5 days solo on the Hudson’s Bay Company Heritage Trail
Nate Lepp, our General Manager, recently completed a solo backpacking trek of the Hudson’s Bay Company Heritage Trail. Originally a network of trails used by First Nations (Sto:lo, Nlaka’pamux and Similkameen) for hunting and trade, in the mid 1800s it became an important route for the horse brigades bringing furs from the west coast on their way to markets in the east. After being ‘rediscovered’ by Harley Hatfield in the 1960s, 70s and 80s it’s undergone restoration and upgrading as a recreational hiking trail over the past few years. We asked Nate to share a post about his experience.
Standing in the shadow of Mt. Davis, with 48 kms behind me and 26 to go, I looked eastward toward Tulameen and the dry interior mountains behind, then westward toward Hope and my descent into the wetter forests of the coast. It was almost the end of Day 4 of my 5 day trek and I was feeling reflective about the trip so far. I’ve never experienced a hike quite like the HBC trail. Designed and promoted as a historical trail, it certainly felt meaningful and educational to walk in the footsteps of First Nations hunters and gatherers, followed by the European fur traders (who only ‘discovered’ the route because Chief Blackeye of the Similkameen was kind enough to show it to them). As a wilderness experience, the HBC trail doesn’t have that feeling of ‘out there’ remoteness, except for a few sections here and there, but this was ultimately what, for me, made it such a unique and thought-provoking experience. I felt like I was walking through a sensory time capsule of human impact on the region, from the lighter footprints of the First Nations people as they moved seasonally from camp to camp, to the active logging taking place today, at one point within sight of the trail.
Days 1 and 2 brought me from the trailhead, just west of Tulameen, up the eastern slope of the Cascades via a mix of single-track trail and old logging roads. The trail wound through a mix of old cut blocks, covered in seedlings and fall flowers, and patches of mature forest. My plan to spend the second night at Lodestone Lake Camp, the second of the ten official camps heading in the westerly direction, changed shortly upon arrival. It was Sunday of the long weekend, and one of BC’s most famous 4×4 roads, the Whipsaw, makes its way up to the lake. It was pretty quiet when I arrived, but I had a hunch that would change as a few 4×4 buggies came roaring up to the lakeside. I shouldered my Deuter pack and started down the Whipsaw. My hunch was confirmed, as dozens of jacked up, monster tired trucks crawled their way up the hill, overflowing with coolers, tow ropes, truck-top tents and stoked passengers. At first I felt annoyed that I had to share the trail, but I ended up almost enjoying the sight of each convoy as it passed me, grateful for the diverse ways in which humans are attracted to the outdoors. Things got quiet as I forked off the road onto single-track again, and quickly made time across the red, yellow and green meadows of the Similkameen plateau to Blackeye’s Camp where I spent the night.
I was surprised to wake up to snow and sub-zero temperatures on Day 3. I only had 7km to my next camp, so I cozied up in my Mountain Hardwear sleeping bag and cooked up some hot granola and dehydrated bananas until the snow turned to a rain that shortly stopped altogether. I broke camp and started the downhill slope to Horseguard Camp, knee-high shrubs and plants glistening with water drop diamonds.
This section turned out to be my second-favourite part of the trail. With only a few kms until my next camp, I took it slow and paid attention to beauty in the small things around me. The sound of the creek gurgling through rocks and roots, the bright purple of the Cascade Aster alpine flower, the plaintive call of the marmot. I spent half an hour sitting under a dead, broken fir tree watching several woodpeckers fight over a choice section of buggy trunk. I noticed all kinds of animal sign, including a trail of hastily and messily consumed mushrooms, the culprit revealed by a clawed bear paw print and a very large pile of mushroom-y dung.
Walking ‘The Defiles’, a steep valley between Blackeye and Horseguard Camps, my journey was almost silent, my boots on the gravel of the trail and the trickling creek the only sounds. I imagined Chief Blackeye’s hunters setting up fences and snares where the valley narrowed, trapping deer and then dispatching them with spear or arrow, the occasional whistle or call breaking the quiet. Later on, the valley’s steep walls made it easier to keep the brigade’s horse trains in line (hence the name Horseguard Camp) as they travelled eastward, heavily laden with 200 lbs of furs each. I imagined the sounds of 100 horses and dozens of men, clanking and shouting and snorting their way up the valley, leaving a swath of mud and caravan potholes in their wake.
