Cassiar Trail - Alaska travels


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 _Linnæa borealis_, and forested

with small pines, spruces, and aspens, the tallest fifty to sixty feet


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 pre-glacial

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.

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


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


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


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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