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Riding into Northern BC's Skeena Mountains with the Bear Claw Lodge

words by Emanuel Smedbøl

Riding horses through the mountains of BC Backcountry

Hopping on a horse and heading off into the highcountry is something we've dreamed about doing for years and years. And who hasn't? Our culture is immersed in old classic adventure stories, in tales of pioneers and explorers, in myths and hard-won histories of traveling the land on horseback. It's an iconic and essential experience, an act that resonates through the centuries. The only problem was that we don't have access to a horse. Or know how to ride one...

But at the tail end of our week-long trip down the Stewart-Cassiar Highway an opportunity to realize the dream presented itself. British Columbia has a handful of mountain ranges that are world-renowned for horsepacking trips: the Chilcotins, Spatzisi, Muskwa-Ketchika. And tucked into a quiet corner of Northern BC's Skeena-Bulkley we found another gem: the Kispiox Valley.

Horsepacking through the bush, Northern BC Pack horse sheltering from the rain Picking wild woodland berries, Kispiox

The Kispiox is a broad and thickly forested valley best known for its steelhead fishing and totem poles. Like many places in BC it is criss-crossed with forestry roads but still manages to feel like a wild and remote place. Travelling up the valley the dramatic mountains of nearby Hazelton flatten out to and the land opens up, but if you keep driving down smaller and rougher roads the mountains begin to loom once again.

We booked our trip with Bear Claw Lodge, who offer stately accommodations miles from anywhere on the banks of the Kispiox, and host a variety of guided trips from fishing to rafting to eco-wild kids camps.

It was our first time on horses since we were kids, but we were expertly guided up the mountain on friendly well-behaved horses, and we were constantly amazed at what they could navigate. It was steep and muddy terrain, but after a couple hours we emerged out of the berry-rich forests into a foggy lush alpine meadow. In previous years the horsepacking trips camped out in tents, but this summer Bear Claw had just built a backcountry cabin. And it waited just up ahead.

Riding horses in Northern BC Foggy mountains in the Kispiox Mountains Will the Corelian Bear dog loves life in the woods Road horses up into the mountains of BC Little cabin in fog Horsepacking into the Skeena mountains and sleeping in a cabin Hung up our saddle on the mountain cabin, Northern BC

After reaching the cabin we unsaddled the horses, unpacked our stuff, then headed off on foot as our guides Jim and Connor stayed behind warming up the cabin and preparing dinner. Not a bad way to be in the mountains.

We didn't venture far, just up to the top of the nearby ridge. There were little lakes and broad views of the valley we had just climbed out of, but what really took us were the views over the far side. The thick grey mask of clouds had lifted somewhat, and we were perched at the southern tip of the mighty Skeena Range, with rugged trackless mountains spreading north before us for hundreds of miles.

Returning to the cabin, we found that Jim and Connor had started a little campfire and were frying up some chicken wings and potatoes over the open flames while rain and sun rays drifted over the valley far below. Brilliant.

Exploring the mountains above Kispiox Rugged BC Backcountry Looking down the stormy mountain valley, Northern BC Hiking in the Skeena Mountains, Kispiox Our cozy cabin the BC Backcountry Horses grazing in the alpine meadow, BC Cooking dinner on a campfire, Northern BC Watching storms and sunlight move across the landscape Storms over Northern BC Sun rays over the Kispiox Valley

The next couple days we explored the surrounding area, starting with the shrouded peak of Mt Baldie. The approach was over gently sloping meadows, dotted with cold lakes and occasional rock outcrops. The southern approach is gradual enough that our horses could climb to the very top of the mountain, but it gets increasingly rocky and barren the higher you climb so we left them to graze and relax in a meadow and scrambled up the last leg on foot.

The top of the mountain was once again obscured in thick cold clouds, and we ascended into a world of grey. Little puffs of white goat hair clung to the jagged black rocks, and Willie Dog seemed to smell something in the air. With scant visibility we crept along the ridge and peered over the edges hoping to see a sign of the goats through the fog. We hunkered down in the wind and ate lunch, little impressions of mountain goats in the soft scree around us.

