Finding a Voice and a Tribe on a Wild Northern River

The view from the bow as we paddled the swifter currents of the Stikine. Photo: Courtesy of Krista Langlois/Canoe & Kayak

Early morning. There’s a mist lying on the river; the remnants of last night’s storm still hugging the base of the mountains. Jen is standing on a point of rocks sipping coffee, studying the teal-gray water swirling beneath canyon walls. We camped in the middle of the rapid, at the confluence where Beggarly Creek rushes into the Stikine River, and after coffee and oatmeal we carry our gear back upstream to the canoes, tying everything down extra careful the way you do when you know you might flip. We laugh a little louder to drown out the nervousness thrumming in our stomachs.

The rapid isn’t particularly difficult, but it’s the biggest water of our 16-day trip and I’m sterning the lead boat. The last time I was responsible for anyone but myself in whitewater, over a year ago, I flipped a raft, sent two friends swimming in a snowstorm, and gave myself a concussion. Afterward, defeated and self-loathing, I’d relinquished the oars to my very tall, very capable (male) friend Logan. Now, in the backcountry of northern British Columbia, I feel I’m being offered a second chance. I tuck myself into the canoe and settle on my knees. In the bow, Jen does the same. The sun is just beginning to creep over the walls of Beggarly Canyon.

A fly-in hunting lodge, where we’d gotten permission to stash our gear while hiking up to the Spatsizi Plateau, a place known as the Serengeti of the North for its abundance of big game. Photo: Courtesy of Krista Langlois/Canoe & Kayak

I didn’t set out to paddle the Upper Stikine. Ten months earlier, when the river still flowed beneath ice, I made plans with a few friends to do an all-women’s canoe trip somewhere in the north. We weren’t looking for a first descent or an epic expedition, because we all have day jobs and are laughably far from professional athlete status. And even though we managed to get three weeks off, we didn’t want to churn through miles. We simply wanted to be in a deep, remote wilderness – to breathe it in, to taste it, to absorb it into our skin so that when we returned to emails and debt and traffic we’d have something private and intangible that the rest of the world couldn’t touch.

In October, we sent invitations to a list of strong-armed, quick-witted women, and found six who were able to temporarily put aside mortgages and marriages and careers. Then we dove into maps of British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon. The Noatak River was promising but too expensive; the Bonnet Plume too difficult; the Kechika too short. One by one we crossed rivers off our list until only two remained: the fast, braided Upper Stikine, and its meandering tributary, the Spatsizi.

Reaching them required a 20-hour drive north from Seattle to the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park, a region of northern British Columbia known variously as the Serengeti of the North for its abundance of big game, or as Klabona – “Sacred Headwaters” in the language of the local Tahltan tribe. There, in a fortress of swamp and mountains, three small streams emerge. They become the Skeena, the Stikine and the Nass: three of the greatest salmon-producing rivers in North America.

A striking number of photos from the Sacred Headwaters are shot from planes and helicopters. From the air, the landscape unfurls in patterns: ragged mountains descending into florescent green meadows; alpine plateaus scrawled with streams; sinuous, silty rivers. From the ground, though, it’s impenetrable country, vast and thick and swampy. There are places called Wicked River, Dead Man’s Island, Gnat Creek, Mosquito Mountain, Worry Creek. It’s the kind of forest you just look at, wrote the essayist Edward Hoagland in 1966. You don’t think of going in.

British Columbia’s Spatsizi River winds through bogs and boreal forest, a landscape as much water as land. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Gilman/Canoe & Kayak

Today, fewer than 1,000 people a year go into the vast, roadless park. Its few trails and signs are overgrown and rotted; the topo maps we ordered from the Internet haven’t been updated since the 1960s. When we zoom in on Google Earth, the map devolves into a pixelated blur. We have no stream gauges, no recent beta, just outdated maps and a single report from canoe trippers who came through a decade before. Had a landslide created new rapids? Would the wet summer weather spike water levels? We had no way of knowing. As we planned food and booked flights and sorted gear, I began to harbor doubts.

But the dearth of information was also part of the appeal. We didn’t want a well-traveled, permitted, guide-booked river in the Lower 48, a river where everything would be figured out for us. We wanted to figure it out for ourselves. So on a clear day in early August, on the edge of autumn, I stood on the pebbled shore of Eddontenajon Lake with five other women, scanning the sky for the float plane that would bring us into the wilderness.

Loading our canoes onto the first of two bush flights that took us from Eddontenajon Lake, in northern British Columbia, to the heart of the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park. Photo: Courtesy of Krista Langlois/Canoe & Kayak

The Stikine flows through a landscape untouched by time. Fog drifts over the river; wind pulls the sky apart and together. We wake one morning to fresh wolf tracks wandering between our tents, and paddle past a moose that fades like a ghost into the forest when we turn our backs. It’s like the landscape is whispering something nearly inaudible, and some days we paddle in silence. Listening. Watching the boreal spruce slide past.

