The Chilcotin region of British Columbia is one of my favourite places to explore and is one of the last true wilderness regions of the world. This is due partly to limited access to the area. The Chilcotin is an incredibly diverse region with high plateau range lands, deep forested mountains to the south and west and pacific rainforests on the west coast. It lies in the lee of the Coast Mountains that block the flow of moisture-laden Pacific air, resulting in a drier climate than the coast, thus experiencing greater extremes of temperature, with ranges from the occasional -40°C in winter to more than 30°C in summer.
Wildlife abounds with Mule and White Tail Deer, Black Bears, Wolves, Moose, Big Horn Sheep and Mountain Goats and Woodland Caribou. The areas name comes from the Tsilhqot'in or Chilcotin First Nation aboriginal peoples. Further west in the Coastal Mountains around Tweedsmuir Park and the Bella Coola valley is the home to Grizzly Bears... lots of them. Twice I have been on the Atnarko River during the Chum Salmon run, and this is the Grizzly Bears highway and supermarket. If you want to see Grizzly Bears up close, then just head down to the Bella Coola valley in late August...guaranteed!
The common travel route in is a long drive north up highway #97 to Williams Lake, then crossing west over the mighty Fraser River, continuing on the mixed asphalt, gravel Highway #20 terminating at the coastal community of Bella Coola. The other way in to the area is by back road, again crossing the Fraser River at the Gang Ranch. This ranch was up until recently the largest cattle ranch in the world, founded in 1863 and over a million acres in size.
I have visited this area first in 2006, then again in 2008 and have always wondered if I could get there without the long drive east over the established routes into the Chilcotin. Here in British Columbia we have a company that produces “Backroad Mapbooks” and upon investigation with these and Google Earth I was able to see a possible route. So with GPS, Mapbooks and my trusty Bernese Mountain dog “Rudy” we packed up my 1991 Land Rover Defender, with extra supplies, spare parts, and of course tools and dog food and headed north.
My ex-military Defender is a 1991 3 door, 110 model equipped with a 300TDi, BFG KM2 Mud Terrains, rock/tree sliders, snorkel, and although I have a winch, I have yet to mount it, so in a pinch my Hi-Lift would have to do. Rudy and I sleep in the back on a platform with our food, gear and supplies underneath in metal mortar boxes. It is pretty standard, running on genuine heavy duty coil springs and OME shocks. I did switch out the original military seats for proper Defender ones, strictly for comfort. I run multiple GPS units (fixed and handheld), CB radio and a 12 volt fridge for perishables. Dual 8” Bosch 100w lights sit mounted on a Defender brush guard. I keep spare fluids and recovery gear in the side lockers as my fuel range with the Tdi would exceed what I needed for this trip.
We left Deep Cove in North Vancouver and headed up highway 99 past the logging town of Squamish, stopping in to visit my daughter who lives in Whistler before proceeding up to Pemberton. Turning west the journey really began as we left the asphalt for the last time. Proceeding west down the picturesque Pemberton Meadows road we finally turned north up the Hurley FSR (Forest Service Road).
The Hurley is a seasonal back road which climbs through a steep switchback from Pemberton Meadows to a defile called Railroad Pass (4544 ft.). A group of Peaks on the north side of the pass have names such as Locomotive, Tender and Caboose. It gets its name from a long forgotten potential railway route through the Coast Mountains. Now it is a “Main” route, essentially a major trunk road for a network of logging roads along its length.
The Hurley is your standard gravel road, “occasionally” maintained by a grader, but be prepared for some deep potholes, washboards and even the occasional rock slide. This past summer in B.C. has been exceptionally dry so dust was pervasive.
After a “slooww” climb up the switchback, we emerged into the Hurley Valley and proceeded north, only encountering two other vehicles the entire day. I always tend to pull over as far as I can, as the Defenders’ windshield seems to be a magnet for bouncing rocks. With incredible mountain vistas on either side and in front of me, it is an absolutely gorgeous drive, fairly flat with deep creeks and ravines on the west side of the road. At one point I happened to spot a young grizzly popping its head out of the brush, wondering what the green noisy beast was coming down the road, only to scamper of into the brush as I went past.
