Confluences | Kate Harris | Granta


Kate Harris

Cross the creek at the weir, you can’t miss the trail, there’s a sign, explained Shirley. Then she and Steve walked us there just for something to do. Between tree trunks, Kuthai Lake showed in bright, blank glimpses, like a cloud held to the ground. The plywood walls of buildings at the fisheries camp had warped and weathered grey. There were more cabins and sheds and huts than purposes I could imagine for them, given the camp’s seasonal population of two. For sixty days the young Tlingit couple had been stationed here, tasked with counting the sockeye returning to the lake to spawn: at first a dozen a day, then hundreds, sliding like bright clots of blood up the Taku River and its tributaries in the region some call British Columbia and Alaska. When the run hit several thousand, Shirley built a smoker out of scrap lumber. Two months of rain, solitude and smoked salmon with pasta or rice had them eager for company and any food that wasn’t fish. Only four more days on duty to go.

It was early September, overcast, a cold edge to the air. Rounded mountains spiked with conifers hunched low around the lake. Trembling aspen were still green among the spruce and pine but shrub birches had started reddening along the muddy ATV track my partner and I had followed here, calling out, ‘Hey bear, hey bear,’ every few minutes. It had taken four hours to hike to Kuthai. We’d finally spotted the fisheries camp of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation by smoke rising through the trees. I was relieved a generator running outside a cabin meant nobody heard us calling to grizzlies as we approached, especially when Shirley mentioned they’d seen just one all summer, chasing a moose and her calf along the shore.

We’d never met, but most people who live in Atlin, British Columbia – home to roughly 500 – know each other by sight, hearsay or the community Facebook group. I recognized Shirley by her long hair and hazel eyes, Steve by the tilt of his ball cap and baggy camouflage – two profile photos come to life. We offered them potato chips and spicy ramen from our rations, and they offered us water refills and tips on walking the trail. It hadn’t been cleared in more than a year. It was easy to find in some places, hard in others. Shirley described distance on it in days of travel: most TRT families – shorthand for Taku River Tlingit – took three or four to reach the Nakina River. Her cousin could walk it in a day, just as I knew Jackie Williams used to, even in winter, with half a dozen beaver pelts strapped to his back.

The creek was fringed with tall grass and clear as breath. A wooden weir combed through the current. Sockeye hovered in the knee-deep water, bits of laminar flow condensed to flesh. In the ocean, this species of salmon – one of five that spawn in the Taku watershed – shimmers blue-silver. When they migrate back to freshwater, the orange-red pigments of their flesh are conveyed to their skin, turning the fish crimson. Our bare feet blushed a similar shade from the chill as we walked among them, scanning the far bank for the sign Shirley had mentioned. I wasn’t thinking about coming back in six days: crossing the same water, covering the same ground. I’ve always been impatient for the next page.

You have to hear the stories over and over again to really learn them, Jackie’s grandfather had told him, and he told me in turn. Then you have to tell them back a few times, to make sure you’ve got them right. Those stories aren’t mine to share but they braid with some that are. As for this story, I probably won’t get it right, not this telling or the next, but the first line is a trail and it goes up.

A piece of plywood nailed to a tree announced the nakina trail in polka-dotted letters. Painted next to them were a pair of birds, a leafy vine and some human figures made puny by blue mountains cracked with ice.

One version of world history in the Taku watershed goes like this: a glacier marked the limits of the known until suddenly the ice spoke up. The people on the coast could hear it, plain as speech, coming through a cold distance. Glaciers are sentient beings in Tlingit cosmology, but the singing and drumming that day sounded distinctly anthropogenic, according to Tlingit Elder Elizabeth Nyman. As she describes it in her book, Gágiwduł.àt: Brought Forth to Reconfirm: The Legacy of a Taku River Tlingit Clan, two groups of Tlingit were separated by the Taku Glacier. They would merge to become a clan of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, but first they had to dissolve the cold border between them. They did this, the story goes, by decapitating a slave and dragging his head across the ice, trailing blood. ‘It was as if hot water had been poured out; just like that it kept collapsing inward, the glacier kept collapsing inward [as if melting away],’ Nyman writes. ‘It crumbled apart in a straight line, creating a way for them to travel among one another.’

