Issue 8 | The Bird Blog - Arc'teryx

Issue No. 8 // Terra Firma

Editorial // by Jill Macdonald

TERRA FIRMA

“Between heaven and earth”. It describes something we all feel at times, suspended in the drama of life, witnessing beauty so intense that our senses can hardly process the experience.
Humans need anchors. Terra firma allows us to locate our earthly existence. It gives us confidence, ignites curiosity, restores perspective. It is part of our collective subconscious.
This issue celebrates place. Places of refuge and identity. Places that move us, teach us, and reflect what we have already learned. The ideal world is not in our imagination; it is terra firma.

TAKING BACK THE LAND

In the Yukon, Carcross/Tagish First Nation youth are building world class singletrack trails and ski touring, redefining their people's mountain culture and leading their elders toward a new future.

COMMON WEALTH

BC photographer Jordan Manley set out to capture the unique identity of rock climbing in the UK. He brought back a vision that connects land to building to human movement and culture.

UPSIDE DOWN

Sisters Zoya Lynch, photographer, and Izzy Lynch, skier, face a moment of existential doubt. 13,000 km from home, in a New Zealand mountain setting, each rediscovers her way.

"The choice to explore outer reaches where ancestors didn’t dare to tread."
Words and Photography by Derek Crowe

TAKING BACK THE LAND

In the Yukon, Carcross/Tagish First Nation youth are building world class singletrack trails and ski touring, redefining their people's mountain culture and leading their elders toward a new future.

Legend has it that Tsélgi Shaa, or Montana Mountain, is one of four peaks in the Carcross area that Game Mother used to string up a hammock and gather her animal creations before she released them to live across the land. “Carcross” itself is the truncated version of “Caribou Crossing”, the original name for this funnel point in the migration route of a herd once so plentiful that its downslope movement in the fall created the surreal impression of mountains crumbling.

The preamble and aftermath of the Gold Rush, and manic rush of the Alaska Highway some 45 years later, changed all of this. Endless streams of people and riches flowed through these valleys, first in a stampede that posed a brief and annoying interruption to daily life, and then as a lingering houseguest who brought with them a highway, guns and trucks full of booze.

Decades of boom-bust industry have left their mark on Montana Mountain. The daring feats of catskinners are etched across the mountainside, permanent reminders of industry’s dogged pursuit of silver and gold. Far below in Carcross, the scars are more subtle, but equally persistent—the decaying foundation of the former residential school, empty liquor bottles discarded under groves of spruce trees, caught along the stunning, windswept expanse of beach and dunes extending beyond the schoolyard fence.

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Once a boom-town, an aerial view of Bennett Lake Station

In 2006, Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) undertook a small initiative with a big dream. The Singletrack to Success (S2S) Project’s vision was to “build a destination, one trail at a time,” and to employ its youth in doing so. It was the year before C/TFN signed its land claim agreement with the Yukon and Canadian governments, marking the return of autonomy over its lands, resources, and people. The question of economic self-sufficiency loomed large on the collective conscience of C/TFN citizens. The environmental impacts of mining were deemed too great; no, this Nation needed to find another way. Tourism offered a viable option, and trails—the “paydirt” of the adventure-fueled travelling set—were a tangible starting point.

Niko Helm and Shane Wally began their working lives with S2S, building and restoring trails on their ancestral mountain. My wife Jane and I moved to Carcross in 2006 to shepherd the project along and have remained closely involved ever since. Niko, Shane and I spent months together on that mountain, toiling, problem-solving, laughing, and learning. The last weeks we shared were in the waning summer of 2010, when we constructed a 900-foot boardwalk mid-mountain, the final piece in the restoration of a 105-year old wagon road. In retrospect, that boardwalk could be viewed as a symbolic point of divergence for the two young men; in the years that followed, Niko headed for the alpine to explore the boundaries of rock and ice, while Shane returned to the village below to mentor the next generation of youth. But a closer look reveals a convergence of their efforts: both are at the forefront of redefining the mountain culture of their people.

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Youth are striving to maintain their nation’s connection to the land and animals through building and riding trails.

The discovery of gold in the Klondike forever changed this land. Between 1896 and 1898, some 30,000 stampeders forged their way from tidewater over the Chilkoot trail into the Yukon interior. The Chilkoot traverses a weakness in the Coast Range, terminating some 50 kilometres south of Carcross, and was for centuries the exclusive trading domain of the interior Tagish people and their coastal cousins, the Tlingit. Where the Tagish and Tlingit approached the trail with expedition-like efficiency, the stampeders arrived hapless and ill prepared.

