Roads to Wilderness
By Sylvia Kinosian (University of Vermont)
A big part of the reason I and many other people come to Atlin and participate in the Taku Watershed Conservation Program is to experience a vast and remote wilderness. Ironically, a large part of the traveling we have done this summer has been driving or walking on old mining roads. Placer and other types of mining have historically and currently been an important part of Atlin’s economy; indeed, it was the gold rush of the late 1800s that put this town on the map. While we’ve learned and seen first hand some of the issues with mining (such as erosion, pollution, sedimentation, etc.), this does not negate the fact that without the mining development around Atlin access to the backcountry would be much more difficult.
For the majority of our expeditions, we all pile into our two Chevy Suburbans, drive out along one of the three main roads leading out of Atlin, and end up on any number of mining roads. We usually end up parking somewhere along these roads and starting our hikes fairly deep into the mountains. Without these roads, many of the day hikes we’ve done would be impossible; more overnight trips would be required for us to do field work.
A few weeks ago when we hiked down to the Nakina River there were no roads to follow, only the narrow trail followed by Tlingit people and wildlife for generations. To walk across this untouched landscape was an awesome and humbling experience. There is currently a road proposed that would cut right through this pristine environment to open up access to an old mine in the heart of the Taku River watershed. Over the past few years its construction has been a hotly debated topic in the Altin community. So far there has been no physical progress, but the future is still quite uncertain.
Construction of this road would drastically alter experiences like the one I was fortunate enough to have: walking down to the Nakina River. What if we could have driven those 30 miles? Sure, we could have spent a week rather than three days on the river, but it would not be the same experience. The same is true for our hikes around Atlin. Being able to drive to the base of a peak rather than backpack out to it definitely alters one’s experience on and appreciation for the mountain. The roads crisscrossing the valleys also detract from the wilderness: you feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere, no human constructs to be seen, but then you come over a ridge and are standing on a gravel road.
One of the places this is most visible is in the Ruby Creek valley, west of Atlin. Among the many roads, however, is a thriving hoary marmot community. The marmots seem completely unconcerned by human activity and can be seen basking within a few yards of roadsides. Other animals use the roads for travel: I’ve seen caribou, wolf, bear, and lynx tracks and scat all over these roads. Animals are simply using the most efficient path, regardless how it was created.
I can’t deny I wish there were fewer roads in the greater Atlin area. I hope the proposed mining road is never built and people can continue to walk the Nakina trail undisturbed. Overall, however, I’ve been able to experience a greater amount of this beautiful area because of these very roads. Without them we wouldn’t be able to get in the car for 45 minutes and hike up beautiful, high alpine peaks. It is also nice to see that the local fauna isn’t too concerned with this human activity. Currently some of the roads in the Ruby Valley are being reclaimed, as mining has been deemed unfeasible in this area. Hopefully this becomes more of a trend in the area, rather than the increased development proposed. In the big picture, however, roads are certainly not all bad: they’ve made this summer and many of my other past travels into the wilderness possible. It is important, however, for us to restrain future expansion of road networks, leaving the remaining remote areas as wild as they have always been.