Last summer, Ryan Peterson talked me and Gordon Klco into a first descent of the Unuk River from its source to sea. He made it sound like no big deal: Just hop in our Alpacka packrafts and casually float 100 miles downstream from the mountainous B.C. headwaters to the river mouth in Misty Fjords National Monument in southeast Alaska. We would shoot film along the way to help bring awareness to B.C.’s rampant development of large-scale mines on Transboundary Rivers in the region, in particular a proposed $5.3-billion mine on one of the Unuk’s tributaries, the Kerr-Suplhurets-Mitchell mine (KSM).
The expedition ended up being one of the hardest of my life.
Our pilot had to get a little radical as we scouted the immense country, and hopes for a mellow float from Unuk Lake through the upper canyon were dashed once we saw it from the air. The canyon held impassable waterfall rapids that poured into huge strainers; we knew we were in for a full-on bushwhack just to get into the upper river. Shit got real, real quick. It was this realization that might have helped me fill the airsickness bag with the full order of poutine that I had hammered down seconds before boarding our float plane in Smithers. Moments later, the floats of the plane settled onto the water of Unuk Lake.
As we set up camp and watched the northern light turn to alpenglow on the towering peaks around us, we were the most relaxed we would be over the course of our 100 mile journey.
I have a strong distaste for backpacking, and despite our efforts to slim down our kits, we each had 60-pound packs to to haul 10 days of provisions for the 100 miles of the watershed. Our Garmin GPS conveniently lacked any topo lines for the region and we were left mostly with instinct to guide us through the thick canopy of old growth temperate rainforest. There is little to no beta on the Unuk watershed, a rarity in today’s world, and Gordon saved our asses with his steadfast route finding. We spent four days hiking 36 hard-earned miles along densely forested ridge lines, rafting over raging tributaries, and tunneling through overhead devil’s club. There was zero sign of man.
Incredibly, we hit a high-pressure weather window with sunny skies and no rain – a complete anomaly for the zone, which is one of the wettest in the world – and even with ideal conditions it was still insanely difficult.
We fought our way down one of the Unuk’s upper forks, and arriving at the main stem of the river was cause for celebration. We could finally shed the weight of our backpacks for the comfort of our rafts. The Unuk consistently made us feel small, and blowing up our diminutive packrafts along the banks was no different. We were tiny. The Unuk is all glacial runoff, the gradient high. It loomed.
Floating downstream, there were loud consistent knocking sounds over the din of the fast-moving river; the sound traveled through the water column and we could feel it on the bottom of our boats. It took us a minute to figure out that it was coming from boulders being violently pushed downstream along the bed of the river by the heavy current.
There were two lava canyons downstream, where the glacial braids funneled into a deep torrent by the dark walls on both sides. The river became a snaking firehose with whirlpools and eddy fences that pulled and tugged at our weighted rafts. Gordon, an accomplished class V kayaker, led that charge, and without him pointing us through our lines, Ryan and I probably still be out there in the woods, trying to bushwhack around each of the canyons.
To be in the second canyon and to see the myriad of veiled water falls pouring directly from the lava was utterly magical. This was day six and about 75 miles into the journey. The pucker factor was still high given the dynamic hydraulics, but it was hard to deny the beauty of the place.
On day eight, we finally found the mellow braided river we’d been seeking for for the past week. It spread before us in dozens of strands, and we had to keep our flotilla close or we quickly could have ended up miles apart.
On day nine, the river’s current gave way to the tidal flats of the mouth, which stretched to the horizon in mist and rain. We had made it to the sea. The torrent of the headwaters was a distant memory, and it was quiet except for the occasional bark from a curious seal. Soon, despite the rain and fog, we heard the glorious rumble of our float plane on approach.
As we taxied for takeoff the pilot asked, somewhat incredulously, what we had been doing on the river. We explained the source-to-sea mission. He paused for a moment and said, “There were more people up there 100 years ago than there are today.” It wasn’t hard to believe he was right.
Two weeks after we completed our trip through the Unuk watershed, the British Columbia government granted environmental approval for the $5.3-billion KSM mine on the Unuk’s main tributary, Sulphurets Creek. The KSM development will create three massive open-pit mines to tap into the world’s largest gold and the second-largest copper-gold deposits, plus several underground mines. It will include a processing plant and tailings pile, as well as twin 23-kilometer tunnels.
As the name Sulphurets implies, the area has incredibly high concentrations of sulfides. When water in the form of rain and air mix with exposed sulfides, sulfuric acids are created, or acid mine drainage. Because of this, and because the mine will be located just 20 miles from the Alaskan border, the state of Alaska requested input on the approval process. Canada’s Environmental Assessment Agency rejected that request, saying that the KSM mine would likely have no significant adverse environmental effects.
KSM is one of perhaps a dozen large-scale mines being fast-tracked through the permitting process along the BC/AK border. Canadians, of course, have more direct options to fight this. For Alaskans, for the rest of Americans, the only real recourse is to express our concerns for the potential impacts downstream by petitioning the State Department to invoke transboundary treaty agreements.
See XBoundary, the film Rummel and Peterson created to explore these issues, here on AJ.
Supporters of keeping the Transboundary area pristine are rallying around Salmon Beyond Borders, which you can visit at salmonbeyondborders.org.
Photos by Travis Rummel and Ryan Peterson