I continue on my way down the valley crossing a deep fast flowing bright green river.
As the shadows lengthen, a sign indicating the Dragonfly Provincial Campground opportunely appears and I find myself on the shore of a narrow lake. Low mountains lie opposite, higher snow-covered mountains to one end of the lake and open sky to the other.
The surface of the water is undisturbed and the setting sun illuminates the tree-covered hills. I leave the bike at the site closest to the water and walk towards the open end of the lake. A melancholy cry echoes over the water – a rising and falling wail interspersed by maniacal cackles. Loons – a woman, walking with a russet coloured retriever to fetch her canoe, informs me. I am amazed and stand for a long time at the water’s edge listening to the birds call to each other across the lake, a beautiful and crazed chorus.
When I return to set up camp, the woman’s husband appears and gives me a piece of red Chinook salmon – Chinook are the most prized salmon. This couple are the only other people here.
I light a fire to cook this unexpected bounty and then after dinner with the sun already well behind the hills I go for a swim. While I am standing on the shore, about to enter the water, an otter surfaces nearby and glances as me quizzically, an intelligent and curious face, before slipping away, liquid form into liquid. The water is dark, the snowy mountaintop to the east still just illuminated, the sky to the west red, the low hills on the opposite shore already black. I swim out into deep water and float amidst beauty.
In the morning the sky, unexpectedly after yesterday’s sunshine, is a sullen grey, hanging heavy over the lake. I rise quite late, cook porridge, do the dishes, filter water, take down the tent, pack the bike and then sit by the water writing. A noisy pick-up truck pulls up and a man gets out – the park operator. I get up to greet him and he asks me how I like the park. We discuss the animals, the otter, the loons, wolves and bears. He tells me about spirit bears, white ‘black’ bears, that are common in the area.
Fred is from one of the local First Nation communities. He asks me where I have travelled from and I tell him, getting out my map to show how far I have come. He largely ignores the map but listens carefully to what I have to say about the route and the country I have seen, nodding when I talk about the Dalton Highway and the oil pipeline. He tells me that the only reason there is a road here, in the Nass Valley, is because of the logging. He asks if I met many people from native communities in Alaska and I explain that I didn’t because most of the native Alaskan communities lie off the road system.
Fred tells me about some changes that have been taking place for some First Nations communities in Canada. A treaty signed in 2000 gives his people, the Nisga’a, greater control of their land but he is sad about how much has been taken from them already. He says that in the year before the treaty was signed the local logging industry reached a frenzied pitch with trucks leaving with loads of timber twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He sees some hope for the economic future of the local communities in tourism and he wants the communities to invest in improving the roads and signage but this, he tells me, is a contentious issue.
I ask him about the hot springs that I have heard rumour of and he informs me they are on the road out to Greenville, the village where he lives. I get out my map but he is not very specific, mentioning a signpost on the road – a name in the local language – but he is vague about the spelling. He leaves wishing me well and I return to my writing by the lake until the grey skies break open and it starts to pour.
I ride in the rain, water gradually seeping into nooks and crannies, my shoes and socks sodden. After a short distance, I reach paved road and I splash on through the puddles until I reach a sign indicating New Aiyansh, one of the local First Nation communities. The village is set off the highway and I pause surveying the scene. I would like to see a local community but I feel a little intrusive, my motive simple curiosity.
On one side of the access road a large billboard warns of the perils of hitchhiking. “Is it worth the risk?” the sign queries. The image depicts a lone girl attended by two spirit entities – whether protective or threatening I am unsure – as an anonymous car approaches ominously. On the other side of the road, a large handsomely carved wooden sign welcomes me to New Aiyansh but I am uncertain of the sincerity of this greeting from the invisible community. I am, however, somewhat encouraged by warm waves from car drivers entering and leaving the road. I still hesitate and ride a short way down the highway in the continuing rain before, impulsively, retracing my steps and taking the turn off.
All I need is a reason to be there, I decide, and make finding a local map my mission. I cycle down a short steep hill and up a longer incline and come into the village just over the crest. There is a garage workshop on the left, as I enter the village, and the mechanic in khaki overalls returns my nodded greeting as I cycle past towards a community building watched over by large carved totem poles. The only other public building is the general store behind me and I hook back towards it, pulling into the expansive car park at the same time as the mechanic who waves at me with such enthusiasm I mistake him at first for Fred, of this morning’s conversation, the only person I can conceivably consider myself to know in this place.
Signs instruct me not to leave my bike parked near the entrance of the store but the mechanic tells me to ignore them. I enter the store self-consciously, aware that everyone else in the place is greeting one another by name. I realise I have to modify my mission as everyone else knows exactly where they are and has no need of a map. A lonely slice of pizza rotating in a food warmer is the most attractive of the fast food on offer and I purchase it.
I find myself outside again and the mechanic initiates a conversation which follows the standard trajectory – where I am from, where am I going, what do I do… Eventually, I ask him about the hot springs, still uncertain if the information I already have is sufficient to find them. Without telling me anything about how to get there, the man describes the pullout on the road where the access track starts. It is possible that all these snippets will fit together well enough to get me there in the end.
Fred walks by with a smile and a wave as I finish my pizza and cycle off into the rain to the Nisga’a Lava Bed Memorial Park.