The next morning, at Horseguard Camp on the Tulameen River, I was awakened in my tent at 4am by the jarring sound of an active logging operation further down the valley. As I hiked the 11km toward Jacobson Lake camp, the sound grew louder until it was a screech of metal on metal, combusting industrial engines driving a huge feller-buncher, a swath of spruce around it, and a massive wire pulley dragging the timber up to piles next to a logging road. At one point, the trees cleared and I could see the machines grinding away, 500m on the other side of the river. After three days of quiet, I felt assaulted by the sound and appalled at the number of trees laying there on the slope. I noticed in myself a rising sense of frustration at this sonic interruption to my solitude. As I self-talked myself down from my entitlement, I took a step back to think about the culture I’m a part of and my part in it. Do we really need that much wood? After all the tree farms that the logging industry has created over the last two hundred years, why are we still harvesting old-growth forests? What if we chose to build houses that would last 70-80 years, the time required for a “farmed” tree to reach usable maturity, so that we could stick to re-logging only areas that have already been logged?
As I walked away, the screeching steel slowly growing quieter behind me, my thoughts turned again to Chief Blackeye. I imagined his first (and second and third) experience of the HBC brigades dragging and trampling their way through his peoples’ traditional hunting grounds on a trail they knew as barely more noticeable than a game trail. The din of the caravan heard from the other side of the mountain. The trail and camps torn up and mucky. Stacks on stacks of animal pelts, more in one brigade than Blackeye’s people would use in a generation. I wondered about Blackeye’s own questions: What is this new, noisy industry? How can they possibly need all those furs? Are there going to be any left for my grandchildren? Why did I tell them about this trail?!
Palmer’s Pond, on the way up from Conglomerate Flats Camp to the pass below Mt. Davis, was a highlight of the trip. It was a warm day and I was overheated from a brisk pace up the mountainside from Jacobson Lake. I stripped down and went for a cooling dip, sitting on some rocks on the shore in the sun until I was dry and comfortably warm before descending to Deer Camp where I would spend my fourth and final night before the long haul of my last day on the trail.
My final day was going to be the biggest of the trip in both distance (23 kms) and elevation gain/loss. After a steep, winding descent from Deer Camp, all of a sudden I was clearly in the coastal mountains again. At the valley bottom, everything smelled damp. Western red cedar, hemlock and fir replaced pine and spruce. Devil’s club and skunk cabbage lined the beds of creeks that appeared every 250m or so. Colvile Camp, situated next to the rushing Colvile Creek, felt incredibly quiet and still, sound and sight dampened by all the moss and lichen. I stopped for a quick lunch, my last on the trail, to fuel up for the big climb ahead.
Huffing it up the steep eastern approach to Manson’s Ridge from Colvile Camp, I passed through a rare grove of yellow cedar (my favourite tree to smell) and through the false pass to the edge of another cut block, this one about 20 years old, dropping down from the trail on my right. To the trail’s left, I was dwarfed by a stand of stately old growth hemlock and fir. Sitting down under one of them for a break, taking in the spaciousness and filtered sunlight, I felt incredibly grateful for the steep topography. While it made for a heart-busting ascent (and knee-slamming descent down the western slope), it also meant that it was too impractical to log. This was probably my favourite section of the trail, a place that felt rich with wisdom, wildness and the weight of these non-human beings much older and more rooted than I. I felt small under their indifferent gaze, in a way that feels good and right. As I crested the top of Manson’s Ridge and started down the steep western slope, my legs felt heavy but my heart was light.
At the western foot of Manson’s Ridge, at the last camp on the trail, I sat for a few minutes and gazed up to where I’d just descended from, wondering what it was like that first time a fully loaded brigade went up (and down) that beast of an incline (500m elevation gain in less than 3km), on a trail much less developed than the one I just walked.
I still had 6km to go to get to the Peers Creek trailhead where my truck was parked, a brisk walk on a gently descending decommissioned logging road. As I walked, I felt a mix of elation at completing the journey, a sadness at the thought of returning to the world of concrete, noise and busy-ness and overall a deep gratitude for the experience of walking in the footsteps of history.