… Trust the road in your name. Ride
Your moon hide through the pitch black.
Gotsta be your own bride.
— Angel Nafis, from the poem “Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country.”
Think of your skin as a map.
Its marks inscribe a story of your life. The raggedness of your fingertips from biting your nails. The lines in your cheeks from laughing. The scar from surgery to help knit broken bone. The burn you gave yourself when only pain would calm you. The nick on your wrist that, whenever you touch it, makes you think of the talus field where you stumbled and cut yourself, the mountain lake where you washed the blood away.
On this August afternoon, the skin on my calves is tanned dark, crisscrossed with scratches, welted with bugbites, scummed over with beaver pond. On this August afternoon, my skin says that I’ve ventured into the boreal forest, and that it’s kicking my ass.
I’m a few days into a 16-day canoe trip with five girlfriends down the remote Spatsizi and Upper Stikine rivers — joined threads in the high reaches of a great system of braided, salmon-bearing waterways that originate in a swath of northern British Columbia known as the Sacred Headwaters. It’s a place toothy with mountain ranges, broad-shouldered with tundra plateaus, and furred with endless forests of white and black spruce and bursts of poplar just turning gold.
Roads are sparse here, so travel is by floatplane, boat, horse, and, for those who don’t mind shredding their flesh in thickets of grasping branches, by foot. Which is why we’ve generally stuck with the canoes until now. But Krista Langlois and Kate Greenberg, our navigators, had consulted the topos and sparse guidebook entries and identified the far end of Cold Fish Lake, which appeared to be about a dozen miles off the Spatsizi, as a good base to backpack into the high alpine for tarns and tundra. So we hauled out our trusty boats and struck up a winding tributary called Mink Creek, where we would supposedly, eventually, find a trail.
Three hours later, we’ve puzzled through thatches of fallen logs and climbed in and out of the creek channel dozens of times, but have traveled only a mile. Even when we find the first triangular trail-blaze nailed to a tree and begin hoofing up a faint single track through yet more tangled forest, Cold Fish hovers, mirage-like, beyond reach. At 8 p.m., Krista and I drop our packs and jog ahead through deepening blue shadows until we can finally get a clear view of the lake’s placid waters. They’re another decidedly unplacid mile away, through a thickly vegetated bog. “Fuck this,” we say in unison, and trot back to the group to throw down camp by a mosquito-ridden stream.
By 3 p.m. the next day, we’re battered, smelly, smiling and back at the Spatsizi. “Mothah Rivah!” someone exclaims, as we shed clothes and plunge into the water. “Hey, check this out,” Krista yells, bending over some fireweed, then ambushes Kate Lauth with a fistful of mud. Muck flies. Anna Santo paints a smiley face on her belly. Jen Crozier washes earth from Kate Greenberg’s hair.
My scratches sting as I rinse the silt away, but I feel more comfortable in my skin than I have in ages. There is no one here to see us, no one but ourselves to judge what we should do or what we are capable of doing. In a world that expects women to look and act in certain ways, we’ve staked out territory where we can move without thought for our bodies as anything other than our native homes. We are making and remaking our maps, letting this place write itself on our arms and legs — sketching where we’ve been, and where we might go, should we follow these routes emerging below our feet, under our paddles, across our flesh. And after dinner, Anna slides into a sassy red dress from the costume bag, grabs a fly rod, and wades across the Mink to find a good spot to cast.
The seeds of our excursion were planted in northern Minnesota, a place made as much of lake as of land. The Kates once attended a summer camp there that culminated in a 45-day wilderness canoe trip and decided they wanted to carry that tradition into their adult lives. In the summer of 2015, they reached out to like-minded women they’d met in college, through work, in Colorado mountain towns.
Krista had guided troubled teenagers on backcountry excursions in Alaska. Jen and Kate L. had done the same in the Southern Rockies. I’d spent a few summers building trails and studying birds in the high alpine. Kate G. had worked on restoring the Colorado River Delta across the border in Mexico, and Anna had researched beavers in Patagonia. All of us, now in our late 20s to mid-30s, loved the idea of building a community of outdoorswomen that we could keep coming back to as we moved on into careers in writing, medicine, therapy and advocacy.
We weren’t aiming to make first descents of whitewater canyons. We just wanted to be far out in the world together for the longest stretches we could muster. I imagined us still at it in 30 years — silver-edged women in the mold of Mardy Murie, a naturalist who raised her family in the wilds of Wyoming and Alaska and helped lead the charge to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
We gave ourselves a name, Wild Streak, and met by Skype on autumn evenings, researching the Northern rivers we might float — the Noatak or Kluane, the Gataga and Kechika. We chose the Upper Stikine and its tributary Spatsizi for their on- and off-water opportunities and the fact that they fit our budget of $2,000 per person. We scoured trip reports, ordered maps, marked out possible camps. Doing it just for ourselves didn’t seem like enough, so we used the trip to raise money for nonprofits that give teen girls opportunities like the ones that helped us become confident in the wilderness — ultimately bankrolling several scholarships for canoe and glacier trips.
Finally, late last July, we rendezvoused in Bellingham, Washington, stuffed a minivan and sedan with gear, and blew across the U.S. border and 1,000 miles of British Columbia to the tiny backwater of Iskut. There, on the shore of Eddontenajon Lake, we piled into a floatplane. The unexpectedly handsome pilot, Dan Brown, flashed us a dimpled grin, then lifted us with Canadian nonchalance into the sky.
