Dennis Carr wilderness adventure

An exciting trip report – Skagit Valley Provincial Park and Stein Valley Wilderness Park

Photo, Camp at Blowdown Lake

Spouse Janet Kreda rests with a book after a grueling climb

Having avoided the grizzly bear, Denis Carr survived

with a twisted ankle, a slashed hand, a forgiving spouse

By Dennis Carr
Contributing Editor
True North Perspective/True North Humanist Perspective

Attentive True North Perspective readers may recall a slight tidbit in September 2011 featuring an excellent family backpacking adventure into Assiniboine and Banff Parks high in the Canadian Rockies. After that successful trek, another backpacking trip was definitely on the agenda for the Carr/Kreda crew so in August 2012 we loaded up the Corolla and pointed it east from Vancouver toward two extraordinary southern British Columbia (BC) parks — Skagit Valley Provincial Park and Stein Valley Wilderness Park.

Skagit Valley is located south of the Fraser River between Hope and the 49th parallel on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains. The Stein Valley Wilderness is located further north, between the Fraser River on the east and the Coast Mountains to the west.  These are two very different parks offering up different eco systems. One is easily accessible and provides basic tent camping and hiking amenities. The other is remote, hard to access and much less accommodating of amateurish behaviour. The common thread linking these two parks, other than their spectacular beauty, is that both exist because concerted citizen environmental activism saved the landscapes from economic exploitation.

Skagit Valley Provincial Park and North Cascades National Park

Skagit Valley Provincial Park is part of a larger protected area that includes North Cascades National Park in Washington State, one of the largest protected areas in the USA. Ten times larger than its Canadian counterpart, this large tract of territory contains the Ross Lake Dam and Reservoir, an important source of hydroelectricity for Seattle. 

In this era of high theatrics associated with crossing the Canada-U.S border, the crossing between Skagit Valley Provincial Park (BC) and North Cascades National Park (Washington State) must be one of the most unusual. There are no pistol-packing Canadian border guards or dour Homeland Security sentries. There's no need to carry a passport or even a driver’s license because no one is there to ask for identification and the purpose of your visit. The dirt road that leads into the Ross Lake campground in BC crosses onto US soil and ends abruptly a few hundred meters into North Cascades Park in an area known as Hozomeen, which is where many people choose to camp.

Provincial park campgrounds in BC are located in wonderful places but are generally underfunded and badly managed and for the most part, Ross Lake park offers up the sad parade of failure to which BC parks customers have become accustomed. The parks are mostly characterized by rough, gravel, tent sitepads, smelly outhouses, poor privacy and indifferent grounds maintenance. Great for RVs and hard-working folk looking to wind down after a hard week. Not so great for those seeking a little quiet solitude with their sun, mountain lakes, and snowcapped peaks. 

And what's the attraction of Hozomeen on the American side? Free camping to start. Whereas the cost of spending a night at the Ross Lake campground is $16, no fees are charged in American national forests. Additionally, the campsites on the US side are more wooded, more widely spaced and the washrooms are immaculate.  It’s a wonder, given the option, that anyone camps on the Canadian side.

But notwithstanding the previous criticisms, we enjoyed an idyllic experience on the shores of Ross Lake, BC.  The Ross Lake campsites are spacious featuring a nice sunny beach, a  playground and good access to the water for swimming, canoeing and fishing on the Skagit River; which, we are told, is one of the best fly fishing rivers in North America. 

We were joined on this part of the camping trip with our friends Heather and Kevin and their charming children, Leah and Keith. The weather was warm and sunny. We canoed across Ross Lake to a picnic table on an abandoned floating log raft, swam in the lake, found lengths of twine and boot lace and helped the kids make a raft which they launched onto the lake.  

The 49th parallel was just metres from our campsite and the border cutline marched through the trees up the steep mountains on both sides of the lake. I made a point of canoeing across the border and if the border guards were watching, they didn’t seem to mind.