In an effort to stave off their inevitable famine, the Canadian government mandated that one tonne of supplies had to accompany each stampeder into the Yukon. Almost overnight, virtually every able-bodied Carcross/Tagish person, women and children included, was employed in the packing trade. The average load for a male packer was 57–73 kilograms, and the journey—some 42 kilometres over 1100 metres of elevation gain—completed in 12 to 14 hours. A Chilkoot packer could net a daily wage of up to $1500 in current dollars—not bad for a first foray into wage labour.

Racism and romantic preoccupation with more glamorous Gold Rush characters cast a shadow on the remarkable mountain sense and abilities of the Chilkoot packers. Keish—a packer for the European explorers of the 1880s and later the discoverer of Klondike gold—earned the nickname “Skookum Jim” by hauling a legendary load of bacon over the Chilkoot Pass. Niko’s ancestors Billy and Dan Johnson forged their own legends on the trail. But none of these larger-than-life characters ever rose to the prominence of Tenzing Norgay roped up to Edmund Hillary. Only in the past few decades has written history begun to account for the significant role the Carcross/Tagish played in one the grandest and most treacherous mass migrations the planet has ever witnessed. The oral history never forgot though, as the stories passed down from generation to generation in Carcross can attest. Throughout the post-Gold Rush chaos and 20th government policy intended to abolish First Nation cultural practices and language, the Carcross/Tagish people have never faltered in their deep connection to the land.

Niko’s family trapline boasts a unique pedigree, being the only one situated along the Chilkoot Trail, which is now protected and managed via a joint US/Canada historical park that has employed Niko for the past three summers. It was a brisk day early this October when Niko and I set out to ski a remnant of an ancient glacier high on Montana Mountain. When Niko first started building trails at age 17, he had just quit high school. There were times when his family worried for his future, and wondered whether he would make the right choices. Today, Niko’s home bears testament to those choices: several pairs of fat skis leaning in a corner of his tidy living room, his Parks Canada uniform hanging in the closet, his calendar too full with future plans to dwell for long on that hard-fought high school graduation.

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Niko's ancestral cabin on the shore of windswept Bennett Lake

Niko wants to become a professional ski guide. It’s a bold and somewhat unprecedented dream for a kid from Carcross. To that end, for the last few winters Niko has been tail gunning for Yukon Alpine Heliski, a unique operation that has expanded on the local tradition of camping at the high mountain passes separating the Yukon interior from the Alaskan ports of Haines and Skagway. Owner/operator Peter Wright uses a contract helicopter, RVs, and mobile sauna to chase fresh snow across the region—a quirky setup reminiscent of early days in Valdez. In the spring, Niko and Pete scouted a bold new 90 kilometer route, traveling jumbled, heavily glaciated terrain. Months later, Niko is still buzzing from the experience.
Before leaving, we stopped to visit Niko’s mom, Donna Geddes. In the populated southern Yukon, carrying out a traditional lifestyle requires every technological advantage. A quick survey of the property revealed the full gamut of state-of-the-art boats, ATVs, and snow machines—the tools that Donna and her husband, master carver Keith Wolfe Smarch, use as needed to live both on and off the land. Tired after 27 days at a remote alpine camp, her annual moose hunt was successful. The massive carcass—enough to feed four families for most of the upcoming winter—was hanging in the shed. She traced out the final butchering cuts for me. “My kids grew up not knowing about gristle.” Even so, moose are scarce—as hard to come by as a powder day in the fall.

