We reached a crossroads at the top of British Colombia. To the East, the Alaska-Canada Highway proceeded towards the Rockies. To the South lay the Stewart Cassiar Highway, a single meandering belt of asphalt which traverses the vast remoteness of Northwest B.C., an area roughly the size of Oregon.
We decided to travel the Cassiar for its famed isolation, hoping to experience untamed Canadian wilderness and the people for whom it is home. We cycled over mountain passes and through sweeping valleys. On either side of the gravel shoulder, a sea of spruce and fir trees stretched to the horizon. We rode over grated metal bridges where a gridwork of welded steel separated car and man and bike from huge quantities of air and water and rock. Somewhere along the way we began hearing about the Tahltan First Nation, a group that has inhabited the Stikine Plateau, located between the Coastal and Cassiar Mountain ranges, for more than 500 years.
We heard stories of a place called “The Sacred Headwaters,” an area that a group of Tahltans have spent the last decade defending from industrial development. The Headwaters is a mountainous meadowland which gives birth to three major salmon-bearing rivers. It hosts an impressive spectrum of wildlife: Grizzly Bears, Caribou, Wolves, and the largest gathering of Stone Sheep on the planet. According to Tahltan legend, the Sacred Headwaters is the birthplace of humanity. They take their youth there in the summertime to teach them the traditional culture. It is at once their kitchen, their classroom, their sanctuary.
When we arrived in Dease Lake we asked around in hopes of meeting some of the elders who had participated in the efforts to protect the Sacred Headwaters and were given the address of Lillian “Tiger Lil” Moyer. Ricardo and I biked out to meet her. When we arrived, Tiger Lil told us that she’d be happy to let us interview her, but that she was leaving the next day for the annual “Tahltan Country Music Jam,” 100 kilometers away near Telegraph Creek. She introduced us to a young man she had been visiting with when we arrived, Chad Day, the recently elected President of the Tahltan Nation. “I’m heading down there in about an hour,” he said, “If you can be ready by then I’ve got room for two more.” As easy as that, we hitched a ride to a country music festival in the remote hometown of an indigenous people with their President. Such is the nature of Pedal South.
We got to the festival Friday afternoon, and soon the rest of the team arrived having hitched rides with various festivalgoers. People had begun to congregate around the small stage and dancefloor which had been built into a clearing not far from the banks of the Stikine.
The Tahltan people love country music. Their favorite by far is Waylon Jennings, whom they refer to simply as “Way-lahn.” By nightfall, two huge speakers trumpeted a declaration of outlaw country — Hank, Merle, Johnny and friends — into the silent landscape for miles in every direction. The onstage lights painted a sea of gyrating Tahltans in red and green as the percussive onslaught of so many shimmies, twirls, and stomps threatened to destroy the makeshift dance floor. If the crowd had noticed this, they were unphased. Men, children, elderly women, everyone danced the same exuberant shuffle-step in time with the band’s breakneck pace, song after song, hour after hour. Their revelry was unbridled and contagious; we quickly found ourselves stomping and hollering along to songs we knew so well. At one point, the band cleared the dancefloor with a slow number, and Tahltan women young and old swooned in admiration of Jack’s well-polished two-step.
As we danced late into the night, it felt as if we had somehow escaped the jurisdiction of time and space. We danced well into the early morning, until our ribs and feet hurt. At one point we found ourselves gathered around a nearby bonfire, embers swirling up in eddies into the starry cloudless night. The scene, the whole evening, was as surreal a thing as we had experienced thus far. We had transitioned from riding the Cassiar day after day to this wholly foreign environment too quickly to comprehend. One by one, exhausted, we drifted off to the comfort of our ground pads in the tents nearby, and slept.
The next morning we walked down to the banks of the Stikine where Ricardo and I stripped down to our underwear and swam out. Floating fast downstream, I saw the land from the Stikine’s perspective: a rolling tableau of mountains, forests, cliffs, people. To be a part of that vast, silent march to the sea for only a few minutes was enough to garner a sincere respect for it. I understood why the Tahltans have long feared a dam on the Stikine. To curtail its power would be to bridle an ancient god, one of the few that remain. We caught up with Tiger Lil for her interview; I was interested to hear about the work being done to protect the Sacred Headwaters. She told us that beneath the Headwaters is a vast amount of highly sought after mineral and energy resources. Since 2005, a group called the “Klabona Keepers” has worked to preserve the area from development at all costs. They blockade access roads so that trucks cannot pass and occupy exploratory drills. Many have been arrested, some multiple times. Tiger Lil has been arrested twice; the charge, “criminal intent.” After almost a decade of struggling, several of the major energy companies have announced in recent years they will not proceed with development in the area. But, nevertheless, new companies try every year.