The International Point interpretive centre presents a friendly portrait of cooperation between BC Parks and the US National Park Service. There are day and evening presentations and workshops by the American park rangers and Canadian experts on the unique natural history of the area and the local flora and fauna. We learned about toads and snakes and the difference between bugs and arachnids (six legs and eight legs respectively). The interpretive centre also highlights another financial disparity between the two park systems. Over the past decade, interpretive services at BC parks have been all but eliminated but thanks to funding from the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission, formed when the operators of the reservoir, and the provincial government created a $5-million legacy in 1984 for education research in the Upper Skagit Valley, there are daily presentations on the natural world, as well as brochures on hiking trails available at the Hozomeen information kiosk.

This legacy of cooperation goes back to the history of this park and how it was created.  In 1906, the Seattle City Light Company began work on the first dams across the Skagit River. By 1937, flooding from the Diablo, Gorge and Ross Dams on the US side of the border had caused the Ross Lake Reservoir to approach the Canadian border. Plans for a new, higher dam called the High Ross would have flooded much of the Skagit valley on the Canadian side. In 1941 the International Joint Committee approved the High Ross project, supporting the need for more power to aid the war effort. The project was delayed because the road which was required to clear the land was not constructed until 1946. Political delays caused by disagreement over compensation for flooding the land continued to hold back the project. By 1967 a compensation agreement between the US and Canada was reached, however by that time public opposition was growing strong. The Ross Committee, Run Out Skagit Spoilers, comprised of both American and Canadian citizens opposed the dam. It took until 1973, but vocal public opposition succeeded in preserving the Skagit Valley. Among the conservation advocates were logger Curley Chittenden and BC Social Credit politician Rafe Mair, a former cabinet minister and ardent environmentalist.

Curley Chittenden was a local logger hired to supervise the clearing of the land prior to flooding. After working for a short period of time, he joined the fight to save the area because of its unique ecology. When instructed by the provincial government to log the meadows, as he had done further south in advance of flooding on the US side, he not only refused, but also sought media attention to prevent what he saw as a desecration. A grove of ponderosa pines, at the western limit of their range, is testimony to his efforts to preserve the upper valley.

Skagit River

A highlight of our stay at Ross Lake was an overnight hike of 11 kilometres to a lovely campsite and fishing area beside the Skagit River. The trail was part of a 430-kilometre route originally built in 1858 as access from Washington State to the Hudson Bay Company trails in the BC interior and the gold fields of the Fraser River. The route was not a roaring success. Among its disadvantages, it crossed three 2000-metre high mountains. Two months after its official opening, the trail was abandoned. Luckily the section we hiked was mostly easy going; meandering past wild rhododendrons and groves of cedar and cottonwood and crossing tumbling mountain streams. 

While Heather and Leah stayed behind to gorge themselves on s’mores (graham crackers with melted marshmallows and chocolate prepared over a campfire), Kevin and Keith joined us on the overnight hike. For Janet, George and me this was a warm up for the much harder five-day effort in the Stein Valley Wilderness a few days later. At the trail head we organized our gear and readied our packs. As this, like all of BC, is bear country, I thought it prudent to test out the bear spray. Bought only the previous summer, there was no compelling reason to think the canister would have lost its charge but I decided to test it out anyway. I moved a safe distance away, pointed the canister away from the group and gave the nozzle a quick release. Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the light breeze blowing back toward the others. Within a few seconds there was much coughing and wheezing and complaining. At least we knew the stuff worked. Afterward George helpfully noted that the man at Mountain Equipment Co-op (where we bought the spray) made me sign a document where I agreed, among other things, not to do what I had just done. Fortunately, the aggravation was short-lived and we were able to start the hike.  

The weather was warm and sunny and we stopped only to pick perfectly ripe thimbleberries, blueberries and huckleberries. The only serious elevation on the walk was a challenging diversion up and down a cliff face in order to protect a Harlequin duck habitat; apparently a rare at-risk species.  If the ducks appreciated the extra effort on our part, they didn’t show it by making an appearance. Hopefully, they are not already extinct.

