Chilcotin Wanderings
September 9 - 13 , 2006
Words and photos by Lee Lau unless otherwise noted
(Hyperlinks in the titles lead to the full story with large pictures)

Dash Hill
Sept 10, 2006

The Southern Chilcotin has been getting some play in the mtb media. A segment in The Collective showing riders ripping along velvety singletrack had adrenaline racing and many people saying "Where is that? And how do I get there?" I've had the good fortune of knowing the Chilcotin from the days of rigid forks, long stems and cantilever brakes - having embarked on my first expedition there some 12 years ago.

Mountain-bikers are latecomers to this area. While I've documented many trips to the Chilcotin with photos and words on my private site (and left just as many trips unrecorded), I've always felt protective about the area. Call it elitism, call it secret-trail-society syndrome, the southern Chilcotin has always been my little slice of paradise shared only with a few other adventurous souls interested in venturing off the beaten path.

Setting up at Cowboy Camp ready to depart.

Things change, the word gets out and as the sport of mountain-biking has grown in popularity the number of people who are interested in venturing away from the safe confines of the Lower Mainland have increased. Resources like the first decent map of the area, guided tours have made some trails "crowded". Having said that, crowded is a relative term. I now see other people on the Gun Creek grasslands milk-run where I never used to see other tracks. Fortunately it really isn't that hard to ride for hours and not see another person if you take the time to explore.

The area where most people bike, hike and ride horses is known as the Southern Chilcotin-Spruce Lake Wilderness Area, designated as such by the British Columbia government in 2001 after almost 70 years of lobbying by environmental and preservation groups. A step of protection below provincial park designation, a wilderness area permits mechanized and self-propelled transport but prohibits resource exploitation (ie mining and logging).

Recently the provincial government has permitted some logging to take place in the Spruce Lake Wilderness Area, in the Tyaughton valley, and there are proposals floated to open this wilderness area to mining so all is not settled.

Gordon Creek

Most of my forays to this area have been day-trips but I have done some self-supported multi-day trips; carrying all the gear on my back. This time I wanted to try something different. I've known Casie at Spruce Lake Wilderness Adventures for a long time, having rented cabins at Gun Creek for a very reasonable price for fall trips as base camps. One day Casie asked me when I would ever go on a trip with them. She sent me some materials, I discussed it with some friends and in no time at all we had a 5 day trip planned and arrangements made.

This trip promised to be interesting. First, I hadn't ridden with 4 of the other riders. Second, I had laid out a very challenging route. To help plan and manage pre-trip preparations, I put up a web-page with information and a gear checklist. This helped a lot with communication and I highly suggest using this method with big group planning so that everyone is on the same page. Even then there were some hiccups with gear and preparation during the trip but from a totally unexpected source.

Lee bushwhacking - Photo ~ Sharon Bader

The trip started when we all drove up the Hurley to the SLWA cabins, this time without any mishaps. There's not a lot of places to eat in Gold Bridge or Braelorne, the food at Tyax Lodge is overpriced, and Casie is a fantastic cook so we had dinner at the ranch. A fantastic breakfast followed the next morning, setting the tone for magnificent food on this trip; magnificent both in quantity and quality.

We met with Warren, Casie's husband, the head wrangler, and the owner of SLWA. Tanis was also along as the cook and Pat and Chris were the guides. Our trip started with a drive north of the ranch at Gun Creek to Cowboy Camp on the Relay Creek FSR. The pedalling started after Cowboy Camp at about 10:30am; it took about 2 hours to drive and get started from the ranch to starting point.

I was a bit surprised when it turned out that neither of the guides had ridden Dash Creek before. I had half-jokingly said to Warren when we were planning the routes that he'd have to find some stuff that I'd not ridden. Well, Warren had done well as I had not ridden over half this route so was at the mercy of the guides. An uncomfortable feeling for me as I'm accustomed to being self-reliant on long expedition-style bike trips.

Still all seemed ducky during the first part of our ride and we were knocking off a lot of distance very quickly.

A common sight - looking at a map and the puzzled guide. Photo ~ Ian Chatwell

About 25kms into the ride navigation got a little tricky. To my surprise the guides were both confused with route-finding and neither had map nor compass. Unfortunately we were also off the maps that we had brought but knew the general direction of the camp - west towards Big Creek. Bottom line, the guides were lost, we were lost and eventually resorted to laying a compass bearing and heading west to get to Big Creek. This decision was taken a bit late for my liking, at 5.30pm or so, not leaving us much time to get to the campsite before dusk.

Luckily for us, bushwhacking was easy. The underbrush wasn't thick and that slog went as well as could be expected. By 6.30pm we were looking down on Big Creek. Unfortunately, neither guide knew exactly where the camp was located and we still had less then an hour of daylight to cover about 1.5 hours of riding.

We got to the Graveyard Cabin at about 8pm and broke out the headlights. After another hour of bumbling around trying to find the cabin and letting off a flare and a bear-banger, Warren eventually found us and we made camp. Bless her heart, Tanis had food ready and we collapsed into bed after 55 kms of riding and 12 hours on the bike. I hoped that not every day would be as eventful.


