Into the Wild
These here are God’s finest sculpturings. And there ain’t no laws for the brave ones. And there ain’t no asylums for the crazy ones. And there ain’t no churches, ‘cept this right here. And there ain’t no priests, excepting the birds. By God, I are a mountain man! – Line from the 1972 western, Jeremiah Johnson.
On a late August afternoon, I rolled out my door into the summer heat. I loaded my bike onto a public bus, and took it to the farthest stop of Vancouver’s transit system – Mission, British Columbia. What started off feeling like a daily commute through the city was actually the beginning of a three week solo excursion following British Columbia’s biggest, highest, wildest mountain range.
When I first discovered cycle touring, some eight years ago, I recall reading a journal describing the ways to ride inland, out of Vancouver. Highway 1 – A busy, windy highway with a reasonable shoulder. “The route of pure pleasure.”; Highway 5 – A huge climb while cars go by at mach speed; Highway 99, Sea to Sky Highway- Gorgeous views, constant climbing, terrible drivers, and rumble strips on the shoulder. “The scream and die highway”.
Well, I’d driven all these highways and could imagine all too well how horrible it would be to be blown off Highway 1 by speeding, exhaust spewing trucks and canyon winds, while my tires and face melted in the heat. After a few tours around the islands south and west of Vancouver, and a longer one in Europe, I mostly stopped cycle touring. My riding became confined to suburban forests and monotonous commutes. Pedaling on busy or paved roads still fails to captivate me.
Meanwhile, a siren song floated down from unseen mountainscapes. I found my way into them on foot or touring skis. I learned to climb them. But, the draw has always been the mountains, the valleys, the folded and broken panoramas more than the summits. Bikepacking has again changed the way I look at a map. Armed with lightweight gear and a sturdy, if simplistic, mountain bike, the lines in the Backroads Mapbook created a continuous dirt route out of the urban sprawl of the Lower Mainland, along the edge of the Coast Mountains, through hundreds of kilometers of dramatic wildlands. It is never flat, and that’s the point.
Once over the mountains from Harrison Lake, I followed the quiet side of the Fraser River. Though the rough 4×4 track over the mountains between Harrison Lake and Lytton was worthy of a mountain bike, I hammered through the first three hundred or so kilometers to Lillooet in three long days of riding.
It took another day until I found myself on singletrack, traversing over the Shulaps Range from the Yalakom River to Tyaughton Lake, the classic staging point for rides in the South Chilcotins. Unfortunately, this being outside of a protected area, dirt-bikes had found their way into the alpine and torn up what was meant to be a smooth trail through expansive alpine meadows. My hiking to biking ratio was discouraging. The views were not.
As the rain subsided at Spruce Lake, my journey underwent a sort of transformation from a ride driven by curiosity for something days away, to a quiet reverence of the rhythms of the trail. I’m not the first person to have ridden a bicycle on any part of this route. But, the feeling of discovery was real, and I doubt anyone has pedalled from so far.
At Warner Pass I stared off the edge of my mental map, down into the sweeping Taseko River valley. As if emerging from the confined sanctum of the Coast Mountains into the nave, space felt more abundant. A faint trail wended its way down the valley between stunted pines and through humic meadows. Here, the mountainscape commanded the attention of the sky above with symphonic gestures of grandeur.
I quoted to myself a favourite line from the 1972 western Jeremiah Johnson. “These here are God’s finest sculpturings. And there ain’t no laws for the brave ones. And there ain’t no asylums for the crazy ones. And there ain’t no churches, ‘cept this right here. And there ain’t no priests, excepting the birds. By God, I are a mountain man!”
Or, at least the views were pretty enough to stir up that sort of yarn.
One hundred kilometers from the next human I’d see, I could appreciate the divergent meanings of ‘Wilderness’. An atavistic fear of bears nagged, while I escaped into a similarly bestial satisfaction. It dawned on me that this is what draws me back on long cycling trips. There is nothing so good as to eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty, sleep when you’re tired, and put on clean, dry socks in the evening. There is nothing so satisfying as to swim in a cold lake when you’re hot, wash when you’re grimy, and chase away the cold with a campfire.
People often ask me if I’m not afraid to travel in the mountains or in bear country by myself. I am afraid of bears. But there is also something reassuring that these dangers can be resisted. Grizzlies can be fought with wit or weapons and cold fought with fire. (Besides, these dangers are often exaggerated.) This anarchic existence is a privilege, and is perhaps the reason cowboys have migrated to the Chilcotins for generations. For me or Jack London’s Buck or the cowboys that moved north with the tide of the law, this is the call of the wild. And what a boon it is to be able to escape into that kind of romance.
Riding north along the Taseko River the next day, a small hand-carved sign pointed the way up a track to Fish Lake, somewhere above the gorge. There are undoubtedly as many Fish Lakes as Beaver Lakes, or Trout Lakes, or Green Lakes or Moose Lakes, in Canada, so I didn’t think much of it until I spotted another sign at the junction with the forest service road. “Save Fish Lake.”
In one of the more shocking recent industrial proposals, Taseko Mines Ltd. proposed to drain this lake and fill it with tailings from the proposed Prosperity Gold-Copper Mine. The proposal to drain the lake was rejected by the government last year, but the mine was not. Now, they want to surround the lake with artificial ponds full of mine tailings.