Eventually we reached our campsite, a pleasant space among cedar trees beside the fast flowing river. There was something calming and familiar about tent camping beside a river with rapids. It brought back memories of decades of canoe-camping in Ontario and Quebec; only now with mountains, really big trees, and without the torment of black flies and mosquitos.

Kevin, an experienced fisherman, brought along his gear and although we all tried our hand at fly-fishing, the Carr family fishing karma prevailed. No fish were harmed during the course of this adventure. I doubt we even hurt their feelings. 

Simon Fraser

After four days at Ross Lake, we packed up, drove to Hope for a greasy lunch and to stock up with provisions for our next adventure in the Stein Valley. Then, it was north on the Trans Canada alongside the Fraser River.   

The Fraser River is named after Simon Fraser, the great explorer and at this juncture it might be appropriate to drift ashore, hoist the baggage of this narrative onto our backs and take a short portage into an important chapter in the history of the European settlement of western Canada.  

Simon Fraser was a fur trader and explorer who charted much of what is now British Columbia. Apprenticed in 1790 to the Montreal-based North West Company at the age of 14, by 1805, he was a partner in the company and responsible for all the company's operations west of the Rocky Mountains including establishing the area's first trading posts. Fraser’s assignment, which was to find the mouth of the Columbia River, reflected a decision by the company to build trading posts and take possession of the country, as well as to explore travel routes to advance the fur trade.

In 1808, he explored the river that bears his name. It was a harrowing journey. From the outset, the aboriginal inhabitants warned Fraser that the river was nearly impassable. A party of twenty-three left Fort George (present day Prince George) in four canoes on May 28, 1808. On the first of June they ran the rapids of Cotton Wood Canyon where a canoe became stranded and had to be pulled out of the canyon with a rope. They procured horses from the Indians to help with the portages, but the carrying places were scarcely safer than the rapids. On June 5 they entered a rapide couvert where the river was completely enclosed by cliffs and the next day the river was found to be completely impassable. The canoes and superfluous goods were cached and on the 11 June the party set out on foot, each man carrying about 80 pounds. Three days later they reached a large village near Lillooet where they were able to trade for two canoes. On the 19 June they reached a village at the mouth of the Thompson River, where they obtained canoes for the rest of the party. After more rapids and portages, and losing one canoe but no men, they reached North Bend where they again had to abandon their canoes. In places they had to use an Indian path made by poles set on the side of the gorge (Hells Gate) and on 28 June they left the canyon near Yale where the river becomes navigable.

Fraser was looking for the mouth of the Columbia River and it seemed as if he was going to be successful as he travelled swiftly south down the river. However, near the present day site of (the ironically named) Hope, the river made an abrupt right hand turn and headed west toward the Pacific. He took the latitude as 49°. Since he knew that the mouth of the Columbia was at 46° it was clear that the river he was following was not the Columbia.

The journey, that had been carried through with such effort and heroism, ended for Fraser in disappointment and a sense of failure. The river was of no use as a travel route, and was not the Columbia. Fraser wrote sadly; “If I had been convinced of this fact where I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned from thence”. The expedition had been a useless enterprise from the commercial point of view of the North West Company. 

Simon Fraser is recognized as a pioneer of permanent settlement in what is now mainland British Columbia and his efforts were largely responsible for Canada's boundary being established at the 49th parallel. Reports indicated he was possessed of great courage and physical endurance, and remained calm and determined in the face of danger and difficulties. Few feats of exploration surpass his journey to the sea and back in 1808. Nevertheless, recognition of his achievement was slow in coming.  Although he made his fortune in the fur trade his commercial ventures after his retirement from the North West Company were unsuccessful and, as befitting a true Canadian hero, he died unrecognized and in poverty at St. Andrew's West, located near the present town of Cornwall in 1862. 

The Fraser Valley

 

Our drive to Lillooet took us up the Trans Canada along the Fraser River upstream past Hells Gate, Yale, and Lytton. At Lytton, the Trans Canada abandons the Fraser River and follows the Thompson River toward Kamloops, Revelstoke, and the Rocky Mountains. But we remained faithful to our favourite explorer and turned onto Highway 12 that winds its way high above the Fraser towards Lillooet. This is high and dry mountain country characterized by sagebrush, Ponderosa Pine, and along the Aquamarine River, Black Cottonwood trees. 

