The Precipice – Addendum to Bikepacking the Coast Mountains

There are occasionally excursions that do not deserve a write-up for their quality or scenery. Sometimes, as a public service, there is a need to write a trip report as a warning. It is generally easier to find information about top-quality rides on the blogosphere, than to find evidence that a particular ride is actually no place for a bicycle at all. The ride down the Sugar Camp Trail from The Precipice to the Atnarko Valley falls into the latter category.

Some folks in the nearest town, Anahim Lake, assured me that ATVers had ridden up the Hotnarko to the Precipice. When I arrived at at the 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 kilometres of brushed-in trail would be better than an 80km ride back up to Highway 20 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 places. To go around is largely futile, since the entire forest is in a similar state. 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.

The Atnarko River belongs to grizzly bears. It even says so on the sign by the highway. Of course, I didn’t know this when I came down the switchbacks on the Sugar Camp Trail and entered the Atnarko valley from the back door.

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 paw prints 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.

Having gathered sufficient evidence that I could find a way down from the Precipice to the Atnarko River, by way of the Hotnarko Canyon or the Sugar Camp Trail, I set off across the plateau at Anahim Lake, and made for the mountains.

I camped that night on the ice-cold shore of Kappan Lake. It would dip to about -5C that night.

Eventually, I ended up what was effectively a 20km long driveway for the folks that live at the Precipice. They like to stack rocks.

This is the Precipice, where the Chilcotin Plateau drops suddenly into the Bella Coola valley and the flatness gives way to Coast Mountains relief.

I ran out of drive-way at the home of Monika and Fred. In another demonstration of Chilcotin hospitality, I was offered coffee, lunch and maps. They told me truthfully how hard it would be to get a bike through the Sugar Camp Trail, but assured me the Hotnarko Canyon Trail was all but gone, and the canyon dangerous.

The Sugar Camp Trail. There is a trail there…

…no really, there IS a trail. Tens of thousands of horse have been through the Sugar Camp Trail, before they built the highway in the 1950s. The trail bed is still there. And for the first 4 km it was even largely rideable.

But then I got into about 5km of this sort of thing. Mind, this is not a particularly bad spot.

Finally, I made it down the old switchbacks to Tote Road, minutes before dusk.

I pitched my tent in a field, to leave lots of space for the Grizz’.

At the highway, I found this sign. I’ll stand by that recommendation. If only I had known…

A day of riding down the empty highway, following the Bella Coola River…

…past Nuxalk memorial poles…

…though the old Norwegian settlement of Hagensborg…

…with a mandatory stop for a BC bike portrait.

Bella Coola, homeland of the Nuxalk people, is culturally and historically fascinating…

The Acwsalcta school has been important for cultural healing from a century of colonial violence, linguicide, and cultural destruction in residential schools. The positive vibes around this place are tangible.

Nearby, I walk up a cool, bejungled creek…

…to find ancient petroglyphs carved into granite slabs…

…in a mystical forest clearing…

…with quiet, garden-like ambience.

Though it’s unclear to me why this outcrop of rock has inspired rock carvings for millenia, the spot in the creek below is oddly mesmerizing…

…and I go for a closer look.

A short way down the road I find another wonder…

…western redcedars that dwarf my steed.

This is Mr. Fusion, a new modular seat-pack from Porcelain Rocket. It doesn’t sway even on the roughest of descents. This one is a prototype, but the final version looks quite similar.

After three weeks on the road, I rode into Bella Coola…

...I arrived back at the shore of the Pacific.

… and I arrived back at the shore of the Pacific.

From there, I hitch-hiked three days, in five rides, back to Vancouver.

End public service announcement.

