Keeper of the Stikine | Adventure Kayak Magazine | Rapid Media
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Keeper of the Stikine Photo: Amy Gulick/amygulick.com

Brenda Schwartz-Yeager Connects With Alaska's Wilderness In More Ways Than One

“I don't have any early memories without the Stikine in them,” says Brenda Schwartz-Yeager, “I'm pretty sure the river’s water runs through my veins.”

A fourth-generation Alaskan, award-winning artist and owner-operator of Alaska Charters and Adventures, Schwartz-Yeager grew up homesteading on the Stikine. The 640-kilometer-long river originates in British Columbia and drains into Southeast Alaska, encompassing one of the greatest wild ecosystems left on Earth and one of the largest wild salmon runs remaining on the West Coast.

Schwartz-Yeager is losing track of how many times she’s paddled the lower 270 kilometers, from Telegraph Creek to her hometown of Wrangell—at least 11. She’s also paddled all the way from the river’s headwaters, but just once. Often, the mother of five paddles by herself, in late fall, after she's finished a season of guiding the river and her freezer is full of Stikine salmon. One of her favorite memories is paddling alone in October, as silver dollar-sized snowflakes fell, the last of autumn foliage shone and the river crinkled with ice.

“I was just yards ahead of freeze-up. It was like the river was closing down for the season,” she remembers.

Schwartz-Yeager’s acclaimed watercolors are another way she connects people with Alaska’s wilderness. Many of her landscapes are painted directly onto navigational charts of the area, a trademark she developed after sketching on the only paper available on her family’s commercial fishing boat. She often portrays the best of human interaction with the wild landscape—a kayak on the beach, or people walking the shore.

But Schwartz-Yeager also knows how easy it is to destroy a wild river. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that 40 percent of western watersheds have been polluted from mining. Her beloved Stikine could be next. 

“I'm terrified and feel strangely powerless,” she says of the Red Chris Mine, which opened in 2015, one of several enormous open pit copper mines planned in the Stikine watershed, in what’s referred to as the transboundary region. “Everything I love is downstream of that.”

The Red Chris Mine is owned by Imperial Metals, the same company that runs the Mount Polley Mine in central British Columbia. In August 2014, this open pit copper/gold mine had a massive tailings dam failure. Ten million cubic meters of toxic water and 4.5 million cubic meters of fine toxic tailings polluted the Fraser River watershed. Despite the Red Chris Mine using a similar tailings dam design, Imperial Metal was allowed by the British Columbia government to begin production at this site soon after.

“People are dumbstruck by its beauty, but then I have to burst their bubble,” Schwartz-Yeager says of showing visitors the Stikine's waters, mountains, glaciers and forest—then revealing that all is not as untrammeled as it seems. She believes that the Stikine and the transboundary region can be used to support future generations of Alaskans, but development “needs to take place in a manner that doesn’t degrade the forest and the sea.” Her hope is more like-minded people will continue to visit and take ownership of the river's future.

“You can't come here and paddle it without loving it.” —Bjorn Dihle

Brenda Schwartz’s artwork reflects her lifelong relationship with wild Alaska - marineartist.com

This article was originally published in Adventure Kayak, Volume 16 • Issue 1. Read this issue.

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