Pack horse trip in the Northern Rockies: Muskwa-Kechika

Muskwa-Kechika, creek wall, Day 1

[Update: The Globe and Mail has finally run the story about our trip. Wilderness guide and Globe travel writer Bruce Kirkby came along on our leg of the ride.]

I was out of internet range for two weeks, riding through the remote Northern Rockies on horseback. The expedition was led by guide Wayne Sawchuk. Wayne grew up in Northern BC, once worked as a logger and hunting guide and is now a wilderness guide and environmentalist. He spearheaded the protection of this place which is now known as the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area. It is one of the largest and most species-rich protected areas in North America, and it is also close to the ancestral Dene territory of my companion for the trip. Along with us were five others, most of whom work in one way or another with BC’s wild areas. including one of the founders of BC’s Breeding Bird Atlas which uses the public participation of birders for data collection.

Many of the peaks, passes and valleys we traveled through have not been visited much, at least in recent times. But this area is part of a route known by anthropologists as the High Trail, one of the paths taken 10,000 years ago by groups who traveled across the Bering Sea ice bridge from Asia to North America, back when the last ice age was receding. People traveled south along the high ridges because they are rich in game (as we observed ourselves) and because this saved them from making constant ascents and descents. Today this trail is mostly hard to access unless you go in on a trip such as Wayne’s.

It is staggering to realize that most empires in history were built with horsepower. If you have ever packed up camp, loaded a pack horse and then ridden all day, you know it is not a small project or a short trip to the gym. The Hollywood movies of ancient empire expansion and the wild west do give any adequate sense of each morning’s three-hour process of building a fire, making breakfast, packing and striking camp, evening out the panniers and and luggage, and packing and saddling the horses. Every morning we’d wake at 6:00 am and on one particularly efficient day we broke a record by riding out of camp at 9:45. Then we’d ride all day and do it all over again at night but in reverse order, except for the fire which always happens first.

The Northern Rockies are beautiful, very ancient and quite strange. They are older than the Southern Rockies and contain sedimentary rock from near the beginning of the world, long before life formed—before shells, before fossils. The mountains come to an end just south of the Yukon border.

For more information about each photo, click to reach Flickr page.

Tuchodi Lakes - map
Above, the red pin drop shows Tuchodi Lakes, end point of 13 day trip. Horizontal dotted line above is the Yukon border, and you can also just make out the yellow line of the Alaska Highway. (Green pin drop is Liard River Hot Springs; photos near bottom.) Click photo for bigger version of map.

My horse, Spunky
This is Spunky, my horse for the trip. He was given his name after surviving a 2 month-long pack horse trip as a foal while badly wounded in the shoulder. His mother Hazel is the pack’s lead mare, key for keeping the pack string together, so she had to make the trip, and Spunky had to go with her as he was not yet weaned.  He does have a scarred front left shoulder, as you can see in the photo, but he’s fine.  The funny part is that I asked Wayne for a spunky horse last January and Spunky is the one I got.

Most of Wayne’s horses were saved from meat auctions. They get the entire long winter off, so they lead good lives. Some of them are a bit young or feral, or as Wayne diplomatically puts it, “unsophisticated.”

Cariboo in the high alpine
Curious, almost fearless cariboo approach us in the high alpine. Brian on Comet, John on Hazel. This is part of the High Trail.

Arriving at the Tuchodi River
Tuchodi River, Wayne answering a question about geology. In the foreground, an authentic stetson—there’s a pleasing irony in a First Nations man wearing a hat that apparently used to be known as an “Indian killer.”

Donna on the trail
Behind me on the pack string. Kailo, poet (and Wayne’s partner) Donna Kane on Bucky, followed by Chrissy, Lock It, Mel, and way behind, Levi. We were fording overflow from the Tuchodi River which was running high.

Donna in the pack string
Donna Kane riding with some of the 10 pack horses

Moss campion, striped rocks at Henry Creek
Moss campion at Henry Creek with striped rocks characteristic of the Rockies, which were created when ancient sedimentation was pushed up high by the collision of the earth’s plates

View from tent, Henry Creek
View from tent at Henry Creek

Percy's mane with dreads from the winter
Dreadlocks in Percy’s mane. The horses graze wild all winter on beautiful land in Rolla, B.C., so at the beginning of the summer their manes are matted. I spent hours untangling them so as not to have to cut all the dreads out, collecting any shed hair to make horsehair bracelets for the group. Interestingly the horses, though a bit wild, seem to enjoy having their manes worked on. Instead of protesting they seem to go into some sort of trance, and soon the other horses drift over to watch or line up. I was going to ride Percy on the trip but in the end he went to Bruce Kirkby, the Globe and Mail’s travel and adventure writer and the tallest rider in our group. I did ride Percy into the Sweetgrass 905 Music Festival the week before our trip, though, as part of Wayne’s pack-horse packing demonstration at the fest. As it was, Percy and Spunky maintained a mild dominance war for the whole trail ride, insisting on passing each other (while generally sticking close together in the pack string) and Bruce and I had to manage that.

