The soothing burble of a snowmelt creek trickles up to my ears as I sit with my eyes closed, relieved to be off my feet after a gruelling day's hike. Around me, in British Columbia's Mount Edziza Provincial Park, is the most incredible landscape I've ever experienced: Towering glaciers tumble over the empty peak of Edziza itself, a long-dormant volcano; fierce, contorted lava flows stand in stark contrast against the blue of the sky; and reddish-black cinder cones and craters erupt out of the flat expanse of alpine tundra.
"Psst," whispers my backpacking partner, Darcy Mathews, breaking the reverie. I open my eyes to see a full-grown caribou standing in the dust just a few metres away, staring at us intently. Grinning, I reach for my camera as the curious creature sniffs the air and watches.
Situated in the Stikine region of northwestern B.C., Mount Edziza remains largely untouched. There are no roads into the park and only a few hiking routes, which are extremely challenging at best, simply impassable at worst. A few air charter companies serve the park by floatplane and helicopter, offering flights as well as scenic tours that are worth the trip alone. Along with caribou, the park is home to grizzly and black bears, foxes, wolves, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
The 230,000-hectare area - the volcanic complex was designated as protected in 1972 - is home not only to a distinctive ecosystem, but some of the most incredible archeological artifacts in B.C. While I was tempted by the backpacking and photogenic scenery, it was the knowledge of these artifacts that lured Mathews, an archeologist, to the area. The biggest draw? Obsidian.
Essentially volcanic glass, obsidian has remarkable tool-making properties. Easily worked, it can be made extremely sharp (obsidian blades can be honed to just three nanometres) and even today is used in surgery.
For thousands of years, native people trekked in this area to collect the valuable rock, leaving an imprint that is, quite literally, etched into the ground. The trails we travelled from our floatplane drop-off are not so much trails as ruts, traced along an ancient route that saw seasonal travel to and from extensive obsidian quarries to the south of the mountain. Those quarries are immense, vast valleys of sparkling black glass, the ground covered with the archeological evidence of a thriving culture, where every step now is a step into the past.
It's hard to imagine crossing the rough alpine terrain while carrying huge and heavy quantities of obsidian, but that's what they did. And the products of their efforts in Edziza travelled around the trade routes in the province and beyond.
In the present, the sun slowly dips down below the horizon, leaving behind one of those skies you see on inspirational calendars. The inquisitive caribou loses interest as we eat our dinner in the dust of Cocoa Crater. That comforting little creek is chattering quietly nearby as it winds its way down from the crater, dribbling through the dust. The katabatic winds start to coolly slide down from the glaciers above us.
The next day, we wake again to a stunning blue sky. On setting out, we immediately enter a different world to the one we've been travelling in, a lifeless landscape of rocks and dust punctuated by patches of snow. It feels like a museum, a place that makes you instinctively whisper. Under the watchful eye of the mountain, I start to feel as if even leaving footprints is invasive, but then I remember how small I am in this landscape. The world around stretches out, seemingly infinite, and gently reminds me it's been here a long time before I came, and will be here long after I go.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Pack your bags
GETTING THERE By car, head north on Highway 37 from Kitwanga, B.C. (between Smithers and Terrace) or south from Watson Lake, Yukon. By air, Northern Thunderbird Air ( ntair.ca) flies from Smithers to Dease Lake. Flights into the park are available from Tatogga Lake Resort, Iskut, Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek. WHERE TO STAY There are no facilities in the park. However, if you plan on viewing the park from the air, there are motels and maintained campgrounds in Iskut and Dease Lake. WHERE TO EAT Tatogga Lake Resort tatogga.ca. The restaurant here does a fantastic bison burger, but they aren't licensed, so a cold beer will have to be downed elsewhere. MORE INFORMATION www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/mt_edziza/