I decided not to head straight up to Gold Bridge, rather turn east towards Bralorne (3350 ft) which is an old mining town that in the 1930’s that produced over 3 million ounces of Gold giving it the distinction of the biggest lode producer in British Columbia. It never suffered the Great Depression because of the discovery of Gold. It also had the distinction of the third deepest mine shaft in the world at the time. Today it is accessed from the south by the East Hurley FSR which is little more than a single track dirt road, partially overgrown but still passable in the high summer. Today it is an eclectic little community of old mining houses, and brightly painted houses all set in a stunning high mountain valley. Interestingly there are only 60 full time residents and 29 dogs. There even is a little Bralorne-Pioneer Museum to visit during the summer months, and yes, even a coffee shop for your latte fix.
As the day was starting to get a late, I decided to continue on a find a camping spot for the night. I had heard about a nice spot called Kingdom Lake Recreation site. Now to those outside of the province Recreation Sites (Rec. Sites as they are known) are basically no service, free camp sites, and in my humble opinion they offer some of the best camping you can find. Usually they comprise of maybe 6 spots (and that would be a large Rec. Site). Sometimes they have an outhouse, sometimes not (be prepared).
Travelling north past Bralorne, I came across the Kingdom Lake FSR and turned off of the main, climbing up the side of a mountain. After about 10 minutes I saw the remains of a sign and turned into a side road to find the site...Fantastic!!!! Only 1 other vehicle there and Rudy and I were able to get a lakeside site tucked away in a tall grove of cedar and hemlocks. Needless to say Rudy was very, very happy to be out of the truck and having a lake to wade in and cool off made his day.
A little about my buddy...Rudy is a 3 year old Bernese Mountain Dog, weighing in around 115lbs. This breed is about the best companion dog you can get as they generally stay fairly close, and as a bonus act as a great “heater” inside the truck on cold nights. He really doesn’t care about little animals, skunks, squirrels or raccoons, but when he see’s or senses a bear it’s a completely different story. His bark changes, goes way lower and his demeanour instantly changes. I have always felt very comfortable camping with him in Bear Country, as he would definitely keep any inquisitive “bruins” away with his presence and size. As Wolves are the natural enemy of bears, dogs tend to keep bears away. I would not want to camp in these areas without a dog...and a big one at that, Rudy fits all those requirements!
I tend to carry my own firewood whenever possible as these sites don’t offer any wood, and the surrounding areas can sometimes be pretty “picked over”, plus a couple of small bundles can easily be thrown up on my rack.
After a dinner and a well deserved cold one...or two, it was time to turn in. Needless to say due to the long day both of us were quickly fast asleep. My bed occupies the entire back of the 110 and is covered with 4” high density foam, which also makes it more comfortable for Rudy on the rough roads. For interior lighting I installed a 3’ strip of LED lights which I can leave on indefinitely without worrying about draining my battery. For added ventilation I picked up some screen door replacement mesh that I have cut into sections that I just drape over the doors, then close, allowing me to keep the windows open without inviting in the mosquito’s and other flying pests...simple, cheap yet very effective.
We woke early, perc’d up some coffee with my bacon and eggs, loaded up and headed off. The plan today, was to first head east and look for the old abandoned Pioneer Mine which was south east of Bralorne. We drove for a while on a well maintained mountain gravel road looking for any trace of the mine. Just past a large rock slide I noticed something to my right and stopped, then backed up for a look. There hidden down off the road, was just the top of what looked like a structure. There was a small goat path leading off the road so I decided to go down and check it out.
What I had seen was in fact a large bunkhouse, derelict, yet with a strong backbone, obviously built with some fairly big local timbers. Being with Rudy I decided not to explore it due to the presence of nails and other potential hazards associated with a 75 year old structure.
As I still had some distance to travel, we left the old bunkhouse behind and headed for Gold Bridge. Gold was first discovered in the area in 1859 and Gold Bridge became home to miners and their families. Now for some odd reason I thought this town would be the largest in the Bridge River Valley, but I was sorely mistaken for only about 40 hardy souls now call Gold Bridge home. It does however have a grocery store, one restaurant, two gas stations (although I could only find one of them), and of course a Post Office. It has a large old Cemetery that was pretty interesting and a few interesting buildings such as the Gold Bridge Model Bakery that supposedly sold over 6000 loaves of bread per week at its peak in the 50’s.
This picture hangs in the Gold Bridge Hotel Restaurant, and is of a local woman who shot a very large Grizzly.
Rudy and I decided to do a little exploring around the lakes in Bridge River Valley and proceeded to drive up to Gun Lake. When viewed from the air the lake has a distinct pistol shape, hence the name. Another story regarding the name is that a prospector once lost his Gun in Gun Creek...take your pick.