Lock It and Hank
Lock It and Hank the day before the trip. Not shy.

Mel basking in high alpine
My favourite of all the pack and riding horses – friendly Mel, basking in evening sun in a high alpine meadow

Muskwa-Kechika, John Keller fording river on Hazel
Fording one of many creeks, John Keller of the BC Nature Trust on Hazel. Hazel is the lead mare, the decision maker for the pack. She usually brought up the rear. 

Muskwa-Kechika, in the high alpine
Brian breaking in new saddle horse Comet on the trail

Muskwa-Kechika, lunchtime on the high alpine trail
Lunch in alpine meadow. Lunch is whatever you pack in the morning and can fit in your saddlebags. There’s no unpacking the pack horses during the day, and usually you’re completely starving.

Muskwa-Kechika, Spunky on the trail
Spunky on the trail in a mossy valley wood

Gataga and friends grazing at night
Every night the horses are let loose, with a few of them hobbled and belled so they don’t wander too far and can be found in the morning. You don’t have to hobble them all because they remain in a pack, and you can often hear the faint bells from camp while they graze nearby. That’s Gataga with a bell on. He was the prettiest horse in the pack and always looked as if he was wearing silver eyeliner.

Percy in stand of aspen, Tuchodi Lakes
Percy at 9 pm on the final night in a beautiful stand of white-barked aspen. It was quiet except for the trembling of the leaves. It’s beyond mysterious in there, as if an elf from Lord of the Rings might suddenly appear. I wanted to say goodbye to the horses so after dinner I hiked to find them. When I started untangling Percy’s mane for the last time, the whole pack string crowded tightly around me and all you could hear was their breathing.

Ed, sleeping off 13 hard days
Ed did very well on a very strenuous trip, partly by taking advantage of every chance to sleep off all the running. He was so camouflaged on this beach we kept tripping over him.

Urs arriving at E. Tuchodi L. camp to pick us up
The famed Urs picked us up in his Twin Otter to take us from Tuchodi Lake back to Muncho Lake on the Alaska Highway. Urs came here with his wife decades ago from Switzerland and bought the Northern Rockies Lodge. He pilots most flights in this region and knows it intimately.

Landing on Muncho Lake in Urs's Twin Otter
Approaching Muncho Lake by Twin Otter. That’s the Alaska Highway down there.

Landing on Muncho Lake in Urs's Twin Otter
Muncho Lake

Landing on Muncho Lake in Urs's Twin Otter

Landing on Muncho Lake in Urs's Twin Otter

Full moon, last night of trip
Full Moon, last night in the Rockies

Liard Hot Springs - ferns close up
Ferns and horsetail at Liard River Hot Springs

Liard Hot Springs
Liard River Hot Springs

Fort Nelson News' business section just called "Oil and Gas"
Back in Fort Nelson, waiting for flight back to Vancouver. The Fort Nelson News doesn’t have a Business section; they just call that topic “Oil and Gas.” I don’t think most people in Southern B.C. are aware how much of the northeast of the province is effectively in the oil patch. It’s another world.

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7 Responses to “Pack horse trip in the Northern Rockies: Muskwa-Kechika”

  1. Donna Kane Says:

    Beautiful photos – great photo essay!

  2. Elvis Says:

    I read an article about this region in National Geographic and was instantly grabbed by the thought of going there. Is this kind of trip something available ti normal people or that is something only for journalists and scientists? :) Plus-would it be possible to do this without prior experience with horse riding?

  3. LB Says:

    Yes, normal people can go! If you are relatively fit and open to learning and exertion and on-the-fly problem solving, you can go! Regardless of age. Just click on the link in the post and inquire via the website. Totally worth it. But talk to Wayne about it first.

  4. CR Says:

    Thanks so much for this site. I am currently deciding which leg of Wayne’s expedition I will go on. Looks like you did the 4th leg? Any suggestions?
    Beautiful photos. I am so excited that I’m going!

  5. ouno Says:

    @CR: Ours was the first leg (from Alaska Highway to Tuchodi Lakes), but I think the order of the trips changes year to year so check with Wayne. Email him via his site and ask! Very approachable. Have fun if you go!

  6. SR Says:

    I would like more information about trip cost and dates.

  7. ouno Says:

    The link for information about trip cost and dates is there in the blog post, but here it is again:

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