Chilcotin

Roadtrip to Chilko Lake and the Nemiah Aboriginal Wilderness Preserve

words by Emanuel Smedbøl

Wild horse in the Chilcotin Mountains

I had mythologized it, I had romanticized it, I had wanted to visit for almost ten years.

In a province filled with remote and rugged places, the Nemiah Valley remains distinct. It is a land of wild horses and moose, of grizzly bears and giant wind-worn turquoise lakes, of jagged peaks and sprawling golden pasture. But what really sets Nemiah apart is its history — in 1864, at the height of the Cariboo Gold Rush, the Xeni Gwet'in people of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation successfully resisted European incursion into their territory. What would later be called the Chilcotin War was one of the few instances of armed conflict in the settling of Canada, and one of the very few where it can be said the First Nations won. The Nemiah Valley and Chilko Lake would remain off the grid for another 100 years, the people free to continue their traditional lifestyle without interference from government or corporations well into the twentieth century. It wasn't until the mid 1970s that road access was built, and the Xeni Gwet'in once again fought hard for their land — this time to protect it for everyone by designating it as a provincial park.

It's beautiful, evocative country. And darned if we weren't excited to see it for ourselves with our buds Adam and Adriana Sinke.

Exploring the dry sagebrush deserts of the Fraser Canyon Portrait of Megan McLellan in the desert

THE INTERIOR

We are drawn to differences. Living in Vancouver we've gotten used to the perpetual greens, thick impenetrable forests, cloud-shrouded hills, and endless damp. We love it here on the wet West Coast, but we do crave an escape now and again. We yearn for expansive landscapes, for open rolling yellows, for arid deserts and high plateaus. And luckily enough just a few hours east, through the stunning Fraser Canyon or over the breathtaking Coquihalla, beyond the rain-shadow of the Coast Mountains, we can find just that.

The difference is striking. While it's geographical proximity is almost negligible in a car, the act of arriving feels like a whole other thing. Where the coast is a dense dark green of wet hemlocks and ferns and briny ocean air, the interior plateau is a land of open arid pasture, of deserts and dunes, sages and scrub, canyons and cowboys, ghost towns and gold rushes, and lots and lots of pine. There is a feeling of almost impossible scale when you can actually see a horizon. It is a land of seemingly illimitable resources, of timber and minerals and agriculture, of pickup trucks and clearcuts and once mighty boom towns. And surrounding it all, waiting, is wilderness.

The Chilko River winds through the Farwell Canyon

We drove north out of Vancouver on the Sea to Sky Highway towards Seton and Lillooet and the Fraser Canyon. We camped out on the side of the highway that first night, on a thick bed of dry pine needles and sharp pinecones. What looks like unending and unknowable forest from the highway is in fact crisscrossed by countless forest service roads, and if your car and your schedule permits there are miles and miles and days and days of back roads to explore. Adam had a mind to do just that, with a route planned out primarily through dirt roads and backcountry, testing what the overpacked and drooping Corolla could handle.

One of the places we were most keen to visit was Farwell Canyon just a little ways off the Bella Coola highway on a well-serviced and well-travelled gravel road. This is supremely beautiful country and totally unlike anything on the coast. There are hoodoos and dunes and dry rolling grassland and bighorn sheep overlooking a meandering milky blue Chilcotin River. We parked the car and walked into the dry brittle sage and looked out over the country. The land was so open, so spare, it was hard not to imagine riding a horse across it. We crossed a bridge spanning the canyon, quietly watching people scoop huge flopping salmon out of the grey blue waters with nothing but hand-held nets. It is a harsh but truly invigorating country.

We made camp in a horseshoe bend of the rumbling river, drank deep from the ice-cold milky roar, and managed to only spill half of our dinner on the ground. We went to bed under a star-laden sky, the nip of early autumn hovering at the edges of camp.

Hoodoos in the Farwell Canyon, Chilcotin, BC Exploring the hoodooos above the milky Chilcotin River, BC The cool crystal waters of the Chilcotin, British Columbia Pine forests and deserts on BC's Interior Plateau Road trip through Interior BC Playing cowboys in the sagebrush desert, BC

ONWARDS TO NEMIAH

BC has a fascinating history of pioneers and prospectors but the way we tell it it sometimes sounds as though European settlement was an inevitability. Chilko Lake and the Nemiah Valley, for over a hundred years, was something of an exception.

BC was slow to be settled. Over two centuries after contact only a handful of fur trading outposts had been established, the rough landscape hindering most explorations. It wasn't until 1858, with the discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon, that whites began streaming in. Cities were born almost overnight. Tensions between the influx of rowdy newcomers and the local First Nations began mounting, and when more gold was found in the Cariboo that tension spread north. Accessing the gold fields was an arduous feat across mountain ranges and raging rivers, through canyons and rainforests and desert. Prospectors began looking for a more direct route, and that meant going through Tsilhqot'in land.