Glaciers are the gates to the Taku watershed, opening and closing over the ages. In 1794, a survey party for the expedition of British navigator George Vancouver reached the inlet and mistook it for a dead end. A wall of ice hid the Taku River. Floating bergs slowed the boats even in August. The expedition found nowhere to land among ‘undissolving frost and snow’. They made a hasty retreat and dismissed the Taku Inlet in the logbook for having ‘as dreary and inhospitable an aspect as the imagination can possibly suggest’.

A century later, when a young American woman showed up, the Taku Inlet wasn’t cause for retreat but rapture. At twenty-six, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore was already a celebrated journalist when she sailed up the Inside Passage on the mail steamer Idaho. She’d read newspaper dispatches by the naturalist John Muir on her country’s newest territory and decided to see it for herself. Muir clearly primed her to delight in Alaska’s difficulties, for she exulted in how the Idaho was forced to dodge ice floes in the Taku Inlet, where ice rose hundreds of feet from the water, ‘every foot of it seamed, jagged, and rent with great fissures, in which the palest prismatic hues were flashing’.

The same could be said for her prose. While too lush and high-handed for modern tastes, too pious with the prejudices of her time, Scidmore’s writing is redeemed in places by a sense of irony she no doubt honed on her usual beat: reporting on gilded age society in the national capital. Her ‘Washington Gossip’ column in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was syndicated in several newspapers across America. She published it under her middle name, Ruhamah, possibly in a bid to remain incognito while offering up gently skewering portraits of the moneyed and powerful: ‘This prince of pagans occupies a handsome residence on Lafayette Square,’ she wrote of a prominent lawyer; ‘Senator Logan, never the most jovial of men, has not been in an amiable mood for some time . . .’

This arch and confiding tone carried over to Scidmore’s debut book, Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago, published in 1885. Unlike Muir, who tended to leave people out of a scene lest they contaminate its wildness, Scidmore set the grandeur of the Pacific Northwest against the absurdity of those who came to see it. When she and fellow passengers tried to land on the Taku Glacier in small wooden boats, for instance, the moraine’s slope was so gradual they grounded thirty metres away. The crew of the Idaho duly shouldered the stout, wealthy passengers – men and women both – and struggled to shore with them through sinking mud. Despite the indignity of this arrival, the Taku Glacier seemed ‘so far away and out of the everyday world that we might have been walking a new planet’. Only the young Catholic priest among them was unimpressed. He spent his time on the ice hurling boulders into crevasses, then sat down ‘to munch soda crackers from a brown-paper bundle – while the wreck of glaciers, the crash of icebergs, the grinding of ice-floes, and world-building were going on about him’.

Scidmore was born in Iowa and raised in Wisconsin, then Washington DC, where her mother ran a boarding house. She never married, never had children, never had money or connections she didn’t earn with words. Perhaps her modest background made her particularly attuned, in an era when women lacked the vote, to who called the shots in Indigenous communities along the Inside Passage, where she noticed Tlingit matriarchs ‘giving the casting-vote in domestic councils, and overriding the male decisions in the most high-handed manner’. Elsewhere in Alaska, though, Scidmore overlooked the locals entirely. ‘There was something, too, in the consciousness that so few had ever gazed upon the scene before us, with neither guides nor guide books to tell us which way to go, and what emotions to feel,’ she said of Glacier Bay, ignoring the fact that Tlingit people hunted and fished in the area and had led Muir to it. Scidmore went on to write the definitive Alaskan guidebook of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, telling other tourists exactly which way to go and what emotions to feel, and kick-starting a mania for Alaskan cruises that persists today. Inflatable Zodiacs now substitute for a crew’s shoulders on shore excursions.

