The sun is shining high in the late morning sky as I swirl my last piece of pan fried potato in some leftover egg yolk and pop it in my mouth. Patio brunch in Pemberton seems like the perfect place to plot the next leg of our pedal-powered adventure and I’m always more enthusiastic with a stomach full of food.
Perhaps it’s the seasoned cyclist feeling that rounding out three weeks of rugged and remote bicycle travel brings you, or the anticipation of a new and novel route, or the healing feeling of fresh air and sleeping in the dirt. Either way, my life slash adventure partner, Mat and I are feeling energized despite our recent efforts.
We just spent the last two days traversing two hundred kilometres of steep gravel grades, alternating between hike-a-biking, slow gravel grinding and white knuckling the loose rocky descents that make up the In-SHUCK-ch Forest Service Road in the Sts’ailes Xa’xa Temexw.
The Sts’ailes Xa’xa Temexw includes the entirety of Harrison Lake, Harrison River, Chehalis Lake, Chehalis River, the lower Lillooet River, the northeastern portion of Stave Lake, and the Fraser River between Hooknose and Queens Island. The sacred territory was long abundant with ancestral settlements, which were the heart of everyday commercial and domestic activities, and also semi permanent bases, which were used for hunting, fishing, plant gathering, and ceremonial trips. The word St’sailes is derived from the Halq’eméylem word ‘Sts’a’íles’, which means “the beating heart”.
Popular with dirt bikers, four-by-fourers and logging trucks, the rugged mountain backroad gains and loses over 4000m of elevation as it travels north from Harrison Mills to Mount Currie on the West Side of Harrison Lake. It had been on our bucket list for years and lucky for us, we hit it while things were COVID-quiet.
Despite a handful of logging trucks, the drivers of which were very friendly, wildy encouraging and bewildered that we would bike here, a local elder who blessed our journey and offered us cold water and a mama black bear who scampered our path, the road itself was largely void of visitors.
This stretch of the Sts’ailes Xa’xa Temexw is so serene and stunning and scenic and sacred that I’d come to look back on our traverse along the lake as one of the highlights of our trip.
Yesterday, we rolled into Pemberton and celebrated our accomplishment with some cold beer and a hot bath at the historic Pemberton hotel and today, we’re at a deciding point. We could head southbound along the bustling BC-99 highway before veering off at the top of the newly established Sea-to-Sky Trail, which would traverse us toward and through Whistler, Brandywine, Garibaldi and Squamish by way of a super fun network of deactivated dirt roads and mountain bike trails.
Alternatively, we could turn northbound through the Pemberton Meadows and hustle our way up the notorious Hurley Wilderness Road towards the historic mining towns of Bralorne and Gold Bridge before ascending deep into the South Chilcotin mountains and getting lost in the wilderness and wildflowers for days.
We’re torn and maybe a bit tired, which makes south seem tantalizing for its proximity to people, pubs and the pastries at Purebread. North, however, holds the unknown and that’s enticing. We settle up with the waitress and wheel over to the bike shop for a second opinion.
Wearing a fresh coat of red paint and waving Rasta flags loud and proud, we can’t miss Pemberton’s Bike Co, the self-proclaimed favourite, albeit only, bike shop in town. We lean our loaded bikes against the wall and head in for a visit.
Greeted by a young man with signs of bike maintenance all over his face, hands and Bike Co. apron, he assures us it’s been a busy summer. When I ask if he’s a local, he nods his head yes with a smiling sense of pride. “What can you tell me about the trails in the South Chilcotins?” I prod. He looks across the shop and points a finger towards the man behind the till.
I walk over and introduce myself to Pete, the co-founder of Bike Co. who operates two shops in the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, one in Whistler and one where we’re standing. He reaches behind the till, pulls out a paper map and sets it on the counter. “You’re gonna need this,” he says matter-of-factly and slides it my way.
I open up the topographic trail map of the South Chilcotin mountain range to see a perplexing amount of possibilities. The area is so vast and the trails so abundant that I’m immediately overwhelmed. Pete picks up on my apprehension.
He tells me that he lives in Pemberton but built a cabin up at Gun Lake, a small community surrounding a sparkling blue body of water nestled amongst the snow capped mountains near our potential destination. He says he’s been exploring these trails since the ‘90s and that the area is definitely worth going to visit, especially since we’ve come this far. His voice is sincere and convincing.
I tell him tales of our unconventional route and he assures me that if we’ve done what we say we have, we are more than capable of the journey. I pull out my phone to show him some route data that I’d gathered from an online forum about the South Chilcotins a few months back.
We follow the thin red line on my GPS map and he nods his head in approval before adding in his advice. Being that they’ve had such a wet spring, he proposes a slightly altered route avoiding a long, low bog and some miserable mosquitos. I scramble to make notes on my phone, knowing I’ll never retain all his wisdom.
Together, we trace our fingers along the paper map route and double check my notes, solidifying my confidence in our path. I thank him immensely and we pay for our things.
“Did you mention what kind of bikes we are riding?” Mat asks, as we head out the door. I glance back in my memory, “Nope.” We both look up in perfect time to catch a glimpse of Pete’s eyes widening as he peers out the window at our rides. “These are probably the bikes he first explored the Chilcotins on,” I laugh, trying to make light of the situation.
Our bikes are relics. Mid-90s rigid mountain bikes, built to last and strong as an ox. Potentially as heavy as one too. We made the conscious choice not to buy new bikes after riding across Canada on these dinosaurs and having even more fun than the time we did it on brand new touring bikes. We had decided that maybe we were doing something thoughtful for the environment by riding these rigs until they broke.
