Untamed waters, untouched wilderness, and one hungry grizzly: The Spatsizi Plateau Provincial Park challenged three men with a 10-day, 250-mile bikerafting adventure.
The story begins crammed inside an old Toyota Tacoma. It’s a cloudy Seattle afternoon in late July. Luke Kantola and Tyler Wilkinson-Ray — friends and filmmakers — and I begin the drive north to a mythical region known as the Sacred Headwaters.
After driving for 10 hours we reach Highway 37. It’s the only road that connects the outside world to an expanse of forest and rugged peaks the size of Oregon, and we still have another 10 hours to go. For those of us from the “lower 48,” it is hard to fathom the scale of northern British Columbia. This vastness is exactly why we’ve come.
To complete this river isn’t some outlandish first descent. Adventurous groups undertake this river every year, but our choice of doing the trip unsupported via bikes is unique, as almost all groups are dropped off by bush plane or four-wheelers when the road is passable.
Instead, we would cycle into the wilderness, and raft the river out.
Into The Wilderness
We pull into the parking lot of Tatogga Lodge, the outpost from where we will leave the highway and begin our trip into the wilderness. We pack our gear onto our Ibis mountain bikes and double check to make sure we have everything we need: packrafts, paddles, life jackets, bear spray, fly-rods, nets, tents, sleeping bags, med-kit, emergency firestarters, repair patches, raincoats, stoves, and of course, cameras, tripods, and batteries.
If we forgot to pack something essential, there isn’t much we can do about it now. The closest town is six hours away. Looking at our heavily laden mountain bikes, we can’t help but wonder what exactly we’re getting ourselves into.
There’s still time to step into the lodge for a final beer. As we stand at the bar, I hesitantly explain our plan to the proprietor. Our goal is ambitious.
We will create a 400 km unsupported circuit by bikepacking 150 km on an abandoned rail grade, then float 250 km through the heart of the Sacred Headwaters, before finally exiting the river on an abandoned trail that will lead us back to our starting point at the lodge.
The lodge owner’s jaw is slack as I explain. He seems skeptical that the trails we plan to ride are even passable. He’s dumbfounded by the idea of riding bikes in the backcountry, and dubious of the very concept of a packraft.
Summing up, he makes it clear that he is downright suspicious that we have the necessary skills to even survive this 10-day trip. We walk out of the lodge, look at each other, burst into laughter and fall silent. Nothing needs to be said, we just get on our bikes and start the long ride into the woods.
Spatsizi Plateau Provincial Park
Biking the access road into Spatsizi Plateau Provincial Park, we pass the roadblock that has been maintained for years by indigenous elders in this remote community to protect the Sacred Headwaters from mining, over hunting, and exploitation. It’s important to step back and understand that while rugged and remote, the place we are entering has been stewarded, utilized, and cherished by the Tahltan people for the last 10,000 years.
This land is not just rich in minerals, but also abundant in salmon, moose, stone sheep, caribou, grizzly bears, and wolves. While many outsiders are turned back by the Tahltan people at this point on the road, we are told most canoeists and low-impact visitors are allowed to enter. (We recommend that any potential visitors contact the Tahltan First Nation prior to their trip.)
The Climb Begins
We pedal on, beginning the grueling climb onto the plateau. Eventually, we turn onto the abandoned rail grade that runs parallel to the park and pedal lazily in the sun. Along the way, we pass black bears, beavers, mountain ranges, and crystal clear creeks. In contrast to the apocalyptic scenarios the lodge owner laid out the night before, the going is easy and the road is in good shape.
The next day we climb out of the trees and reach the highest elevation of our trip. The road cuts straight as an arrow across the top of the headwaters plateau. From this crest, the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass rivers are born. We sit and drink from the cool creek that miles from here grows into three of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska’s most productive salmon rivers.
Where we sit is still outside of the Provincial Park, and for decades corporations tried to develop resource extraction projects right up to the wilderness boundary. Only four years before Shell had been conducting industrial gas exploration in this very spot. Ultimately, a project that would have fundamentally transformed the plateau failed due to the staunch opposition of local indigenous peoples.
Development And The Sacred Headwaters
As we pedal on across the plateau I reflect on the tension between wilderness and development that defines the Sacred Headwaters. Rolling along, I am painfully aware that this trip could not take place without bikes sourced from mines or a truck powered by fossil fuels.
The sobering reality is that industrial pressure on the Sacred Headwaters would not exist if not for the demand created by the consumer culture I participate in.
After 120 km we reach the single track trail. It will allow us to descend again back through the forest to the Spatsizi River. The riding is fast and glorious, albeit a bit swampy in spots.
We emerge from the dense boreal forest into a meadow on the bank of the Spatsizi. Exhausted, we wash in the cold glacial water and lie around the campfire under the stars, wondering what awaits downstream.
In the morning we disassemble the bikes, inflate our Kokopelli packrafts, and strap our gear down. As we push off into the current we’re fully aware this is the point of no return. From here there is no exit trail and no road crossing until we reach the abandoned rail grade 250 km downstream on the Stikine River.
After the initial rapid, the mellow current calms our nerves. When the sun begins to set at 11:00 p.m., we stop to fly-fish at a clear side stream. The fishing is incredible, and I quickly catch a nice bull trout. We’re all famished, and thoroughly enjoy our first meal of fish grilled over the campfire.
