Holidays on Horseback - Immersed in the Muskwa-Kechika
A riding vacation through a place that changes you.
By Tania Millen
I watched intently as Wayne Sawchuk guided his horse up the far bank of the Gataga River. I was riding Comet – a solid draft cross – along a sandbar awash with swirling grey water while waiting for his direction. When Wayne swung his arm perpendicular to the roiling river, I turned Comet into the powerful current and grabbed the saddle horn as his feet were swept out from under him. He swayed from side to side like a ship in heavy seas, while frigid water surged around my waist and I carefully balanced in the saddle. It was the Summer of 2019, the first hour of a two-week guided pack trip through the vast, untrammelled Muskwa-Kechika Management Area (MKMA) of British Columbia’s Northern Rocky Mountains, and we were swimming our horses across a snorty river.
The MKMA, named for the Muskwa and Kechika Rivers that flow through the heart of this massive wilderness, has long fascinated me. It covers 6.4 million hectares - twice the size of Vancouver Island and a similar size to Nova Scotia – and includes 50 unroaded watersheds. It also protects more species in greater abundance than anywhere else in North America, providing opportunities to see wildlife as they’ve existed for millennia. It’s also a mere 1,200 kilometres from my doorstep, and is best traveled by horse.
Wayne Sawchuk is intimately familiar with the MKMA, having been involved with its protection for 30 years. In the early 1990s, he was an integral part of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s campaign to protect BC’s Northern Rockies. Subsequently, he was the conservation representative at three Land and Resource Management Plan tables that helped create the MKMA. Currently, Sawchuk is appointed to the Advisory Board, which helps uphold the intent of the management area.
But Sawchuk isn’t an armchair conservationist. He’s ridden and hiked through the Northern Rockies for much of his life. Every June, Sawchuk and his wranglers ride into the southern end of the MKMA with a string of horses and follow historical First Nations’ routes north. Rotating groups of clients fly and jet boat into his camps for two weeks at a time, joining expedition-style pack trips through wilderness that few ever see. Three months later in mid-September, Sawchuk and his last group of clients pop out on the Alaska Highway just as the snow flies, having traveled over 800 kilometres through the heart of the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area.
Photo: Pat Colgan
Wranglers took good care of the horses. Photo: Wayne Sawchuk
Safely across the Gataga River, waiting for the other riders to make it to shore. Photo: Wayne Sawchuk
With a strong desire to ride in the Muskwa-Kechika, but too intimidated to plan my own pack trip, I joined five other riders in late August for a guided expedition with Sawchuk’s Muskwa-Kechika Adventures. We met at Northern Rockies Lodge in Muncho Lake Provincial Park west of Fort Nelson, and travelled by float plane to Mayfield Lake on the west side of the Rocky Mountains where Sawchuk, three wranglers, and 23 horses waited. As the Gataga River was uncharacteristically high, we enjoyed a couple of days in camp waiting for it to drop so that we could get across it. We got to know each other chatting around the large fire pit, canoeing, spotting caribou, and discussing what to wear to swim our horses across the Gataga – something I’d never done during ten years of packing horses. Of six clients, I was the only one who rode regularly, and two clients were on their first pack trip ever, but all of us were experienced outdoor adventurers familiar with wilderness. We were in good hands, too. One wrangler was only 14 but in her second summer with Sawchuk. The other two wranglers had traveled with Sawchuk for 10 years, while most of the horses had spent their lives on the trail.
Organizing gear on the first day as we prepare to ride through the remote Muskwa-Kechika Management Area of northern BC. Photo: Tania Millen
On the second day, we wrangled the horses from their grazing patches and prepared for an early start the following morning. Excitement mixed with apprehension as we rose early on the third day, tacked up horses, loaded pack horses, and changed into our river-swimming gear. We were a motley crew. One wrangler committed to shorts, while others chose long underwear and beach shoes. I wore lightweight pants, a warm jacket, and wool socks. As our string of 10 riders and 13 pack horses lined out along the trail, I grinned, excited to be riding into the wild country I’d wanted to experience for so long.
After 45 minutes we reached the Gataga River, which Sawchuk and the pack horses casually swam across, while the rest of us watched. Once Comet plunged into the river, he swam strongly across the current while I kept my eyes pinned on the far shore to avoid getting vertigo from the water flowing by. None of the horses balked and one rider giggled the whole way across, while another casually admired the scenery. After a few adrenalin-induced “yeehaws” to celebrate our uneventful albeit exciting river crossing, we rode into a meadow, tied up the horses, stripped to our birthday suits, and pulled on hefty layers of dry clothes. The trip was on!
All of the horses knew their jobs and were easy to handle. Most were draft crosses in their teens or twenties, well-suited to the work, with large feet and good bone. Photos (above/below): Tania Millen
That first day of riding we wandered up the Gataga River valley, criss-crossed backwater channels filled with thick grey, silty river water, and plowed through flooded riverside meadows. Mid-afternoon we stopped on a grassy island for lunch, and watched slate-coloured clouds unleash curtains of rain up the side valley where our next camp was. Remounting, we rode into the dripping woods and spent three hours switch-backing up to subalpine. Popping out of the woods, we surprised a bull elk and got a sneak peek of the snow-covered Battle of Britain mountain range that we’d be riding through in a few days. In a masterful understatement, Sawchuk announced, “We’ve just got to go down a bit,” and started leading his horse down a steep, overgrown avalanche slide path. Dropping about 300 metres, we arrived at the valley floor at dusk, remounted, and rode into camp in the dark. Within an hour, the horses were unpacked and grazing, our tents were set up, and we were sitting around the fire enjoying dinner while reliving the memorable day.
