The majority of people access the South Chilcotin Mountains by floatplane, helicopter or horseback. But with the rising popularity of gravel grinding and bikepacking, increasingly, people like us are headed in by bike. We had pedalled over a thousand remote and rugged kilometres across British Columbia to end up here, at the foot of this awe-inspiring mountain range, looking to get lost in the wilderness and wildflowers for days.
We had popped into Pemberton to load up on a week’s worth of supplies and get some local intel about the vast network of backcountry trails in the South Chilcotin area. Pete from Pemberton’s Bike Co. was a trail angel, setting us up with a much needed topographic map, and some outstanding route advice. He re-directed us around a large section of our pre-planned path which would have had us struggle through a boggy marsh full of mud and mosquitos. It had been an unusually wet spring.
Leaving town, we pedalled our way up the stiff gravel grades of the Hurley Wilderness Road, travelling seventy four kilometers over Railroad Pass (4,500ft) and down into the Bridge River Valley. We passed through the historic gold mining turned ghost towns of Bralorne and Gold Bridge and made ourselves at home in the Gun Creek campground.
Now, we were heading in.
As we waved good-bye to the magnificent jade waters of the Carpenter Lake reservoir, we began the seemingly ceaseless climb that would find us at the north tip of the Relay Creek Trail, two days and two thousand metres of elevation in the future.
Navigating giant grizzly droppings and freshly fallen trees, we hauled our fully loaded bikes along the unsigned, etched-in trail. Having seen no evidence of human life since we turned up the road, we soaked in the solitude of our surroundings. We shared the forest with the flora and the fauna, the feathered and furred creatures that take up permanent residency here. The remoteness was palpable.
At some point we took a left when we were supposed to take a right and much to our exhausted amazement, it led us home for the night. A long, log cabin surrounded by tall native grasslands and a babbling brook, juxtaposed against the deep green conifer forest and high alpine backdrop.
We set up our tent among the denseness of dandelions and started a small fire.
We hadn’t been stopped for more than ten minutes when movement in the meadow caught our eyes. A large male grizzly bear was wandering across tomorrow’s trail with his head down, snout poked forward, sniffing side to side. Mat clapped his hands loud and yelled “HEY!” at the bear. He lifted his head, pointed his snout in our direction and as if turned off by the smell of sweat and spandex, waltzed the other way. My heart raced.
We pulled the loose logs across the entry points to the horse fence that surrounded our camp, giving us the illusion of safety if the bear were to return. We slung our food bags high up in the spruce trees and hoped for the best. There was nowhere within a hundred kilometres to re-supply if things went awry.
The morning brought us sunshine with which to bask in during breakfast, a welcome addition to any meal. We took our time packing our gear, consulting our map and scouring the meadows for four legged friends before getting back on the bikes.
Today’s mission was to continue along the Relay Creek Trail and climb up to the junction of Graveyard Valley. It was a small stretch of trail that slowly extended into a six hour push-whack through overgrown bushes, hundreds of fallen trees and many more massive bear turds.
By the time we arrived at Graveyard Cabin that afternoon, we were so tired that we couldn’t make sense of our map. The once obvious trail connection had been washed away in the spring floods and we wandered back and forth, trying trail spur after trail spur, consulting our GPS map and realizing we were off the mark.
For the first time in my six years of bike travel, I felt in over my head. Were we really lost? Would we have to backtrack on our trail? Climb over the countless downed trees and enormous excrement, repeating our rugged route without the glory of the world class descents? I felt crushed at the possibility.
Beyond exhausted, we decided to spend the night in the shadow of the Graveyard Cabin. Everything would look better in the morning, we said. We set up our tent in the early evening sun, crawled into bed and fell into a deep sleep that would restore our enthusiasm for the adventure in the wee morning hours.
Daybreak was on the horizon and our plan had worked, our minds were clearer and in lieu, so was the map. We located the trailhead within minutes of looking. Following Graveyard Creek down into the valley of the same name, we meandered the undulating trail, watching the majestic mountains appear to us in the closest proximity yet.
How strange it was for my inland rainforest eyes to see the alpine treelines end so abruptly and have the summit appear above, a smooth, seemingly barren, dome-shaped scree slope. Alpine tundra in its finest form.
As we traversed the Graveyard Valley, the long history of the land became observable. Sacred territory, the South Chilcotins fall within the traditional lands of three First Nations, the Tsilhqot’in, St’at’imc and Secwepemc peoples. In fact, many of the very trails we were exploring on had initially been imprinted by the First Nations people traversing the land on foot and then horseback. They had been hunting, fishing, surviving and thriving off the abundance that was available to them here for thousands of years.
In the middle of the Graveyard Valley stood a memorial plaque, honouring the fallen warriors of the St’at’imc and Tsilhqot’in nations who died in bloody battles between the two tribes hundreds of years ago. In 2003, both nations agreed to “bury the hatchet” in a peace agreement and in 2007 the monument was constructed. The gravesite harboured an otherworldly air.
