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Friday September 13, 2013 started like any other typical day during the hunting season in the Peace region of BC, with a full tank of gas, a bagged lunch, and a long drive up the Alaska Highway. The difference was the destination; it was going to be very different from all the other typical hunting patrols I’ve been on. I was heading to Fort Nelson to overnight before going on to the Tetsa River, near the Northern Rockies Provincial Park, for a British Columbia Conservation Officer Service (BC COS) horseback patrol, something that had not been done in the last ten years in the Peace region.

It seemed like the Alaska Highway was extra busy with hunters heading home after successful hunts; show-boating their success on the roof of their truck or trailer. After multiple checks on the highway, I finally made it into Fort Nelson to meet up with my cowboy partner Micah Kneller from Fort Nelson (or, as we were later called, “dudes”), where we did a  huge overhaul of our equipment, not knowing what to take and what to leave behind. It is safe to say that neither of us was very experienced with horses, but there was no way we were turning this trip down.

Saturday, September 14 Our day started out quite early, so we could make the 2.5 hour trip to Tetsa River, where our guide, wrangler, and horses were waiting to meet us and get on the trail. Yet again, the Alaska Highway was full of hunters, and more checks came between us and our pack trip. Finally, we arrived at the trailhead to meet Wayne Sawchuck, our guide from Muskwa-Kechika Adventures (www., and Alex, our wrangler.

We had to learn quickly how to load the pack boxes evenly and help with the diamond hitch knot on the pack horses. With a very brief tutorial and introduction to our saddle horses, Cassiar and Percy, we were off trotting down the trail with trees on both
sides and mountains ahead!

It didn’t take long for the knees and buttocks to start feeling sore from the saddle, and it was perfect timing for a short break to make a game plan for the first location of our camp. It was agreed that there was a nice camp area near the river where other
trailheads merged. Then, we were back in the saddle again for multiple river crossings. Micah and I had been given some good advice from a fellow conservation officer who was recently retired. He said, “When you’re crossing a river, keep your feet out of the stirrups - you never know when you might need to go for a swim.” After this, we successfully navigated through the Tetsa River multiple times and then worked our way further up-valley into the willow flats and valley bottom. Three hours into our ride, we came upon our first check. At least, we thought it would be our first check. We ended up meeting the camp cook for the local guide outfitter at her cabin along the Tetsa River. The assistant guide and hunter were out on the mountains looking for stone sheep and mountain goats, which would be a promising check for us if we ever caught up with them.

After four hours of riding, we arrived at our base camp location. It seemed like the pack horses had been here before, and they were trotting ahead of us with excitement to get their packs off and out into the fields to feed. Setting up base camp was a treat, because with six pack horses to carry all the items to make camp a little homier, we felt almost spoiled. First things first, a fire needed to be built so some coffee could be brewed, and there’s nothing like cowboy coffee to put some pep in your step. Within the hour, we had tents up, fire crackling, tarps over cooking area, food out for dinner prep, and cold glacier water in buckets ready for boiling.

Dinner was delightful, with big T-bone steaks and potatoes cooked over the fire. Our evening was topped off by a visit from the assistant guide and hunter, who were making their way back from the mountains towards the guide cabin after a grueling day of hiking. A check was conducted, and no issues were found, as the hunter and guide had seen some stone sheep but nothing worth shooting. With a cup of coffee in hand, it was time to check in with our supervisor and enjoy the sunset and the sounds of bull elk bugling on the hillside, before it was time to head off to the cabin for some rest before another long day of riding and hiking.

Sunday, September 15. Our guide advised us that if we were going on the trail in the morning it was an early rise at 0600 to make sure we had time for breakfast and to round up the horses. This was a tall order for my partner who slowly climbed out of the tent around 0615. The fire was roaring, coffee was perking, and Wayne decided it was Micah’s turn to cook breakfast while he and Alex rounded up the horses. We did not hold back on groceries for this trip, so we had crispy fresh bacon to go with our porridge and fresh fruit.

With the sun starting to burn through a few clouds, it was time to get on the trail and head up over the summit to Twin Lakes to look for hunters. As we switch-backed our way up the valley side, it did not take long to shed some layers and roll up our sleeves. The mountain that we climbed was steep enough that we needed to give our saddle horses a rest and lead them up the worst inclines. As soon as I stepped off Cassiar, I could hear my recently retired partner reminding me, “Give your horse a break when you are going uphill and especially when you are going downhill, and he will repay you tenfold on the flat ground.” With my kind gesture to Cassiar, I felt we were becoming good friends, not something I could say for Micah and his horse, Percy, who seemed to think he was the head honcho and did not need to listen to anyone, including Wayne the guide. This situation only
deteriorated as the trip went on.