In a boardroom in Carcross early this past summer, a respected Elder describes the seasonal movements of caribou on Montana Mountain to decision makers in the Carcross/Tagish First Nation government. A young voice is up next, respectfully correcting certain details and expanding upon others, confident and knowledgeable in the topic at hand. Those gathered listen with a mixture of pride and surprise. The voice belongs to 25 year-old Shane Wally, who has amassed a decade of firsthand knowledge about the mountain owing to his membership on—and for the past four years, leadership of—the S2S trail crew.
In 2006, Shane was the only kid in town with a decent mountain bike. Skinny, shy and helmet-less, he would spend hours building plywood ramps to launch his bike. It was his first job, and there was much to learn. Each morning he would dash to the local gas station to acquire the day’s provisions: packaged hamburgers, a bag of chips, and a few cans of energy drink. A heavy camouflage jacket barely kept the rain out on the miserable days. It took time for his humour, creativity and bush smarts to emerge. One particular day, mindful of his Elders’ teachings, he led the crew around the remains of a bull caribou as a show of respect. Later that summer, after I chose a terrible “shortcut” that resulted in wet feet for the entire crew, Shane quipped: “Never follow a white guy through the bush.” His insecurities, eroded by time on the land, gave way to its day-to-day rhythm.
Still, the patterns of small town life were hard to break. Sometimes Shane was late for work, other times he failed to show up at all. During his fourth season on the crew, he passed out in a snowbank on his way home after a party, an all-too-common story in a part of the world where suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for aboriginal youth. Slowly freezing to death, Shane awoke just in time, alive. The following summer, “the Wallyman” emerged. Towering at 6’3″, he broke axe handles and shovels with his seemingly boundless strength. Crafting hand-built singletrack became his passion and motivating a new generation of youth, all of whom watched in awe, his calling. He was a young man discovering his inner and outer strength.

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Shane Wally

High up on the slopes of Montana, permanent snow squeaks winter underfoot. Strapped to Niko’s pack, his tried-and-true technological advantages: frame bindings, four buckle boots that are a bit too tight and his skis, plastered with stickers from the latest industry flicks. Tired and sweaty, but happy to be where we are (after some dubious route-finding by yours truly), we bust open a package of salted moose nose from Donna. On an outing a week or so earlier, we had visited the skeletal remains of Niko’s ancestral cabin on the shore of windswept Bennett Lake. Inside was a note etched in pencil on a piece of wood, “April 1933. Going to Teslin tomorrow. Goodbye to you,” written by his great-grandfather.
Few people held out any real hope of the S2S project living up to its potential. The obstacles were simply too great: a run-down, ramshackle town rife with social problems, disaffected youth, skeptical Elders. The project exposed a generational divide between those who reminisce about the old ways and those who seek to redefine those ways through recreation. Some Elders still struggle to understand the notion that the youth are striving to maintain their nation’s connection to the land and animals through building and riding trails, and that to them, the spirituality of this sacred place is upheld by sharing it with others.
Four of the new recruits on Shane Wally’s crew this past season were too young to remember Carcross before these trails. Accolades and media have poured in from unexpected places—Japan, France, the UK, with publications like Outside and video crews coming to capture the 65-odd kilometres of this emerging destination. Real estate is being sniffed out by young families and active retirees.

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Past, present, and future all converge in these storied and sacred mountains.

Past, present, and future all converge in these storied and sacred mountains. On the face of it, the Chilkoot packers bear little resemblance to Niko and his fat skis, or Shane and his trail crew swinging pulaskis to the beats emanating from a Bluetooth speaker. The life-or-death imperative of traversing these peaks and valleys has been replaced by sheer enjoyment and choice: the choice to harvest animals versus visiting the grocery store; the choice to explore outer reaches where ancestors didn’t dare to tread; the choice to air that gap jump instead of planting feet firmly on the ground.
But a century and its technology are dwarfed, trivialized even, by the time immemorial existence of the Carcross/Tagish in this place. Change has been the constant, its presence signaling a millennia-old cycle merely beginning anew. Chilkoot packer or backcountry skier, these are Canada’s original mountain people, and they’ll continue to adapt and thrive in both peak and valley, on their own terms, in their own time.

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"We shape and are shaped by where we live."
Words and Photography by Jordan Manley

COMMON WEALTH

BC photographer Jordan Manley set out to capture the unique identity of rock climbing in the UK. He brought back a vision that connects land to building to human movement and culture.

Traversing a country’s roadways can be a great way to recognize subtle but significant patterns in the landscape, both human and environmental. In an age where it has become desirable to think and eat locally, it is interesting to see that ‘build locally’ was the order of the day hundreds of years ago.

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Last spring, I spent two weeks searching out climbing zones with British Mountain Guide Chris Ensoll and Arc’teryx athletes Katy Whittaker and Mina Leslie-Wujastyk. Over thousands of kilometres, zig-zagging from North Yorkshire, to the Lake District, to the Peak District, to North Wales, to the Isle of Skye, and finally, to the Old Man of Stoer on the high Scottish coast, I asked climbers that we met what made UK climbing so unique? Young and old, weekend warriors, camper van dwellers, and veritable legends, with a single voice they answered: It’s the diversity.