Cluckata Ridge
Sept 11 2006

This was a much easier day with much more limited goals. We had originally planned to head west down Grant Creek then climb to Iron Pass and back down Tosh Creek. Information gleaned from others in the area was that Tosh Creek was a mud-fest. I had already struggled through Grant Creek and over Iron Pass less than a month earlier so I was happy to switch plans and go for a simple out-and-back to Cluckata Ridge.

After the previous day's navigation debacle today was straightforward route-finding. Breakfast was stellar and big. The sky cleared up beautifully and we were looking forward to the views. In not much time at all we were crossing Big Creek, taking in the same route we had bumbled around when we were lost the night before.

Riding on the trail south from Graveyard Camp to the Tosh Creek intersection looing to south and the Warner Glacier

There's no actual spot to dismount from the bike and start the hike up to Cluckata Ridge. Like a lot of Chilcotin riding, you look at a map, take your best guess and try to find the least painful way to get up the slopes.

Looking down Cluckata Ridge to the first bench. Photo ~Dave Diplock

The elevation gain isn't terribly impressive. We started from the camp at 1750m. The hike to Cluckata Ridge itself starts at about 1850m. The first and steepest bit of the hike goes to 2100m in a relatively short distance but from there the rest of the hike-a-bike to the ridge proper is relatively gentle. We topped out on the first part of the ridge at 2250m then hiked to the highest practical point at just shy of 2300m.

What you get from the ridge is a 360 degree breathtaking view of some lonely seldom-explored country. It's not often that you get to look down on Grant Creek, Tosh Creek, and see Dorrie Ridge to your south and the entire Dil-dil Plateau to your north.

Group shot on Cluckata Ridge

For us sea-level dwellers, the altitude made hiking a bit of a chore. Sharon and Chris both felt the altitude and stayed on the first bench while the rest of us slowly made our way along the ridge as far as we could with the bikes. We then climbed the last pinnacles of the first half of Cluckata Ridge sans bikes and took in the view.

The top of Cluckata Ridge is a barren place, friendly to lichens and the odd tough moss patch. It is however a geologist's dream and as we had a couple of geologists on our trip it took a while for us to drink in the views and get our rocks off. Soon enough it was time to go down. Vince had dragged his bike up the furthest and had the honour of first descent.

Vince enjoying a poster-boy moment descending off Cluckata Ridge.

Ripping back down through talus and rocks is breathtakingly fast. We ate up what took us an hour to climb in less then 5 minutes. Thinking that we had gotten off easy without any mechanicals I then proceeded to tear a perfectly good dropout off my bike trying to bash through slide alder. After a bit of MacGyvering, I had the bike going again and proceeded to join the group as we made the rest of the way down to the Big Creek trail.

We then rejoined our group and headed back making it to camp in very good time. No need to have the search parties out this time.

Warren making a picnic table using nothing but a toothpick, a chainsaw and a dull butter - knife. Seriously you had to be there to see it - amazing stuff.

Elbow Pass
Sept 12, 2006

After yet another leisurely breakfast, it was time to break camp on a beautiful day in the Southern Chilcotins. Our destination; up Graveyard Creek, then over to Elbow Pass and tentatively - to hike the ridge between Elbow and Lorna Pass and descend via Lorna.

Heading into Graveyard Creek's drainage, the views just kept getting better and better. The mare's tail of clouds made for a surreal sky.

Looking south into Little Graveyard Creek - Elbow Pass dead ahead.

Routefinding was easy on this day. We basically followed Little Graveyard Creek to the top of Elbow Pass; about as straightforward as you can get. The trail gets steep rather quickly and you will be off your bikes and pushing - typical Chilcotin ride, hike and slog. Luckily the views make up for it. The climb itself isn't that remarkable. Again, it's the altitude that gets you hiking and biking from 1800m to about 2100m. As with almost all climbs around these parts, the views are worth it.

As we were relaxing and taking in the 360 degree views, our reverie was interrupted by the approach of a horse packtrain. For some reason the group decided to scupper its plans to take in what would have been a stunning hike and bike of the Elbow - Lorna ridgeline and rush down the Elbow Pass trail. It's still a fun ride so off we went.

Iori taking in the views looking to Elbow Pass

It was over too soon and a mistake on our part not to maximize our time in the alpine. My suggestion, if you have a less impatient crew, is to hike the ridge between Elbow and Lorna Pass. Allow an hour for that hike. Either drop into Lorna Pass or ride the ridgeline between Elbow Pass or Lorna Pass.

After the quick descent from Elbow Pass, we arrived at camp - much too early in the day. Apparently the out-and-back trek to Lizard Creek and Lizard Lake is a fun ride and has a good view of Trail Ridge, Mt. Solomon and the Sheba Ridge terrain. Off we went - hike-a-biking away.

Monte with Elbow Peak as the backdrop. Elbow Pass is the saddle on picture left. Behind Elbow Pass is Cluckata Ridge, where we stood yesterday. Click here for the full-size panoramic

We found Lizard Creek but only after getting lost a few times, and almost having to tiptoe through a Chilcotin Mountain Holidays camp. Another lesson learned - trust your map. Do not trust shaky beta from strangers or guides without maps.