By day five it’s clear that this is the wildest place any of our crew has ever set foot. We are now 100 km from the nearest road, trail, or any other human being. The sunshine and mellow river are soon replaced by a cold front, constant drizzle, and dramatic waters.
Reaching the confluence of the Stikine and Spatsizi, the current grows swifter. The already huge river doubles in size, and the whitewater grows in intensity as we’re presented with a constant series of wave trains and boulder gardens. On the verge of hypothermia, we grit our teeth and keep moving. Each day of paddling is hard won.
The Sacred Headwaters truly deserves its nickname the “Serengeti of the North”. Wildlife encounters raise our soggy spirits as we drift past black bear and moose.
The Apex Predator
On our eighth day, 200 km down river, we float around a bend and are greeted by a broad brown head staring at us from the bushes on the riverbank, playing hide and seek. It works its way downstream with us until it’s finally standing broadside to our boats. I realize it’s a grizzly bear, the first we’ve seen.
We decide to pull our boats up on the far bank, 75 meters from the grizzly, and snap some photos. In a flash, the bear begins to bound. In three strides it’s in the current, swimming with all its strength toward us.
Tyler shouts to push the boats off and we begin to paddle downstream, trying to give the bear some space and reduce any potential territorial tension. However, after a minute of hard paddling, it’s clear this is no bluff, this grizzly is pursuing us and gaining ground. Shouting to each other, we paddle harder and harder. I sneak nervous looks behind me only to see the bear’s massive head bobbing up and down in the waves of the huge river.
After five minutes the bear closes the gap from 100 meters to 50. This nightmare feels as if it will never end. We swing around a huge bend in the river. Finally, the bear hauls its dripping 500-pound body out and up onto the bank. It continues to bound along the beach behind us, but we know we can outrun it now in the swift current. Shaken, we paddle on for the next five hours until it’s dark, trying to put as much distance as we can between us and the grizzly.
Safety And Hard Paddling
The next morning we wake to the heaviest rain yet. With the weather still frigid, our gear soaked, and nerves rattled from the previous day’s encounter, we decide to push on as far as we can and exit a day early. Forty kilometers of numb paddling later, we finally reach our last gauntlet: Beggerly Canyon. While it is only a series of Class III rapids, the consequences are serious if we make a mistake.
The Stikine is unusually high and churning with stormwater from four days of rain. Our boats are laden down with bikes. We’re exhausted, and none of us are particularly skilled paddlers.The first rapid steeply drops through a corner in the river, and the current wants to pull us into a nasty series of hydraulics that look like they could eat a car.
We paddle with everything we have left and cross back to safety. One down and one to go.
Pulling out on the far beach, we run up ahead and scout the next rapid, the entrance to the canyon. There is an easy way through, but if we make a mistake almost all of the river funnels into a churning whirlpool that we doubt any of us could swim out of.
The Last Test
One by one we push off into the river. I go first, paddling like a madman, and barely make it around the edge of the whirlpool. As I pull safely into the canyon, I eddie out under the tall rock walls, and anxiously wait for Luke and Tyler. Soon Luke pops through the canyon entrance, and we high five and wait for Tyler. Minutes pass.
The tension builds and I begin considering what it would be like for this trip to end in tragedy, to lose a friend on the adventure of a lifetime. And then Tyler’s little yellow raft emerges around the rock wall, and we howl in relief.
A half-hour later we reach the rotting bridge, where the trail that will lead us out of the wilderness begins. As we pull up on the bank for the last time and begin to reassemble the bikes and pack our paddling gear, the sun pops out in all its glory for the first time in days. We arrive back at the truck at one in the morning, spent but fully stoked to have pulled the trip off.
The Red Chris Mine
There is one thing left to do, one more thing to see, before we begin the long drive south. We board the small floatplane tied up to the dock next to the lodge. It sputters as it takes off, then climbs into the endless sea of peaks and green valleys. We tip our wings and a vision akin to The Lord of the Rings Mordor appears: a mountain eaten away from the inside out.
Roads etch the mountaintop like a spider web. Massive dump trucks haul copper and gold ore out of the two-year-old Red Chris mine. Below the mine, we can see the pristine valley we traversed just the day before. This is what I wanted to see because I came to the Sacred Headwaters, not just to pursue my fantasy of wilderness, but also to come to terms with the beautiful and ugly truth of this place.
The aggressive resource extraction taking place around the Sacred Headwaters is just one small piece of the region-wide industrial exploitation of northwestern British Columbia. In 2014 the tailings pond of the nearby Mount Polley Mine failed, releasing a massive slurry of toxic heavy metals into the downstream watershed.
One can only imagine the impact a similar failure at Red Chris would have on the Sacred Headwaters, the downstream communities on the Stikine River, and the wildlife.
The plane circles as we snap pictures. I understand the true impact of my consumer lifestyle on the wild places I love.
Reflections On The Sacred Headwaters
Struggling with those hard truths raises important questions. How can we extract resources more safely? What places are too special to risk?
The Sacred Headwaters humbled me. Its power and drama are more than whitewater and adrenaline. It’s a place where wildness hasn’t been dominated, where traditions are still honored, and the way of life is still intimately connected with the land. I’m grateful for my time here, and grateful to the Tahltan people for letting us visit their home.