The contemporary equivalent of steerage class is the Alaska Marine Highway, a ferry service connecting isolated communities along the Inside Passage. I was twenty-two when I pitched my tent on the rear deck of one such boat, secured it with duct tape against the wind and set sail from Bellingham, Washington, for Juneau, Alaska, the modern capital located about twenty-five kilometres northwest of Taku Inlet. In my backpack were a pair of crampons, some topographical maps and Muir’s Travels in Alaska. I had yet to hear of Scidmore or the Nakina Trail. The stories I learned that first summer in the north, as a student on a glaciology course, concerned the physical mechanisms behind a glacier’s accumulation, compression, ablation and flow. The Taku was the only branch of the Juneau ice field still advancing; all the other glaciers were in retreat. After six weeks, we trekked down the Canadian side of the ice field to where it melts into a huge turquoise lake. Áa Tlein, the Tlingit call it, meaning ‘big water’, but I wasn’t aware of this either. All I knew was that Atlin, as my map identified a village on the lake’s eastern shore, was the first place I’d ever travelled to that I didn’t want to leave.

I met Elizabeth Nyman’s oldest son on a menu. ‘I’ll have the Jackie Williams!’ is something you still hear most mornings at Atlin’s gas station cafe, meaning one pancake, two eggs and a side of ham or sausage. Jackie chuckled when I asked him about his favourite breakfast, which he ordered so often the cafe named it for him. ‘Laugh and have fun with it, that’s what I like. That’s what the old people used to do. Give nicknames to people.’ I joked that he should give me a nickname, which made him laugh even more. Despite working together for several weeks by then, he could barely remember my real name, let alone a clever substitute. Jackie was in his early eighties at the time, but he could detail the play-by-play of Tlingit–Tahltan battles that happened centuries ago. He could locate villages, salmon caches and cliff art across the TRT’s traditional territory, a swath of land roughly the size of Switzerland, spanning the temperate rainforests of coastal Alaska, the glaciated Boundary Ranges above them and the coniferous taiga of northern BC and the Yukon. He could name all the mountains and glaciers and stars in the Taku watershed – the last roadless, damless, unlogged, ecologically intact river system on the Pacific coast of the North American continent – but I was a stranger every time I showed up.

I didn’t mind. My role was strictly secretarial, certainly at first. Jackie couldn’t read or write, but a friend at the TRT government had been jotting down his tales for years: about growing up on the Taku River, learning the old ways from his grandparents, evading residential school (and all the trauma and dispossession that went with it). This friend eventually helped Jackie self-publish a book, Lingit Kusteeyì: What My Grandfather Taught Me. A few years later, the Tlingit Elder hoped to publish a sequel, but everyone working for the TRT government was overtaxed: it isn’t easy running a modern nation with a few dozen staff. So I was brought in to read Jackie’s stories back to him, verify their details to his satisfaction and compile them for self-publication. When he blanked on my name, he simply called me ‘the writer’.

Despite commuting with a cane, Jackie usually beat me to the TRT government office in town, where we met every few days to go over his stories. Most days he wore a flannel shirt, a windbreaker and a brown corduroy ball cap with a cartoon bearded white man on it, fishing for lake trout next to the words atlin, bc. Under the cap his hair was silver and cropped neatly level. When he spoke, in a voice high and wavery with age, he had a habit of scratching the zipper on his jacket. Sometimes a young woman named Shauna helped read stories when she wasn’t busy with her TRT Land Guardian duties, serving as the ‘eyes and ears on the ground’ of the nation’s traditional territory. We often worried Jackie couldn’t hear us; a mining accident had left him partially deaf, and he tended to nod agreeably by default. But we knew for sure he was listening when he laughed in the right places: at the time he seared off his eyebrows playing with gunpowder as a child, prompting his grandmother to paint on replacements with charcoal and pitch; at the way the church bell in Atlin seemed to ring out the name of his friend: JOHN BONE, JOHN BONE! Once he’d stopped chuckling, he’d clarify certain details or tighten the timing of the jokes.