In these quiet moments, our paddles slipping through silty water, I lose myself in memories. I’ve been on the Stikine before, on the lower part of the river a few hundred miles from here. In 2010 I worked for a nonprofit called Alaska Crossings that takes at-risk Alaskan teenagers on seven-week canoeing and hiking expeditions. While the trips usually take place on the Alaskan coast, every so often a group is sent through the coastal mountains to the interior of British Columbia to canoe the Lower Stikine. In the summer of 2010, I was assigned to co-guide one such trip.

Paddling the calm stretches of the upper Spatsizi, where we honed the skills that would help us navigate the swifter water downstream. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Gilman/Canoe & Kayak

It was my first river trip. I’d never paddled moving water before, didn’t know what an eddy was. I didn’t yet understand that water flowing down rivers has a force – not just the power of moving water, of standing waves and swirls and boils, but a different, inexplicable power. One that changes how you look at the world. How afterward, everything is a river, and you’ll want to move through a landscape no other way.

Just as I’d never paddled a river, I’d also never been in the wilderness without a guy around. Of the 15 or so senior guides at Alaska Crossings that year, only three were women. This meant that as a first-year guide, I was usually the only female in a group of 13. Mostly, I liked it. I felt like one of the guys. As we clawed our way up and down the wet, soggy coast, I wrapped myself in wool and GoreTex and concentrated so hard on proving myself that I didn’t realize until afterward that I’d gone seven weeks without experiencing human touch. If it was raining sideways and we had to shoot a bearing and cross a mile of open water, my male co-guides led and I ran sweep. If the sun was setting and we had to decide whether to push onto camp or spend the night where we were, they made the call and I agreed to it. They led as if by instinct, and I followed, fumbling, pretending to know what I was doing. Pretending I felt confident.

But thanks to a scheduling quirk, my trip on the Lower Stikine happened to be all-female: ten teenage girls, me, and two co-guides of roughly equal experience. We had a week of training to learn how to paddle water that surged up to 180,000 cubic feet per second, and then we launched.

Circles of life on the Stikine River. Photos: Courtesy of Krista Langlois

Most of the 10 girls on our trip came from the foster care system, had fetal alcohol syndrome, or had been sexually abused. There were times when working with them was gut-wrenching and draining and downright frustrating. But during the two weeks we spent on the Stikine, I remember none of that. I remember instead glaciated mountains rising from green banks. I remember hugging before we went to bed, washing our hair in glacial-fed creeks; singing the Dixie Chicks and Alanis Morissette as we paddled. I remember the girls who had shrank into themselves, peering suspiciously at the world from behind bad posture and limp hair – how they sat a little taller when they were in the stern of a canoe. How even the scrawniest girls kept their boats upright on an afternoon when upstream winds threatened to flip us like a stack of cards. I remember the girls who felt ugly without makeup glowing from the sun on their cheeks; shrieking as they dove into an icy lake. As I dip my canoe paddle into the Upper Stikine, six years later, I remember all of this. River time isn’t linear.

The trip was transformative for the guides as well. As a guide team, our voices carried equal weight. We made decisions together, stopping in eddies to weigh our options and figure out how to move forward. There were no experienced guys around to ask advice; no one but us to lead the tricky sections of river, to decide whether or not to portage, to toss the throw-bag lightning-quick at the girl who missed an eddy and shot us a frantic-eyed look as she was carried downstream. My first river trip happened to be my first all-female trip, and it’s hard to say which changed me more.

Our first night on the river, we huddled in a makeshift mosquito tent and laughed until our bellies hurt. Photo: Courtesy of Krista Langlois/Canoe & Kayak

The Lower Stikine whetted my appetite for rivers. In the years that followed, I learned to roll a kayak and read whitewater, and I married someone who loves moving water as much as I do. But the confidence I gained on that first all-female trip never bloomed into anything more.

As a female paddler, I’m almost always in the minority. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been the only woman among a bevy of dudes tucked into colorful plastic boats. Mostly, I’m OK with that. But being the only woman also makes me feel like I constantly have to prove myself. I’m desperate not to be the one who swims, not to be the one who can’t keep up. When my friend Teresa was a commercial raft guide in Colorado, some customers, already nervous about the prospect of whitewater, would look at her, look at the 200-pound man standing next to her, and ask to be in his boat. Other women in the company were demoted to running shuttle or working in the office, or their manager gave them the “opportunity” to lead bachelor party raft trips, because, he told them, they could do a strip tease and rake in huge tips. Other female boaters have it worse: Employees in the Grand Canyon spent more than a decade enduring male colleagues who put cameras up their skirts, propositioned them for sex and retaliated against them when they refused.

Jen Crozier, Kate Lauth and Kate Greenberg relax after dinner on a sandy beach on the Upper Stikine River. Photo: Courtesy of Krista Langlois/Canoe & Kayak

That’s not to say there aren’t women out there who kick ass. But in my experience, the same gender roles that shape our culture in the frontcountry follow us into the backcountry, which means women are less likely to be in leadership roles and more likely to take a backseat to men, no matter how capable we might be.

Once I notice it I can’t stop noticing it. When my husband and I float desert rivers with groups of friends, the guys crank on the oars while the women ride in front. When Jesse and I kayak together, he leads and I follow. This is partially because Jesse’s tolerance for risk far exceeds mine; because while I remained content to paddle Class III he mastered Class IV and worked his way up to Class V. But it also means that when we’re standing on shore scouting, he makes the final call. It means I rely on his judgment instead of developing my own.