Tiger Lil introduced us to another elder named August Brown later that day. August’s name in Tahltan, Nosziktauk, means “War Chief.” In his youth, August attained his dream of busting Broncs despite being born with a handicap, and has become in recent years a respected voice in the First Nations conservation movement, despite not being able to read or write. He is every inch a true mountain man. He and I sat in the shade of a salmon smokehouse overlooking the Stikine and he told me about his relationship with the natural world:
Like I say, I can’t read and write, but I understand the land. Mother Nature give me power, make me think. The good lord put this land here to survive on it, not to sell it. I want the whole world to hear my feelings and my happiness about being here. I want my kids, their kids, my nephews and nieces, their babies, to have a home to come back to and be proud of who they are, Tahltan.
As I gleaned the history of the Tahltans more and more, a long and intricate narrative began to take shape. I learned of the smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis epidemics which violently decimated their population in the mid-1800s. I learned about Residential Schools, institutions that systematically eradicated aboriginal language and culture, forcefully replacing them with Catholicism amidst rampant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, which continued until as recently as the 1980s. The effects of this spiritual and physical destruction: widespread poverty, lack of education, poor health, substance abuse. Two distinct, ongoing conflicts began to emerge in my mind. This was a people fighting a daunting battle to save their land, while at the same time fighting to preserve their very way of life.
Later that afternoon I wandered down the shore of the Stikine once more. Country music drifted lazily through the trees at my back and reflected off the canyon wall on the opposite bank, enveloping me in Tahltan renditions of country jams: “Move it on Over,” “Hello Stranger,” and the self-ascribed anthem of their people,“Tahltan Boogie.” In the distance, a group of teenagers huddled together, the boys calling taunts to one of their own who had gone rogue and was talking to a pretty girl nearby. Closer to me, three younger girls labored diligently on mud pies, excavating sandy mud from the river in turns and plopping it in a wet pile on the beach. The youngest of the three saw me and said, “Hi, I’m Honeygirl. Hold this,” and handed me her pink cowboy hat.
I sat in the sand and inspected the pink straw latticework of Honeygirl’s now needless accessory. I watched as she squeezed mud between her toes, giggling with her entire body, and thought about the children sent off to Residential Schools at her age. When would she notice the lingering shadow on her people, the poverty and alcoholism and abuse around her? Did she know about the people out there who would gladly carve holes in this place? The idea that August and Tiger Lil could espouse such optimism for their people, when their history has been so consistently punctuated with sorrow, was unbelievable to me. I felt anger, towards whom I did not know. August’s slow, soft voice lingered in my head from our talk, “We’ve struggled enough in our country just to survive. We don’t need enemies. We don’t need hate.”
On Sunday, Doug — the man whose R.V. we’d camped behind all weekend, grey mullet pulled back in a ponytail and extensive arm tattoos, who had fed us relentlessly since we first made his acquaintance — drove us up to the cemetery overlooking Telegraph Creek and the Stikine. From here we would hitch a ride back to Dease Lake, back to our bikes stashed in the woods and our journey south. One of the newer headstones belonged to a girl born only a year before me. Another nearby belonged to a woman who had passed away in 1908. A tumultuous century between them, both had likely stood here at some point and looked out over the forested, mountainous canyon scene below. Aside from some power lines and now derelict buildings, the relentless onslaught of modernity has largely passed over this place, leaving the view from where I now stood more or less unchanged for centuries. A hundred years from now, will this view look the same as it did then? What will the Tahltans look like?
We decided to travel the Cassiar for it’s famed isolation, hoping to experience untamed Canadian wilderness and the people for whom it is home. We could not have stumbled more directly into Telegraph Creek and the lives of the Tahltans if we tried. Day by day, mile by mile, we accustom ourselves to plunging headlong into situations wholly foreign to us, armed with only a camera and a smile, hoping to capture in a few hours or days an honest glimpse into the lives of others. Occasionally, the stars align, revealing strange and wonderful worlds to us that few others will ever get the chance to see.
If you’re interested in helping protect the Sacred Headwaters, click here to see how you can get involved. To stay up to date on the Klabona Keepers’ work in the Sacred Headwaters, you can follow them on facebook.