Payback singletrack descent down Elbow Pass

It's a short relaxing ride in and out from Lizard Creek. We did't really make it too far as the trail was overgrown past a certain point so we instead took in the typically glorious Chilcotin views. On our way back from Lizard Creek after our failed attempt to go swimming in a cold alpine lake, Monte and I got our chance to check out the views to our next expedition - Little Paradise Creek, Manson Creek and Paradise Col as an alpine traverse. Could be a very interesting project - but for another time

Creek to Paradise col alpine traverse NE of Tyaughton Creek as seen from the Lizard Creek drainage

The good thing about getting back to camp early is having a lot of time to eat. As always Tanis outdid herself and we spent the rest of the beautiful warm day taking in the bright rays of Chilcotin sunshine and drinking in the big views.

Traditional cowboy camp Chilcotin fire

Tyax Creek
Sept 13, 2006

Hmmm ... another lesson learned for the rest of the group; take advantage of good weather and get your alpine rides in when you can. It started snowing the previous night and temperatures were a bit chilly in the morning. Eating breakfast was a frigid affair and no-one seemed amused when I joked about bringing crampons and ice-axe for our attempt at 2220m high Deer Pass from our comfortable elevation at camp at 1750m.

After the first creek crossing, feet are already wet for most people as we head towards Deer Pass. I charge on ahead hoping that everyone will start blindly following me on the climb but cries and mewing of mercy force me to stop before I get too far.

Warren saddling up and moving them out

So we change our plan and turn back from Deer Pass. It was probably a good thing as many of us weren't as prepared as we could have been. Instead we head down Tyax Creek and bee-line to Spruce Lake Camp. As we head east on the Tyax Creek trail, it's readily apparent that the weather is getting worse and that the high alpine is getting hit pretty hard with snow.

Sheba Ridge and Mt Solomon in snow

Getting to Spruce Lake was quite uneventlful - a trip I've done many times but usually under less frigid circumstances. The rain laid off for long enough for Monte and I to go for a hike towards Mt Sheba and check out part of the Open Heart area and for the rest of the group to try their hand at trout-fishing in Spruce Lake.

Trout-fishing at Spruce Lake. The Dickson range lies to the south.

Windy Pass
Sept 14, 2006

Now for some action! It was snowing HARD and there was already an accumulation at our campsite in the nice, safe, comfortable valley bottom. I talked it over with Monte and we decided that we had enough equipment, gear and the right mentality to go for Windy Pass and then over to Lick Creek - 700m up into what might be a bit of winter.

Understandably no-one else wanted to come with us; so we're a nice fast two person group making tracks. At lower elevations the trail is in great shape - tacky even. Snow doesn't start accumulating till 1850m and we make good progress.

Monte at the Spruce Lake - Gun Creek junction

As snow started accumulating our pace slowed and I revised my time to gain the pass from 1.5 hours to 2 hours then 3 hours. Approaching Windy Pass itself, it began to get a bit blustery and winds kick up to about 40 - 60 kmh. Wind-transport slowed us down a tad more and we started getting into knee-deep sections.

Monte approaching Windy Pass. Click here for the panoramic

I was pretty happy when we saw the top of Windy Pass and especially when I realized that knee-deep drifts were as deep as it was going to get. I suspect Monte was just as thrilled. The descent from Windy into Eldorado Basin was tricky. Surprisingly the snow offered great traction - it was simply too cold for the ground to have iced up. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said for our shifting, our gears and our fingers and faces.

View descending into Eldorado Creek

As we get lower into the Eldorado Basin the snow got progressively stickier - soon I'm cursing my cleats and wishing I'd ridden flats or toeclips. Brakes still work - thank god for discs - but shifting ain't doing squat when one's cassette and rings are one big giant ball of snow. All through this ordeal I must say that the bike performed like a champ. I tore off a couple of derailleur hangers; managed to twist and tear the derailleur itself, ripped off a piece of the big ring, yet the Fluid kept on ticking. I'm not entirely sure that Pete SS at Norco knew what I had in mind when I said I'd give the bike a good "ass-kicking" but kick the poor Fluid around I did and it held up just fine.

More descending down Lick Creek

Finally we arrived at Eldorado Creek cabins where both Monte and I realize we are home free! We warm ourselves up and grab a bite to eat before climbing to the top of the last pass. Then we drop into Lick Creek and it's a long 1800m - (6000') downhill to come.

Top is the view of the high Gun Creek trail descent looking ESE to the Bendor range. Bottom is the view of that same ride in summer replete with alpine flowers.

The others in our group descended via the high Gun Creek route. They handily beat us down to the Gun Creek Ranch - the trail was relatively clear of snow for them.

When Monte and I got to Gun Creek Ranch, we were greeted by warm showers, fresh cocoa, coffee, brownies and biscuits and lots of salty chips. What a perfect way to end a great day, a fine trip and a good test of our riding skills.

A route map of our entire trip follows.

Map of our travels. Click here for the original size map

Useful links for further information on the Chilcotin are as follows:

Lee Lau

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