Riding horses in the mountains Riding horses through the lake-speckled alpine meadows Exploring the Skeena mountains on horseback Horsepacking as the storms roll in Wet day in the BC Backcountry, Skeena Mountains Riding horses through the mountains of Northern BC Clouds rolling over the lush alpine slopes of Mt Gitksan Little dogger in the alpine flowers Getting kissed by a dog Horse in the mountain fog Hiking up the mountain in the fog Mountain goat fur clinging to the mountain rocks of Northern BC Looking for mountain goats, trying to peer through the fog

Descending out of the clouds, we continued along the ridge. It was stunningly rugged terrain, in stark contrast to the gentle lush southern slopes we climbed up. And there, way off across the cirque, was a herd of 18 mountain goats. They were barely specks in the distance, but we watched them graze for a bit then nimbly descend the steep slope into the cirque.

On the summit of Mt Baldy trying to find mountain goats Veil of clouds over the Skeena Mountains, Northern BC Hiking through thick clouds on the mountaintop Rugged mountain fog in Kispiox, BC Looking down into the mountain bowl Clouds moving over the mountains The rugged mountain country of Northern BC Looking for mountain goats in the Kispiox backcountry Hiking in the mountains of Northern BC Skeena mountains as far as the eyes can see Clouds beginning to lift Hiking far above the Kispiox Valley, Northern BC Hopping over lush mountain streams, BC Returned to the horses on the mountain slopes Riding horses in the Skeena mountains of Northern BC Horsepacking in the mountains of BC Riding horses over mountain valleys Horse rides through the alpine above Kispiox Horses in the BC Backcountry Rugged rock-strewn highlands of Northern BC Back at the little mountain cabin Horse hair blowing in the wind Grazing horses in the alpine meadow Sunset over the Kispiox Valley, BC Watching the sun go down behind the mountains of Northern BC The world turning golden sunset yellow Riding horses to the mountain cabin, Kispiox Valley, BC

After the day on Mt Baldie we woke up to more fog, but this time it quickly dissipated in the morning sun. Bright blue skies spread out on the horizon, and we decided to set off and explore the sloping hills to the south. We packed a lunch and descended back below the treeline, crossing little streams and subalpine swamps before climbing back up into the alpine. The extra distance between us and Mt Baldie afforded some unique views, and the extra time on the horses had us starting to feel pretty confident. I imagined whole summers on horseback, exploring the far reaches of remote mountain ranges. But we were getting pretty saddlesore too. As fun and rewarding as it was, it was also pretty painful. One gets used to it, but three days was by no means enough. For the steeper sections we were more than happy to hop off and give our knees and the horses a break.

Foggy morning at our cabin in the mountains Horse walking through the morning fog Cabin and horse in the fog, Northern BC Detail of Jim's Kispiox Rodeo saddle Riding horses through the mountain meadows, Skeena Mountains, BC Horse grazing in the mountains, Northern BC horesback riding in the mountains, BC Exploring the mountains on horseback Riding horses in the mountains Lakes and mountains of Northern BC Lunch break in the Skeena mountains Taking a break in the shadow of Mt Baldy, Kispiox, BC Back in the saddle, ready to ride through the mountains Riding back down to the cabin Cabin in the mountains Details of the mountain cabin Packing the horses up at the Bearclaw cabin, Kispiox

We returned to the cabin one last time, loaded up our stuff, and descended back down to the valley below. Tho we took the same trail down as we did up, it now seemed impossibly steep, and it was hard not to wonder how the horses had bore us up. Anxious to be home, the lead horse pushed on and on, causing some of the older horses to pant and sweat with the strain. But eventually, to everyone's relief, we scrambled out of the woods.

Arriving at the Bear Claw Lodge all the horses in the paddock rushed over the meet us and our steeds, and we felt the warm rush of a homecoming. We accompanied them back to the barn where they were unsaddled and washed, said our goodbyes, then headed down to the river looking forward to a quick refreshing dip for ourselves.

One last cold one before settiing off Back at the stable, Bearclaw Lodge, Kispiox One last goodbye to our faithful steeds Horse standing in front of the Bearclaw Lodge stable Lush pastures and mountains, a little slice of horse heaven at the Bearclaw Lodge

Big thanks to our friends at Destination BC and Stay & Wander for helping make this trip possible

Hello BC Stay & Wander