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Travels in Alaska

by John Muir

Chapter VI

The Cassiar Trail

I made a second trip up the Stickeen in August and from the head of navigation pushed inland for general views over dry grassy hills and plains on the Cassiar trail.

Soon after leaving Telegraph Creek I met a merry trader who encouragingly assured me that I was going into the most wonderful region in the world, that "the scenery up the river was full of the very wildest freaks of nature, surpassing all other sceneries either natural or artificial, on paper or in nature. And give yourself no bothering care about provisions, for wild food grows in prodigious abundance everywhere. A man was lost four days up there, but he feasted on vegetables and berries and got back to camp in good condition. A mess of wild parsnips and pepper, for example, will actually do you good. And here's my advice--go slow and take the pleasures and sceneries as you go."

At the confluence of the first North Fork of the Stickeen I found a band of Toltan or Stick Indians catching their winter supply of salmon in willow traps, set where the fish are struggling in swift rapids on their way to the spawning-grounds. A large supply had already been secured, and of course the Indians were well fed and merry. They were camping in large booths made of poles set on end in the ground, with many binding cross-pieces on which tons of salmon were being dried. The heads were strung on separate poles and the roes packed in willow baskets, all being well smoked from fires in the middle of the floor. The largest of the booths near the bank of the river was about forty feet square. Beds made of spruce and pine boughs were spread all around the walls, on which some of the Indians lay asleep; some were braiding ropes, others sitting and lounging, gossiping and courting, while a little baby was swinging in a hammock. All seemed to be light-hearted and jolly, with work enough and wit enough to maintain health and comfort. In the winter they are said to dwell in substantial huts in the woods, where game, especially caribou, is abundant. They are pale copper-colored, have small feet and hands, are not at all negroish in lips or cheeks like some of the coast tribes, nor so thickset, short-necked, or heavy-featured in general.

One of the most striking of the geological features of this region are immense gravel deposits displayed in sections on the walls of the river gorges. About two miles above the North Fork confluence there is a bluff of basalt three hundred and fifty feet high, and above this a bed of gravel four hundred feet thick, while beneath the basalt there is another bed at least fifty feet thick.

From "Ward's," seventeen miles beyond Telegraph, and about fourteen hundred feet above sea-level, the trail ascends a gravel ridge to a pine-and-fir-covered plateau twenty-one hundred feet above the sea. Thence for three miles the trail leads through a forest of short, closely planted trees to the second North Fork of the Stickeen, where a still greater deposit of stratified gravel is displayed, a section at least six hundred feet thick resting on a red jaspery formation.

Nine hundred feet above the river there is a slightly dimpled plateau diversified with aspen and willow groves and mossy meadows. At "Wilson's," one and a half miles from the river, the ground is carpeted with dwarf manzanita and the blessed Linnaea borealis, and forested with small pines, spruces, and aspens, the tallest fifty to sixty feet high.

From Wilson's to "Caribou," fourteen miles, no water was visible, though the nearly level, mossy ground is swampy-looking. At "Caribou Camp," two miles from the river, I saw two fine dogs, a Newfoundland and a spaniel. Their owner told me that he paid only twenty dollars for the team and was offered one hundred dollars for one of them a short time afterwards. The Newfoundland, he said, caught salmon on the ripples, and could be sent back for miles to fetch horses. The fine jet-black curly spaniel helped to carry the dishes from the table to the kitchen, went for water when ordered, took the pail and set it down at the stream-side, but could not be taught to dip it full. But their principal work was hauling camp-supplies on sleds up the river in winter. These two were said to be able to haul a load of a thousand pounds when the ice was in fairly good condition. They were fed on dried fish and oatmeal boiled together. The timber hereabouts is mostly willow or poplar on the low ground, with here and there pine, birch, and spruce about fifty feet high. None seen much exceeded a foot in diameter. Thousand-acre patches have been destroyed by fire. Some of the green trees had been burned off at the root, the raised roots, packed in dry moss, being readily attacked from beneath. A range of mountains about five thousand to six thousand feet high trending nearly north and south for sixty miles is forested to the summit. Only a few cliff-faces and one of the highest points patched with snow are treeless. No part of this range as far as I could see is deeply sculptured, though the general denudation of the country must have been enormous as the gravel-beds show.

At the top of a smooth, flowery pass about four thousand feet above the sea, beautiful Dease Lake comes suddenly in sight, shining like a broad tranquil river between densely forested hills and mountains. It is about twenty-seven miles long, one to two miles wide, and its waters, tributary to the Mackenzie, flow into the Arctic Ocean by a very long, roundabout, romantic way, the exploration of which in 1789 from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean must have been a glorious task for the heroic Scotchman, Alexander Mackenzie, whose name it bears.

