Sometimes I think that the word “adventure” is a bit overused, but following a 5 and half hour drive, some rather close encounters with several logging trucks, narrow winding dirt roads and a float plane drop up onto Spruce Lake we were definitely deep in the backcountry and I think we all knew it was going to be one hell of an adventure.
My first introduction to riding in the South Chilcotins was back in 2004 watching the Collective with Dave Watson and Andrew Shandro riding through some of the most pristine landscapes I had ever seen. From that moment I knew that someday I would have to make my way deep into the rugged wilderness of Chilcotin Country and experience it for myself.
14 years have passed since the Collective was released, and it’s hard to believe that it has taken that long for me to finally make a Chilcotins trip happen. If you are reading this right now you are probably thinking WTF is wrong with you man, the Chilcotins are a bucket list mountain bike destination. You’re right, WTF is wrong with me?
To be honest, I was a bit scared of it. When you make a decision to ride in one of these remote areas you really need to respect it, and you need to be ready for it. I mean the nearest hospital is over 100 km away and a 3 hour drive on a mix of dirt and paved roads, and this is after a 20 min float plane ride, or a 30 km ride out, there is no cell service, weather patterns can shift unexpectedly, there are big friggin grizzly bears roaming around everywhere, and cougars don’t forget about the cougars, and not the ones you see at soccer practice or in the produce aisle at Superstore. This really isn’t just a walk in the park, if you’re not prepared you’re really putting yourself at risk.
This whole region is pretty spectacular, and those that have been there before can attest to that. The park itself was first established in April of 2001, it spans a total of 56,796 hectares and sits quite neatly nestled just north of Gold Bridge BC. It’s part of a high plateau extending from the Coastal Mountains to the Fraser River and back down to where the Chilcotin and Chilco rivers converge. It's big, and it’s badass.
The park encompasses a mix of ecological sub zones ranging from mid elevation grasslands, subalpine and alpine meadows, alpine lakes, peaks, and estuaries. It boasts numerous mountain peaks, ridges, broad valleys and passes with over 200 km of the most pristine single track trails extending and looping throughout. For hikers, mountain bikers and horse back riders, this place is a wilderness paradise.
This region has been used by indigenous peoples for 1000’s of years and falls within the traditional territories of three nations: Tsilhqot’in, St’at’imc, Secwepemc. The region gets its name from the Tsilhqot’in people who were master hunters and trappers using trained dogs to hunt bear, deer, beaver and other animals.
In such a peaceful and beautiful area, it is hard to believe that it has also had a dark and bloody past. In 1864 conflict arose between early European settlers and First Nations over land, resources and ownership in Tsilhqot’in traditional territory, this lead to what would become the Chilcotin War. Following two outbreaks of smallpox the surviving Tsilhqot’in people travelled to the camp of road developer Alfred Waddington searching for help, but found none. Starving, these people stole some flour from the general store. Workers retaliated, and threatened them with a deliberate infection of smallpox. The Tsilhqot’in declared war on the settlers, killing 15 men in two attacks. Six of these warriors where later hanged after being found guilty by a European-based court system. In 1999 the government met with representatives from Tsilhqot’in at the unmarked graves of the executed men and issued apology for the Chilcotin War and unveiled a memorial plaque. This plaque can been seen in Graveyard Valley. These dark times in history serve as a reminder that we continue to have a long road ahead as we work towards reconciliation. We are truly privileged to be able to share this landscape with the people that have called it home for thousands of years, and throughout the weekend we often would wonder how strong you’d have to be to survive and flourish in such a rugged environment. But let’s get back to where our journey began.
Like most of our hair brained ideas, this trip came about following a few pints at Tractor Grease. The goal was to surprise Spencer’s fiance Donna with a trip for her birthday, and thus “Operation Alpine aka Donna’s Bday Sender” was born. The group consisted of some of the regulars you see at the shop and out of the group, Spencer was the only one who had previously been to the Chilcotins. He assured us it would be a trip to remember.
I think we knew the trip would push us to our physical and mental limits, but sitting in Chilliwack and committing to a trip like this over a few pints doesn’t seem so daunting, damn liquid courage. The group did a pretty good job at keeping the surprise for the several months leading into the trip, we even had Donna come help shop for a “trip” we were going on at MEC. It wasn't really until we hit the turnoff to Lillooet that she figured it out.
Needless to say, it’s a pretty damn good birthday weekend when you end up on a surprise Chilcotins trip with some of your closest riding friends, the stoke level was high.
DAY 1: THE TRIP IN
It’s about a 5 and half hour drive from the shop in Chilliwack to Tyax Adventures . It’s out there and when you finally arrive it’s hard believe that there is this fancy lodge up all the way in the middle of nowhere.