Lillooet is a rough rural town that has seen better days. In the 1850’s, because of gold mining, it was the largest western community north of San Francisco. This rich history has long disappeared and the town’s main street in made up of a collection of desultory non-descript buildings slowly falling into disrepair. However, this uninspiring built-form is offset by its impressive location; surrounded on three sides by mountains at the junction of the Fraser and Seton Rivers. After one night and, to our minds, a well-deserved dinner at an excellent Greek restaurant, we headed east along Highway 99 towards our entry point to the Stein Valley Wilderness. 

Stein Valley Wilderness

The Stein Valley Wilderness, formally known as the Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park, is widely recognized for its ecological and cultural value. The Park is significant not only for its old growth forests and spectacular scenery but also for its outstanding cultural significance. As well as being home to diverse watersheds and ecosystems it contains several cultural heritage sites of great spiritual importance to the local native peoples being a traditional hunting and gathering area, and a place of spiritual retreat. It is essentially a living museum of cultural and natural history.

The Nlaka'pamux people recorded their history with unique pictographs and petroglyphs found throughout the lower valley, and the Stein contains some of the most significant pictograph sites in Canada. There are a large number of pictographs still visible today in various parts of the valley, ranging in size from single symbols to one of the largest pictograph sites in Canada.

Protecting the Stein Valley

In recognition of its ecological and cultural significance, the area was designated a wilderness park in 1995, to be jointly managed by the British Columbia government and the Lytton Indian Band. Preservation of the land did not come without a fight.

Located 160 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, the Stein is the largest intact unlogged watershed in southwestern British Columbia. In the early 1970’s, conservationists from the Sierra Club organized efforts to protect the Stein Valley from logging and mining activity. Over the years, citizen effort increased but the goal of protection proved to be difficult. In the 1980’s, activists held rock concerts in the area, which eventually become the famous Stein Valley Festival. Earlier this year, our family attended a Blue Rodeo concert in Vancouver.

Clear-cut logging of mountain slope photograph.  
On the western side of the creek, loggers were clear cutting most of the entire mountain slope. The plantation trees were  being clipped by harvesters, stacked into huge piles by knuckle boom loaders to be placed onto trucks and hauled to the Pacific coast before being shipped off to Asia.  

It was the band’s 25th Anniversary Tour and, during the course of the show, Jim Cuddy mentioned that one of the band’s first performances was in the mid-80’s at this festival. Eventually, on November 23, 1995, the Stein Valley Nlaka'pamux Heritage Park was created by the provincial government led by Mike Harcourt. After a 25-year battle to protect this region, this 1060 square kilometre provincial park is now co-managed by BC Parks and the Nlaka'pamux Nation. The entire Stein River watershed is protected by the Coast Mountains to the west to the Fraser River on the east.

Our entry into this spectacular landscape of ponderosa pine, alpine meadows, glaciers, rivers and canyons was by means of a gravel and dirt logging road following the eastern edge of Blowdown creek. On the western side of the creek, loggers were clear cutting most of the entire mountain slope. The plantation trees were being clipped by harvesters, stacked into huge piles by knuckle boom loaders to be placed onto trucks and hauled to the Pacific coast before being shipped off to Asia.

  Photo, Blowdown Lake
  Our packs were heavy and our bodies unused to the stress. By the middle of the afternoon we took advantage of the first good tent camping opportunity at Blowdown Lake; a small lake tucked below a scree slope (a mountain side with nothing but loose rock) on an alpine meadow just before the park boundary.

We parked 10 miles up this road at a junction of an old mining trail leading to Blowdown Pass and the western entrance to the park. We hoisted our packs onto our backs and set off, full of the excitement and anticipation for the days to come. By the standards of most mountain backpacking trails the old mining road made for excellent walking. But our packs were heavy and our bodies unused to the stress so that by the middle of the afternoon we took advantage of the first good tent camping opportunity at Blowdown Lake; a small lake tucked below a scree (loose rock) slope on an alpine meadow just before the park boundary.

