Sunday, 14 February 2016

Riding the Sacred Headwaters - Part Two: Same Spot, Different Place

This is Part Two of a two part series.  Click here for Part One.

Pulling Together

Stikine River (Photo: Patrick Lucas)
We follow the road down into the valley in one long swooping descent.   Around a corner we come upon a small group of horses standing in the road.  Many homesteaders in the area leave their horses out to graze during the summer months and these are standing perfectly still and calm in the middle of the road as if they have been waiting for us.  It seems like a mirage as we ride up to them without stopping.  They suddenly turn and start running down the road in front of us.  They split into two groups and move off to either side of the road, still running.  We are cruising along in between them.  We can feel the wind from their powerful bodies, their breaths coming out in heavy snorts and grunts.   The pounding of their hooves shaking the ground, the vibrations reverberating up through our wheels, into our bike frames and into our bodies.

We are riding alongside, almost eye to eye.  The horses decide to show us how powerful they truly are and without warning they suddenly galloped off ahead of us.  All the riders, all of us together, sprint as hard as we can, desperately trying to keep up, but we are no match and the horses run off ahead and disappeared into the forest like ghosts.  

The power and energy of the horses stays with us and we continue on as a group, peddling hard together.  There is a powerful feeling of connection amongst all the riders. We are in this together.  A feeling of calm has come over us and we are ready to accept whatever the land wants to do with us: embrace or reject us, we are prepared. 
(Photo: Jeff Samuel)

We start to climb a long steep hill, still together; every pedal stroke, the forward rocking motion of our bodies, completely in sync, willing each other up the hill.  Dunna’eh is at the back of the group, and like the captain of a massive war canoe he is calling out, urging us forward, “STROKE!  STROKE!  STROKE!”

Cresting the hill in a final burst of energy, we come out of the trees and find ourselves riding across the top of a high rocky plateau squeezed up between two rivers: the Tahltan on one side and the Stikine on the other.  The plateau is a long narrow peninsula that stretches out for nearly a kilometer and ends at a point where the two rivers came together forming into a single powerful current that carries on to the Pacific Ocean. 

The Heart of the Tahltan 

We stop, get of our bikes and follow Dunna’eh as he walks out to the end of the peninsula.  Standing together on a rocky outcrop we look 400ft down to the confluence of the two rivers, the clear blue waters of the Tahltan melting into the languid and dark muddy waters of the Stikine. 

A hidden world lay before us: a deep gorge with massive rock cliffs that rise up on either side.  At the centre of the gorge is a small fishing village: a string of colorful cabins along the banks where the two rivers collide.  The sockeye salmon fishery is soon to begin and the village is busy with people preparing for the harvest when they will string their nets across the opening of the Tahltan River to catch the fish as they swim upstream to their spawning grounds. 
The confluence of the Tahltan & Stikine (Photo: Patrick Lucas)
Directly across the river, overlooking the Village, a massive rock wall rises straight up from the waters edge.  At the very centre of the wall there is a large crack that spreads across the face of the rock like a twisted, snarling mouth.  From this gash, ribbons of rock streaked outwards in all directions, the epicenter of a cataclysmic geological explosion frozen in granite, a petrified sun burst. 
Dunna’eh turns to us, This is the most sacred place to our people, the very heart of our Nation.  This is Tahltan.
Siskia'cho - Big Raven
We scramble back to our bikes and ride down the steep road into the gorge, through the village, and down to the banks of the river. 
The Tahltan elder who delivered the blessing at the start of the ride is waiting for us.  He waits for us to gather around him and then, gesturing up at the rock face, he speaks in slow measured tones.

This is Siskia’cho – Big Raven.  This is the place where the raven, the trickster, coaxed the sun out of the earth.  You can see the imprint of the raven on the rock where he was burnt by the sun as it came out and rose into the sky for the people.

