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  March/April 1998 Features:
On Top of the World
Just Deserts
Tallying the Taku
Rolling Towards the Moon
The Great Indoors
 
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Food for Thought
Good Going
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Sierra Club Bulletin
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Last Words
 

Sierra Magazine
Tallying the Taku

The wealth of the British Columbia wilderness is counted one species at a time.

by Reed McManus

It's taken almost four days, but I think I'm starting to comprehend the 4.5- million-acre Taku River watershed. I'm peering over the shoulder of river guide Richard Nash as he carefully sketches a mountain monkshood, one of more than a dozen wildflower specimens we've brought back to camp from our hike up Goat Haunt Mountain. Fellow guide Patricia Thomson sits next to him with her dog-eared copy of Plants of British Columbia, identifying the flowers and looking for rarities, which she'll bring to the attention of government biologists in Victoria.

"No one's ever really studied this area," Thomson tells me. "We've brought a few scientists down the river before, but their budgets are always being cut." The flowers, rare or not, are spread out and dutifully recorded in our trip journal. Mountain harebell. Showy Jacob's ladder. Blue columbine. Dwarf dogwood.

The urge to painstakingly log everything we see had struck me as silly at first. I came to the far northern reaches of British Columbia because I wanted to wake to the sound of absolutely nothing human, and I have not been dissappointed. I'm smack in the middle of the largest unprotected wilderness river system on the western shore of North America. If I wanted a pavement fix, I'd have to head four days upriver and then 45 miles by trail to the hamlet of Telegraph Creek. You don't define wilderness like this by making a list, I thought.

But as Nash puts the finishing touches on a fetching death camas, I realize that our plant, bird, and mammal list helps me piece together the value of the Taku. Unaided, I'd have passed by some of these plants on our thigh-burning 4,000-foot climb to the bare top of Goat Haunt, where we gazed down on dozens of mountain goats on sheer rock faces grazing on bunchgrass and lupine, and stared out across miles of high, snow-packed plateaus.

My riverside epiphany coincides neatly with the theme of this raft trip, led by Ian Kean of the Vancouver-based River League and featuring photographer Art Wolfe and nature artist Robert Bateman as headliners. Acolytes have come to sit at the Tevas of the masters to hone their photographing and sketching skills. I have neither, so I figure my interactions with the two stars will be limited to the practical jokes Wolfe and I play on each other and the back and forth I carry on with Bateman over the sorry state of the environment on Vancouver Island (his home), in Canada, in North America, and on the planet in general whenever we're drifting downriver in the same raft.

But Bateman and Wolfe don't really care if any of us can wield sketch pens or lenses. They're here simply to help us see. Wolfe plants his tripod in the carcass of a fire-blackened tree and urges us to peer through his camera lens at the charred bark because it "sensitizes your eyes to what's around you." Bateman becomes almost evangelical as he urges his students to focus on a simple, single image. "What you draw reflects a time and place witnessed and experienced by no other human on the planet," he solemnizes.

Scrutinizing the colors in the palm-sized river rock I've picked up off the beach, I consider the different mechanisms that brought it and me to this same spot. "Empty space is essential!" Bateman exhorts as pens hover cautiously over sketchpads. "Hear! Hear!" I reply without lifting my head from the dry-bag that allows me to scan the river and slopes beyond while remaining horizontal on the beach.

It occurs to me that these guys have been working on us from the start. On our first day out, Bateman and Company quickly fanned out from our buggy, "it'll do" campsite, halfway between the airstrip and our put-in on the Hackett River, and set about assembling pieces of the Taku puzzle. Lance-leafed stonecrop. Spike-like goldenrod. Northern bedstraw. Along the way the group sketched abandoned cabins and admired empty fuel barrels on the airstrip.

"It's art," wise-beyond-her-years 16-year-old Maya Griggs later explained with a shrug as we sat beneath the Big Top, a huge blue tarp held aloft and taut by oars and guylines to shelter us from the spitting rain. That night we sat around the cooking fire on benches balanced on up-ended rocket boxes, sipping coffee or soup, and assessing the day's take, a ritual we would repeat each night.

