Photo by Liz and Anders Treiberg -

An Island in the Sky

Atlin is a former gold mining town located near the Yukon border in the extreme northern part of British Columbia.  From the moment I arrived there, I found myself staring at Teresa Island, which, crowned by Birch Mountain, rises 4,567 feet above Atlin Lake, making it one of the highest inland islands in the world.

 The longer I stared at this uninhabited mass of rock and boreal forest, the more I wanted to plant my feet on its snow-capped summit.  Finally, after I made a few queries in Atlin, I found just the right person to take me to the summit — an Austrian mountaineer-artist named Gernot Dick.

So it was that Gernot and I chugged off from the mainland in his motorboat.  Once we reached the island, he chose a route that followed a steep avalanche chute on the northwest side.  According to Gernot, this route would not only keep us out of the island’s virtually impenetrable forests, but it would also give us an opportunity for an advance sighting of any grizzly bear that might be interested in a human meal.

As it happened, our initial ascent took us through what a bear might have regarded as an alfresco restaurant — a dense growth of raspberry bushes.  Higher up, we began walking on top of an entire forest of lodgepole pines felled by an avalanche.  The footing was precarious.  A single false step could mean a sprained ankle or a downward tumble.

Gernot, who was nearly seventy, sprinted over the recumbent trees with the aplomb of a mountain goat.  Although much younger, I alternately walked or crawled over those same trees at the speed of a sluggish tortoise.

Having completed our traverse of the fallen forest, we headed up a streambed created by the summit’s melting snow.  Occasional patches of ice sent me skidding and sliding in all directions.  I looked up at the summit, and it seemed to be telling me, “Better the sideways path than the straight and narrow one.”

Photo by Carolyn Moore


A waterfall now blocked our progress, so we climbed a ridge and scrambled over more fallen trees.  Gernot unsheathed his machete and slashed away some of the more recalcitrant branches.  As he was doing this, he admitted that he preferred the island in the winter, when you can snowshoe or ski on top of all this debris.

At last, we were above treeline and hiking up a slope that stood at an almost vertical tilt with the rest of existence.  After an hour or so, we stopped to rest on an incline, and as Gernot played a medley of Tyrolean mountain songs on his harmonica, I gazed out on the world.

Several thousand feet below us, Atlin Lake was an expanse of turquoise that suggested the Mediterranean rather than the Canadian North.  Cumulous clouds sailed by overhead like a fleet of luminous cauliflowers.  The green of the mainland forests seemed to surpass any other green I’d ever seen, even in the tropics.

I informed Gernot that I was ready to make the descent.

“You’re not interested in the summit?” he said with a look on his face that suggested I was a wimp.  “This mountain, if you want to call it that, is only one-seventh the height of Everest…”

I shook my head.  For I couldn’t imagine the summit being as splendid a place as the one where I was now seated.  Also, I had the distinct impression that Teresa Island wanted to be alone now — alone with its waterfalls, its fallen trees, its raspberry bushes, and perhaps with even a few bears, but without a pair of human invaders.

And so we started down.

Lawrence Millman is the author of 18 books, including such titles as Last Places, Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Lost in the Arctic, and—forthcoming— The Last Speaker of Bear. He has a fungal species named after him, Inonotus millmanii, and will soon have a velvet worm named after him.  He keeps a post office box in Cambridge, MA.

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