Dease Creek, a fine rushing stream about forty miles long and forty or fifty feet wide, enters the lake from the west, drawing its sources from grassy mountain-ridges. Thibert Creek, about the same size, and McDames and Defot Creeks, with their many branches, head together in the same general range of mountains or on moor-like tablelands on the divide between the Mackenzie and Yukon and Stickeen. All these Mackenzie streams had proved rich in gold. The wing-dams, flumes, and sluice-boxes on the lower five or ten miles of their courses showed wonderful industry, and the quantity of glacial and perhaps preglacial gravel displayed was enormous. Some of the beds were not unlike those of the so-called Dead Rivers of California. Several ancient drift-filled channels on Thibert Creek, blue at bed rock, were exposed and had been worked. A considerable portion of the gold, though mostly coarse, had no doubt come from considerable distances, as boulders included in some of the deposits show. The deepest beds, though known to be rich, had not yet been worked to any great depth on account of expense. Diggings that yield less than five dollars a day to the man were considered worthless. Only three of the claims on Defot Creek, eighteen miles from the mouth of Thibert Creek, were then said to pay. One of the nuggets from this creek weighed forty pounds [earlier versions state forty ounces -DEA] .

While wandering about the banks of these gold-besprinkled streams, looking at the plants and mines and miners, I was so fortunate as to meet an interesting French Canadian, an old coureur de bois, who after a few minutes' conversation invited me to accompany him to his gold-mine on the head of Defot Creek, near the summit of a smooth, grassy mountain-ridge which he assured me commanded extensive views of the region at the heads of Stickeen, Taku, Yukon, and Mackenzie tributaries. Though heavy-laden with flour and bacon, he strode lightly along the rough trails as if his load was only a natural balanced part of his body. Our way at first lay along Thibert Creek, now on gravel benches, now on bed rock, now close down on the bouldery edge of the stream. Above the mines the stream is clear and flows with a rapid current. Its banks are embossed with moss and grass and sedge well mixed with flowers-daisies, larkspurs, solidagos, parnassia, potentilla, strawberry, etc. Small strips of meadow occur here and there, and belts of slender arrowy fir and spruce with moss-clad roots grow close to the water's edge. The creek is about forty-five miles long, and the richest of its gold-bearing beds so far discovered were on the lower four miles of the creek; the higher four-or-five-dollars-a-day diggings were considered very poor on account of the high price of provisions and shortness of the season. After crossing many smaller streams with their strips of trees and meadows, bogs and bright wild gardens, we arrived at the Le Claire cabin about the middle of the afternoon. Before entering it he threw down his burden and made haste to show me his favorite flower, a blue forget-me-not, a specimen of which he found within a few rods of the cabin, and proudly handed it to me with the finest respect, and telling its many charms and lifelong associations, showed in every endearing look and touch and gesture that the tender little plant of the mountain wilderness was truly his best-loved darling.

After luncheon we set out for the highest point on the dividing ridge about a mile above the cabin, and sauntered and gazed until sundown, admiring the vast expanse of open rolling prairie-like highlands dotted with groves and lakes, the fountain-heads of countless cool, glad streams.

Le Claire's simple, childlike love of nature, preserved undimmed through a hard wilderness life, was delightful to see. The grand landscapes with their lakes and streams, plants and animals, all were dear to him. In particular he was fond of the birds that nested near his cabin, watched the young, and in stormy weather helped their parents to feed and shelter them. Some species were so confiding they learned to perch on his shoulders and take crumbs from his hand.

A little before sunset snow began to fly, driven by a cold wind, and by the time we reached the cabin, though we had not far to go, everything looked wintry. At half-past nine we ate supper, while a good fire crackled cheerily in the ingle and a wintry wind blew hard. The little log cabin was only ten feet long, eight wide, and just high enough under the roof peak to allow one to stand upright. The bedstead was not wide enough for two, so Le Claire spread the blankets on the floor, and we gladly lay down after our long, happy walk, our heads under the bedstead, our feet against the opposite wall, and though comfortably tired, it was long ere we fell asleep, for Le Claire, finding me a good listener, told many stories of his adventurous life with Indians, bears and wolves, snow and hunger, and of his many camps in the Canadian woods, hidden like the nests and dens of wild animals; stories that have a singular interest to everybody, for they awaken inherited memories of the lang, lang syne when we were all wild. He had nine children, he told me, the youngest eight years of age, and several of his daughters were married. His home was in Victoria.