Which is why the idea of an all-women’s canoe trip on a wild northern river was so appealing. The fact that it would be on the same river where I’d done my only other all-female trip felt like coming full circle. Like returning to a natal stream. Klabona, the Sacred Headwaters: birthplace.

Kate Lauth, Jen Crozier and Anna Santo trying to figure out our location with maps and GPS. Photo: Courtesy of Krista Langlois/Canoe & Kayak

The day we’re supposed to paddle Beggarly Rapids, we see a wolf crouched in a tangle of willows, its black face peering hungrily in the direction of a baby moose. We pull over on a downstream gravel bar, fix our binoculars upstream, and take a very long lunch, waiting for some Discovery-channel type action to unfold. Nothing does. The sun beats down on us and the moose stands around uncertainly, looking from the willows to its mother across the river and back again. The wolf melts back into the forest.

By the time we scout Beggarly, it’s nearly 4 p.m. and clouds are closing in. Sarah and Anna think we should run the rapid and stick to our schedule; Kate and I are in favor of setting up camp and running it in the morning when we’re fresh. While the sun drops nearer to the mountains, we stand on the bank in our PFDs, talking over our options.

Long before we got here, we decided not to name a trip leader, so everyone would feel equally invested in decision-making and have the chance to develop the same skills. I’ve been on river trips where such egalitarianism would have degenerated into disagreements and bruised egos, but for us, it works. There’s no sense of competition, no testosterone – no need to prove ourselves. And most importantly, we’re not in a rush. Decisions take longer when six people have to reach consensus.

Dusk falls on our final camp, on an island where Beggarly Creek rushes into the Upper Stikine River. Photo: Courtesy of Krista Langlois/Canoe & Kayak

In the end, Sarah and Anna have no problem with running Beggarly in the morning, and since Kate and I feel strongly about not paddling the biggest water of our trip with evening closing in, that’s what we decide to do. We set up our tents on an island in the middle of Beggarly Creek. It’s the most beautiful camp we’ve yet seen – a triangle of sand surrounded on three sides by rushing water. In the dusky evening light, everything is blue. Indigo clouds roll in from the distant coast. The river roils in cobalt. Just before the storm hits, Sarah calls us together and pulls out a ziplock she’s been carrying downriver for the past two weeks.

Inside is a powdery red dirt – a handful of Bright Angel Shale from the Colorado Plateau. She and I gathered it on the same raft trip the year before where I’d flipped an 18-foot boat, given myself a concussion and relinquished the oars to a bigger, stronger guy. Mixed with a spoonful of river water, the crumbly shale forms a paint-like paste that’s perfect for smudging onto faces. One at a time, we kneel in front of Sarah. Grains of sand dig into our knees. Drops of rain splatter from the sky. Sarah dips her index finger into the ziplock and carefully smudges our cheeks and foreheads with red dirt.

Going into this trip, we didn’t know each other well. We didn’t know whether we were strong enough to be dropped off alone in one of North America’s greatest wildernesses, whether we had the experience to tackle an unpredictable river with outdated maps and janky rented gear. But with each river mile that falls away behind us, our confidence grows. We revel in the freedom that a single-gender trip can bring, swimming and sunbathing naked without feeling self-conscious about the droops and quirks in our aging bodies. Our backs and biceps grow strong. We haven’t lost a single piece of gear or suffer anything worse than a few scratches.

By mid-August, it already felt like fall, the leaves of the poplars tinged with yellow. Photo:Courtesy of Sarah Gilman/Canoe & Kayak

The one source of nervousness that remains is Beggarly Rapids. Now, the night before we face it, we kneel in front of the river as Sarah paints our faces. One by one, she marks us as part of a tribe of fierce, badass women. I think to myself that this is a beginning, not an end. That someday I’ll look back on my life and it will be punctuated by all-female river trips, each bigger and bolder than the last.

Our line through Beggarly is flawless. The churning hole slips by and we ferry left, avoiding the hydraulics on the right with room to spare. I turn and see two canoes following, the four women paddling them upright and cussing joyfully. Someone whoops and yells, her voice louder than the roar of the rapid, echoing through the canyon. We’ve made it, we’re together in the smooth swirling water, in the sparkling sunlight, throwing our heads back, raising our paddles in the air and laughing.

Six years ago I first came to this river. The teenage girls I was with are grown up now, and I don’t know where they are or what they’re doing. I don’t know whether things turned out OK, or whether the weeks we spent on the Stikine had little bearing when they returned to a world of abuse and poverty. I like to think it did. I like to think that even after they went home and squinted into the mirror to smudge their eyes with the dark liner that made them feel less vulnerable, they held their shoulders a little straighter, remembering they had once kept their canoes upright on the windiest day, that they dunked their hair in a glacial creek. That they were part of a tribe of fierce women, and once you’re part of that tribe, you always will be.

Feeling strong and proud after more than two weeks of paddling. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Gilman/Canoe & Kayak

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