Lose your heart to the Canadian Rockies on this amazing horseback adventure.
“If you take a look up there, you’ll see a grizzly – she has triplets.” Wayne Sawchuk, environmentalist and outfitter-guide at Muskwa-Kechika Adventures sends the message down through the string of riders and pack horses.
By the time it reaches me at the end of the line, I’ve already noticed a male on the north side of the sweep of valley we’re riding through.
With a swivel of my head and glance aloft, I spy them: a female with three burly cubs – this year’s for sure due to their roly-poly size. As I watch, she sits on her haunches and they start nursing. That means she’s totally cool with us riding by. Good.
Life’s like that here in northern British Columbia’s Muskwa-Kechika (M-K), the largest authentic wilderness region in North America’s Rocky Mountains.
Here, as grizzlies gaze while we passed through their territory, we didn’t see anyone as we rode for 13 days through alpine meadows, wind-tossed ridges, moss-clad (surely enchanted) forests, and turbulent rivers.
Mother Nature rules
The M-K is so remote that it took us 1.5 hours to fly in from Fort Nelson on the Alaska Highway to meet Sawchuk, his two wranglers Michelle Creegan-Dougherty and Alex Lepp, plus our mounts after two days of delays.
Simply put, Mother Nature rules, where mountain summer weather sends blasts of hail, snow, pelting rain or glorious blue-sky days at whim. As the saying goes, “Wait five minutes and the weather’ll change.”
Third-day we were lucky. Pilot Peter Villers said to my husband Eric on our successful inbound flight, “Sure hope Wayne’s cut down those trees on the runway.” And as we dropped onto that narrow strip – a mere slash in the wilderness – Eric thought, “Geesh, I suppose those trees are below wing-height.”
Waving goodbye to Villers and out-going clients, we turned, grabbed the 30kg (70lbs) each of gear we were permitted, and helped lug the next two weeks’ supplies to the campsite.
“Form a chain,” yelled Lepp, and we did, everyone pitching in.
That’s the way of it during these rides. Everyone does everything, from saddling and bridling your horse to helping pack and unpack the packhorses’ paniers, cook meals over the campfire, set up and break camp.
Always, the horses come first. At every campsite, Sawchuk would call, “Everyone pitch in to help with the horses: they’ve worked hard for us today.” And we did, finding it a pleasure to help free these willing, sure-footed beasts of their burdensome packs.
Then we’d turn to our saddle horses, remove their tack (bridles and saddles) and turn them loose with the herd after putting bells on some, hobbles on others. (Hobbles are ropes to keep their front feet together so it limits their movement – otherwise they’d be harder to catch come morning.)
Whoever’s turn it was to cook dinner then started a fire and commenced preparing supper, where every single one of us prepared a delicious meal. After that, it was time to pitch tents, do dishes, and “get horizontal” – until 6:00 a.m., when everyone got up, making breakfast, and breaking camp.
The wranglers ate and headed out, bridles for their mounts in hand, to catch the herd which invariably took them an hour or so.
Each day’s routine was the same – but never boring, not a chance. No, once back in the saddle, the M-K treated us daily to one primal, stunning vista and one extreme ride after another.
Sawchuk’s website promises the “expedition will be rigorous, exciting and utterly unforgettable.” He’s sparing with his words and dead-on accurate.
Prophet River Camp
On our first day’s ride out of Prophet River Camp, we ascended to a breathtaking alpine meadow chock-full of vibrantly coloured sky-blue forget-me-nots, cobalt delphiniums, purple monkshood and magenta fireweed.
While the blossoms were magnets calling us to look at our feet, the ocean of ridges stretching to the horizon compelled us to raise our eyes skyward.
“Lunch!” Sawchuk would cry, being the call to stop, tie our horses to whatever we could, and open our saddlebags to extricate sometimes flattened but always tasty lunches we’d packed for ourselves.
Perhaps it’d be a wrap of peanut butter and celery; possibly a hunk of cheese, dried figs and crackers. Whatever it was we washed down with fresh M-K spring water: delicious.
The spectacular Rocky Mountains
Consistently, M-K’s backcountry delivers major wows – whether that’d be vistas or major demands upon your body. Horses are raised to this life; I’m not.
So these expeditions are “rugged” alright, if not extreme. After all, when faced with an intense ascent or descent, another call comes down the line from Sawchuk. “We walk from here.”
And as you can well imagine, such cries are met with thankfulness or alarm, depending how saddle sore you might be at any given moment.