Rising early the next morning we hiked up to the park entrance to the aptly named Blowdown Pass, a saddle between the snow covered peaks. Here we were greeted by our first view of the lovely valley we were about to enter.  As the name suggests, the area is windy, and in typical mountain fashion the weather changed from sunny and warm to cloudy and occasional brief downpours of rain all within the space of a few minutes, which  typified the weather for the next five days.

Heading east from the pass, the trail descended from the barren alpine tundra through meadows of wildflowers and small groves of spruce and pine. Eventually, the trail winds its way to the south fork of Cottonwood Creek and the meadows give way to tall grasses and eventually, dense undergrowth and towering trees.

Photo, Campsite at Cottonwood Creek  
We made camp that afternoon at a spot where the trail met the south fork of Cottonwood Creek and the turnoff to the Silver Queen mine area. Our tent was pitched almost on top of the trail beneath a thick canopy of trees near the creek.  

It is in this set of circumstances that the experts recommend preventative measures to avoid surprising a bear. We had the standard equipment; bear bells and pepper spray but we also had an even better deterrent. We had the constant chatter of a wildly imaginative nine-year old boy describing his latest inventions in infinite, often excruciating detail. On this day it was a luxury personal hovercraft that can break speed records, fly, dive, and comes equipped with a full washroom and video game room. And when that subject failed to excite, there was always the old father/son standby squabble; who would win the battle for ultimate supremacy, Dumbledore or Yoda? [The answer of course is that neither would win because they would have no reason to fight. They would instead sit down to a nice cup of tea and exchange stories]. 

We made camp that afternoon at a spot where the trail met the south fork of Cottonwood Creek and the turnoff to the Silver Queen mine area. Our tent was pitched almost on top of the trail beneath a thick canopy of trees near the creek. The location was perfect for easy access to the creek for drinking, cooking and, for Janet and George, bathing in the swift, clear, glacier-cold waters. This was particularity refreshing for Janet as she had purchased used, resoled stiff leather hiking boots for the trip and her blisters were in full bloom.

After washing, snacking and setting up camp, we allowed ourselves the luxury of an afternoon nap. We were awakened from our reverie by quiet voices and soft footsteps passing our tent. I unzipped the fly and peered out just in time to see to two grey-haired figures disappearing down the trail into the mist. In our five days in the area these were the only other people we saw.

  Photo: the Silver Mine mine-shaft
  The trail then switchbacks up the mountain until it comes to an old boarded up mine shaft, and all the associated abandoned tailings and detritus of a marginal mining operation in the middle of nowhere. Dennis Carr and son George.

Our next destination was a small lake in an alpine meadow near the Silver Queen mine. To get to the Silver Queen mine trail one is forced to choose between the slimy treachery of a washed-out wooden bridge or wading through the current avoiding slippery rocks. The trail then switchbacks back up the mountain until it comes to an old boarded up mine shaft, and all the associated abandoned tailings and detritus of a marginal mining operation in the middle of nowhere.

The trail continues along above the tree line to alpine meadows and eventually to a little lake nestled in a meadow beneath ridges on three sides. This ridge would form a backdrop to the next stage of our adventures. Our intended route was to hike up to the ridge above the basin and walk westerly along the ridge, down to a small group of lakes and then along a trail which would lead us back toward our parking spot.

It was early afternoon when we pitched our little tent in a basin beside a small lake below. Towering above were ridges on three sides and I decided to scout out a route up to the top. The weather continued to be cool and wet and I wanted to ensure we would be able to hike to the top of the ridge and then, if the weather turned unfavourable, know generally in which direction we should traverse. I put a map, compass, water and a few snacks into a back pack and set off up the slope, informing Janet to expect me back in a couple of hours. It didn’t take long before I wished I had brought along my walking pole because the hike was steep and over wet scree. I struggled up to the top of the ridge, gaining a new respect for the mountain and a great view of our tent beside the lake as well as what seemed to be a fresh grizzly bear den dug into the soil midway up the slope opposite to my route but much too close to the campsite for my comfort.