Even when he spoke English, Jackie’s words were faintly accented with hissing fricatives, glottalized glides, aspirated stops and other noises from the back of the throat I couldn’t reproduce. The Tlingit language has more than two dozen sounds not found in English, beginning and ending in different parts of the mouth. When I tried to pronounce Tlingit names, or phrases that had been transcribed phonetically, Jackie had no clue what I was saying. Shauna knew some of the language but even she struggled. We had to repeat ourselves until Jackie could guess his own meaning, mostly from context. He was the last fluent Tlingit speaker in town. His loneliness as we earnestly bungled his mother tongue must have been acute. After our sessions, I drove him to a local grocery store to pick up the scratch-and-win lottery tickets his daughter left for him behind the counter. Whenever he won a few bucks, he’d buy more lottery tickets, or use the spoils for an eponymous breakfast at the gas station cafe.

Jackie had many other names, none of which, to my knowledge, featured on menus. As a child he was known as Xóots, Tlingit for grizzly bear. As a young man he was called Jigé (‘It means, “you hold lots of things in your hand”,’ Jackie explained. ‘Like me, I know all the history.’) And when his grandfather died, Jackie inherited his name, Yáx Góos’, meaning ‘the cloud on the face of the mountain’. As for me, it was a relief to be anonymous, to wrangle with someone else’s words. At night I edited his book in the cabin where I’d recently finished one of my own, a travelogue as remote and skidding as Jackie’s tales were intimate and deep. Wanderlust was the narrative theme I knew best. ‘It must have been born in me like original sin,’ as Scidmore described the compulsion to roam. I’d moved to Atlin a few years earlier in hopes of resolving the paradox of my life: feeling chronically restless yet wanting, at the same time, to put down roots. I didn’t aspire to be a foreigner here, though it was my inevitable fate: I’d always be a stranger, a recent arrival, compared to the families who have called the area home since time immemorial – or, in the case of settlers, since the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush.

Jackie’s stories hinted at how to arrive more completely. Metaphors were not poetic to him, but the most accurate map possible. ‘The Taku is everyone’s grandfather,’ he always said. History is written on the watershed and so is the future. Proof is in the avalanche scar that anticipated the Alaska–BC border, Jackie explained, and also in the confluence of the Nakina and Sloko rivers. The Nakina is wide and deep, the colour and transparency of steeped tea; the Sloko is narrower, its depth impossible to fathom, clouded as it is with glacial silt from the Juneau ice field. Jackie’s grandfather taught him that these dark and light tributaries of the Taku River show how Indigenous and settler cultures should come together. The rivers merge just downstream of the southern terminus of the Nakina Trail.

Jackie passed away before his second book, Yáx Góos’: The Cloud on the Face of the Mountain: Storytelling and Tlingit History, was ready to print. As the pandemic hit, the First Nation still hadn’t found someone able or available to correct phonetic spelling in the manuscript into proper written Tlingit, stalling publication further. Around that same time, Shauna and the other Land Guardians set up an information stop on the only road into Atlin, notifying visitors that the area was closed for travel to anyone not living within a 200-kilometre radius. This public health precaution provoked a troubling community debate on social media over who gets to make and enforce the rules in Atlin. In response, the local board of trade posted a statement asserting that TRT authority only applied on Indian Reserve Lands. Accompanying it was a map of the nine small, scattered plots the Canadian government had pretended, in 1916, it had the right to grant those who have always lived here.

Any sort of confluence between worlds seemed, at that moment, a long way off. But I’d heard Jackie’s stories. I knew about the trail. The least I could do was try to get there myself.

We climbed steeply away from Kuthai Lake next to a creek we couldn’t see through the trees. I sensed a lot of sky around us, with huge slabs of rock in it, but mostly the walk urged a close focus. Mushrooms torqued up from the trail in a dazzling variety. Some were capped with dirt or moss from their hydraulic surge through the earth. Layers of sod furled back around them like blankets. Each fungus seemed to mimic something else: cauliflower, golf balls, cracked plates, rose-orange coral reefs, children’s drawings of domes on stalks with fine red gills. I thought about Jackie growing up on the land, learning the shapes of things from it, so that in seeing coral reefs on television or playing golf later in life he probably thought: mushrooms.

