brought new challenges. Class 3 was the largest water we encountered, but it was plenty frightening, as flipping meant meant raking the carbon bikes strapped to the hood of the raft across every rock it crossed, not to mention exposing yourself to injury that would require a helicopter airlift.
Along the way we crossed paths with over twenty black bears, floated by a very curious moose and her calf, and had one very harrowing encounter with a grizzly bear that decided we looked like a good option for dinner and charged us from the opposite back. Fortunately, we we able to get in the fast moving water first, but there was a moment when we were not sure who was faster in the water— as Grizzly or a packraft. Had we been on land, it would have been no contest.
After 6 days on the river we hit an old railroad trestle—a lower section of the same railroad grade we began on on – where we rebuilt the bikes for the last 35 miles of gravel. After 6 days of paddling, we felt weightless to be back on the bikes.
We awoke the next day to rumble of tractor trailers – a stark contrast to the scenery of our past nine days. The trucks were heading to Red Chris mine, only a few miles from where our journey had begun and concluded. It was a completely unplanned, but the irony was not lost on us. If the Sacred Headwaters are for known for one thing in addition to its wilderness, it’s the resources that sit underneath it. Rich in natural gas, coal, and numerous precious metals the area has been subject to intense conflict over whether mining should take place. It is home to one of the few successful campaigns by First Nations’ communities to block a mining project in their sacred land – a Shell Oil hydrofracting project. Yet, despite similar blockades and protests, the Red Chris mine won approval. So on our last day in the north country, we chartered a sea plane to see this controversial site for ourselves, which despite using state-of-the-art techniques, has already begun to leak arsenic into a nearby lake after only two years in operation.
We left the Sacred Headwaters with mixed emotions. Having seen and traversed wilderness completely untouched my humankind only to realize that it’s status as such might be shortly lived.
A short film on the adventure will be out next fall.