The Chilcotin adventure–part 3
It rained hard on our last night in Stuie. The forests, which had been languidly late-summer quiet all week, were suddenly alive with migrant birds. Swainson’s Thrushes were giving their bic calls everywhere, a Hammond’s Flycatcher peeped from the firs and was answered by a short snatch of song from another. Robins and waxwings chased each other through the treetops and a bright yellow Wilson’s Warbler moved through the shrubs. We said goodbye to Katie and Dennis and were off up The Hill—a much easier direction for the nerves, since you’re not looking down.
We decided to stop in Kleena Kleene to visit Chris Czajkowski, a well-known naturalist and author. Chris had recently sold her wilderness lodge at Nuk Tessli and was busy upgrading her new cabin at Ginty Creek to running water. The well had just been drilled, but there were still issues about the water quality and quantity. We walked around her property in the brilliant sunshine, then had lunch on her porch, overlooking the plateau and distant mountains.
Then it was off to Riske Creek, where we were hoping to stay the night at the historic Chilcotin Lodge. I’d last stayed here a couple of times during the 1980s when we based the UBC field ecology course out of the lodge. We got to Riske Creek about 4:30 in the afternoon, and not only was there room in the Lodge—but we would have the place to ourselves! We’d timed our visit well between the busy summer period and the fall hunting season. Our host, Ria van der Klis, showed us around the various rooms—it had certainly been upgraded since the 1980s but retained that Chilcotin charm through and through. We told Ria we’d be back for supper at 7, then drove off for a quick visit to Becher’s Prairie.
Taking the inconspicuous turnoff just west of the Loran station (the tower was long gone!), we were soon at Rock Lake. This lake is one of many rich water bodies on the Prairie, covered in Ruddy Ducks, Redheads, American Wigeon, Buffleheads and other waterfowl. There were still some Eared Grebes in evidence; in midsummer the big bulrush marsh at the west end of the lake is home to one of the largest grebe colonies in British Columbia. We clambered over the natural rock pile that gives the lake its name, but couldn’t find any garter snakes—this is a significant hibernaculum for the snakes, and you can often find hundreds here in the spring and fall. I imagine we were there a bit early for the fall gathering. A couple of migrant harriers coursed by, and Vesper Sparrows flew ahead of the car as we bounced along the track.
We turned south at Racetrack Lake and returned to Riske Creek from the north, stopping for a walk at Separating Lake (there are many Separating Lakes and Separation Lakes in the BC Interior–named for their use by ranchers who separated cattle from mixed herds along their shores after a summer on common range) before getting back to the lodge. Ria had prepared a fabulous dinner for us—probably the best steak I’ve ever had, and the setting further enhanced the flavour. As we ate, I noticed a black bear wandering across the grasslands to the south in the setting sun, heading for the aspen thickets along Riske Creek itself.
The following morning we had a huge Chilcotin breakfast, then drove south along the Farwell Canyon Road. Big logging trucks carrying lodgepole pine roared by in clouds of dust, but the morning haul was pretty much over as we reached the canyon. At the bridge over the Chilcotin River, Tsilhqot’in fishers were netting sockeye salmon on their way upstream to Chilko Lake, as they had been doing for millennia. We continued up the other side of the valley, then turned east onto towards the Gang Ranch. We came out onto a wide vista of grassland and the mighty Fraser far below us, driving for miles through sunny grass and scattering sparrows and larks before reaching the ranch headquarters.
Before crossing the Fraser, we turned south to the Empire Valley and the Churn Creek Protected Area. I’d visited this spot over 30 years ago with Parks Canada officials who were interested in creating a national park in the area—in the meantime it had been protected by the provincial government, which then enhanced the protected area with the purchase of the Empire Valley Ranch. This is without a doubt one of the most spectacularly scenic parts of British Columbia (which is a pretty spectacular province) and well worth a visit. Then we crossed the Fraser and returned to Highway 97 via the beautiful drive up Canoe Creek and along the Meadowlake Road. The holiday was over too quickly, but it had been a wonderful journey through some of the finest landscapes in North America, and we vowed we would be back sooner next time.