Today it is primarily a Recreational lake with about 100 summer residents, although around 20 people live year round on the lake. It is famous for Rainbow, Dolly Varden and Kokanee fishing.
The road travels completely around the lake, so after stopping for lunch we continued onwards towards Tyaughton Lake where I planned to stay the night.
Now usually I don’t stay at these types of resorts, but I had heard so much about it I decided to check in to one of their camping spots and check it out, plus it had “showers”.
The Tyax Lodge is a 5 star world renowned resort that offers horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, boating, fishing and in the winter Heli-Skiing. They operate a Beaver de Haviland that will take you up to the top of local mountains with your mountain bike and then you can ride back down with a “packed lunch” from the resort. Not a cheap resort to stay in but as a destination area it is beautiful. With lots of activities to keep you busy, or you can just lay around the resort and relax.
The Camp site was very nice right beside the lake, with access to the full amenities of the Lodge, restaurant and a very nice lounge. The only downside for us was that Dogs needed to be kept on leash at all times...Rudy was not pleased.
We had a nice visit but the next morning it was time to really start our trek north and see if we could break through to the Chilcotin, so we packed up and headed up the road into the unknown.
The main challenge facing us was two-fold...first the mapbook shows main FSR’s and backroads as fairly thick black lines, whereas the route I had identified was a very, very skinny black line with breaks along the track. The track up to Mud Lakes was thick, but after that it became quite thin?? According to the mapbook it was an “unclassified/4x4 track”. Past experience has shown that these are sometimes quite impassable or at least, very difficult tracks.
The other issue was that we were travelling alone, not the wisest idea when you are so far away from civilization. When I do run solo, I always pack a small backpack and tent, in the event I do need to walk out...I was hoping I would not need it.
Leaving Tyaughton Lake we proceeded up the well maintained Mud Lake FSR with Mud Creek to the west of the road, through a picturesque valley. We quickly gained elevation through a series of switchbacks and long hills. Anywhere in British Columbia when you travel on these Forest Service Roads there are many, many side roads shooting of to the left and right. Most of these crawl up the sides of a mountains, usually ending in old logging clearcuts, so the challenge was to make sure I took the correct road, otherwise you can get very easily lost. Without much trouble we were able to make it to Mud Lakes where we got out to stretch our legs, and grab lunch at the Mud Lake South Recreation Site. Mud lakes (there are two of them) are fairly boggy lakes, so after trying to escape the mosquito’s we gave up and jumped back in the Defender and proceeded north up the small road beside the lakes. This road is cut into the side of the mountain virtually at lake level, with many flooded areas. Thankfully the Defender is fairly narrow, as a wider track vehicle could slip off and roll into the lake.
As we approached Swartz (fish) Lake at the northern end of the valley I came across two guys on dirt bikes and decided to see if they were aware of the route I intended to take and could help with directions. They were heading east to an area called Poison Mountain which our club, the Roverlanders of B.C., were going to do the following weekend.
After explaining what I was trying to do one of them told me...”continue on through some dipsy-doodles, then you will cross a river three times then stay to the right”...then with a smirk on his face and a glance at my Defender...”yah you should be fine with that Rig”. As I thanked them and drove away I couldn’t be help think and wonder what was behind his smug little grin...??
According to my mapbook, Mud Lakes FSR changes into Swartz Lake FSR then almost immediately changes again into Poison Mountain Road. At the end of the valley the trail immediately starts to climb up the side of the mountain into the forest. At this point the trail started to deteriorate with the center of the road washed out, as during the wet season this would be a natural watercourse. This was not an issue as it was very dry in B.C. this summer but did necessitate concentration as some of these center washouts were fairly deep.
Soon the track dropped into a small valley and I encountered my three water crossings. Essentially it was the same river that crisscrossed my track over a high plateau.
The crossings were fairly easy as all had good rock bases with the water level probably less than 12” or so. The challenge in this area was the mud between the river crossings. Now the last thing I wanted to have happen was to get stuck, so I always tended to add a little extra “peddle” when coming to the mud. My theory was in the event of deep mud; my momentum would carry me through. It worked!
Soon we started to climb out of the valley and it began to get fairly steep with allot of off-camber driving on a fairly narrow washout trail. Of note, next time I do this I will be carrying my chainsaw, as the Pine Beetle infestation we have experienced here in B.C. means you’re constantly encounter deadfall, particularly on less traveled trails. Some of the forests I have seen are entirely pink, as this is the color of dead and dying Pine trees. Luck was with me as the bulk of these fallen trees are not that thick and are fairly easy to drive over.