Looking up at the rocks we can see the faint pattern of a pair of massive black wings that spread across the cliff like a silhouette burned into the rock.
Our people have been gathering here since the beginning of time to fish, to trade, to perform our dances, our ceremonies, our songs and to tell our stories.  This is what makes us Tahltan.  Without this place, there would be no Tahltan.
Standing before Siskia'cho - Big Raven (Photo: Jeff Samuel)
Dunna’eh directs us to dip our bikes into the river to wash them of all the grime and dust that we have carried with us along our journey.  One by one we all take turns picking up our bikes, walking into the cold waters, and plunging them down into the water where the rivers come together, blessing our bikes at the very centre of this magical, sacred place.  My turn comes and I lift my bike up and carry it into the river.  As I bring my bike down into the water I have a vision of this place from 1,000’s of years before: the volcanoes exploding, the lava flowing across the land, the Stikine and Tahltan river running together and meeting for the first time, the Raven clawing and shattering the rock and releasing the sun into the sky. 
Photo: Jeff Samuel
I stand up and pull my bike out of the waters and I see generations of salmon fighting their way up the streams and the rivers, the Tahlan people building a vibrant and prosperous culture that has endeared for millennia.
I lift my bike back up over my head and walk back to the shore.  As I reach the banks I stumble and fall on to my knees, exhausted.  I look up at my fellow riders gathered around the banks, talking and laughing.  Behind them the rock walls of the gorge rise up around us.  I can feel the ancestors of the Tahltan looking down on us.
Same Spot, Different Place
I turn over and lay back, catching my breath.  Looking up I see a small car on the cliff tops above the village.  I watch it drives down the road and into the village.  It stops just a few feet away from us and two people, a man and a woman, get out.  They appear to be tourists and, without even leaving the side of their car, they quickly look about, snap a couple of pictures, and then jump back in and drive off, leaving us all in a cloud of dust.  

I watch them go thinking, Wow, we are in the same spot, but we are not in the same place.
Telegraph Creek on the Banks of the Stikine (Photo: Patrick Lucas) 
Telegraph Creek
We still have a short ways to go to reach our final destination of Telegraph Creek.  We crawl up a long hill up out of the gorge.  At the top we are greeted by a group of Tahltan youth on bikes prepared to escort us the final distance to the community.
As we near the village, there is one last hill to climb.  The kids who have joined us attack it vigour.  It is too steep and those of who have been riding for more than seven hours since the beginning of the day, find ourselves struggling up the final grade while pushing one of the kids along with us.  With one hand pushing against their backs, the kids stand up on their pedals, legs pumping furiously, driven by the cheering and clapping of their families who are waiting at the top.  
Kody, the young boy who has ridden with us for the entire day, is at the front of the pack, standing up, leaning over his handlebars, arms pumping his bike back and forth under his body, determined to reach his mom who was dancing and jumping up and down with excitement.  

The music car is right behind us blasting “We Are The Champions” by Queen.  
(Photo: Jeff Samuel)

Just as we reach the summit, each of us give the youth we are pushing one last final shove so they can ride the final few metres into their parents waiting arms.  The crowd erupts.   

The looks of pride from parents for their children, smiling and happy, makes everything we've ridden through feel worth it.   The bugs, the rain, the endless hours of riding, all of it. 
We continue on through the community and down to the banks of the Stikine River to where the Tahltan have set up a community feast and celebration.  The whole community has come down to celebrate and we are treated to fresh salmon, along with singing, drumming and dancing. 
Tahltan Singer - Welcoming Song (Photo: Jeff Samuel)
The lower part of Telegraph Creek, away from the main residential area, is mostly a ghost town.  A row of dilapidated abandoned homes, storefronts, and a church overlooking the Stikine River.   At one point it had been a thriving colonial outpost.  The furthest point on the river where the steamboats could safely navigate.  Here they would drop off supplies, and trade goods for furs.  This had been the place where thousands of people had disembarked on their way to the Cassier gold rush seeking their fortune in the distant mountains.  All of that is gone now, but the Tahltan are still here, protecting their lands, their culture, their way of life. 
Walking about the village and viewing the empty buildings I can feel the weight of history all around, along with the hopes and dreams of the Tahltan for their future.   

I think about everything that has happened throughout the day, the challenges of the ride, Siskia’cho and the fishing village.  The Tahltan people have opened up to us.  They invited us onto their lands and shared their world with us.  

I notice the elder who has been with us throughout the day standing nearby.  I look at him and he looks back at me.   A warm generous smile spreads across his weathered face and he gives me an almost imperceptible nod and a wink. 
River Song Lodge - Telegraph Creek (Photo: Seb Kemp)
Bike Park & Trails
(Photo: Daniel Scott)

(Photo Daniel Scott)
Deeply impacted by this experience, we worked with the community to develop a plan with the guidance and input of youth in the community to build a small bike park and trails.  

With the assistance of Daniel Scott, from the International Mountain Bicycle Association, the kids in the community worked together over a period of six days building a small pump track as well as a couple of kilometres of trails.  

 The community formed a small youth trail crew that spent the summer out on the land rebuilding and revitalizing their ancient pathways.  Today the community continues with the annual ride, now called the Tour de Telegraph, and working diligently to protect their territories and their way of life.

Pump Track in Telegraph Creek (Photo: Daniel Scott)
Talhtan Youth Trail Crew (Photo: Daniel Scott)

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