Roll On! Discovering the Wild Stikine River

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Stikine River, Wrangell, Alaska
By Bonnie Demerjian
Photos by Ivan Simonek

The Telegraph Creek cemetery overlooks the Stikine River and the village
The Telegraph Creek cemetery overlooks the Stikine River and the village
Moving water captures us in a way that still waters do not. Quiet lakes generate deep thoughts, perhaps, but it takes a river to stir our imagination and propel us to explore around the next bend. In Wrangell, Alaska, we are graced with proximity to one of North America’s last wild rivers, the Stikine. Pronounced Sti-keen, this river for millennia has served as a transportation corridor between the interior of northern British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. The river’s glaciers and snow-capped peaks, formed eons before the last ice age, still bear witness to that remote time. Its waters have freighted aboriginal peoples, Russian fur traders and gold stampeders crowding majestic sternwheelers. Today, the Stikine River enjoys a growing reputation as a world-class paddling destination and an unparalleled scenic wildlife attraction.

The river rises in rolling highlands in northern British Columbia’s sparsely settled interior, then tumbles three hundred miles westward, gathering speed and strength until it empties into the sea in Southeast Alaska. The upper river is accessible by canoe and via the Stewart Cassiar Highway #37. The Stikine Grand Canyon prohibits passage the full length of the river but paddlers can drive the gravel Telegraph Creek Road west from Dease Lake, putting in again at the historic village of Telegraph Creek and continuing downstream to salt water. Or, you can go upstream. Charter jet boat operators in nearby Wrangell or Petersburg will take visitors up to Telegraph Creek for an overnight trip or longer. We made just such a trip not long ago. Long-time residents of Southeast Alaska’s rainforest are always looking for a little more sun and we knew that Telegraph Creek’s continental climate was just what we needed at summer’s end.

Early one August morning we climbed aboard the jet boat, a perfect vessel for carrying us through the swift current and shallow bars of the Stikine. We maneuvered through the twisting channels of the river’s broad delta, home to thousands of migrating shorebirds, ducks, snow geese and sandhill cranes in spring and fall and to harbor seals and Steller sea lions all year. Once past the delta, mountains of the Coast Range begin to lift high and barren on either side of the riverbanks. Quiet side sloughs lead to U.S. Forest Service cabins and popular Chief Shakes Hot Springs. Gradually, familiar vegetation, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock, gives way to the trees of a dryer climate as we press on upstream. The Stikine is a transboundary river. The American portion, the lower 30-odd miles, is protected as the LeConte-Stikine Wilderness Area in the Tongass National Forest. On either side of the river we can see the international boundary line, a 100-foot-wide swath cleared of trees.

Later we stop for a picnic on a sandbar covered with scruffy willows and unexpected wildflowers. These sandbars shelter moose, wolves and brown and black bear. Their well-defined footprints tell us who breakfasted here, perhaps only this morning. Once through the Little Canyon, formerly a significant challenge for gold rush sternwheelers, the land changes again as mountains become rounded and dry. We clamber off the boat to explore a log cabin sinking into the ground, once the home of Groundhog Jackson, an early prospector and homesteader. Then it’s on to Telegraph Creek.

A few skilled jetboat operators, such as Wrangell's Jim Leslie, venture into the lower Stikine Grand Canyon
A few skilled jetboat operators, such as Wrangell’s Jim Leslie, venture into the lower Stikine Grand Canyon
The village first earned its name from a failed telegraph line to the Yukon and Russia, begun in 1866. The project was halted when the first trans-Atlantic submarine cable was laid that same year. Construction was renewed during the Klondike Gold Rush and completed in 1901. Telegraph Creek, like many gold rush communities, boomed and declined during several 19th century rushes and again during construction of the Alaska Highway in WWII. Today primarily Tahltan First Nations people live here. There are many deserted historic buildings in town as well as an original Hudson’s Bay Company store that now serves as the village’s only lodging, cafe and outfitting service, the Stikine RiverSong Lodge. The building was moved in 1901 upriver from the former gold rush town of Glenora and has been declared a B.C. Heritage Building. It was nearly dinnertime after we settled into our rustic rooms overlooking the river and we were more than ready for river-caught sockeye salmon and fresh-baked bread.

