In his books, author Richmond P. Hobson Jr. recounts the story of himself and fellow cowboy-adventurer, Panhandle Phillips. In 1934, they traveled from Wyoming to British Columbia in search of the last great North American cattle frontier, establishing the Frontier Cattle Company in 1937. Today, it’s possible to travel the trails blazed by Rich and Pan.
Dale and Yvonne Dunn own and operate the Blackwater-Spruce Ranch, located about 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) northwest of Quesnel, on which they raise Angus-Hereford cattle. They also conduct horse treks.
A number of historically significant trails are accessible just east of their ranch. Most significant is the Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail, the route followed by the explorer and surveyor on his overland trek to the Pacific in 1793. The Dunns are the only operators in British Columbia licensed to conduct horse treks on the AMHT. In August 2008, I participated in a 10-day trek along the trail.
The six participants arrived at the ranch in the morning of the first day and settled into comfortable guest cabins located at the main ranch. After lunch, each rider was assigned a well-trained ranch horse, and that afternoon we rode out to chase cows and get to know our mounts.
Day 2 dawned bright and clear. After a fine breakfast, we set out on our first ride. The morning’s ride of approximately two hours took place along a gravel road, one of only two instances when road travel was unavoidable.
The 500-foot descent into the Blackwater River canyon was steep. The result of eons of erosion was clearly visible, as were innumerable deer trails and mineral licks. After we pitched our first camp, we ascended the precipitous canyon on narrow, winding tracks with numerous switchbacks, occasionally crossing the Lhtako Trail, another aboriginal trade route that follows the Blackwater River valley.
Day 3 dawned overcast, which turned to rain later on. In the morning, we rode a four-hour loop that began on the Telegraph Trail, then ranged eastward on the AMHT. The Telegraph Trail was originally constructed in 1865 for the pack animals carrying supplies for the old Western Union (Collins) Telegraph Line and later rediscovered as a trail between Quesnel and the Yukon gold fields. Regardless of the rain, this loop along the ridgeline, high above the Blackwater River, provided us with some of the most breathtakingly spectacular vistas of the entire trip.
Day 4 dawned overcast, but with no rain in the forecast. Our morning routine found us back in the saddle and headed for the Gillies Crossing Forestry Station on the Euchiniko River. This was a superb all-day ride. Because it was the third day since our shower at the ranch, the highlight of this camp was that we got to bathe in the Euchiniko River.
On Day 5, we continued on the route of the AMHT. At kilometer 64, we stopped at a fenced-in area along the trail. A memorial sign confirmed that Mackenzie had ridden on this segment of the trail. After a long day of riding, we emerged on a ridgeline above Titetown Lake. As we rode along the ridge, a settlement on a peninsula jutting into the lake came into view. This oasis of human habitation came as a bit of a surprise, even though we’d been expecting it. That night, all hands slept in the cabin on comfortable cots.
The next day, a layover day, we visited the Bakers, one of three permanent families on the peninsula. The Bakers have spent untold time developing the most amazing gardens. Later, we enjoyed a welcomed swim in the crystal Titetown Lake waters.
On Day 7, we made our way to Kluskoil Lake. The terrain on this stage of the trip transitioned from spruce bottoms, up into high poplar-covered meadows, back down into a long swamp, and finally back up onto a ridge paralleling the Blackwater River.
Kluskoil is a wilderness campground with only rudimentary facilities, the most luxurious being the presence of a very comfortable one-holer. While at Kluskoil, the lead horses were high-lined at night, and the remaining were hobbled. All were belled to keep bears at bay and to serenade everyone to sleep.
Shortly after 5 a.m. on Day 8, the horses had been checked, the fire was going, and the coffee started. We hiked down the Blackwater River to Chinee Falls and beyond, then saddled for a ride along and beyond Kluskoil Lake. The Blackwater is a world-class trout river, and in the evening we enjoyed hors d’oeuvres of trout that had been caught while we were lollygagging around the countryside.
The Final Ride
Day 9 dawned bright and clear. In the afternoon, we rode out to visit Paddy Lake, which was renamed “Lost Lake” due to our success in finding it. However, the only thing we missed was the lake itself – the country through which we rode was beautiful and the ride was longer than anticipated.
On Day 10, we struck camp, loaded the wagons, and prepared for the return to Titetown Lake. Upon arriving at the lake, we unpacked the wagons and loaded people, horses, and gear into trucks and trailers, and away we went for the Blackwater-Spruce Ranch. While the trek was officially over, the hospitality and good fellowship continued unabated, until everyone finally dispersed to their home pastures.
June 24 to July 14, 2009, I’ll be joining Dale and Yvonne Dunn for a spectacular 22-day, 400-mile trek to the Anahim Lake Stampede. The return will traverse the complete Home Ranch area of the Frontier Cattle Company, as well as Pan Phillips’ fish camp, where he lived out his final days. Anyone craving wilderness horse trekking with a solid historic connection to Canada’s rich ranching heritage would do well to sign up early for this one.