” During the spring of 2019, Norm Hann and I set out from the Gitga’at community of Hartley Bay, tucked in the deep fjords of Northern British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. Our goal was to follow an ancient and long-disused section of a traditional Grease Trail, once employed by coastal nations carrying oolichan grease to the interior, where it would be traded for furs and meat. For years, Norm — pioneer of the Stand project and an adopted member of Gitga’at Raven Clan – had heard whispers of the route. Traveling up the Quall River, the path lead over a low portage, into the mysterious Ecstall drainage, and finally down to the Skeena. Being long-time SUP expedition enthusiasts, Norm and I saw it as a perfect test; taking us upstream, through rugged bush, down unknown rapids, and finally out onto the open ocean. After receiving the blessing of Gitga’at elder Helen Clifton, and invaluable route advice from community members, we set out, carrying seven days of food and minimal camping equipment on inflatable paddleboards.
For two days, we pushed up the Quall, as it slowly shrank into an ankle-deep creek. With fins off, we dragged our SUPs over rocks, across tumbled log jams, and through thickets of scratchy Devil’s Club. Soon exhaustion set it and progress slowed to a crawl. Shins and forearms grew scratched and bloody. It took three hours to cover a kilometer.
‘You’ll know the portage trail when you see it,’ Spencer Greening told us, a young First Nations Archeologist working in the region. ‘You’ll know many feet have walked there.’
I wondered how a trail could still exist after a century of neglect, but Spencer was right. Abruptly, amidst rocky slopes and Avitar-like Sitka spruce, an unmistakable trail materialized, leading over the mountains and to the sandy banks of Eckstall. That night we camped in the shadow of a driftwood log, ten-feet in diameter.
The next day we launched in drizzle, unaware and unprepared for the wonders that awaited downstream. The river was playful, weaving and turning as it descended class III boulder gardens. Elsewhere it was glassy-smooth, a crystal-clear conveyor belt, that carried us into the largest intact-yet-unprotected old-growth rainforest on the British Columbia coast, a world of lush green and constant birdsong. The overriding sensation in this ancient forest was not the uniformity we grew accustomed to in modern replanted stands, but rather a perfect wildness; the sense that everything was exactly where it was supposed to be.
For three days the Eckstall continued to grow, until it felt more like a fjord than a river. Silt lined the banks. Tides pushed and pulled us back and forth. It seemed we had left the great, hidden wonders behind. And then we rounded the corner pictured above.
Stumbling face-to-face into granite monoliths – the scale and grandeur of Yosemite – we paddling right to the base of the steepest cliffs and lay speechless on our boards for hours, warmed by the sun, munching on energy bars, and gazing up at the impossibly sheer walls of rock.
We would later press on, past log booms and busy shipping-container ports on the ocean, to the First Nation village of Metlakatla, north of Prince Rupert, but by that point, the wilderness had released us.”
– Bruce Kirby