The next day we climbed into the Riversong’s van to see some of the Stikine Grand Canyon from above via the Telegraph Creek Road. This dizzying but scenic route is the village’s only land connection with the rest of the continent. It is maintained all year but large campers are not recommended on this road with no guardrails and a long trip to the bottom.

As mentioned, the Grand Canyon, which speculation says compresses the volume of the river through an opening only six feet wide at one point, is impassable by boat. A sign at the bridge where the Stewart Cassiar Highway crosses the river bluntly forewarns: “No craft should travel downstream from this point. Those who ignore this warning will experience certain death.” Still, a handful of experts have braved a canyon called the Mount Everest of kayaking and lived to tell the tale; others have not. A few motorboatmen will take visitors into the lower reaches of the canyon in jetboats powerful enough to wrest the boat away from sucking whirlpools and vertical walls. We were thankful for our captain’s skill in reading the water’s turbulent surface. When we could lift our eyes from the boiling water we saw radiating basalt formations, one record of the region’s lengthy volcanic past. Ancient volcanoes such as Mt. Edziza and numerous young cones are not far away. One natural sculpture called “The Eagle” by the Tahltans marks the confluence of the Stikine and a tributary, the Tahltan River. Here, the Tahltans and coastal Tlingit Indians met to trade until the early 19th century.

The next morning we said goodbye to the golden we boarded our boat to head back home. On the way, however, we had more stops to make. One was the Glenora Guest Ranch operated by Nancy Ball. The ranch itself is legendary. Originally established to raise horses for the pack trains of prospectors and fur hunters, the ranch continued to prosper with the advent of big game hunting at the turn of the 20th century. Today it’s a rustic resort for river travelers. At another stop near an icy clearwater creek we became rock hounds and returned to the boat with pocketfuls of copper-green rock and rounded pebbles. We lunched at Devil’s Elbow, a calm backwater used by wood-burning paddlewheelers as a refueling stop. Lastly, we tied up along the bank at Great Glacier, one of many fronting the Stikine. A well-marked trail headed toward the glacier as it trekked back in time. Hikers can follow glacial succession back in time from old growth forest to scrub alder and willow to lichen as the path wanders closer to the glacier and its iceberg-strewn lake. Great Glacier lies close to the American-Canadian border. From here it was only a few hours till we were again crossing the delta and back to town.

The Stikine River delta and the Coast Range
The Stikine River delta and the Coast Range
Wrangell itself has history to spare beginning with petroglyphs that may be 8000 years old. The carvers of these rock designs are unknown but they may be ancestors of the later Tlingit people of Northwest Coast tradition. In the early 19th century the Russian American Company, a Russian fur trading corporation, built a rude encampment here, followed by the British and their Hudson’s Bay Company and finally by Americans after Alaska’s purchase in 1867. Like Telegraph Creek, Wrangell weathered three gold rushes and for a brief moment was the most populous city in Alaska. Today, Wrangell is a quiet village of about 2000 and, while it is on the cruise-ship itinerary, is considered to be the only “real Alaskan” town left on that route.

Travelers to the Stikine and environs can check out Wrangell and chamber@petersburg.org. For information on northern British Columbia visit: www.nbctourism.com

You can get to Wrangell or Petersburg by air or boat. One of the pleasantest ways to travel is via the Alaska Marine Highway System. Alaska ferries depart from Bellingham, WA north of Seattle and from Prince Rupert, B.C. You can bring a vehicle or walk on as a foot passenger and may pitch a tent on deck or rent a stateroom. The trip is about two and a half days from Bellingham. Alaska Airlines offers daily jet service to Wrangell and Petersburg.

The Tongass National Forest website is helpful and to rent a Forest Service cabin go to: ReserveUSA.com There are a number of provincial parks protecting the upper Stikine River and surrounding country. Learn more about B.C. parks


To learn more about the Stikine River, its history, geography, natural history and the people who have lived there and who still make it their home, read Roll On! Discovering the Wild Stikine River by Bonnie Demerjian to be released in April 2006. Visit her website at www.stikineriverbooks.com.





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