Photograph by Sarah Leen/National Geographic Creative
Cape Crawford, Baffin Island, on the Summer Solstice
Only three species overwinter in the Canadian Arctic: humans, polar bears, and seals. Every other creature escapes south. But each year at the summer solstice they return, 17 million marine mammals making their way through Lancaster Sound across the top of Baffin Island.
Admiralty Inlet, the fjord that clefts the island, remains icebound long after Lancaster Sound is open water. The Inuit from Arctic Bay camp out at the edge of the ice floe awaiting the returning belugas and narwhals, the bearded seals and walrus. They hunt by day, sing by night, even as they wonder if the ice will hold until dawn. Sometimes it doesn't and entire camps drift out on great islands of ice into Lancaster Sound.
From the ridge of Cape Crawford one can see far across the blue waters of the sound. The sun never sets. Magic hour lasts for the entire night, a photographer's dream. And when the narwhal and beluga return you can stand alone on the edge of the ice, listening to their breath as they breech the surface and dive, driving their prey to the deepest depths of the Arctic Sea. And the Inuit simply wait, ready always to drive home a harpoon. Blood on ice in the Arctic is not a sign of death, but rather, for the hunters of the northern ice, a sign and affirmation of life.
The Grand Canyon of the Stikine, Northwest British Columbia
The Grand Canyon of the Stikine, Canada's most impressive canyon, has in all of its history never permitted the passage of a raft. Perhaps a dozen individuals, quite likely fewer, know the full length of its rim. Less than a hundred intrepid world-class paddlers have run its course in kayaks.
If the Colorado River has a single Class V rapid, Lava Falls, and only at certain water levels, the Stikine features 40 or more that come at the paddler with incessant zeal. The Stikine Canyon is the K2 of white-water challenges. To add to the delight one moves beneath sheer walls of basalt and sedimentary rock that rise 1,600 feet above the water.
Inhabiting those cliffs are hundreds of mountain goats, a population that has inverted generations of instinctive behavior. Mountain goats normally go up to protect themselves from predators, wolf and grizzly and men who almost always come at them from below. In the canyon the goats go down into the belly of the Earth where no predator can reach them, from above or below. The result is the greatest concentration of mountain goats in North America.
Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park, Northwest British Columbia
In 1978, as the first park ranger in the Spatsizi Wilderness, my job description was deliciously vague: wilderness assessment and public relations. In two four-month seasons I saw less than a dozen people. It is the Serengeti of North America, home to the greatest populations of wildlife in Canada. In the lower 48 the farthest you can get from a maintained road is 20 miles. In the northwest quadrant of British Columbia, an area the size of Oregon, there is one road, a narrow ribbon of tarmac that runs up the flank of the Coast Mountains to the Yukon.
When John Muir in 1879 saw but the lower third of the Stikine River, born in the Spatsizi, he called it a Yosemite 150 miles long. He returned to California and named his beloved dog Stikine after that river of enchantment. Today the lower Stikine has less traffic than it did in 1879. Yosemite, by contrast, is visited by the equivalent of the entire population of Los Angeles every summer.
The Sacred Headwaters, Northwest British Columbia
In a rugged knot of mountains in the remote reaches of northern British Columbia lies a stunningly beautiful valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, on the southern edge of the Spatsizi Wilderness are born in remarkably close proximity three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers: the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass. In a long day, perhaps two, it is possible to walk through open meadows, following the trodden tracks of grizzly, caribou, and wolf, and drink from the very sources of the three rivers that inspired so many of the great cultures of the Pacific Northwest, the Gitxsan and Wet’sutwet’en, the Carrier and Sekani, the Tsimshian, Nisga’a, Tahltan, Haisla, and Tlinglit. Keep on for another three days and you’ll reach the origins of the Finlay, headwaters of the MacKenzie, Canada’s greatest river of all.
Haida Gwaii, Northwest Coast of British Columbia
Until the building of the Panama Canal the northwest coast of British Columbia was as far from Europe as one could travel. At a time when Montreal was entering its third century and the Amazon had been explored for 400 years the Tahltan had yet to be contacted. The Haida, the Vikings of the Pacific Northwest, whose raiding parties reached south as far as California, still dominated the seas and the coast.
In a remarkable turn of fortunes, after a century of bitter winds that nearly swept their people away, the Haida again rule their islands. Totem poles banned along with the potlatch for three bitter generations now sprout like cedars from every Haida community. The southern half of the archipelago, often called the Galápagos of North America for its incomparable biological diversity, is a protected area, Gwaii Hanas, administered and controlled by the Haida. The timber companies, once so dominant and ascendant, are now partners in a new collective destiny, one driven fundamentally by the desires and passions of the Haida. There is a new spirit on the islands, and it is wonderfully infectious, inspiring as it does indigenous peoples throughout the world who are coming together to reclaim their lands and take control of their futures.
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