Undeniably, steep sections tested everyone’s mettle, especially this summer of rain, when muddy trails kept you hopping, trying to keep from getting wet feet.
Who am I kidding? Remember those turbulent rivers I mentioned we crossed? Well, I’ll tell you, keeping dry feet was impossible.
My wonderful horse had a Blackfoot First Nations name: T’suu (pronounced “Sue”). This mare was short, and at least once Eric observed we were swimming while crossing a river.
Sure I lifted my feet up – but frankly? They got wet. Did I care? Nah. With woollen socks and good Ariat riding boots, I was right: perhaps a tad squishy but cosy, that’s for sure.
Talking about the horses, Sawchuk has a variety and several are “ambidextrous”, where they can either pack or be ridden.
Everyone loves Percy, who’s a tall, rangy, totally unflappable grey. Then there’s Cassiar, Tuchodi and Gataga, foals Sawchuk’s raised into sturdy trustworthy souls and named for the M-K’s mountains and rivers.
Everyone forms a bond with their steed: I loved my T’suu, for instance, who was a tidy, game little soul.
Time has a way of standing still here in the M-K. Days flowed one into another, where “weather” in the form of rain came and went but happily, never when we were on the exposed ridges and alpine meadows.
And because Sawchuk’s the only outfitter using this trail, happily there’s little environmental impact.
Sure, we’d hear him call “Alex! Bring the axe!” whereupon this agile 24-year-old would dismount Soda, his red roan mare, fight his way through the bush to the front of our line, and chop windfall trees blocking our progress.
Serengeti of the Rockies
The paths are often simply wild animal trails, snaking along a mountainside, skirting a talus slope, or deeply cut by moose and other critters through waist-high willow.
In the M-K’s heartland here, you feel you are alone and at one with wilderness because you are.
Days off, you ask? Sawchuk recognizes a break is a rest, where he tries to achieve two days riding with the third day off.
That worked well for us, where the three other women and Eric and I became fast friends, respectful of one another’s space and capabilities.
One day off at Gatho River camp we hiked up Love Crash Creek to a waterfall.
We four women were assessing our route when all of a sudden we gasped: walking nonchalantly towards us, an immense bull moose stopped, gave us a double-take look, and blasted away through the willows. Phew!
Later on we saw perhaps 40 elk plus another grizzly with twins – on the opposite side of the valley.
Love Crash Creek
Love Crash Creek is quite a name and Sawchuk and Creegan-Dougherty spun the tale. There was a lady working at a camp here, and a pilot took a fancy to her.
He decided to fly over her camp, drop a love letter and fly off… but he crashed. The plane’s still there; the love crashed with him.
There’s many a tale to spin here. Like Charles Bedaux’s 1934 expedition. This French-American millionaire passed through the M-K testing Citroën half-track vehicles that his friend André Citroën was making.
Bedaux hired 100 pack and riding horses and more than 50 cowboys at double the going rate of the day. His so-called “Champagne Safari” included his wife, mistress and cook – who all wore exactly the same clothes, so the story goes.
Interesting times, methinks… His aim? To travel the 2,414 km or so from Edmonton, Alberta to Telegraph Creek, BC. Although they never made it, the story lingers, the mind boggles… and although his original footage was lost, in 1995 The Champagne Safari movie was released.
Ahhh. So many tales. So many wonders to discover.
Poetry in the wilderness
And when you go, because go you surely must, ask Lepp to recite the Bard of the North (Robert Service’s) poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee.
At the end of our trip, on the sand beach overlooking turquoise Tuchodi Lake, Lepp stood, squared his shoulders, and told the tale.
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”
As his voice rang out over the lake embraced by yet another ridge ocean, I cried. Once again I have lost my heart to the wild.
The Muskwa-Kechika, both the land and its protectors – Wayne, Alex and Michelle – have captured my soul yet again.
As we sped along the Tuchodi, then Muskwa Rivers in the jet boat during the 4.5-hour trip out, I chatted with the pilot.
He’s been smitten too, bitten by the call to preserve, protect and love this land and its wild heart. You can too: whether you’ve ever sat a horse or not, Sawchuk and his wranglers will treat you to a place you never thought you’d see, never thought you could hike and ride through.
Go, and lose your heart to the M-K.
Katharine and Eric Fletcher are keen outdoors enthusiasts who lost their hearts to British Columbia’s wilderness.
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