We arrived at around 1 and Dale Douglas, our pilot and the owner of Tyax Adventures, wasted no time loading us up into the de Havilland Beaver DHC-2 and getting us up to Spruce Lake. Although the Trek knock block did give him some trouble loading our bikes into the plane, sorry Dale.
The flight into Spruce Lake from Tyaughton lake is about 15-20 minutes. As you fly up the pass you are greeted with a view of the Sheba Ridge, with mount Sheba towering above at over 2550 m, and Castle Peak looming the background at 2491 m. You really begin to truly appreciate the sheer scale of this landscape, it’s beauty, and it’s ruggedness.
After Touching down on Spruce Lake, we made camp at the North Campsite as we had heard that this camp had better amenities. We capped the night off with a dip in the lake and what would become one of many Pad Thai dinners (seriously I don’t think any of us want to touch Backpackers Pantry for at least a year).
DAY 2: DEER PASS
The following day we had decided that our mission would be to complete the Deer Pass Loop, a Chilcotin classic. Following a morning meeting consulting our map and trailforks, we had decided on our route.
Travelling from camp we’d set out on the Spruce Lake trail, over to the WD trail, then connecting into Tyaughton Creek Trail, before turning off on the Deer Pass Trail. We planned to take the Gun Creek Trail back, followed by Lower Grasslands Trail and back onto the Spruce Lake Trail to camp. This route was a biggie with close to 40 km of trail, and over 1800 m of climbing, we figured a solid 7 hrs with a lots of breaks and we’d be back before dark… boy have we never been more wrong.
The day started with a short meandering pedal on the Spruce Lake Trail before hitting the WD Trail which was named after W. A. “Big Bill” Davidson who was an early Bridge River valley pioneer. The WD trail consisted of a mellow rolling climb leading into a fun little descent into Tyaughton Creek Trail.
The Tyaughton Creek Trail follows Tyaughton Creek traversing along beautiful bench cut single track, grasslands, and several creek crossings. These creek crossings provided a much needed opportunity to fill up our water bottles and bladders before continuing on. The roughly 11 km ride put us at the doorstep of the Deer Pass trail.
The Deer Pass trail travels up the pass through a dense forest with a creek running to your left. As you continue to travel up the valley, the trees become more scarce and smaller indicating that transition zone into the subalpine. The trail is a mix of riding and hike-a-bike, but the views along the way make it special.
The temperature drops drastically as you reach the alpine, and topography changes to what can only be described as a Mars-like mix of grey, red and orange rock and dirt. With all the wildfire smoke, it really felt like we were venturing deep on some uncharted planet.
After a long sufferfest up the final 300 m of the pass we finally reached the top, and it was rather cold up at 2300 m. Unfortunately the wildfire smoke choked out our views a bit, but that didn’t stop us from grabbing some snacks and snaps at the top of Deer Pass.
We arrived a bit late, reaching the top at 6 pm, this was our first indication that we might not get back before dark. After a much needed break, we quickly loaded up and started our descent down the other side of the pass towards the Gun Creek Trail.
The descent down was a real treat and made the slog up all worth while, it's often funny how we forget about a shit climb when we are rewarded with an awesome descent. A mix of high alpine riding, bench cut, and some seriously loose marble sections and we were out. At this point the group had split up 4 went ahead and 4 lagged behind just trying to survive.
Gun Creek Trail was a beaut and one of the favourites on this trip. The trail traverses along Gun Creek passing by the beautiful turquoise glacier fed waters of Trigger and Hummingbird Lake. At the head of Trigger Lake sits this pristine estuary, it looks like prime bear habitat, but we didn’t see any bears, at least yet.
Our intent was to take the Lower Grasslands Trail to avoid the massive 200+ m slog up from the bottom of the Spruce Lake Main Trail, and after an epic day of riding we were super relieved when we finally reached the turn-off to Lower Grasslands, the end was in sight. This trail was beautiful, continuing on a meandering climb through tall birch trees and grasslands. We were treated to a fun little descent into Cowboy Camp. The trail continued on and we soon came across another fork that wasn’t on Trailforks. The sign said Mid on it, so we decided we should take the lower fork assuming that this was Lower Grasslands, big mistake! The trail continued on with a super fun decent, and it wasn’t until the next junction that we realized that we had really screwed up. Turns out we took a wrong turn and ended up at the bottom of Spruce Lake Main, right where we didn’t want to be. At least we weren’t the only ones, we later found out that another pair of riders, and the other half of our group made the same painful mistake.
After almost 40 km of riding and some 1800 m of climbing, the last thing you want to do is hike-a-bike up some 200 m of incredibly steep overgrown trail. I think we all died a little bit here.
Following what seemed like an unrelenting hike-a-bike we arrived back at the lake, and after a super fun rolling ride we were back at camp just as the sun was going down….well half of us at least.