The people who call the back side of the Coast Mountains home lead threatened ways of life. The cowboys, who based their living on the assumption that the Chilcotins were empty when they arrived – that what they needed to survive could be taken from the land given sufficient strength and cunning – are finally facing the lie this always was. They are learning to become ranchers, to ask for permission. The Tsilquot’in people, who have lived here forever, have been fighting a cultural war with the Canadian government, who assumed the cowboys were right, since Europeans arrived in the area. The tide seems to be slowly turning in their favour. A recent court decision recognized Tsilquot’in property title in part of their territory. It acknowledges that this land never actually belonged to the provincial government.
For tourists like me, it is exciting that the Xeni Gwet’in (the Tsilquot’in people of Nemiah) are gaining more power in land-use decisions in the Chilcotins. While the concept that aboriginals are inherent stewards of the land has an ugly, racist history (“the noble savage”), the Xeni Gwet’in seem to see themselves as genuine protectors of their territory. The Nemiah Declaration makes it clear that they have every intention of blocking all industrial resource extraction in the areas surrounding Taseko, Chilko, and Tatlayoko Lakes. The power imbalance between industry and natives is still very real, and I worry that the magic I experienced from travelling through a region where the landscape is still shaped more by natural disturbance than by large industrial projects will not be there forever. That the folks I met around Nemiah are so welcoming to privileged travelers like myself, who in many ways represent yet another presumptuous encroachment on their home, is inspiring. The people as much as the landscapes will draw me back to the area around Chilko Lake.
The ride across the Potato Range, between Chilko and Tatlayoko Lakes further fuelled in me a frenzied, exploratory drive. Such delusions of adventure are born of a city-boy’s romantic, Hollywood self-image. Even if I found myself occasionally pushwhacking, fooled off the horse-packer’s trail by cow tracks, the views of the Coast Mountains’ most impressive peaks – Queen Bess and Waddington to name only two – had me longing to force my way deeper into the range. A day and a half later, however, my continuous line of dirt riding ended abruptly when I reached the Chilcotin-Bella Coola Highway. Here, with what motivation remained from the Potato Range, and lured by a map-line, which showed a trail leading down into the Bella Coola valley, I resupplied with Dorothy’s fresh bread and hitched a ride 100 km west – avoiding a day of slogging on pavement to rejoin the dirt. Soon enough, pain and terror would supplant all notions of the proverbial ‘mountain man‘.
There are occasionally trails that do not deserve a write-up for their quality or scenery, but as a warning to others. It is generally easier to find information about top-quality rides on the web, than to find evidence that a particular trail is actually no place for a bicycle at all. The ride down the Sugar Camp Trail, off the Chilcotin Plateau into coastal valleys, falls into the latter category.
Some folks in the nearest town, Anahim Lake, assured me that ATVers had ridden up the Hotnarko River to the plateau’s edge. When I arrived at at the so-called Precipice, one of the two families living out there assured me that no one had been through in nine years (and never on anything but horseback), and they hadn’t done any trail clearing in five. I reasoned that twelve more kilometres of brushed-in trail would be better than an 80 km ride back up to the highway and down ‘The Hill‘.
Mountain Pine Beetle has killed much of the lodgepole pine trees of central British Columbia. The Sugar Camp Trail passes through an area that was killed early in the province-wide infestation, and the beetle-kill has reached an age where they are finally falling over. Every tree in the area seems to have defiantly landed directly across the trail. Piles of twenty or more logs, still clad in all their twigs and branches and stacked up to eight feet high, block the trail in many places. So, with the top tube of my bike slowly embedding itself into my highest thoracic vertebra, I climbed over one teetering mess after another.
At some point, while holding my loaded bicycle across my shoulders with one hand, and breaking a path through the sea of uplifted branches with the other, on top of yet another jack-pot of fallen pines, it occurred to me that I should turn around. Rather, it occurred to me that I really should have turned around some hours ago, and now I was in that awkward position ahead of several kilometres of torture, and behind an unknown distance of unknown terribleness. Unfortunately, when one has dug oneself so deeply into a pit of despair, the only rational decision becomes to fumble quixotically forward.
As soon as the trail reached Tote Road at the valley bottom, I could sense I was deep in bear country. The log piles on the trail had stolen my day and now it was dusk – grizzly hour. After a few minutes, I rolled past a small puddle in the middle of the road, with a few wet spots leading from it – an odd sight in such a dry place. Around the next corner I found a mother bear and her cub staring at me from 15 meters away. She’d heard me coming and was off the road. I spoke to her softly and rolled past. Though only 8 kilometres of 4×4 track from the highway, I realized I shouldn’t be caught riding that road in the dark.
I pitched my tent in the middle of the biggest clearing I could find, leaving lots of room for bears to see me and go around. As soon as it was dark, I could hear the splashing of bears in the river nearby. Then more splashing. Then two voices roaring. A grizzly battle over a prime fishing hole was going on meters away from my tent. Bears were crashing through the forest all around. This went on all night with more bears joining the fray. And I just lay there in my tent, terrified, with my knife ready to slice an escape route and join the battle.
After 1000 km and three weeks on the trail, I arrived back at the Pacific Ocean at Bella Coola’s harbour. A few short side trips past big trees and mysterious petroglyphs kept me busy for a few days in the valley while my aspirations for further adventures settled back into healthy proportions. Eventually, incoming fall weather, the lure of friends and comfort back in the city, and the need to make money forced my return home. And so I began the tedious process of hitch-hiking half-way across the province with a bicycle.
In Skyler’s Gear Kit
- Insulation Jacket: Westcomb Cayoosh LT Hoody
- Waterproof Shell Jacket: Westcomb Shift LT Hoody
- Bike: Surly ECR
- Tent: Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1
- Sleeping bag: Z-Packs custom
- Shoes: Scarpa Dharma Pro