Mountain ranges, then more mountain ranges, and then the Spatsizi uncoiled below us like a rope thrown across the valley floor. Aprons of rust-colored scree descended from high ridges to oxbows that looped around pocket lakes. Our landing on one of them was so smooth that I barely registered touching down until I saw spray jetting past my window. Standing on the gravel beach next to a fresh pile of bear scat, we watched the floatplane rise again, drag its reflection into the trees, vanish. We were alone in the middle of nowhere, alone in the middle of everywhere. Then, we were in the water, swimming our first loaded canoe to the portage that would put us on the 135-mile stretch of river we’d waited so long to paddle. That night, as I climbed into my tent on our first beach camp, mayflies glittered in my headlamp beam like animate stars. They reminded me of the constellation of bruises on my shins. They pointed the way.
The trip spools out as languidly as the river. We wake when we want, build morning campfires, stop when the impulse to explore strikes. Sometimes we float more than a dozen miles a day, sometimes none. We fish for Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden trout that, cooked in the coals, taste of snowmelt and salt. Not everyone has canoed whitewater before, so on the calmer Spatsizi, Kate L. and Krista help us brush up on paddling strokes and practice swinging in and out of currents and eddies. Later, we mock up a pulley-assisted rope arrangement, called a Z-drag, on a sapling. This would help us pull a canoe off a mid-river rock should a mishap occur in one of the mellow but respectable rapids.
The boats become as beloved — and irritating — as family members, and we name them accordingly. There’s the Sphincter, for the puckered passenger openings in its ill-fitting brown canvas spray deck — a snap-on cover meant to keep the canoe from swamping. There’s the Pussy Rabbit, for the Russian feminist punk band and the pipe-smoking bunny emblazoned on the canoe’s red sides. And there’s the sleek green 17-footer that we vie for each day. That one we call Dan Brown.
Kate L. becomes my frequent paddling partner, talking me through maneuvers around submerged logs and whale-backed boulders, then pumping her fist with me in triumph as I gain confidence steering Dan Brown from the stern. In the wide valley where the Spats pours into the broader, faster Stikine, we float over the hard line where the water shifts from opaque beige to a turquoise so clear I can see river-bottom stones six feet below, our shadow slipping over them as if we’re still flying.
An old fire scar marks the shore with miles of skeletonized trunks, like a splatter of gray paint across the dark landscape. When it rains, which is often, the drops bead brightly across the Stikine’s surface before melting into its flow. We stay warm in skintight wetsuits and dub ourselves the Future Dolphin Trainers of America. In one spot, sheared-off earthen banks rise 20 feet above our heads where a landslide blocked the river earlier in the summer. The Stikine still tears insistently at the remains, dragging whole spruce trees free and pulling them along in the current beside our canoes. A thunderstorm boils up over the confluence with the Pitman River as we’re eating dinner one evening. The towering clouds catch the last sun, send down a spark of rainbow, set the forest burning anew with light. We stand watching, ankle-deep in mud with our arms around each other, our faces gold, our gnocchi forgotten.
Save for a man we glimpse a week into the trip, tending a remote riverside lodge, we meet nobody. Little wonder, then, that the landscape feels secretive. We encounter few animals, but each sandbar is brailled with tracks: Bears, both grizzly and black, wolves with paws larger than my palms, bobcat, lynx, moose, beaver, porcupine. We find skulls and antlers pressed into the spongy forest floor. Odd splashes ring from the river some nights, and groans and crashes haunt the bushes. Even one of the three moose that we actually see seems insubstantial as a ghost. The young bull clacks his teeth and rolls his eyes, splashing down the center of the channel, and then, when Krista and I turn for a moment to navigate a riffle, vanishes without sound or trace.
There are other mysteries, too. Along one bar, the river’s high-water flows have left not-quite-cairns of clustered stones. Delicate, almost deliberate, arrangements of bone-white driftwood decorate high-water lines and former eddies. It’s as if the country murmurs just beyond the edge of hearing, moves just beyond the edge of vision, watches us as even we watch it slip past.
But if the country keeps itself close, it steadily reveals us to one another. We make decisions by consensus, move fluidly together on the water, support each other taking risks, or choosing not to.
On our last day, we come upon a significant rapid, one we’d failed to note on the map. Anna — one of our boldest members, and one of the least experienced on whitewater — decides she wants to test her new steering skills. We eddy out so she can replace Kate G. in the stern of the Sphincter, and all of us rock-hop down the shore to scout routes through midstream boulders that churn the Stikine into a froth. Then, we slide back under our spray decks and push off, one by one, into the current.
Krista and Jen take the lead without incident, then Kate G. and Anna, who punches through a big hole, scoops in a fair amount of river, but does just fine. In the rear, Kate L. steers the Pussy Rabbit beautifully from the stern, while I paddle hard in the bow. Exposed rocks and pourovers slip by, waves splash across my arms and fill my lap. When the rapid spits us out into the slackwater of the tight canyon below, we lift our paddles to the cloudy sky and cheer.
Later, long after we’ve repacked our gear and driven hundreds of miles south, we stop at a busy lakeside campground. I cook dinner for the crew in silence, then break away to sit at the water’s edge alone, feeling scraped out by the end of the journey, the sudden plunge into a frenetic world of strangers, cellphone service, social media. Two loons paddle nearby, singing long and low from the reeds. And then the full moon surprises me with its sudden appearance. Its first fingers of light fold over the ridges to the east, slowly hoist its glare into the sky, reach for my hands. I see my cracked knuckles, the thick new calluses on my palms. Look where you’ve been, I whisper to no one. Imagine where you’ll go. I wipe my eyes with the back of my wrist and head back to my friends.
Sarah Gilman is an HCN contributing editor and writer based in Portland Oregon. Her work will be anthologized in The Best Women's Travel Writing, in May. Follow @Sarah_Gilman