British Columbia: No Country for Old Men

British Columbia: No Country for Old Men
Spring is the season of new growth, mating … and old men trying to stop the passage of time by planning an annual, mid-life-crisis, off-road motorcycle trip. It’s not as easy as an organized tour where all you have to do is follow the guy in front of you and try to not fall off the bike!

Four of us (Randy, Steve, Dan, and I) took this year’s trip in our own backyard, along the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, in the middle of British Columbia. The Chilcotin is known for its open rolling grasslands, aka cowboy country, while the Cariboo features lakes and hunting.

We laid out our route using the time-honored method of locating good restaurants and hot showers and then connected the dots by trails.

An old flat-bed trailer hitched to my Dodge Ram truck (Old Blue) towed our four dirt bikes (a KTM 450 EXC, two Honda CRF250Xs, and a Yamaha WR250F) from West Vancouver up the Sea-to-Sky Highway past Whistler to Lillooet. This paved route starts along a fjord-like inlet (Howe Sound) and presents a magnificent panorama of snow-capped mountains rising steeply on either side of the blue Pacific. Farther north, Duffy Lake Road resembles a Swiss Alps mountain pass. The summer temperature of Lillooet is often the highest in all of Canada, and today it is 100 degrees Fahrenheit with no humidity.

The edge of the Fraser Canyon. Ok, now take two steps backward and smile.

Lillooet was the starting location of miners making their way north to the Cariboo Gold Rush in the 1880s. One of our objectives was to locate and ride on a portion of that old trail.

As we travel on a single-lane, forest service road (FSR) up the west side canyon, the dirt winds its way to the top of the bank and leads us to a phenomenal view of the Fraser River Canyon. This no longer seems like the wet West Coast that I know so well but more like a backdrop to a John Wayne movie. I start calling my KTM “Trigger” and can already feel the saddle sores! The climate here is arid with triple digit temperatures. Scrub brush is interspersed with pine trees. Other than a young couple on an old Honda C90 mini bike, we don’t see any other travelers for the next two to three hours.

Before it reaches the high desert plains of Chilcotin, the pavement passes several canyons and valleys where ranches and farms appear in the far distance. Eat your heart out, Clint Eastwood. Half way between nowhere and nowhere else, we drop down a rough sandy one-lane 4x4 road to the Big Bar Ferry, which crosses the Fraser River. I cannot imagine many vehicles being capable of negotiating this passageway on the west side of the river, and we have to wait in line at the ferry—it’s loaded down with cowboys and horses.

Our destination for the night is the Big Bar Ranch (BBR) east of the Fraser River. We pass several large ranches as well as small, off-the-grid homesteads. A decent one-lane dirt road snakes its way up a narrow valley until it is replaced with the gravel that leads us to the BBR. This was originally part of the OK Ranch, which started in 1933 and is still operational today. The BBR split off in 1950, and it features a traditional hand-peeled log house as its main cabin. The character of this lodge fits in perfectly with the cowboy motif.

A driver of the van found the Cariboo Gold Rush Trail, but it doesn't look like they made it home.

After eating a delicious dinner of curried chicken and watching the sun set behind the mountains of a high plateau, we hobble back to our separate rooms, and I am lulled to sleep by Randy and Steve’s nighttime “serenade.”

Dirty (and Disoriented) Old Men

Although the early start of a working ranch would have been ideal, this is a dude ranch. We enjoy a leisurely breakfast, buy souvenir T-shirts, fill our tanks, and head out for some sightseeing. We’re careful to not awaken the lazy urban cowboys.

Following a road that veers off to a side trail leads us back to the Fraser River where we hope to find a single-track path that we can follow north.

Our first distraction is an amazing open pasture with rising and falling hills, small ponds, and creeks that cut a swath through the pine forests. With no gates and no “Keep Out” signs, there is nothing to hold us back. I’m Steve McQueen now, in The Great Escape, racing through grasslands, jumping swales, and outrunning the Nazis. But just like Captain Hilts, we come to a barbed wire fence, not to keep prisoners in, but to keep strangers out. No matter. We turn around and follow a track that weaves and darts through, happily following our GPS map. Oh, to be a computer savvy teenager—we have the GPS upside down!

A modern log cabin at the Big Bar Ranch. The walls are vertical and the floors are level. Nice!

From a bluff, we can see the Fraser River and the passage we are desperately searching for. But, after a series of locked gates and detours we decide we are thoroughly lost and spend approximately five hours riding deeper into unknown territory. Occasionally, we knock on a door to ask for directions, but everyone must be out mending those fences that keep barricading our way. Just as we start to worry about having no idea where we are and the time slipping past, we crest a hill and I stand on my pegs to get a good look around. Down in the valley below us is a very familiar sight—a half dozen teepees, an old log cabin, and a stable or two. We are back at the Big Bar Ranch! Nothing like a five-hour circle tour. With gas tanks depleted, we slink back to buy more. I’m sure the ranch hands will be telling city slicker stories around the campfire tonight.