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8 thoughts on “The Precipice – Addendum to Bikepacking the Coast Mountains

  1. This was a great write-up. I have been dreaming about and planning a trip like that for the last few years, between Atlin and Vancouver. One interesting part is how to get through Tweedsmuir, there is apparently a native trail running from the Dean River as far north as you can go on roads, across Entiako to the Nechako Reservoir. Then packrack west along Tetachuck, Eutsuk and Whitesail Lakes to pick up trails and logging roads. Another way might be if there is a trail connecting the Tanya Lakes northwards. Then you could access it from the trails leading up from the Bella Coola valley. But I hope to go north to south

    For the last 2 years I have tried to get through from the Bridge River west of Gold Bridge up over the mountains and down to the Lord River which empties into Taseko Lake. This time I will make a third attempt but ultralight, and on an easier path. I will need my packraft so I can only go so ultralight. No Rohloff this time, I’m making a tringle speed.

    • Mark, Knut and I rode bikes to near to the headwaters of the Lord River just a few weeks ago! We approached via Slim Creek though, rather than following the Bridge River FSR. And we were riding on snow (hard crust from 2-7AM).

      I’ve looked at the full Trans-BC route you’re talking about too. We’ve probably been studying the same maps. I presume you want to ride the Atlin Telegraph trail south…I’d already discounted that one as impossible. The trail hasn’t been maintained in 40 years, and looks like 100km of bushwhack. I don’t have a packraft though (yet), so maybe you’ve found a way of avoiding much of that. Your plan for the Tweedsmuir/Nechako country sounds as good as any in that area. I really really want to ride at least the Mackenzie trail through Tweedsmuir, but technically bikes aren’t allowed…

      • Interesting, I plan to head up in a couple weeks. The griswald pass area looks really nice and rideable up in the alpine. The hard part is getting up there… I plan to get to the end of the road up the unnamed creek and then head straight east up the hill to to the alpine by that lake. Then head northwest and skirt the mountains to go down that north flowing creek that ends in The Lord river with a huge waterfall. It will entail 2 km of bush whacking the lower section, but downhill.

        Yes I try to combine pack raft and bike to come up with the routes. In all the whole pack raft setup probably adds maybe 8 lbs with the paddles and pfd. One way to lighten the load would be an inflatable co2 pfd. But if it allows an interesting route through an otherwise inaccessible area then it may justify it.

        I’ve also been eyeing this trip for a few years and I am hoping to do it late august early September. It is a pack raft down the Sheslay/Inklin/Taku river from Tahltan to Juneau. At Tahltan there is the old Great Bear mining road which has a gate. Apparently it is still usable but I am thinking that every year will be a bit more iffy as the vegetation starts to grow. Basically I’d bring a junker bike and ride 100 km up to the Sheslay bridge. Then ditch the bike or maybe save the frame and start paddling… 300 km out to the ocean. Only 1 minor rapid to worry about in the mid Sheslay but no concern for a pack raft. Opposite the Taku glacier is a tourist lodge where you can catch a flight out to Juneau, otherwise you can pack raft around. Hoping to put it together this year, it will take about a month I figure, maybe you’re interested? A few rafting companies go down there but they fly in to the Sheslay airstrip.

  2. There’s a trail to the alpine along Slim Creek. It puts you into the alpine near Slim-Nichols pass. Head to Griswold Pass, and then over a relatively mellow glacier to Lord Pass, or just head straight down from Griswold Pass.

    I think I’m left with some ethical questions with the thought of leaving a bicycle as trash in the bush.

    I love hearing about your wild plans though! Very cool ideas! The pack raft adds an interesting element to the adventures.

    • Here’s a report from a group of hikers that went up and across Griswald and down Duane Creek which hooks up with a trail that goes by Crystal Lake.

      I’ll start off the same as them but head west around Griswald Pass and go down the valley one to the west of Duane. My original goal was to go down the longer valley to the west of that, but it seems a bit too hard to get into. Maybe a future trip, I’ll decide when I get up there and assess the terrain I guess. I just hope they don’t shut the province down from dryness by the time I go around July 11!

      It would be good to establish a rideable route through this area, it would open it up to bikers coming / going from the southwest.

      Yeah the ethics of leaving my bike in the bush is something I was pondering so I’d probably keep the frame and just hang the wheels on the bridge, someone will pick them up. It’s not untouched wilderness at the bridge.

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