Methodical fascination with the natural world, it turns out, is a good defense when the natural world turns nasty. These folks were undaunted by Day Two, which began with misery-making rain that didn't let up until well past dinner. Settling in on any wilderness trip usually takes several days, and foul weather early on can set a group on an irreversible downward spiral. As we hiked down a game trail to our put-in, we quickly learned how critical it is that rain hats, jackets, pants, and rubber boots overlap to keep water from finding bare skin. At river's edge, sodden people melded all too convincingly with heaps of wet river bags and slick pontoons and headed downstream.

Even reaching camp at day's end didn't provide relief. First we had to crash through the soaked undergrowth above the beach to collect wood for the fire we desperately needed to warm our bodies, cook our dinner, and dry our gear. But we were driven by a primal necessity-as well as the promise of fresh, dry clothes waiting at the bottom of our river bags-so this second saturation was easier to bear. It also served as a crash course in effective firewood gathering. For the remainder of the trip, no one needed to be reminded to collect wood as soon as we landed. We would head out silently, seeking our own private mother lode of tinder, and return with weighty armfuls that we stacked into a reassuring pyre that would provide heat and light well past dinner, dessert, and late-night stories.

By this point I assumed we were in for ten more days of solid sogginess. After all, the Taku region is on the same latitude as terminally wet Juneau. Still, it's well protected by the Coast Mountains, which climb to more than 10,000 feet and shelter us from the brunt of Pacific storms. Until we entered the coastal rainforest near trip's end, rains arrived almost daily but were mercifully brief. Sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats were the usual order of the day.

As we headed down the Sheslay, which would lead us to the Inklin and finally to the Taku itself, we had plenty of time to get comfortable in our screaming-yellow rafts. Take a few minutes each morning to position the river bags just so, and you've got a makeshift BarcaLounger from which to view the passing scenery and wildlife. I could identify the big birds-the hawks, eagles, and geese-on my own, but my skills dropped off from there. So I usually planted myself in a boat with Thomson, Bateman, or his wife, Birgit, who soon had me seeing a world full of tanagers, warblers, and chickadees.

River travel, for all its let-gravity-do-the-work pleasantness, can induce claustrophobia, so we were always eager to take breaks to scramble up the river canyon slopes to get a hint of where, exactly, we were. At one promontory just above tree line, we found sweeping views upriver and down, and immediately spotted a moose with two calves crossing the braided slough below us.

The mountains here are broad russet-and-gold massifs that roll up and away. Unlike the spires near the coast, these hulks culminate in undefined snow-capped plateaus. Behind every mountain is another mountain, and between them a stream valley that feeds into the gray river that flows slowly but persistently toward the Pacific. The mountain goats we watched on a ridge high above us disappeared over the red rocks to what? Another plateau? Another broad valley? Other than the familiar thread of river below, there was no single focal point. This landscape is not built on a human scale. I was relieved when Thomson drew my attention to the sage and dogbane at my feet and a waxwing posing on a ripe red soapberry bush nearby.

By the time we arrive at the confluence of the Samatua River and the base of Goat Haunt Mountain on Day Four, I understand how the lists help us see the Taku one species at a time. We could have completed our hike to the top of the mountain in less than eight-plus hours, but that would have meant missing the inky gentian and arctic daisy. Even at the summit, where we soaked in views of the caldera called Red Fang and the jagged rock-and-ice spires that mark the Canada-Alaska border some 40 miles west, we were just as attentive to the wildflowers with the tenacity to survive at this elevation. I was pleased to discover that I could spot a ptarmigan tucked into a crevice among the summit rocks.

Sharp river guides know to play up plants and birds on a trip just in case coveted large mammals don't show up as reliably as they do in trip brochures, and Thomson is no exception. Back in camp, we eagerly study the leaf structure of a black swamp gooseberry. An alert eye spots a sandpiper methodically assembling a well-disguised nest just beyond our line of gumdrop tents, and all camp activity stops as we watch it go about its business.

