The Chilcotin Highway
By Jo Johnson
The Chilcotin area of BC’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is, unmistakably, a land without limits naturally positioned to strike awe and wonder in all who experience it. Stretching westward from the Cariboo plateau all the way to the shores of Bella Coola, its pristine and varied wilderness— dotted with sporadic communities and very little industry—as well as its diverse and abundant wildlife make it ideal for both backcountry travellers and folks who crave a quiet and peaceful life.
The culture of the Chilcotin is also, undeniably, cowboy, so it’s no surprise that my three-year stint of living there as a young woman started with a very unusual introduction to a very fascinating native cowboy named Roy.
Early one morning in 1994, as I sat on the fence overlooking the horse paddock at Tyax Lodge at the edge of the South Chilcotin Mountains—where I would begin working the following morning—I saw something strange that I couldn’t wrap my head around. Soaking in the sun, the fresh air, and the blissful peace and quiet (something I had forgotten existed in the past few years of living in Vancouver), my eyes eagerly took it all in. I looked down, past the paddock to the lake (where the Beaver floatplane I’d thrown up in on my way to the resort the day before was docked), and then up through the forest behind me to the mountains. The densely mixed fir and pine —broken only by trails blazed by generations of riders, bush ponies and backcountry enthusiasts—was more than enough to strike wonder and curiosity in my city-girl senses. As my eyes continued to sweep high up the mountain, I was surprised to see a bright red speck moving through the trees. It was only there for a moment but when I blinked, it disappeared into the sun and I found myself wondering if I’d imagined it.
Two days later, my second working at the resort, I was frazzled, exhausted, and lamenting my foolish confidence at agreeing to take a wrangling job with zero horse experience. As I was pulling the saddle off a beautiful, but very temperamental Palomino named Bailey, who seemed to truly relish her efforts to step on my feet, I looked up to see a man riding out of the forest on a big black beauty. Like a dusty cowboy in a Louis L’Amour novel, he led another horse with packs slung across its back and he wore a black cowboy hat on his head, a red bandana around his neck, and a welcoming and boyish grin on his face.
I stood there, staring at the red bandana with my mouth hanging open as he stopped in front of me, dismounted and stretched.
“It was YOU!” I said, incredulously.
“What was me?” he asked, still grinning.
I told him how I had seen a speck of red flash through the trees high up the mountain two days prior to his arrival and thought I’d imagined it. He pushed his hat up, turned to look up the mountain, shrugged nonchalantly and admitted, “Yah. That was me. I rode here from Gang Ranch.” When I asked him how long it had taken him, he’d shrugged again and said, “I dunno. Week maybe.”
He rode his horses over the South Chilcotin Mountains—an arduous, treacherous, long trek through the crazy, uninhabited wilderness—with only a small amount of supplies, his faithful equine companions, Goofy and Joe, and one crazy amazing sense of direction. He didn’t follow a map and although he’d never travelled over the mountains this far before, he’d needed a change of pace and he’d decided to ride over and look for work at one of the local ranches. I was flabbergasted. I hadn’t known people like him still even existed anymore. There is a David Lee Murphy song that always reminds me of that moment when I hear it:
“It’s hard to imagine another world out there As he lays beside a campfire up in only God knows where But he feels the day approachin’ when the kind of life he’s known Will only be in stories and sung about in songs
Another time and in another place He might have rode with Jesse James And though he rides, he can’t outrun his fate ‘Cause he was born 100 years too late”
That was Roy. Quiet, funny, laid back. He loved being out in the bush, understood horses better than anyone, and seemed to belong in a different time.
It wasn’t only Roy, though. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the people who live in the Chilcotin all seem to belong in a different time—a simpler time. Life there is calmer, more focused on the land, the wildlife, and human connection, rather than the hustle and bustle of life, deadlines, things, and devices. I am 100% convinced that the Chilcotin way of life has everything to do with its set up of small communities, sporadically connected by vast, virtually uncharted landscapes and big skies. Being separated by large distances allows people to slow down and focus on each other and their surroundings, so there’s something to be said for living in this land without limits.
However, it’s not as remote as it may seem because the communities of the Chilcotin are surprisingly well connected by the easily accessible Freedom Road (aka Highway 20)—the highway that first opened up the central coast. Sometimes also called the Chilcotin Highway, Highway 20 stretches from Williams Lake, in the heart of the Chilcotin, all the way to Bella Coola, on the west coast. Aptly named, the Freedom Road winds through carpeted grasslands, rolling plateaus, vast canyons, and panoramic peaks without a single traffic light, providing freedom from the flurry and whirl of life.
Wildlife abounds along Highway 20, making it quite natural to catch glimpses of animals appearing along the road. Up in the Chilcotin plateau, free-range cattle graze alongside deer, moose, caribou, and even bears under the ever-watchful and steadfast gaze of Mount Waddington—the highest peak in the Coastal Mountains. This area also plays host to Canada’s largest population of bighorn sheep and is home for hundreds of wild horses. It’s common to spot trumpeter swans, lynx, and wolves, along with a wide assortment of bird species. The only nesting colony of endangered white pelicans in BC can be found along Highway 20. Although their nesting grounds are off-limits due to the sensitivity of their young, the adults can still be viewed during feeding time at Nazko Lake Park, near Alexis Creek and it is a truly spectacular sight to behold.
If outdoor recreation is your jam, then the Freedom Road will be music to your soul. Check out aerial sightseeing over the Homathko ice field and Hunlen Falls; go heli-skiing in the South Chilcotin range, explore endless backcountry hiking, biking, ATVing and trekking in Tweedsmuir and Ts’yl-os provincial parks, or tackle the longest continuous stretch of class 3+ whitewater in North America on the Chilko River. Fishing enthusiasts can also charter a floatplane to remote sweet spots, such as the incomparable Spruce and Charlotte Lakes or to the world-renowned Dean River, where record Steelhead are commonplace.
Whether you are there for the peace and tranquillity, the wildlife, or the views, the Chilcotin Highway is guaranteed to strike awe and wonder, even as it lowers your heart rate and calms your mind.