By many accounts the Tsilhqot'in First Nations had long been content in their isolation. While the neighbouring Nations were trading furs with the early Europeans, it is reported that the Tsilhqot'ins kept largely to themselves. When Alfred Waddington, wanting to reduce travel time to the Cariboo gold fields from 37 days to 22, began surveying a road from Bute Inlet through Nemiah without prior consent or diplomacy, the Tsilhqot'ins were no doubt alarmed but they weren't unhelpful, and some even signed on as labourers.

But two years into construction the Tsilhqot'in's grievances reached a turning point. The road crews were verbally threatening to bring small pox into the territory to decimate the First Nations population and take their land, and sources suggest that such plans were already well underway. The road crews were regularly starving and underpaying the Tsilhqot'in workers, gang raping and abusing young Tsilhqot'in women, desecrating graves, and destroying water sources. Compounding all this with genuine concerns over land title, the Tsilhqot'ins had had enough. Tribal leaders got together and sent Lhats'asʔin (Klatsassin), the war chief of the Xeni Gwet'in Tsilhqot'ins, to declare war on the intruders and he attacked several work parties, killing 19 men and driving out many others, going so far as to accompany them to Bella Coola to make sure they left on boats.

Provincial authorities viewed these acts as murder and sent two groups of soldiers north, both eventually retreating due to ambushes and difficult terrain. The Crown then lured the warriors out with promises of amnesty and peace talks. The Tsilhqot'ins, believing they would be forging an agreement between nations on the order of that with French Canada, came out dressed in a French uniform not unlike Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. But they were deceived — the Province ambushed them and brought five of the Tsilhqot'in men, including Lhats'asʔin, to trial.

In defence of their actions, Lhats'asʔin said they weren't committing murder, they were waging war. They weren't criminals, they were official representatives of an autonomous and previously uncontacted unconquered untreatied nation resisting the colonization of their territory and the deliberate genocide of their people that accompanied European settlement nearly every else in BC. But Judge Begbie disagreed and sentenced them to public hanging, and history has remembered the Tsilhqot'in warriors as bloodthirsty criminals and reckless pirates.

Despite the Crown's deceptions, history's obfuscations, and the ultimate victory of settler-introduced smallpox (upwards of 70% of the Tsilhqot'in population died and the tribes were all but decimated), the Province and the forces of colonization backed off. The Nemiah region and the Xeni Gwet'in tribe would remain largely undisturbed from European incursion for another 100 years until the government pushed a road through in 1973. Just 200 miles northwest of Vancouver in a forestry-dependent province criss-crossed with logging roads and clearcuts, the Nemiah caretaker region, especially Tsy'los Provincial Park, still feels like it's truly remote.

I don't mean to paint a portrait of a land or a people that time forgot, because I don't believe in that. In many ways Nemiah has been as influenced by the outside world as any other remote valley in Northern BC. It more just that Nemiah feels like a potent and powerful place. It is at once idyllic in its isolation and discomfiting in the way it lays our colonial history and heritage bare.

And in October 2014, 150 years after the Chilcotin War and 1 month after our visit, the Province exonerated the Tsilhqot'in chiefs of any crime or wrongdoing. It may be that reconciliation is finally be possible.

Free-roaming horses in the Nemiah Valley Cow skulls in the pasture, BC Scattered bones in the Chilcotin Mountains Old churches in the Chilcotin Valley, BC Wild Horses above Konni Lake, BC

Even with road access Nemiah still kinda feels like it's off the map. You turn off the Bella Coola Highway at the two-building town of Hanceville and pass through the Yunesit'in (Stone) Reserve, then miles and miles of dirt road through thick forest and dirty clearcuts punctuated by occasional clearings, sites of old homesteads and ranchland, and rare views of snow-domed Tsi'lo?s (Mt Tatlow).

The first sign you've made it to Nemiah is the old log church and the long view down Konni Lake. The second sign is the sudden appearance of horses.

There are an estimated 800–1000 wild or free-roaming horses in the Chilcotin, and about 200 truly wild and genetically distinct horses in the Brittany Triangle area, from where the Nemiah people have caught and trained them for centuries. These horses have been crucial to the development of the Tsilhqot'in's unique ranching culture. No one knows exactly how or when the horses first arrived but historical and DNA evidence suggest they were here well before the first European explorers entered the area.

The horses, considered feral rather than wild, have no legal protection under the Provincial Wildlife Act. The Province refuses to recognize the horses' right to remain on the land and does periodic culls both to increase grazable ranch land and to use as wolf bait.

The truly wild horses are skittish and elusive, but the area is full of free-roaming horses who, having been handled by people at some point, are more curious and aloof. They will probably run away if you approach, but generally not before you've gotten a good glimpse.

Horses in the British Columbia Mountains Free-roaming horses in the wilderness of BC Abandoned truck in the BC bush Rugged mountains open up to the wide Chilko Lake, BC

After Konni Lake comes the little settlement of Nemiah, mostly ranches and cabins and more horses, and then left onto a rough road to Tsi'lo?s Provincial Park. Our car kept bottoming out so we left it and carried our stuff the rest of the way in. At the end of the road sits the startlingly blue Chilko Lake, the largest high-elevation lake in the province and by all accounts one of the windiest. It's almost too big, really — strong winds whip up constantly, and the saw-toothed peaks feel impalpable and far away.