I'm glad Thomson has been able to train us to see the little things, because distractions abound as we head below the Samatua and enter grizzly country. British Columbia is home to some 13,000 grizzlies, but so far we've spotted only two. Part of the reason lies in the fact that these behemoths have a range of up to 800 square miles (a figure that makes the vast Taku River watershed suddenly seem smaller).

Part lies with the fact that the animals are skittish, and unless every person in every raft keeps absolutely quiet (which is difficult when you're deep in discourse with Bob Bateman about corporate greed or calling out sandwich orders boat to boat), only the lead rafters will catch a glimpse of the rapidly retreating bear. But the main reason we haven't seen many griz is that salmon, the bears' summer fare, are just starting to enter the higher tributaries along our route. We're now drifting toward Salmon Central.

Though grizzlies are adept swimmers, they hardly pose a threat when we're on the river. We spot a bear long before it sees us, and we fall quiet and watch the animal rise on its hind legs to sniff the air in an attempt to figure out just what the approaching combination of human, sunscreen, and compost-toilet odors means. Camp is a more delicate matter. When we pull in at the confluence of the Kowatua River, we find perfect griz prints in dried mud everywhere. No one needs a reminder to set up tents within shouting distance of others, or to empty river bags of food, toothpaste, moisturizer, and anything else with a scent.

After a hearty dinner of burritos washed down with margaritas dispensed from a Coleman cooler, we settle in to hear Art Wolfe's tips on macrophotography. But it's all in vain as a grizzly appears directly across the river from us. Wolfe doesn't mind being upstaged. We pull out binoculars, zoom lenses, and spotting scopes, and spend the next half hour watching the beast trundle up and down the scree slope, oblivious to our attention.

I like having a river between me and a grizzly. But it's obviously frustrating to the photographers in our group, who would love to fill frame after frame with Ursus arctos. They get their chance the next day, when a griz lumbers down a hillside and onto a beach where we've stopped to rest. Cameras and video recorders are snatched from boats, and their owners set out to position themselves for the shot of a lifetime. While they're fussing with tripods and f-stops, however, the bear keeps coming. It lifts itself up and sniffs upwind and down, but it still doesn't seem to see us. (A grizzly's eyesight is good, but the animals are thought to be color blind.)

With no photographic trophy in mind, I back up slowly to my raft, waiting anxiously for the signal from our boatman to hop in and get out of Dodge. The bear drops to all fours and hurtles toward us in a command-performance bluff charge, then comes to a dead stop and heaves itself up for another sniff. Most of us need no more convincing, and four of our five boats are already heading for midcurrent. That leaves one unflappable video cameraman and one agitated bear in a face-off on the beach. Trip leader Kean has had enough. He reaches for his rifle and bellows "Leave!" sending the cameraman sprawling toward his now-departing raft and the bear crashing through the brush and across a creek to safety beyond.

When we reach our two-day stopover at Yeth Creek, it's apparent why the Taku watershed is a fine place to be a bear: the crystal-clear Yeth is solid with salmon. These massive ocean-going fish seem out of scale in the narrow, cold creek, gathering their energy in waist-deep pools for the final push to their spawning grounds. Our group's anglers, who till now have only had luck with Dolly Vardens, sense the possibilities and quickly disappear upstream with rods and reels. They return a few hours later with four more Dollies and two king salmon-one weighing in at 25 pounds, the other at 20. It took three guys to land the first one; after 20 minutes of fighting, one angler had the presence of mind to simply drop onto the big fish with his knee. The smaller king, its flesh a brilliant dark red-its breeding color-is prepared for a makeshift smoker, while the larger fish, its dark gray body signifying that it has left the ocean only recently, soon becomes our main course.

