Sunday, 14 February 2016

Riding the Sacred Headwaters - Part I: The Land Opens Up

This is Part One of a two part series - Riding the Sacred Headwaters.  

This story was delivered as an oral storytelling performance at the 2015 Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival.

The Land Opens Up

After my experiences with the Boothroyd Indian Band (See story here and here), I worked with some colleagues to officially launch the Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program with the intent of supporting First Nation communities to engage in trails and mountain bike recreation.  

With Boothroyd I felt as though I had finally broken through the fog of ‘Indian Act’ politics, Kafkaesque bureaucratic policies and programs, and the vagaries of corporate profit objectives, and had made an honest human connection with the communities with whom I was supposed to be working for.  

I knew I wanted more. 

The Chief's Ride
Unceded Tahltan Territories
This lead to the opportunity to participate in a unique event called the “Chief’s Ride’ hosted by the Tahltan Nation in northwestern BC, just a few hours drive south of the BC/Yukon Border.  It was through this experience, riding across the Tahltan territories, hearing their stories, visiting their villages and sacred sites, that I gained an even greater understanding and appreciation for mountain biking as a means for personal transformation, for community and cultural renewal.

I first learn about the ride while visiting Telegraph Creek, one of two reserves of the Tahltan Band.   People keep taking about this crazy ride that happens once a year between two of their communities over the course of single day.  Starting in Dease Lake, located on the Stewart Cassier Highway that leads up into the Yukon and joins with the Alaska Highway, and finishing in Telegraph Creek, a small village located in the Stikine River Valley  - one of the major salmon bearing rivers that drain from the Sacred Headwaters. 

The event is the creation of a man by the name of ‘Dunna’eh’, which means ‘Big Man’ in Tahltan.  Dunna’eh created the ride to inspire his people, especially the youth, to get outdoors, to live healthy active lives and reconnect with their lands and territories.  I knew this was something I am going to have to experience for myself. 

The Chief's Ride - Dease Lake to Telegraph Creek
The Ride

I am straddling my bike on a cold, wet morning in June, standing on a stretch of highway just outside of Dease Lake.  I'm staring up at a sign that reads ‘Telegraph Creek: 115km’.

The Chief’s Ride is a road event, following a partially sealed dirt road for its entire length.  

I have the greatest respect for road cyclists.  They are amazing athletes with incredible endurance.  Their Lycra outfits are to die for.  But for me, mountain biking has always been about trails: following paths that take you out into the wilderness, up into high alpine passes, along ridges with spectacular views, and down fast flowy single tracks that cut through the forest like a ribbon of silk.  Always striving for that moment when the ride becomes like a dance, a graceful union between rider, bike, dirt, earth and gravity and you experience a high when you hit the trail just right.    So, the idea of riding for 6 to 7 hours on a dirt road is not something that really appeals to me.

To start the ride, an elder is asked to say a blessing.  He stands before us, holds up his hands and speaks,  Creator we thank you for the opportunity to be here today on these lands that you have gifted to us. We ask that you look over these riders and see them safely across the land. 

He pauses, takes a deep breath and then continues.    

This is a long road, Creator.   With many deep valleys and long, long hills.  There are a lot of bugs, Creator, enough to bleed a man dry and leave him at the side of the road like a dried out husk.  There have been a lot of bears lately; they seem particularly hungry and aggressive this time of year.  I don’t think there’s a man alive who could outrun one on a bicycle.  And then there is that one dangerous part of the road with the steep downhill turn and the cliffs on one side.   My brother drove off that cliff last year.  He wasn’t hurt, but I would hate to see that happen to someone on a bicycle.  

He then speaks directly to all of us riders listening with a growing sense of doubt and unease. 

You will be tested, he says.  Each of you in your own way.  Just remember there is no challenge the ancestors will put before you that you cannot rise to.  If you keep your heart open and your mind clear, the land will open up and embrace you.

Dunna'eh (Big Man) Rick Mclean
The ride starts and it feels like an awkward high school dance.   We are not really sure what to make of each other as we start riding down the road, trying not to bump into each other.  

There are 17 riders from all over BC and from as far away as Colorado.  There is a mix of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal riders. There are some serious riders with expensive looking bikes and matching lycra outfits, and there are others riding classic ten speed roadsters that look like they pulled them out of a hiding place in the garage that very morning.  And there is Kody: a 15-year-old Tahltan boy.  He has been given a new mountain bike by his mom on the promise that he does the ride and he is determined not to let her down.

We settle quickly into the ride, each of us finding our own pace and the kilometres begin ticking by in a monotonous blur…5km…10km…

Any concerns we have about bears or other wildlife quickly dissipates as a pace car, generously donated by Aboriginal-owned CNFR Radio, starts blaring the classic rock hits of the 70s and 80s from two large speakers strapped to the roof.  Our soundtrack for the day.  The DJ displays his sense of humour playing “I Want to Ride My Bicycle” by Queen. 

We just kept peddling…15km…20km…

The road stretches on for an eternity
The road stretches on in front of us.   An endless tunnel of trees that press in on either side obscuring any view of the land. 

The Land decides to show us who's boss.  The skies open up and dump buckets of freezing cold water on us.  It comes down in sheets, blowing in sideways, buffeting us from side to side across the road.  The rain mixes with the chemicals sprayed on the road to keep the dust down creating a viscous, glue like substance.  It sprays up off our wheels and into our hair, our teeth, and inside our clothes.  It gums up our chains, our bikes emitting loud grinding noises like dump trucks stuck between gears. 

We just kept peddling…25km…30km…

When the rain finally lets up, the mosquitos and blackflies descended upon in relentless hordes of miniature-winged piranhas, attacking any patch of open skin and forcing their way into any piece of loose clothing.  It all we can do to put our heads down and desperately try and outrun them, slapping at our tormentors with one hand and praying for the rains to return.

Nothing, not the rain nor the bugs, seem to bother Dunna’eh.  He just keeps riding along, telling jokes and stories about the road like he is out for a casual ride through Stanley Park.  He keeps encouraging us. 

Be patient he says.  This road is like the Raven; it will play tricks on you.  The land will open up but you have to earn it; you have to be prepared to give a little piece of yourself.

Swatting away another mosquito, thinking about how much blood I have already given, it seems pretty clear to me the land simply doesn't want us there at all.

We just kept peddling…35km…40km…

My whole world shrinks down to the small patch of dirt road in front of my tire and every turn of my pedals, every stroke of my cranks becomes a supplication, an offering for just a few more metres of progress.  I can hear the music car from somewhere behind me, the DJ is playing “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.   

That when it happens.   Without any warning the trees give away and the land opens up before us.    It is the Stikine River Valley: a broad expanse that stretches out in front of us to the horizon, mottled with shimmering bright greens of Birch and Alder trees intermixed with the dark green of conifers.  

The Stikine River Gorge, a narrow, sinewy, rocky canyon cut through the centre of the valley like a knife has sliced it open exposing its rocky innards.  

In the distance we see Mt Edziza: a magnificent snow crowned peak with massive volcanic cones that rise up from her obsidian black slopes like sentinels, pointing the way to our destination, Telegraph Creek, that lays just beyond.  

The view makes us giddy, like we have been lost at sea for months and this is our first glimpse of dry land, filling us with hope and energy. 

Stikine River Valley

This is the end of Part One.  Click here for Part Two.  
This is the end of Part One.  Click here for Riding the Sacred Headwaters - Part Two

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