Call of the Wild: Bikepacking B.C.’s Coast Mountains – Part 2

Warner Pass to Tatla Lake – via Taseko River, Taseko Lake, Nemaiah Valley, Tsuniah Valley, Chilko Lake, Potato Range, Cheshi Creek, and Tatlayoko Lake.

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.

“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!” From the 1972 western film, Jeremiah Johnson.

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.

The trail down from Warner Pass passed through stunted pines and humic meadows…

…beneath snow-peaks, and gravel ridges.

Not far below the pass, I found a horsepackers’ camp. I washed some clothes in the creek…

…and cooked some food on the fire.

In the morning, 30km of singletrack and ATV trail brought me to the shore of Upper Taseko Lake.

If it was later in the day, I would have been tempted to stay the night in this unlocked hunting cabin by the lake.

I had hoped to follow a trail, labeled Taseko Lake Trail on my map, along the shore of Taseko lake. Unfortunately I could not find the trailhead. I suspect the trail hasn’t been used for decades, and is grown in…

The consolation prize for the non-trail was a 700m push up a 4×4 road too loose and rough to ride. At the top though, this blissful subalpine two-track greeted me…

…and the bliss went on…

…under Mount Taseko (3061m), and across Beece Creek for 40km…

…to a quiet camp spot on the north end of Taseko Lake – glassy calm.

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 till I spotted another sign at the junction with the forest service road. “Save Fish Lake.”

In one of the most 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 have 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-scale human industry 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. There is so much to explore…

Ts’il?os (Mt Tatlow) is one of the most important places in the Nemiah territory. To point at the mountain, which according to legend used to be a man, brings bad luck. Usually in the form of bad weather. I didn’t want any of that.

Down in the Nemiah Valley, I passed this old church beside Konni Lake.

I’d been told the Nemiah general store had some basic, preserved food, and I’d be able to make a meager resupply there. Meager was right. All I could find were cookies, Kraft Dinner, “light” peanut butter, two cans of tuna, prepared cake icing, and frozen pizza pops. At least there were a bunch of calories in there. Mailing myself food to the Nemiah post office might have been a better plan.

Despite my brazen contrasting of “cowboys” with the Xeni Gwet’in, the Nemiah people who wrangle wild horses and ranch and rodeo, are perhaps the realest cowboys around.

In the Chilcotins, you’ve got to cowboy up!

I yeehawed all the way down to Chilko Lake.

Chilko Lake, it turns out, was even more impressive than Taseko.

If not just for the chance to see this view in the morning, it was worth camping at the provincial park campground (my first paid accommodation) for the friendly campers who helped my food situation with donations of fresh fruit and smoked fish.

That day I followed another rough two-track along the shore of Chilko Lake, through old-growth Douglas-firs…

…to the Tsuniah Valley…

…through more ranchlands…

…and along Tsuniah Lake…

…through a massive burnt area, out onto the plateau. After crossing over the Chilko River and its crimson sockeye salmon, I headed back into the mountains at the north end of Chilko Lake.

After another night on the shore of Chilko Lake, I pushed up the Tullin Mountain trail, into the potato range.

It took a few hours of pushing, but I eventually emerged onto flatter ground up high. I would have avoided much of the steepness had I followed the Ling Creek Trail into the Potato Range instead. But that trail gets little maintenance, so I opted to push over bushwhack.

Once in the alpine, I could ride almost anywhere.

Of course, the trail dipped in an out of the alpine and had me pushing on and off. I was long since out of water, and I had to stop drop down a valley a short ways for drink…

… and to lunch on a precious piece of smoked Dolly Varden some campers at the lake had gifted me.

Following a faint trail (what I thought was the trail), I looked back over the edge of the mountains, down to the Chilcotin Plateau.

But ahead lay the spine of the Coast Mountains (click for bigger)…

…Homathko Peak, Mt Success, and the crown of the Coast Mountains: Mount Waddington…

Closer still, there was Mount Queen Bess.

The trail I was following turned out to be nothing more than a cow trail. Not knowing where I’d lost the horsepacking trail, I wandered around the alpine looking for a way down. Eventually, I connected meadows and ephemeral cow trails (bushwhacked), a short ways down to Echo Lake, where I knew I could rejoin the main trail.

Of course, horse trails rarely make for good riding. The corrugation had me dreaming of front suspension. Methinks it might be time to find a way to afford a Surly Krampus…

Before long, the trail spat me out at its source – the Bracewell’s Lodge.

The Bracewell’s doesn’t seem to have that many visitors these days. The vibe is more familial than touristic. They warmly welcomed me to their dinner table and shared many stories about the area.

Gerry Bracewell chose this place to build the lodge with her four sons in 1984. Now, she’s 92 and her son Alex runs the show.

I’d arranged with Alex to purchase some food from them ahead of time. Even more than their help to resupply, the Chilcotin hospitality showed to me by the Bracewells was heart-warming. I left the next morning feeling bright, despite incoming rain.

I rode along the length of Tatlayoko Lake, from south to north…

…and though the rain showers were not heavy, the wind was cold and I was due for a rest day. I made camp after only twenty easy kilometers under a shelter at the old sawmill site.

That night, a cold wind blew the clouds off the Niut Range, promising clear skies again.

It would take me only one more day to reach the paved highway at Tatla Lake. The Tatlayoko Lake post office I passed on the way reflects the size of the community.

Lucky for me, it was bake day at the only store in the area – Dorothy’s ‘Garden Bistro’. After devouring a heavy bowl of chicken stew, a sandwich and a fresh sticky bun, I left with a zucchini-pineapple loaf. Another lesson to add to the list of things I learned bikepacking: there is a time and place for gluttony.

A few hours later, I reached Highway 20 at Tatla Lake. The trip didn’t end here. I eventually made it down to Bella Coola. But that was more of an epilogue than anything. From Tatla Lake, the continuous line of dirt road stops. I hitch-hiked to where I could pick up an unpaved route again. I’ll call this the end of the “Coast Mountains Bikepacking Route”. But, I guess there is more writing to come…

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5 thoughts on “Call of the Wild: Bikepacking B.C.’s Coast Mountains – Part 2

  1. hi skyler, i want to see the horses…and the cowboys, and the lakes…and know more about them. and how do you eat well through all your travel and your hearing must be extraordinary,after the silence you have heard.

    bless you ,you are the focus of something entirely original

      • No way! I know both of you! Paul is my former landlord and Skyler is my friend. (Skyler might have mentioned this to me…) Small world!

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