We know that bears share our enthusiasm for the Yeth, so our riverside slaughterhouse must be swept clean. "Life goes upstream, death goes downstream," a crew member explains as he tosses entrails into the fast-flowing water. Preferring to continue downstream alive, we cluster our tents together on a sandbar far from the forest edge, move our "biffy" out of the secluded woods and onto an embarrassingly open gravel bar, and head out on excursions in groups of three or more. I join Kean and a few others on a scramble up the untracked creek canyon. Bulging salmon cluster in every pool we pass. We sit on flat, gray rocks by one pool watching the fish, watching Kean try to catch fish, and watching out for bears. On our return to camp, we find fresh scat on a handhold we had used on the way up.

Our gravel-bar campsite is wide open to the sun and afternoon wind, but it affords us ideal views of the river. We spot a merganser with seven chicks paddling by and a bald eagle carving gentle loops above us. Jerry Jack, one of the River League's two Tlingit crew members, tells us that when the eagle soars overhead, it means all is well. According to Tlingit legend, the Great Spirit made Eagle a protector and messenger of prayers after jealous Crow threw a lightning bolt at Eagle's head, turning it white. Sixteen-year-old Jerry wears an L.A. Raiders cap and is prone to exclaiming a perfect Homer Simpson "Doh!" whenever he senses he's done something foolish, but his story is still compelling.

After all, his people have inhabited the Taku region for some 10,000 years, and the bears have pretty much stayed away from our camp, with its heavy perfume of salmon, chocolate, and fruit drinks. Bellies full of baked and smoked salmon, we retire to the sauna that the crew has constructed from tarps and lashed oars, and heated with slow-cooked river rocks. It's a good thing no bear wanders through camp that night, because the steam has turned our limbs to rubber and our minds to mush. We wouldn't have been able to put up much of a defense. The next morning, some crew members hedge their bets by heading upstream with "bear bangers," pencil-size devices that shoot loud but harmless flares. I give thanks to Eagle, instead.

Our mammal list is now giving our plant and bird lists a run for the money. We've seen more than a dozen grizzlies so far. Our moose tally has reached double digits, and the goat city we encountered helped push our ruminant count past 200. The raw numbers are impressive in themselves, but our lists are valuable because they keep us from losing sight of the details.

Playing the numbers game can also lead you into dangerous territory. I look over our topo map and see that it's published by "Energy, Mines, and Resources Canada." It's pretty clear that this wilderness has been charted by people for whom plant, bird, and mammal lists are not a major concern. Redfern Resources of Vancouver, in fact, exalts in a whole different set of numbers. Over a nine-year period, the mining company hopes to claw through an 8-million-ton deposit of copper, gold, zinc, silver, and lead from a now-closed mine on the Tulsequah, a tributary that flows into the Taku just five miles from the Alaska border.

Canadian and Alaskan wilderness activists, along with members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, are working to stop the project. The Tulsequah mine still leaks toxic sulfuric acid 45 years after being shut down, and a provincial review of Redfern's proposal expects a reopened mine to result in "chronic discharge of effluent contaminated with acids, heavy metals, petroleum products, and/or toxic agents" into the river system. The mine also has the misfortune of being situated below a jokulhlaup, an ice jam that lets loose every year, wiping out everything in its path.

The mine's impact will be felt upstream as well as down. To get at the ore, Redfern wants to build a 100-mile road through the untouched Taku watershed, crossing 70 streams along the way. The company claims the road will provide access only to the mine, but few in British Columbia believe it. The province still holds fast to a frontier mentality, and once a road is punched through the wilderness, environmentalists fear that clearcuts won't be far behind. The Taku's predicament has only reached the radar of U.S. environmentalists in the past two years. But the Taku River Tlingit, who can hold both U.S. and Canadian citizenship, have always known that the river and its wildlife pay no attention to political boundaries. The Taku, in fact, is one of the largest salmon-producing rivers in southeast Alaska. In 1996, almost 300,000 sockeye made their way up the river, and commercial anglers caught more than 41,000, the highest catch on record. Though Canadian-born, 85 percent of the Taku's fish are caught by U.S. fleets.