It is wild country, and with wild country comes wildlife. Grizzly bears are common, sometimes so common that sections of the park have to be closed for parts of the year. We didn't see any bears ourselves but there was one about — we came across the telltale sign of a fresh half-eaten salmon. We made sure to make plenty of noise while exploring the lakshore and to store all the licorice safely in our bellies.

Sunrise on the Chilcotin Mountains, BC Feeling the cold wild wind blow of the lake Waves starting to pick up on the wild windy Chilko Lake Beautiful blue glacier lakes, BC Looking out over the lakes and mountains of BC's Chilcotin Little island in the mountains Through the forest and to the lake, British Columbia In grizzly country: remains of freshly eaten salmon The call of the wild: roadtrip to the mountains of remote BC Watching a strom move across the lake In a ceremonial Chilcotin pit house, Tsi'lo?s, BC

Just north of the campground is a ritual site and a newly constructed pit house. It was very large and open inside, and we sat in silence for a little while, not sure if we were trespassing or if it was built expressly for visitors. After a bit we went back to the lake for an ice cold dip. It's a tough life.

Deep shadows in the pit house, Tsi'lo?s, Chilko Lake, BC Hanging out in the pithouse, Tsi'lo?s Provincial Park Cool lake dip in the Chilcotin Mountains, BC Hanging out on the dock, Chilko Lake Crystal blue glacier waters, Tsylos Provincial Park Rugged mountains the British Columbia Interior Fields and meadows in the Chilcotin Plateau, BC

Our original plan was to tramp around the mountains for a day but when we arrived in the park we read that the Xeni Gwet'in have requested people not climb Tsi'lo?s or the neighbouring peaks and we thought we had better not. Native tradition holds that it is unlucky to point at Tsi'lo?s or mention its name in casual conversation, and BC Parks imposes the no-hiking rules in its land-use guidelines. While there didn't seem to be anyone around to enforce it, given the history it hardly seemed appropriate to just drive up and do whatever we pleased. We were just visitors here. There are plenty of other hills to climb.

So we decided to get a head start on the long drive back to the highway, spend a night in the Hot Dog Field, and explore more of the Junction Sheep Range the following day.

Crumbling pioneer cabin in the Nemiah Valley, BC Cowboy country: rangeland and cattle on the side of the road Spruce tree on the Junction Sheep Range Wide open grassland in the BC Interior

JUNCTION SHEEP RANGE

I like to think that the Junction Sheep Range is a tidy summation of all the best the Chilcotin has to offer. It's the kind of country we Vancouverites spend all winter dreaming about: golden grass and dry draws, copses of aspen and scraggly ponderosa, all perched above the picturesque Chilko River valley.

At the southern tip of the park is the eponymous confluence of the Chilko and Fraser Rivers. I'm certain it's beautiful and everything you could ever want from a landscape but you'd need a long day's hike or 4x4 with good clearance to get out to the viewpoint so we never got to verify that. We did see some of the resident California bighorn sheep though! The Range has a population of about 500 or so, and they're reason the park exists.

It had rained a fair bit the night before and the fields were wet. We tramped around for a couple hours and got the soggiest smelliest feet, our socks pin-pricked with countless sharp grass seeds. Good times.

Through the fields and forests of BC Watching clouds move over the rangeland, Interior BC Exploring the golden grass fields of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Exploring the wide open wilderness of British Columbia High above the Chilcotin River Cooking up some camp beans Portraits of Adriana Sinke in a hollow tree and Megan McLellan eating a cactus Golden fields dotted with shivering green aspen groves

HOMEWARD

Going home is of course everyone's least favourite part of any trip, but luckily we were spreading the drive out over two days. We hopped onto the highway and drove to Lac La Hache then into the bush, camping on little Lake Helena in country so flat we thought it could have been Ontario. We watched the sun set over the lake while listening to the skin-tingling sound of the lonely loon call, lit a campfire to ward off the September chills, ate some popcorn, and waited for the stars to come out one by one.

Then onward, along slow dirt roads to Meadow Lake and Beaverdam Lake and lake after lake after lake. There are a lot of lakes! And a lot of forest. And there, on the last wild leg of the last day of our trip, we finally saw our bear, looking for all the world like a furry four-legged hole in the landscape. We pulled back onto the highway and back into traffic and back onto roads that were paved and blessedly silent. We stopped for burgers and fries and ice cream at Cache Creek's iconic Hungry Herbies, then enjoyed one last lingering swim at Lake of the Woods before the unrelenting freeway whisked us through the Fraser Valley back to the city and back to our homes.

Ranches and rangeland of BC's Interior Plateau Exploring the golden grasslands of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Old fences and distant mountains Roadtrip to the dry sage desert of the Fraser Canyon Exploring the backroads of BC
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Much of the background information about the Nemiah, including the title of the post, was sourced from Terry Glavin's book Nemiah: The Unconquered Country. It's a fascinating account of the Chilcotin War told through stories and anecdotes from the Xeni Gwet'in themselves. It is out of print but copies are still available.