Next morning was cloudy and windy, snowy and cold, dreary December weather in August, and I gladly ran out to see what I might learn. A gray ragged-edged cloud capped the top of the divide, its snowy fringes drawn out by the wind. The flowers, though most of them were buried or partly so, were to some extent recognizable, the bluebells bent over, shining like eyes through the snow, and the gentians, too, with their corollas twisted shut; cassiope I could recognize under any disguise; and two species of dwarf willow with their seeds already ripe, one with comparatively small leaves, were growing in mere cracks and crevices of rock-ledges where the dry snow could not lie. Snowbirds and ptarmigan were flying briskly in the cold wind, and on the edge of a grove I saw a spruce from which a bear had stripped large sections of bark for food.

About nine o'clock the clouds lifted and I enjoyed another wide view from the summit of the ridge of the vast grassy fountain region with smooth rolling features. A few patches of forest broke the monotony of color, and the many lakes, one of them about five miles long, were glowing like windows. Only the highest ridges were whitened with snow, while rifts in the clouds showed beautiful bits of yellow-green sky. The limit of tree growth is about five thousand feet.

Throughout all this region from Glenora to Cassiar the grasses grow luxuriantly in openings in the woods and on dry hillsides where the trees seem to have been destroyed by fire, and over all the broad prairies above the timber-line. A kind of bunch-grass in particular is often four or five feet high, and close enough to be mowed for hay. I never anywhere saw finer or more bountiful wild pasture. Here the caribou feed and grow fat, braving the intense winter cold, often forty to sixty degrees below zero. Winter and summer seem to be the only seasons here. What may fairly be called summer lasts only two or three months, winter nine or ten, for of pure well-defined spring or autumn there is scarcely a trace. Were it not for the long severe winters, this would be a capital stock country, equaling Texas and the prairies of the old West. From my outlook on the Defot ridge I saw thousands of square miles of this prairie-like region drained by tributaries of the Stickeen, Taku, Yukon, and Mackenzie Rivers.

Le Claire told me that the caribou, or reindeer, were very abundant on this high ground. A flock of fifty or more was seen a short time before at the head of Defot Creek,--fine, hardy, able animals like their near relatives the reindeer of the Arctic tundras. The Indians hereabouts, he said, hunted them with dogs, mostly in the fall and winter. On my return trip I met several bands of these Indians on the march, going north to hunt. Some of the men and women were carrying puppies on top of their heavy loads of dried salmon, while the grown dogs had saddle-bags filled with odds and ends strapped on their backs. Small puppies, unable to carry more than five or six pounds, were thus made useful. I overtook another band going south, heavy laden with furs and skins to trade. An old woman, with short dress and leggings, was carrying a big load of furs and skins, on top of which was perched a little girl about three years old.

A brown, speckled marmot, one of Le Claire's friends, was getting ready for winter. The entrance to his burrow was a little to one side of the cabin door. A well-worn trail led to it through the grass and another to that of his companion, fifty feet away. He was a most amusing pet, always on hand at meal times for bread-crumbs and bits of bacon-rind, came when called, answering in a shrill whistle, moving like a squirrel with quick, nervous impulses, jerking his short flat tail. His fur clothing was neat and clean, fairly shining in the wintry light. The snowy weather that morning must have called winter to mind; for as soon as he got his breakfast, he ran to a tuft of dry grass, chewed it into fuzzy mouthfuls, and carried it to his nest, coming and going with admirable industry, forecast, and confidence. None watching him as we did could fail to sympathize with him; and I fancy that in practical weather wisdom no government forecaster with all his advantages surpasses this little Alaska rodent, every hair and nerve a weather instrument.

I greatly enjoyed this little inland side trip--the wide views; the miners along the branches of the great river, busy as moles and beavers; young men dreaming and hoping to strike it rich and rush home to marry their girls faithfully waiting; others hoping to clear off weary farm mortgages, and brighten the lives of the anxious home folk; but most, I suppose, just struggling blindly for gold enough to make them indefinitely rich to spend their lives in aimless affluence, honor, and ease. I enjoyed getting acquainted with the trees, especially the beautiful spruce and silver fir; the flower gardens and great grassy caribou pastures; the cheery, able marmot mountaineer; and above all the friendship and kindness of Mr. Le Claire, whom I shall never forget. Bidding good bye, I sauntered back to the head of navigation on the Stickeen, happy and rich without a particle of obscuring gold-dust care.

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