The Chilcotin–there and back again, part 1
On August 22nd, Marg and I headed out on a much-needed summer holiday. I’d just got back from 10 days of meetings in Vancouver with a birding tour tacked on to the end of that, so we were ready for a break. Our destination was the Chilcotin Plateau, a vast area of central British Columbia lying between the Fraser River and the Coast Mountains. The Chilcotin has a good highway running through it so is relatively accessible, but for whatever reason lies off the main tourist routes in the province, and I think the locals prefer it that way.
I spent a wonderful 6 months living on the eastern edge of the plateau back in 1978. My brothers and I had great job sampling aquatic insects over a 10-day cycle; since it only took us two and a half days to do all the sampling each cycle, it gave us a lot of time to explore the Chilcotin in the other seven and half days. Don’t worry—we weren’t paid much for this, in fact we were each paid one-third the normal salary for a research assistant. But the office conditions and perks were well worth the meagre pay, and I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the region ever since. I had only visited the Chilcotin on a few occasions since, and Margaret had never been, so we were looking forward to the adventure.
Our first day was one long drive—we had to be in Tatlayoko Lake in time for dinner, since I was going to a board meeting of the Nature Conservancy of Canada there. We motored from Penticton over the Coquihalla Connector to Merritt, then across the plateau to Logan Lake and the huge Highland Valley copper mine, down the big hill into Ashcroft, across the Thompson River and north past Clinton onto the heights of the Cariboo Plateau. We stopped for lunch at Williams Lake, enjoying the trails at the Scout Island Nature Centre, before gassing up and turning west on to Highway 20, the main artery of the Chilcotin. The highway descends into the steep-walled Fraser Valley and crosses it on the Engineers Bridge. The valley walls are covered with grass and sagebrush at low elevations and big Douglas-firs toward the top. Huge limestone outcrops along the river look very un-British Columbian—they are in fact part of the Cache Creek terrane, bits of tropical sea floor squashed between the old coast of North American and the incoming Quesnellia terrane about 180 million years ago. Above the limestone is a thick cap of basalt, laid down much more recently when the Chilcotin was awash in lava a few million years ago.
The road winds up and up to the top of the plateau, then turns west across a remarkably flat landscape—Becher’s Prairie. This was our old stomping grounds in 1978—a bit of the Great Plains transported into the British Columbia mountains; golden grasslands dotted with ponds and small lakes. Beyond Riske Creek the highway makes another long descent, this time into the Chilcotin Valley. We followed the Chilcotin upstream for miles, past the tiny communities of Hanceville, Alexis Creek and Redstone. In its lower reaches the Chilcotin is a big, milky blue river, fed by the glacial waters of Chilko Lake and the Chilko River. But above Bull Canyon and the confluence with the Chilko, the Chilcotin is a more sedate stream, flowing clear and dark through spruce-willow swamps.
Throughout the afternoon the Coast Mountains were getting closer, starting as a few peaks poking above the horizon, then by Tatla Lake a real range of rock and ice to the southwest. We turned south at Tatla for the short side trip into Tatlayoko Lake. The road goes over a small pass and enters the Homathko River drainage—at Tatlayoko you are only 65 km from saltwater at the head of Bute Inlet.
The scenery of the Tatlayoko valley is simply stunning—the big blue lake, towering mountains iced with small glaciers and snowfields, the hayfields golden green along the river. We stopped in at the Lincoln Creek Ranch, one of several properties owned in the valley by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). NCC has been actively purchasing ranches and buying conservation covenants here (while allowing local ranchers to continue working on the properties) because of the valley’s importance as a corridor for migrating birds and big mammals. Grizzly bears are common here, feeding on the lush vegetation in early summer before many of them move over the Potato Mountains to Chilko Lake to gorge on sockeye salmon in early fall.
At Lincoln Creek we met some of the other board members and staff, then carpooled down the east side of the lake to Bracewell’s Wilderness lodge, our home for the next few days. After supper we were regaled with stories from Gerry Bracewell, the matriarch of the family, whose tales of life on the Chilcotin were spell-binding—particularly the story of how her husband Alf built the highway down the hill to Bella Coola (more on that later). Between meetings we visited the Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory, a migration monitoring station operated by NCC, and other key properties. On the last day we had lunch up at Skinner Meadows before parting ways. Marg and I were headed north and west to the Bella Coola Valley, a bit of Shangri La on the central coast.