Photo: small lake and rainbow
The trail continues along above the tree line to alpine meadows and eventually to a little lake nestled in a meadow beneath ridges on three sides.

Although my route appeared to be the obvious way up to the top of the ridge, it was clear to me that it would be too difficult with full packs, particularly for a 9 year old.  However, the guidebook was clear that the ridge was accessible from our campsite and I was already up the slope so I decided to look for an easier route. In the distance, I thought I could see what might be a trail so I set off. What I thought might have been a trail turned out to be a gravel basin so I continued walking along the ridge circling back high above the tent. Soon I entered a grove of trees and the tent disappeared from view. I followed an easy route downhill but away from the camp, that led to a steep forested ravine that I circumvented by walking even further away from our camp.

Anyone with a modicum of experience in wilderness tripping has no doubt started to itemize the foolish errors I was making. Some 95% of avoiding danger in the wilderness is common sense and good management. However there is too much tension in all of our lives so I will preempt any nervousness you may now be feeling by letting you know that no harm came to me other than a minor cut, a bruised ego, and a very worried, very annoyed spouse. 

Here I was miles away from anywhere, flailing through the bush, skidding down slopes and stumbling around rock outcroppings and downed trees. At one point I stumbled, twisted an ankle and sliced my hand on a sharp rock.  I was several days away from any form of help, (assuming anyone ever found me) a fact that came to me in a blinding flash of insight as I lay on the ground panting, trying not to panic and pondering my mortality and my stupidity.  

Eventually, I ended up circling around far enough so that the hiking trail up to the Silver Queen Mine area came into view. I scrambled down to the trail, found a walking stick to support me and hiked back up toward the camp which was at least a couple of kilometres away. It was early evening when I arrived, exhausted, back at the camp, perhaps 180 degrees away from where I started out. Janet was gazing up to the ridge from where she expected me to return, pacing, waiting and worrying about me. Her relief at seeing me overcame her anger at my foolishness so she gave me a big hug. And George?  He was fast asleep in the tent the whole time. Janet applied bandages to my cut, warmed up some freeze dried chili, found some chocolate (not that I deserved it) and made tea.    

The following morning, having abandoned plans to continue the loop by traversing ridges and crests, we headed back the way we had come. Our spirits were good, the weather favourable and we hiked all the way back to our car. We set up the tent beside the car (and the bottle of scotch) and set out for Vancouver the following morning, stopping only in Pemberton for a delicious rosti breakfast at a Swiss-German diner. 

An invaluable reference to the area is provided by Gordon White's Stein Valley Wilderness Guidebook, and should be required reading for anyone entering the Stein.  The author places particular emphasis on the ethics of backcountry camping, the ecological and cultural significance of the park and the politics of wilderness protection.  The book starts with a caution which is a fitting motto to end this tale:

“In saving the wilderness, every victory could be temporary, every defeat permanent” (Bristol Foster).

Despite the faint scar across the base of my right palm and dried blood on my topo map I have fond memories of this beautiful, remote wilderness. Here’s a ditty that was composed in its honour:

Song for the Stein Valley Wilderness

 

The last watershed in southern BC, that hadn’t been logged to the ground
The Lytton Band and the activist groups, forced the company to back down
Chorus
Silver Queen (Silver Queen), Silver Queen (Silver Queen), we hiked up to Silver Queen mine
There used to be ore, but that was long before, now it’s part of the mighty Stein
George’s pack was big and red, Janet had brand new boots
She got some blisters, but she persisted, and hiked the entire route
Over washed out bridges, high on the ridges, and the alpine lakes below
Our little tent had an audience, of birds and trees and snow
Cottonwood Creek, Blowdown Pass, and the mighty Stein strong and pure
This land was saved from the logger’s blade, for all the people of the world

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