Are you dreaming of your summer vacation yet? For me, the winter weather outside brings to mind a recent summer hiking trip in British Columbia.
It was less than an hour into our hike in Wells Gray Provincial Park when the first snowflakes began spiraling down from grey skies. Little did we know we would see at least some snow for the first four days of our “summer” hike. Mountain weather can be unpredictable, particularly in the shoulder season.
Wells Gray is one of B.C.’s largest but lesser known parks, located in central B.C.’s Cariboo Mountains, about three hours driving time west of Jasper.
The 5,250 sq km park encompasses the greater part of the watershed of the Clearwater River. It is most famous for its numerous waterfalls, including 145 meter Helmecken Falls – one of 39 named waterfalls within the park.
We are in the park for five days of hut to hut alpine hiking over a Labour Day weekend with Clearwater, B.C. based Wells Gray Adventures. They make it possible for “regular people” to experience pristine wilderness.
Wells Gray offers three, five or seven day all-inclusive guided hikes in the back country, with the bonus of a roof over your head during your transit of this corner of the park. The area boasts some of the most impressive wildflower meadows in Canada.
The topography and the relaxed pace of our trip makes it accessible to a wide range of people.
“We want people to come and have an amazing experience,” says co-owner Tay Briggs. “It’s not for exercise…we’re not about setting records.”
On Day One we reach the trail head after a long drive up a dirt road. It will be a 520 meter climb to reach Trophy Mountain Chalet.
When we set off, our packs are much lighter than normal. We only need to carry clothing and personal gear, and a share of some fresh food. Wells Gray maintains three chalets inside the park, stocked with basics and bedding.
Wells Gray has been in business since 1988, before the park expansion. The chalets are now within the park boundaries. In return, the company contributes a portion of its gross income to the park and to maintaining the trails.
Trophy Chalet is located at 2,100 meters. It has heat and cooking facilities and a great view. The facilities mean real meals – this is not a freeze-dried expedition.
One of the most impressive features of both chalets we visit are the elevated outhouses; the most pleasant I have encountered.
“We have composting toilets everywhere now,” says Briggs. On the rare occasions when they need maintenance, the product is airlifted out and ends up in her flower beds.
“We’re a family-run operation,” she says, with husband Ian Eakins and three children involved, in addition to guides.
Briggs estimates bookings run about 60% North Americans and 35-40% from overseas – mainly Europe.
“We’re well known in Germany”, says Briggs. “They want to see wilderness in Canada…that’s what Canada is to them.”
On my trip, I am the only Canadian, with five people from Germany and the Netherlands.
On our first morning at Trophy Chalet we wake to a winter wonderland. At least 10 cm of snow blankets everything in sight and it would keep snowing all day.
It’s a spectacular view but pretty mild weather by Winnipeg standards.
After a hearty breakfast, we set out for a short day hike to one of the Trophy Mountain summits. With the temperature hovering just below freezing, the weather is comfortable. A rain suit keeps the falling snow at bay.
We enjoy a surreal summit lunch, sitting on our packs munching trail mix. With perhaps 100 meters visibility, it’s like the inside of a snow globe.
On a trip, hikers normally stay over two nights each at one or more of the huts, with alternating days spent in transit or on day hikes in the immediate area.
Our third day is an 11 kilometer ramble to our next “hotel”- Discovery Cabin. The hike takes us off the shoulder of Trophy Mountain and below the snow line, back in the green forested world. Much of the park is regarded as temperate rain forest.
“Wells Gray has quite a lot of bio-geo-climactic zones,” says Briggs. This diversity is a strength. We see little evident damage due to the pine beetle that is rampaging through many parts of BC.
This is truly pristine wilderness. Fetching water means taking a pail to the spring or stream. We sometimes fill our canteens from the creeks tumbling off the mountains.
This remains a surprisingly accessible alpine area.
“Families are a huge part of our business”, explains Briggs. The company tries to group families so people with and without children aren’t mixed.
Wells Gray has no age limits for its trips. The youngest person ever on a seven day hike was only seven years old – “a real trooper,” says Briggs. Seniors are not unknown either.
During the winter, the huts are given over to back-country skiing. The company also offers canoe trips on Clearwater and Azure Lakes.
Briggs reports both positive and negatives on the horizon for Wells Gray Park.
There is, she says, a lot of interest in getting a UNESCO designation for the Wells Gray Park and Corridor. On the other hand, changes to forestry regulations have opened up the adjoining Corridor area to less controlled logging.
For us, all’s well that ends well. In our five days we have the mountains to ourselves; we don’t see another soul. And despite the surprise weather, we are warm and dry.
But remember: in the mountains it’s rare to get through a month without at least a trace of snow.
IF YOU GO:
Wells Gray Adventures: The cost of hiking trips is relatively modest in comparison to many other offerings in BC, ranging from about $470 low season for three days to $1050 high season for seven days.
Gear: If you’re new to this, you only need a medium sized pack, but select it with the help of knowledgeable salesperson. A decent pair of leather boots won’t break you and that little tube of waterproofing for them really does keep you dry.