By Sarah Gilman
Isn’t it always true - that you find what you’re after only when you stop searching for it.
It was like this with the Spatsizi Plateau.
The great flat-topped mountain crouches on folded knees like a sleeping caribou in far northern British Columbia. Rippled with draws, furred with tundra, it is a dreaming place, hemmed in by the clear Stikine River to the north, and its silty tributary Spatsizi to the east, all fringed to the horizons with black, impenetrable spruce forest.
Five women friends and I were well into a 135-mile canoe trip down these two wilderness rivers. We had allowed ourselves 16 days. For a sense of scale, consider that I once rafted the 84-mile stretch of the Green River through Utah’s Desolation and Gray canyons in just three days with a bunch of crazy Wyomingites – a speed that required gritting our teeth through crappy weather, frozen feet, and oar-blistered hands. This was the opposite extreme: A lazy stretch of too-much-time looped out ahead of us like delicious flatwater. We’d given ourselves extra hours for morning campfires and costumed revelry, extra days and nights for exploring deep woods and sinuous, rising drainages on foot.
That’s why we’d pulled off here, before the two rivers’ confluence, at a loose assemblage of hunting cabins called Hyland Post, backed up against a grassy airstrip and shaded by trembling poplar leaves. From it, our guidebook promised, we’d be able to ascend on good trail to the Spatsizi Plateau’s summit. We’d already had one skin-shredding bushwhack earlier in the week skunk our first backpacking trip, so we spent the afternoon searching for this phantom path, then part of the evening.
First, we struck out through the grass towards a hillside with an obvious slash across its side. But the game trail vanished into the earth at the top. I shrugged down at my companions and turned back.
Second, we thrashed through the willows and trees along the airstrip, looking for a tripod of timbers that supposedly marked the way, but found only piles of moose jaws and sawed skullcaps scattered through the woods, ghostly in the deepening northern twilight.
Third, we stood in the middle of the wide airstrip in rapt silence, staring into the brush at the plateau’s toe. The narrow branches thrashed, then a series of low grumbling moans emanated.
Despite our best efforts – a day of silent paddling through the mist, quiet walks down the beach in the evening – we hadn’t seen any animals yet. But the sandbars of the Spatsizi were tantalizingly brailed with their tracks: Bears, wolves, heavy bull moose. Now, we waited expectantly. We slapped at mosquitoes. We looked at each other. Maybe it’d be best if we turned in, someone finally observed.
That night, we slept fitfully beneath the glassy gaze of a taxidermied grizzly in one of the cabins where we’d gotten permission from the absent owners to lay our heads. The next morning, we filled our packs and began to walk – trail or no – in the general direction where we thought it might be.
And there it was. The tripod came into view, then flabbergastingly, a clearly visible sign, then a clear climbing path. And after three huffing hours, it delivered us right to two grazing caribou on the ridgeline opposite the nearest draw. They were enormous – big as hefty elk – with antlers that fanned out at the ends like open hands, waving at us across the animals’ wide, frosted backs. They lifted their heads, trotted beyond the ridge out of sight, then exploded into view not 100 feet away as we dropped our packs to the ground. One paused to watch us, then slowly approach, bending his head and huffing towards where we crouched in a bunch together, grinning like idiots. I could tell by my friends’ wide eyes that we were all wishing him away – and willing him closer.
Low clouds and squalls chased rainbows over the plateau as we walked along its spine, cinched into light, warm, water-resistant Quasar jackets and Down Shells. We peered into the deep drainages on either side, found caribou antler sheds at cliff edges and beside pocket ponds. We yelled to each other as the wind flapped our hoods around our faces. We saw the Stikine, which we would paddle onto the next day and wind our way down for the next week.
Back home, we were waiting on grad school application results, on the fate of tenuous romances; some of us were foraying into owning a first home, or the lovely but uncertain first years of marriage when you learn to braid your lives together. But here, the Stikine spooled away to the west for a long ways before braiding itself around a bend — our future made visible, tangible, at least for a little while. And late in the day the sun burned through the low clouds, bathing everything in buttery light.
Distracted by the endless sprawl of mountains, by the gray spatter of a distant burn scar , and by each other, we overshot the three Comfort 3 tents we had set up on the the Spatsizi side as we made our way back. But that was OK. We found a moose antler shed buried in the duff and greening with algae. We watched the raindrops flecking the willows spark like candles in the last light. We found everything we came to find, through the simple act of letting go.
And we made it to the cozy green cocoons just as the sun slipped over the horizon. After a fat dinner, we all zipped ourselves into one and laughed long into the night.