As I settled into my tent that night, I felt incredibly privileged to be traversing undisturbed ecosystems that host some of Canada’s most iconic species — caribou, elk, moose, grizzly bears, mountain goats, and Stone’s sheep. Our expedition would cross the Rocky Mountain divide, which forms the spine of North America between New Mexico, the United States, and northern British Columbia. It divides waters flowing west to the Pacific Ocean from those flowing east to the Gulf of Mexico, Hudson Bay, and the Arctic Ocean. First Nations have traversed this land for millennia, but aside from a couple of hunters, we wouldn’t see a soul in two weeks. I knew the MKMA was large, but I was just starting to get a glimmer of the scale of the place.
The next day we rested up, dried out gear, and took a short hike while the horses grazed and napped nearby. Most of the horses were draft crosses, with a few chunky Quarter Horses and Appaloosas mixed in, and the majority were in their teens or twenties. A few of the horses were easy-to-get-on-and-off 15-hands high types, but many were taller, which made packing them more difficult, albeit kept food and gear boxes dry when crossing rivers. Most of the string were easy keepers with plate-sized feet and hefty bone for plowing through bog. All in all, they were a good bunch of horses who knew their jobs and were easy to handle.
Wayne Sawchuk has ridden spent his summers riding pack trips through the rugged Muskwa-Kechika area of northeast BC for more than 30 years. Photo: Kate Simpson
A storm is on its way. Photo: Tania Millen
Photo: Tania Millen
Our second day of riding took us up a tightening valley through a blizzard that blew slushy snow sideways, past a grizzly bear and several elk, over colloquially-known Twin Glacier Pass, and toward impressive Mount Churchill. The colours of the dwarf birch and willow bushes adorning the hillsides ranged from golden yellow through burnt orange to deep crimson, reminding us that winter wasn’t far off in these northern mountains. Once again, we rode until the sun sank below the peaks, arriving in camp to flame-hued hillsides and smoky-black shadows. A cold, wet storm blew through camp as we scrambled to pitch tents and cook dinner over the fire, while the long day and a tummy-stretching meal encouraged an early night.
Following a relaxing day in camp, we woke to a bluebird sky, tacked up the horses, lashed on their packs, and followed good trail down to the shallow, upper Gataga River. An easy crossing followed by a brisk trot down a seldom-used gravel airstrip took us to an unkempt outfitters camp, where porcupines had gnawed holes in the cabin doors and toppled the outhouse. After lunch, we followed a switch-backed trail over a treed ridge to our next camp, where we unpacked, hobbled the horses, and pitched tents as dusk fell and frost sparkled underfoot.
The following morning, we continued across a massive rockslide and several rock glaciers – a mixture of rock and ice slowly inching down the mountainside – before descending to a high elevation flat-bottomed valley wedged between peaks guarding the Rocky Mountain divide. Our camp was at the base of Misery Pass — our highly anticipated divide crossing — in a narrow valley conducive to hiking.
Navigating Misery Pass. Photo: Wayne Sawchuk
Heading down from Misery Pass. Photo: Tania Millen
Good weather prevailed for our rest day, so we hiked through rugged alpine onto the divide for views into a gorge the likes of which I’d never seen. Waterfalls cascaded down cliff faces, a faint goat trail etched the prohibitive headwall, and river outwash from what must have been a horrendous flood event was visible through kilometres of mature forest. It was impressively wild and forbidding, and I was glad it wasn’t on our route.
The camp at Misery Pass. Photo: Wayne Sawchuk.
With only four expedition days left, we packed up the horses the next morning and led the string up a narrow notch to barren Misery Pass, where we stopped on the divide for a break. Mountain passes and grand peaks have long awakened a kind of reverence in me. Awe-inspiring landforms, which are experienced in brief moments, remind me that I’m just a speck of dust on a larger canvas. Misery Pass, which is just one small link in the 3,000-kilometre Rocky Mountain divide, was no exception. It was raw, harsh, and wind-whipped — a place where humans do not dally — and which encourages transformation in those who pass through. From that inhospitable but starkly beautiful place, we followed well-named Falls Creek down, down, and down some more, to the broad Tuchodi River valley and a rather swampy backwater camp. Once hobbled, the horses promptly took off for some well-earned grazing while we pitched camp in darkness.
Tuchodi Lakes, site of the final campsite. Photo: Tania Millen
After breakfast the next morning, we rode east toward Tuchodi Lakes and our final campsite. The trail crossed hard-packed gravel, traversed gloppy riverside muck, and forged a belly-deep watery channel through an immense marsh, which stretched across most of the valley. The two Tuchodi Lakes extend over 25 kilometres and are astoundingly pristine. Elk bellowed on the hillsides, mountain goats clung to cliff ledges, moose leisurely swam the azure waters, while mule deer and caribou tiptoed down the shore to drink. Arriving at the east end of the lakes, we set up our last camp and turned the stalwart horses loose to graze in open-treed meadows.
It was odd for the trip to be ending. After so many miles, it felt like I’d been living a long and separate life, even though we’d only been in the Muskwa-Kechika for an instant. Unlike other pack trips, I wouldn’t be riding to a trailhead, hauling horses home, and unpacking reams of filthy gear. Instead, we would leave Sawchuk, our wrangler friends, and the horses who had worked so hard for us in the wilds of the MKMA, while we jet-boated down the Tuchodi and Muskwa Rivers to civilization. They would ride on through remote valleys and across snowy plateaus to the Alaska Highway while we scattered to our homes, remembering a vast wilderness where challenging rivers run free and epic landscapes awe those who are fortunate enough to visit. A place that changes you.
Of six clients, the author (shown) was the only one who rode regularly, and two clients were on their first pack trip ever. Photo: Wayne Sawchuk
This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main Photo: Tania Millen