As we drove through the lakeland fells, Chris told me about his shepherd friend, a man in his nineties who had walked and scrambled over the fells his entire life. He had a particular dialect, highly precise, to describe the landmarks vital to everyday living, working, and moving around. Termed as the ‘mountain languages’ of the British Isles by author Robert McFarlane:

Shreep: slowly clearing mist
Fèith: a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer
Zawn: a wave-smashed chasm in a cliff
Roarie bummlers: fast moving storm clouds
Tor: a high rock or pile of rocks on the top of a hill

Each time we made our way through a new township or shire, the ubiquitous dry stone walls that shaped the roadsides also appeared in the surrounding buildings. Built in part to keep sheep out of traffic, the drystacks were a form of art, a live geology.

This relationship was a kind of lithic telltale, and it became a predictable rhythm where the built landscape inevitably gave way to unsculpted stone outcroppings.

Katy’s descriptions of differing rock were a form of poetry. “The grit has excellent friction but is quite rounded so you need to be good at holding slopers. The climbing is usually very subtle and technical. It also requires the climber to have excellent body positioning, movement, and trust in their feet.”

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Observing the relationship between people and their naturally occurring and built structures.

Slate, with its cleaved surfaces, “has barely any friction and is usually slabby… Like the grit, body positioning and movement are useful, but rather than smeary footholds, you have to be able to stand on tiny edges.”

Watching her move up a nearly featureless arc was to discover the gift of precise body positioning, the imaginary line in space where there is just enough friction to overcome gravity.

Quarries, crags, outcroppings—are these natural or human landscapes? After observing the relationship between people and their naturally occurring and built structures, I was left with the feeling that they are as equally historical and cultural landscapes as they are natural. We shape and are shaped by where we live.

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Jordan Manley

Jordan Manley is commercial and editorial mountain adventure photographer, based in North Vancouver, BC. As a senior photographer for Bike and Powder magazines, he has travelled from the Arctic to Antarctica capturing people who live, work, and play in the mountains...

Read Jordan's Bio 

"Rather than focusing on what the mountains had given me over the years, suddenly all I thought about was everything that I had to lose."
Words by Izzy Lynch, Photography by Zoya Lynch

UPSIDE DOWN

Sisters Zoya Lynch, photographer, and Izzy Lynch, skier, face a moment of existential doubt. 13,000 km from home, in a New Zealand mountain setting, each rediscovers her way.

For as long as I can remember, mountains have been the place where I felt right and skis have been my vehicle to access energy, motivation and inspiration. Fortunately I have been able to gather the support that allows me to dedicate much of my time to being out there, setting goals, achieving objectives, and building strength with each season.

Recently however, a string of close calls, lost friends and nagging injuries infected my mind with doubt. Risk. Injury. Death. Questioning. Rather than focusing on what the mountains had given me over the years, suddenly all I thought about was everything that I had to lose. An opportunity to explore the magic of New Zealand’s Southern Alps with my sister could not have come at a more perfect time.

I felt a bit wary showing up on another continent with my skis and no set objectives. But Zoya, a photographer and artist, reminded me that strict itineraries often mean missed opportunities and we should just go with the flow. Our first hit was Black Peak Hut. It was a place of contrasts; nothing but white peaks in one direction and dry valleys in the other.

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For the first time in a long while, the mountains felt like home.

As kids we tromped around alpine meadows at our family cabin on backcountry ski trips, changing direction whenever we saw a fun cliff to jump off, or a cave to explore, or a nice spot for lunch. Every day was a grand adventure, but it was never about the lines we would ski or objectives we would accomplish. It was about play and letting the mountains guide us, getting fresh air and spending time with each other.
Zoya’s camera lead us north, from Arthur’s Pass to the club fields and Mount Temple. Before we knew it, a week had gone by, in the company of new friends, new lines and beautiful light. For the first time in a long while, the mountains felt like home. Inspired by my sister’s motivation to capture the beauty of New Zealand’s landscape, our journey had helped me let go of the pressure to constantly push harder and further, and to appreciate where I was. By going down under, I landed right side up.

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Izzy Lynch

I grew up in the city, but the mountains are most certainly what raised me. Driving to and fro between the concrete jungle of Calgary, AB to the frosty peaks, icy rivers and wildflower-filled meadows of the Canadian Rockies weekend after weekend as a child ingrained a deep appreciation for all the freedom and comforts that the wilderness provides...

Read Izzy's Bio