As we ascended out of the valley, up and over Elbow Pass, we were forced off our saddles for the first hike-a-bike of the day. The grade was steep and soft and the soles of our shoes slipped a half step back every time we make a stride. It was sunny and pleasant and as always, the struggle was worth its reward.
As we crest over the climb and look down upon the Tyaughton Creek Trail, we rejoice. The fast, flowy downhill descent is upon us and we ride the etched in singletrack with resounding joy. What an incredible payoff for the effort we’ve put in. We hoot and holler at the top of our lungs, as we have for days, knowing that we are most certainly in grizzly country. Our bellows are sure to startle any wildlife lurking in the vicinity, or so we think.
The trail passes beneath our tires, coming as fast as it goes and in the midst of all our excitement, we fail to note yet another left turn. I follow Mat as he veers right on the dirt track, flying through the forest with the utmost glee. As we round out a small hill, sure signs of human civilization appear in our view.
Having not seen any human beings or evidence of modern inhabitation in days, our eyes become transfixed on the bright white canvas tents and old timey cabin, situated in our gaze. Silent for the first time in weeks, something forces me to break my stare and look out over Mat’s right shoulder into the grassy meadows of the camp. My heart leaps.
“BEAR!” I yell, grabbing my breaks and squealing to a stop. Mat follows suit. In that moment, time slows to a crawl as a massive mama grizzly rises up on all fours from her bed in the tall grass. She’s so close that we can see her slobber swaying back and forth, sloshing around on the sides of her jowls. The hair on her hump stands straight as an arrow as her beady eyes make instantaneous sense of the situation. In a flash, she turns away from us, prompting her two wandering bear cubs to do the same.
Her thunderous paws pound the ground and she dashes off in the distance, her steps reverberating through our spines as we back away with our bikes, slow and startled. My heart is racing like never before, my breathing is short and shallow, I begin blinking uncontrollably and looking back over my shoulder manically, wondering if she’ll return.
We hustle ourselves away from the scene, clapping and shouting while trying to catch our breath. We take a wide berth from the meadow, following a perimeter fence that leads us down the land. As we pass by the private log cabin, a rustic wooden sign hangs on the outside wall and carved in big block letters, it reads: ‘BEARS PAW’. No wonder.
Still riding the high of our grizzly encounter, we use the paper map to navigate ourselves back towards the main trail. As we do, we’re approached by the first human being we’ve seen in days. A tall, muscular mountain biker with blond hair poking out the sides of his helmet stops for a chat.
He’s a guide for the camp we just passed through. The crew have a few days off so they’ve been getting some much needed solo riding in. We tell him about our encounter and he laughs nonchalantly. “Ya, they’ve been hanging around the camp this year,” he says.
He warns us about four upcoming river crossings that are pretty intense, glances over our gear and assures us we’ll be fine. I can only imagine what he is thinking, looking at our mid ‘90s rigid mountain bikes, loaded to the max with all the items we’ve needed for the past six weeks on the road.
He, like most people who roam here, have upgraded to the modern, suspension laden bikes of the day, strapped with the least amount of lightweight gear one can take for four days in the wilderness. We part ways and ride on.
He wasn’t kidding about the river crossings, as intense as they are wide. While we are exploring within a provincial park boundary, they have chosen to leave the area largely undeveloped and I prefer it that way. It does, however, mean no bridgework or cable crossings to navigate the spring runoff, which is forceful, even now, in mid-summer.
Being the stronger and more courageous of the two of us, Mat elects to take both bikes, one at a time, through the biting waters. I watch as he steps slowly, precariously, blindly navigating the slimy underbelly of the rock-bed in the turbulent stream. The water reaches knee high in some places as he braces his body against the flow. He traverses there and back and then there again, while I cross once and just barely.
We navigate one final burst along the WD Trail before descending, full of elation, into the Spruce Lake Rec Site to wrap up our day. Rolling our bikes all the way down to the northern edge of the shoreline, we lean them against a picnic table, strip down to our skivvies and run off the end of the dock, diving head first into the frigid sapphire waters. Success feels so good.
Tomorrow, we will ride out of the South Chilcotin mountains in all their glory. Guided by the soft morning sun, we will ascend along the majesty of the Gun Meadows Trail, ablaze with purple alpine lupines, vibrant orange paintbrush and bright green Indian hellebore. We will laugh and hoot and holler all the way back to where we began. In the distance, the rugged snow capped mountains of the Coastal Range will beckon us south for a new adventure.
But that, that is tomorrow. Today, we rest, we feast and we celebrate the incredible experience that we have had, exploring the unique terrain, the diverse landscapes, the ancestral heritage and the magnificent trails of the South Chilcotin Provincial Park in beautiful British Columbia.