Within a day we were lost. First a bog swallowed the trail, but we found it on the far side. Then the path vanished in a large meadow. John Ward had warned about this. The TRT spokesperson, or elected leader, said the trail was deliberately left vague in places. He’d talked me through tough spots with the help of a topographic map: here a gully with shoulder-high vegetation would make us ‘feel like grasshoppers’; here a rockslide offered a view to a mountain ‘like a dove flying up’. But I couldn’t relate my notes on the meadow to what I was seeing. Or rather, they seemed to apply to everything. John had told me to find the firepit and look for a big pine tree at eleven o’clock; behind it would be rising ground covered in willows, and the trail would be to the left of that. But a clock bearing at the firepit with respect to what noon, exactly? I hadn’t thought to ask.

Big pine trees dotted the meadow in several directions. Rising ground covered in willows edged much of its perimeter. The distant mountains we needed to head toward were a blur of green, as if moving away at tremendous speed. We could have been anywhere, Russia or Alaska: the Taku watershed was nearly both. Jackie had shown me a photo of himself posing with the remains of a Russian fort on the Nakina–Inklin confluence. His ancestors had booted the Russians out when they tried to establish a trading post. Which meant that in 1867, when the United States bought a swath of land the size of Mongolia from a distant empire that purported to own it, Taku Inlet and Taku Glacier were part of the deal, but the upper watershed wasn’t. Unknown to the TRT, the land was already claimed by what would become Canada, though the border between BC and Alaska wouldn’t be settled for decades.

Among the names mockingly proposed for America’s newest territory, purchased for two cents an acre, were Walrussia, American Siberia, Polaria and Seward’s Folly, the latter after the Secretary of State who pushed for the deal. The government settled on Alaska, an Aleut word for ‘mainland’. Few Americans had set foot on it by the time Congress passed the appropriation bill, but they were somehow convinced of the region’s worth by William Seward’s boosterism and a thin report on its resources by George Davidson, a US Coast Survey geographer who had skirted the coast of southeast Alaska by ship. The interior was pure conjecture, as Davidson himself later admitted: ‘The whole area of Alaska and the Northwest Territory of Canada was unknown except along the river courses: and even these were very imperfectly laid down.’ Perhaps hoping to redeem America’s impulse buy with science, Seward asked Davidson to return to southeast Alaska to observe a rare solar eclipse. The path of totality on 7 August 1869 included two possible observing points: up the Taku or the Chilkat rivers.

These major salmon-bearing rivers feed into the Inside Passage 150 kilometres apart. This is roughly the same distance that separates Atlin and the Taku Inlet, and Atlin and the Chilkat Inlet: the three spots draw a nearly equilateral triangle on a map. Because the Taku is further south than the Chilkat, closer to the Russian-turned-American headquarters of Sitka, it was the most expedient choice for an eclipse-viewing expedition. Yet Davidson opted for the Chilkat, despite having to spend more days on rough water in an open canoe to get there. He reckoned the Tlingit village of Klukwan would make an ideal astronomical station – if its leader, Kohklux (Kaalaxch’ in Tlingit), decided to cooperate.

Scidmore later recognized this renowned warrior and diplomat by the bullet hole in his cheek. When another Tlingit held a pistol to his head over some grievance, Kohklux turned to look scornfully at his assailant just as the trigger was pulled. Weak powder meant the bullet merely dislodged a few teeth. Kohklux swallowed them, according to Scidmore, spat out the bullet and handed it back. She thought him ‘a chief of advanced and liberal notions, a high-strung, imperious old fellow’. As a boy, he had accompanied his father on the 1852 Chilkat raid that destroyed the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost of Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River, securing the Tlingit monopoly on the fur trade for another few decades. When the Chilkats found themselves residents of America overnight, without consultation or compensation, they became ‘excessively saucy and turbulent’, as a government official described them. Kohklux was imprisoned for some petty offense at the time Davidson arrived in Sitka. ‘He was certainly not in a friendly mood,’ the geographer observed. And for good reason: some Chilkat Tlingit had been shot while attempting to escape government custody. Kohklux only agreed to host the scientific expedition in exchange for the release of himself and his people from jail.