Besides, the chromoly-steel had proven to be more than capable of handling everything we had thrown. My ‘94 Kona Fire Mountain and Mat’s ‘96 Specialized RockHopper had a combined 25,000 kilometers of gravel, dirt and pavement grinding and that was only in our three short years of owning them. Who knew where they had been before that?
They were our work horses, our steel steeds, our freedom machines. What more did we need?
Granted, we had indulged ourselves in a few advancements of modern technology over the years. Our aluminum rear racks carried a set of small but mighty, waterproof panniers with a 12L dry sack of food, strapped to the top. We traded our original wrist cramping straight bars for some modern Jones loop handlebars with hundreds of hand positions that held our Blackburn harnesses off the front.
Our butts were perched comfortably atop some updated Brooks Cambium rubber saddles and our feet rested flush against flat pedals with no need to clip in or wear some silly, slippery shoes. Easy to access bear spray canisters hung in a homemade holster off our cross tube and housed underneath were two thirst quenching bottles of water.
Our only suspension, aside from whatever our bodies absorbed, was the air in our 26 x 2.5” tires, the biggest we could cram between our narrow little forks. The rear, mind you, would only fit a 2.3”.
And yet, here we were, about to embark on a journey into world-renowned wilderness with all the items we would need to survive and thrive until we decided to make the return to civilization. We’d be riding the same trails as people who paid to get dropped off by float plane or helicopter, but for a fraction of the cost. A fraction of the cost and infinitely more effort.
Our next crux was getting there.
Standing between us and the South Chilcotin Mountain range was the Hurley Wilderness Road, a rough, dirt road that extends 74 kilometres from the edge of the Pemberton Meadows to the tip of the Bridge River Valley. We would gain almost 1500m in elevation by the time we arrived at the Gun Creek Campground to rest for the night. “It’s a stiff climb,” were Pete’s exact words, but we knew we were capable.
The first order of business was to stock up on more snacks. Once we leave Pemberton for the South Chilcotin park boundary, there is nowhere left to resupply. The small store we will pass in Gold Bridge is unreliable and stock is often low, so I scour the grocery aisles for calorie dense dinners, salty snacks and tasty treats, knowing we’ll need at least a week’s worth of resources. We’ve never been so remote for so long, so the real trick is finding a place to pack it all.
The day is getting on by the time we’ve run our errands and prepped for the trek. I can tell we’re both getting hungry as we start bickering about which way the trail leaves town. I say right and Mat says left and as we come to a halt at the Y in the trail, I’m met by the familiar face of a friend I haven’t seen in years.
We both scream in disbelief while our significant others look on in confusion. We hug and laugh and agree that it’s so weird to run into each other so randomly. We introduce the men and give our friends a brief synopsis of our latest travels and upcoming plans. It just so happens that they live along our current path and were just about to head home to make dinner. Would we like to join them and spend the night? Hell yes!
The evening of catch up and noshing is extra pleasant and they offer us to sleep indoors as the mosquitos in the Meadows are out of control right now. We happily oblige. A deep night’s sleep and the imminent adventure has us rise up early, excited to tackle the day. We share a delicious morning coffee with our serendipitous hosts before packing up our bikes in the early morning mist.
Something catches Mat’s eye and he glances towards the neighbours driveway to notice that the rare ‘74 Volkswagen van parked in their driveway is the exact one that he sold five years ago, before our first cross Canada bicycle trip. It still has the stickers and remnants of egg whites to prove it. All of the coincidences make us feel like we’re on the right track.
The Meadows are stunning and extremely flat considering the climb ahead. As we turn off the main vein and head for the Hurley, a billboard stretches into view, reminding us that we are in grizzly country, act accordingly. The anticipation is palpable.
The sun breaks through the sky as we begin our ascent. Even though it’s early, it’s already warm. The road is loose and steep, the grade, at times reaching upwards of 11%. It certainly is stiff but it’s also beautiful and scenic and relatively quiet. Anyone who passes gives us a friendly hand gesture and a honk of encouragement.
As we continue to climb, the horizon begins to open up and sturdy, snow capped peaks reveal themselves. A truck pulls over on the opposite side of the road and a stout lady jumps down from the helm. She waits as two vehicles rattle past before she waltzes towards us. She offers us cold water and congratulations as she informs us we are just one kilometre from the summit of the pass. We look at each other in surprise. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that far.
She regals us with tales of the locals, telling us about one old man who rides his bike up and down this road all year long, even in the wilds of winter. He must be a badass, I think out loud. She nods and suggests an alternate route up ahead that would take us through the historic gold mining town of Bralorne before descending us into Gold Bridge. It’s scenic, she says, but will also add 20 kilometres to our day.
Mat’s always game for extending the adventure, so we consider her a ‘Trail Angel’, a meant-to-be spontaneous interaction and we take her advice. Bralorne isn’t much to write home about but it’s a pretty quaint little place and we’re happy for the detour. We roll up and down mainstreet and then head out of town. Rumor has it that there’s a pub in Gold Bridge and we’re frothing for food.
An incredible dirt road ride down into town makes the reroute really worth it and my rim brakes squeal in agreeance. As we pull into the empty lot of the Gold Bridge Hotel, grins grow across our face as the open sign flashes red.
The inside walls are half covered in five dollars bills and graffiti tagged currency from all over the world. Round wooden tables and classic chairs sit spaced out around the room. An old time jukebox glows neon from the corner while the speakers blare an out-of-place mash up of mumble rap and the latest Drake. We laugh.
We order an ice cold Blue Buck and a couple of loaded burgers and comment at least ten times that we can’t believe we’re here. I connect to their wifi and tell our families that we survived the Hurley but that they won’t hear from us for the rest of the week. We mow down our delicious dinner like we haven’t eaten in years and make a move for our final resting spot. We’ll call the Gun Creek Campground home for the night.