Now my concentration level ramped up...the trail rose straight up the side of these mountains with “substantial” drop offs to the side. I did have a few “sphincter tightening” moments trying to keep my momentum without spinning the tires on this section of washed-out, steep off-camber track. At one point I came around a hairpin only to be confronted with a very, very steep section with loose gravel and a 8 foot gulley....ok, it was probably only 3 feet, but at the time it looked allot deeper.
The 110 bounced from side to side, as I attempted to prevent sliding into to center of the track. I sure didn’t want to stop on this section. Starting back up again would have been near impossible due to the loose gravel and trail angle preventing traction. The last thing I wanted to do would be forced to reverse all the way back down the track, so onwards we went.
The challenge here was to stay in 2nd, keep the pedal steady, while looking up the trail for your intended route. With your vehicle at a ridiculous angle, straddling back and forth over the v-gully. I did for a moment feel sympathy for Rudy in the back of the truck, for I knew he would not be enjoying himself getting thrown around (all area’s around him are padded), but a bouncing dog at this point was the least of my concerns.
Finally what seemed like the never-ending, eternal vertical climb, I spotted a small yellow strip tied to a tree, and as I passed this the trail flattened out and I came upon the intersection I had been looking for. * Checking later I discovered that final climb was over 1100 meters in elevation gain over only 700 meters of distance travelled (3600’ over 0.4 of a mile)...translation....Steep!
Rolling to a stop and catching my breath we both were happy to get out of the Defender and stretch our legs. To my right was a directional sign post showing the routes if I was to take the right track at the fork. There still was no indication of directions towards the Chilcotin, but I knew that if I stayed on the left track I “should?” end up on the Gaspard Main FSR in the southern Chilcotin.
After a short rest and calm down, Rudy and I continued on into the forest, following the uncharted track to the west. For the next hour we traversed the top of a mountain forest following the winding track through the trees. This obviously had not been travelled in quite some time based on the condition of the track and the amount of Pine Beetle deadfall. Coming around a bend through the forest I could see a large open area. Quite suddenly we emerged out of the trees from the edge of a clear cut. I guessed (correctly) that we had been on the west flank of Red Mountain near Churn Creek. From our vantage point there it was, spread out in front of me...as far as the eye could see the Chilcotin Plateau. Endless vistas of undulating grasslands and forests, dominated by Lodgepole Pine.
We had basically driven up, through and around the Coast and Southern Chilcotin Mountains, finally emerging “triumphantly” in the Chilcotin.
Now it seemed we had emerged smack dab in the heart of a working logging operation, but being Sunday it was deserted. This turned out to be fortunate as it seems the road I came out of the forest on was actually a “closed” route from the Chilcotin side. There is an environmentally sensitive region to the north-east of where I came from, that is closed to the public.
It must have been very wet recently as the road was nothing but a series of heavy logging truck ruts, now bone dry. This created a dangerous situation as I had to stay out of the ruts by driving with one wheel on the side and the other on the untracked middle section. If you dropped in to the rut it would be very easy to roll the truck as these ruts were easily 8-10” deep full of rock hard churned up “tread” mud. The challenge was to keep the speed up, but also avoid dropping in. The roads up in the Chilcotin are bullet straight, so it was a compromise between speed and safety.
Feeling quite pleased with myself for not only finding the route, but successfully completing it without getting stuck or any mishaps. I decided to head for a small Rec. Site I had stayed at back in 2008 with my son, called Fletcher Lake just south of Hanceville on Highway 10.
Another couple of hours drive along wide open roads in truly a “Big Sky” country saw our arrival to the familiar camp site.
I set up the side Awning (for it always rains around dusk for a short while up on the Chilcotin Plateau), then proceeded to cooked up a nice piece of Sockeye Salmon for Rudy and I to share. Then pouring myself a glass of good Canadian Rye Whiskey, the two of us sat by the lake and with a spectacular sunset to view, celebrated our achievement.
Dave Fraser currently lives in Deep Cove, North Vancouver is an avid sea kayaker, skier and a Land Rover “nut”. He is the Vice-President of the Roverlanders of B.C. and has travelled extensively throughout British Columbia, Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii in Land Rovers, Jeep Grand Cherokee and a Volvo XC. He was one of the original members of the Canol 2009 Expedition to the Yukon, NWT, with his son in a Land Rover Series III 109. He currently drives a 1991 x-MoD Defender 110-300Tdi, and is undergoing a complete ground-up rebuild of a 1956 Land Rover Series 1 86”.