Remember when I said the group had split up. Well four still remained. They followed our same mistake with the exception that it was now dark. Hiking out in the dark in Chilcotin Country is not something that one volunteers to do, remember those big friggin grizzly bears, well it sure is hard to see them in the pitch black. Armed with two cans of bear spray, one headlamp and a 90’s playlist operating on peak iPhone speaker volume, the second half of our party hiked close to 5 km in the dark back to camp. They finally made it back almost 2 hrs later. Travelling becomes much slower when it's too dark to ride. Not a lot was said when they got back, but we could tell that some serious character building took place. Emma had taken a decent tumble off a cliff. Later we’d learn that she suffered a concussion, meniscus injury and a sprain of her MCL ligament. Shit can really go sideways in hurry up here.
After a quick meal, some stories and a lake dip we were eager to hit the hay for the night. I think everyone reminisced that night about lessons learned and how to be more prepared for next time.
DAY 3: A LITTLE FISHING, A LITTLE SHREDDING
Everyone was a bit pooched from the Deer Pass mission, so following a lazy morning around camp the boys commandeered a sturdy watercraft and 2 makeshift paddles to do a little fishing.
Spencer had brought a fly rod, and it wasn’t long before we started landing some nice rainbows. The fish were hungry, but we were hungrier and after catching 4 nice rainbows we moseyed on back to camp to cook up our catch. A little garlic and a little butter and bam lunch was served, Spruce Lake rainbows are mighty tasty.
The rainbow lunch was just the perk needed to rejuvenate the crew for an afternoon rip. The plan was to do a quick mission around the Lake via Open Heart Trail and Open Heart Connector, we had heard some good things from some other riders at camp, who had heard it from some other dude in camp. Well that should have been our indication, because we ended up getting either lost or the trail just ended. One thing we can tell you is that Trailforks isn’t overly reliable in Chilcotin Country, there are just too many random spur trails.
Riding along the trail you can see fossils embedded in the rocks, this is common of sedimentary rock found in this area, it amazing that these rocks would have once been on the ocean floor.
After one heck of a hike-a-bike, we started down our descent only to find it completely overgrown and seemingly impassable. We decided to head back the way we came.
The ride back was a fast descent back down Open Heart Trail, some super fun sections, and some really scary bits with deep bike swallowing ruts. Stoke level was high, real high, as we rolled back into camp.
A quick lake dip and some gourmet backpackers pantry and we were set to play some card games, before planning and prepping for the big ride out the next day.
DAY 4: THE RIDE OUT
We decided to split into two groups on the ride out. The faster group would take High Trail out over Windy Pass, and down through Taylor Creek Trail. The slower group would take the smooth descent out Gun Creek Meadows into Lower Gun Creek Trail.
The slog up High Trail to Windy Pass is basically a 1.5 hour hike-a-bike up some seriously steep pitches. Following the death-march we reached the top and the smoke cleared enough to get some awesome views.
After a quick break at the top, we descended down High Trail into Taylor Creek trail. This little section was an awesome alpine single track rip. As we were cruising along Spencer ran into a momma Grizzly and her cub, this led to a 4 bike pile up and some seriously frantic moments reaching for the bear spray.
She had been feeding at the bottom of a ravine when Spencer rounded the corner, and with what seemed like 3 strides she was at the top of the ravine opposite to the trail 50 yards away staring directly at us, with a cub the size of a regular black bear in tow. She reared up and seemed the be close 8 or 9 ft tall before dropping back down and clambering further up the bank. Heart rates were up to say the least, but it was a real treat to see such an amazing animal in this pristine wilderness.
Taylor Creek is the main way people ride in, so we are told, but after riding it out I don’t think you’d catch us riding in this way. It’s a mix of double trail, old road, and lots of chunky boulders. Not the stuff dreams are made of, but any time on a bike is a good time so we made the most of it.
After breaking the sound barrier on some of the road bomb sections we arrived back at the trucks. Figuring the other group would be a while we opted to grab a few cold ones and a bite at the lodge before driving down to pick them up. Well it turns out that they had beat us out by a good 3 hours….oops.
Group 2 took Gun Meadows out through Gun Creek Trail. This was one heck of a ride out. Gun Meadows is a beautiful, fast, rolling decent through the grasslands. The whole route out was basically a meandering descent for 30 km with the odd climb here and there. The trail transitions from open bench in the meadow to patches to birch trees, before diving back into the dense forest along Gun Creek, think of any Chilcotins edit on Pinkbike and you’ll get the idea.
It was a bit dry and the trails were running a bit slow as a result, one can only imagine how much of a cruise it would be it we had had a bit of rain. We rode out the main junction stoked on our ride and waited for the faster group to come pick us up in the trucks. Three hours passed by and they finally showed up with Kirk hanging his head out the window, a telltale sign that they had gone for some beers. We weren’t overly stoked but agreed to grab burgers and beers in Lillooet on the way out.