At press time, the Taku's fate is in the hands of provincial ministers in Victoria, who must weigh Redfern's claim (based on ten days of research) that its mine will cause negligible impact against the appeals of environmentalists, who want the region protected from mining, logging, and other development. At the least, wilderness activists say, the government should wait until treaty negotiations with the Taku River Tlingit are settled and a long-term land protection plan for this little-known region is put in place. If Redfern gets the go-ahead, U.S. and Canadian activists, anglers' associations, and public agencies plan to appeal the decision to the International Joint Commission, which oversees treaties between the two countries.

We don't actually see the Tulsequah mine site, or the Tulsequah River for that matter, as we head toward the mouth of the Taku on our final two days. Unbeknownst to us, it rained solidly on the coast the entire time we were inland. The precipitation catches up with us as we drift through the Coast Mountains, just as I'm mentally back-paddling, trying to savor our last hours in the rafts. We don't tarry at what was to be a leisurely stop at the foot of 1,600-foot-high Bishop Falls; no one needs convincing that there's plenty of water around here. Our final camp appears too suddenly, and with it, people we haven't come to know over campfire stories and bear encounters, along with the charmless aluminum skiff that will motor us across the flat water of Taku Inlet and on to Juneau. I look upriver wistfully, but there's no turning back. By now the Taku carries the flow of its entire multimillion-acre watershed and it is intent upon reaching the sea. In 1880 John Muir was turned back by the strength of the river near here as he headed up from the coast. "What he missed!" I think.

We arrive at the main fishing dock in Juneau after a four-hour race through the rain, looking and feeling and smelling as if we'd been out for almost two weeks-which, come to think of it, we have. While the guides head off to retrieve our van, I take the opportunity to plop down one last time on a pile of river bags and review our final trip count: 143 plant species, 59 bird species, 17 grizzlies-and, until our final night-0 humans. Not bad. Across the dock, some fishermen are counting their day's salmon catch. They look as if they've done well, too. I can only hope that when the government ministers in Victoria pore over their numbers, they decide that the Taku is worth more than gold.


The Fight for BC's Coastal Wilds

Concerned conservationists on both sides of the border should contact British Columbia Premier Glen Clark and ask him:

1) to turn down Redfern Resources' proposal to reopen the Tulsequah mine and build a 100-mile access road to the site,

2) to require a comprehensive land-protection plan for the Taku River wilderness, and

3) to negotiate in good faith with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.

Write Hon. Glen Clark, Legislative Buildings, Victoria, BC V8V 1X4, Canada; phone (250) 387-1515; fax (250) 387-0087. For more information on efforts to protect the Taku watershed, write the Taku Wilderness Association at RR6 Site 28 C6, Gibsons, BC V0N 1V0, Canada. The River League will lead several raft trips down the Taku this summer. Contact them at 1112 Broughton St., Suite 201, Vancouver, BC V6G 2A8, Canada; (800) 440-1322; www.riverleague.ca.

The Taku flows through the northernmost part of British Columbia, anchoring the farthest edge of Canada's coastal rainforest. The province is home to almost one-quarter of the world's remaining ancient temperate rainforests. They are vanishing at an alarming rate: more than half have already been logged, while less than 6 percent have been protected.

The Sierra Club of British Columbia is working with other Canadian conservation organizations to protect this dwindling legacy. Focusing on BC's central coast, the chapter is urging the BC government to stop logging in pristine valleys pending the completion of conservation studies, calling for a reduction in the overall rate of logging, and lobbying for an end to clearcutting.

For more information or to join the chapter's Forest Action Alert Team, contact the Sierra Club of British Columbia, 1525 Amelia St., Victoria, BC V8W 2K1, Canada; phone (250) 386-5255; fax (250) 386-4453; e-mail scbc@islandnet.com. The chapter's Web site can be found at www.sierraclub.ca/bc.

For an inspirational look at one of British Columbia's endangered coastal areas, see The Great Bear Rainforest: Canada's Forgotten Coast by Ian and Karen McAllister, published in Canada (Harbour Publishing, 1997) and in the United States (Sierra Club Books, Fall 1998).

Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.


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