A temperate rainforest is a chancy place for astronomy. It poured in the days leading up to the eclipse, but to Davidson’s relief, the clouds parted on 7 August. As the moon covered the sun and the world went dark, he and his men let out ‘bursts of admiration at this magnificent glory in the heavens’. The Tlingit only cheered when the light returned. Kohklux was impressed by the American geographer’s apparent sway over the heavens. He asked Davidson to explain how he sent the sun away and brought it back.

I can just picture Davidson adjusting his tiny spectacles, hastening to clarify his lack of complicity in celestial matters. Judging from what I’ve seen of his diary, he was more interested in documenting Tlingit art and architecture than the rare astronomical phenomenon he was officially deployed to observe. At least his elaborate drawings of the ‘Grand Council House of Kohklux, Chief of the Chilkats’, a building now better known as ‘Whale House’, fill several pages of his personal notebook. The frogs, birds and human faces carved into the roof pillars are copied down in meticulous detail and colour. The eclipse diagram looks bland and slapdash by comparison: pencil sketches of wheels bisected by lines, with wiggles and red blobs on their perimeters. Davidson drew a similar diagram on the back of a Chilkat blanket pattern board to show Kohklux how the moon had slid in front of the sun. In ceremonial exchange for this knowledge, the Chilkat leader gifted Davidson something in turn: a map of the Indigenous trade routes used in the raid on Fort Selkirk seventeen years earlier.

Kohklux had never used a pencil before. For paper, Davidson offered the blank side of a coastal chart. Over three days, the Tlingit chief and his two wives – the sisters Tu-eek and K-aatchxixchhe – drew their 800-kilometre return journey on a map that spiraled clockwise. They represented rivers and creeks on it as lines, lakes as ovals and mountain ranges as darkened ridges between valleys. They drew landmark peaks three-dimensionally, as they would appear to someone travelling past on foot or in a boat. They rendered distances not in degrees of latitude and longitude but in days of travel, and orientation not by compass points but directions of water flow, upstream or down. The sisters gave Davidson more than a hundred place names to mark on the map, in at least three Indigenous languages. Apparently Kohklux and his wives were impressed by the technology of the alphabet, the way Tlingit words could announce themselves in a stranger’s mouth thanks to some scribbles (I have my doubts, given Jackie’s reaction to me reading phonetic Tlingit). What is certain is that Davidson was so impressed by their geographic knowledge, so convinced of its rigour and accuracy, that he incorporated much of it into the US Coast Survey’s official map of Alaska.

Other forms of Indigenous knowledge have not typically been taken on such trust. As we searched for the trail, still lost, I thought about a story I’d reviewed with Jackie that was set in this meadow. It was winter at the time. He was travelling the Nakina Trail with his father and sled dogs. The aurora was spectacular one night: blue-white curtains in the sky that every so often swooped toward Earth with a crackling, hissing sound. Whenever this happened, the dogs would duck and cower, as if to avoid being hit. Jackie saw the Northern Lights on countless occasions, but this was the only time he heard them. When I finished reading the story back, he was silent for a long time. I worried his hearing aid was acting up. ‘I stopped telling that one,’ Jackie finally said. ‘People thought I was lying.’

We finally found the trail exactly as described, at a bearing that was obvious in retrospect. Each day we lost the way forward, often for hours, only to pick it up again thanks to John’s directions and the faintest clues: a shred of faded pink flagging tape, a sawed-off branch, a spruce toppled by a chainsaw. Clean angles made by human tools. I have never felt such a fondness for stumps.

Kate Harris

Kate Harris lives off-grid in a cabin in northern British Columbia. She is the author of Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road.

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