Immersion in the Watershed
July 22, 2013
By Hayley Weyers (Northland College)
We’ve had quite an eye-opening week focused on the culturally and historically significant Nakina Trail. The Tlingit First Nations people frequented this trail in the past as a critical trade route. At that time, the trail spanned from Atlin, B.C. south to the Nakina River in the Taku River watershed. This is where Tlingits have and continue to fish various salmon species. Salmon are not only an important staple food source for these First Nations, but are also spiritually vital for many Tlingits.
Today, the Nakina Trail runs from Kuthai Lake down to the Nakina River, a distance of about 20 miles. Our group—Susie Dain-Owens, Will Tyson, Ari Blatt, Gioia Cabri, Cynthiann Heckelsmiller, Ellen Iida, and Hayley Weyers—traveled from the O’Donnell River crossing south of Atlin (north of Kuthai) to the River in three days. On the way, we encountered all sorts of weather conditions. We even got hailed on at one point! Morale faltered momentarily, but two minutes later the rice-root sized hailstorm was over.
We had the privilege to meet with Tlingit elder Uncle Jackie the day before heading out. He shared with us stories behind the origin of the Taku, and spoke to some of his personal experiences on the trail. Namely, encountering grizzly bears. Uncle Jackie was adamant that should we come face to face with a bear, we need to remain calm, talk to the creature, and move away slowly. Luckily though, we didn’t have the opportunity to test his advice on the Nakina. Uncle Jackie also prepared us for what he termed “Tlingit customs.” Customs like you go through at the airport. This was at the smudge spot at Charcoal Hill. We followed Jackie’s instructions and took a coal from the fire pit, stated to the Nakina our reason for going there, and smudged coal lines under each of our eyes.
As we moved south along the trail, we transitioned from a boreal ecosystem to Pacific coastal. This appealed to our nerdiness as we got to indulge our plant ID skills in a new flora. Suddenly we were encountering massive black cottonwood and white spruce trees that towered over us! There was devil’s club as tall as our heads that we had to bushwhack through, and perhaps most exciting were the ripe oval-leaved blueberries we munched on during the walk.
Once on the river, we spent a great deal of time feasting on salmon. There were two particularly amazing catches. On the first morning, on her very first cast, Cynthiann dragged in a 30 pound king salmon! Susie showed us the expert ways to cut and cook salmon steaks, and we were fed all day. What’s even more is that on the third day when the red sun rose over the Nakina, tenacious little Ellen successfully reeled in a 40 pound king salmon—it was as big as her! This amazing fish lasted the seven of us five meals. Even Ari, our vegetarian, made an exception and tried some salmon down on the Nakina. When in Rome! Other catches included Will’s dolly varden trout, Hayley’s rainbow trout, and Cynthiann’s pink salmon.
Another part of our diets on the Nakina River consisted of wonderful wild berries. The raspberries were ripening all around our camp, and so were the Saskatoon berries—group consensus is that Saskatoon berries are certainly a new favorite. (For those of you in the lower 48 reading this, Saskatoon berries are much like a serviceberry.) Gioia did us all a fine favor when she put aside her eagle watching to gather a healthy plate of these berries to share. From this cache, we discovered that Saskatoons just so happen to taste amazing with butter on hot bannock. Yep, nothing better than butter (synonymous with love) and berries on top of a bannock biscuit!
In the evenings on the Nakina, we all got to enjoy some quality sauna time. Will spent hours making sure the sauna stove was good and hot, and our tired muscles were plenty grateful for it. A couple transitions between the hot sauna and the cold river, and our nights were complete.
On our last full day on the river, we took a short hike to Canoe Landing at the confluence. Canoe Landing is named for the place where the Tlingits historically would leave their dug-out canoes when traveling up the river. Uncle Jackie also told us about this spot—it is where the clear, dark waters of the Nakina meet the pale, glacial runoff water of the Sloko. There is a strict line that flows down the river, for a time at least, and then they blend. Jackie said this is a sign from the river that the Tlingits and the whites should work together to respect the Taku River watershed. Uncle Jackie speaks a truth. And that truth is even bigger than just here. It’s balance and blending, and the waters hum this universal—this necessity for harmonious interaction. It is about wellness; interconnectedness. We gave tobacco to the river, and spent some time reflecting.
A special thanks to Uncle Jackie for sharing his wisdom of the trail with us, and John Ward for grooming our path and making the trip easier. Thank you as well to Brian and Joan Jack for allowing us to camp at their beautiful spot along the river. And a huge thanks to Greta, Jesse, Mike, Dakota, Joseph, Noah, and Susanna for extending such hospitality to us at Kuthai. We are very grateful to you all for making our Nakina experience an amazing and memorable one.
Photos by Susie Dain-Owens.