[Update: The Globe and Mail has finally run the story about our experience. Wilderness guide and Globe travel writer Bruce Kirkby came along on our leg of the trip.]
I have been out of internet range for weeks, riding through the remote Northern Rockies on a pack horse ride. The expedition was led by 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 the ancestral Dene territory of my companion for the trip. Along with us were 5 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, in which birders participate in mapping bird sightings).
Many of the 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 those 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 think most empires in history were built using horsepower. Have you ever packed a pack horse and then ridden all day? It is not easy. It makes an hour of boot camp seem leisurely. The Hollywood movies of empire and the wild west don’t show each morning’s 3-hour process of building a fire, making breakfast, packing and striking camp, evening out the panniers and and luggage, and saddling the pack and saddle horses. Every morning we’d wake at 6:00 am; one day we broke a record by riding out of camp at 9:45. Then you ride all day, and do it all again, but in reverse order except for the fire, which always happens first.
The Northern Rockies are beautiful, quite strange and ancient. They are older than the Southern Rockies, containing 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.
Above, the red pin drop shows Tuchodi Lakes, end point of 13 day trip. 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.
Spunky, my horse for the trip. He was given his name after surviving a 2 month-long pack horse trip while badly wounded in the shoulder as a foal. His mother Hazel is the pack’s lead mare, needed for keeping the pack string together, so she had to make the trip. Spunky had to go with her as he was not yet weaned. He does have a sort of messed up front left shoulder, as you can see in the photo, but he’s fine. The funny thing is that I asked Wayne for a spunky horse last January and Spunky is what 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.”
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.”
Dreadlocks in Percy’s mane. The horses graze wild all winter on beautiful land in Rolla BC, so at the beginning of the summer their manes are matted. I spent hours untangling their manes so as not to have to cut all the dreads out, collecting any dead hair that came out 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. They seem to want the contact. I was going to be on Percy but in the end he went to Bruce Kirkby, travel and adventure writer for the Globe and Mail and the tallest rider. I did ride him into the Sweetgrass 905 Music Festival the week before our trip, as part of Wayne’s pack-horse packing demonstration at the fest.
Every night the horses are let loose, with some of them hobbled and 4 of them belled so they don’t wander too far and can be found in the morning. They stay in packs so you don’t have to hobble them all. That’s Gataga with a bell on – the prettiest horse in the pack. He always looks as if he’s wearing silver eyeliner.
Percy at 9 pm on the last 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 could suddenly walk by on the way to Rivendell. I wanted to say goodbye to the horses so I hiked to find them. When I started untangling Percy’s mane for the last time, the whole pack string crowded around and all you could hear was their breathing.
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.
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. have any clue that much of the NE of the province is effectively oil patch. It’s another world up there.