Horsepacking the Highcountry
Exploring Northern BC's Kispiox Valley
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.