As we crested the slope and rode into the pass, we had a lovely visit with a large bull moose that watched us for a while before
moving off to the security of the trees. We stopped at the opposite side of the pass overlooking Twin Lakes and scanned the area with binoculars for hunters or their camps. It was dead quiet and no checks were performed. After our lunch and a short rest, it was time to make our way back to the base camp. Before we started the decline, Wayne suggested giving the horses one last break, and of course, we agreed. I had been thinking quite positive thoughts about Cassiar until this point, when he decided to roll in the grass with the saddle on. I watched helplessly as he rolled on the side with the scabbard which held my Model 94 (pre 64) 30-30 lever action! This rifle was handed down to the Conservation Officer Service many years ago from the BC Police and I was cringing and hoping that it was not ruined. After some choice words from Wayne and Alex, Cassiar stopped his antics and minded his manners, and everything looked fine with the rifle.

We slowly picked our way down the hill over rocks and tree stumps and settled into base camp, unsaddling the horses and hobbling them for the evening. We were given a lesson on radio collaring your horses when hobbled, as Wayne told us about one trip when he had to backtrack over a pass and into the previous valley, because the horses went right back to where they came from (evidently, the grass really is greener somewhere else). Even though there were no hunters checked, the day was not a waste. We ended off again with a hot drink and stories from Wayne around the fire.

Monday, September 16 It was bound to happen, rain, and more rain. We woke up to small streams running through camp. Micah and I had to move our tent, as my location for a tent pad was not the greatest. The fire took a while to get going, but nonetheless, we had heat and a warm breakfast. Today was a rest day for the horses and a day to watch the valley for any hunters travelling through by way of the base camp. All four of us sipped on copious amounts of coffee and tea and had lots of time to get to know each other.

My partner Micah and I realized how privileged we were to be in the northern Rockies with Wayne Sawchuck. Wayne had ample time to tell us about his guiding business, which does not rely on hunting or angling, but ecotourism, and he spends three months at a time in the northern Rockies on horseback, showing clients the pristine environment and providing a true wilderness experience. Wayne is a founding member of the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area, which was established in 1998 and protects an area of 6.4 million hectares. It is named after two large rivers within the boundaries, and it is an isolated area in northern BC with very few access roads, and little to no industrial or resource extraction activity.

No hunters travelled through the valley today. It was off to the somewhat soaked tent for an early evening with hopes of sunshine tomorrow. Tuesday and Wednesday,

September 17 and 18 Well, it went from bad to worse, with two inches of fresh snow all around as I looked out the front of the tent. Low clouds, more snow, fog, and heavy rain on Wednesday had made it an easy decision to stay in at the base camp for two more days. Micah and I took the advice from Wayne that there would likely be very little chance of making any progress on a day trip into the mountains today. We did decide to stretch the legs and go locate the horses to bring them back to camp, to ensure they did not venture too far up the valley. Wayne was concerned that they may hobble their way to Tetsa Lake which was close to 12 miles away! After some confusion with the telemetry unit, we found our trusty steeds calmly grazing together a few miles up the valley.

During our unfortunate, but necessary, rest days, we received tutorials in leather tack repairs, axe sharpening, and shoeing. More coffee was consumed and more stories were told. Luckily, we had chosen a good spot for the base camp, as the valley trail funnelled all the hunters right past camp, and we inspected another guide and client in the evening, with no compliance issues and no harvested wildlife. With our hopes high for a clear sky and sunny morning, we hit the hay early again.

Thursday September 19 Our wishes finally came true, with crystal clear blue skies and wonderful crisp mountain air, and we were up early and ready to get on the trail further up the valley. Today, we slowly snaked our way up-river towards Tetsa Lake, passing one of the guide’s vacant cabins along the way. With an uneventful morning, we stopped for lunch at the far end of Tetsa Lake, and after our fire was safely put out, we slowly meandered back down the valley. As we neared the guide’s vacant cabin, we were surprised by two bull caribou, who decided to give us a lengthy opportunity to view them and take photos. After a ten-minute photo shoot, the skies started to cloud over and it was time to head back to camp.

We were within a couple miles of the base camp, when Cassiar and Percy’s ears stood up straight. A few seconds later, my partner and I were hearing the familiar toll of a lead mare’s bell. We slowed down and spotted a new hunting camp a hundred metres up the trail on the left. It was time to get down to business and inspect this camp. Micah and I were in our plainclothes, which allowed us to enter the camp without spooking the hunters. After our greetings and initial questioning, we identified ourselves as conservation officers, and the three hunters were absolutely blown away that the British Columbia Conservation Officer Service was actually sending officers out into the backcountry on horses to conduct hunting patrols. There were no violations with the group; they had actually just set up camp for a week-long hunt. We thanked them for their time and made our way back to base camp.

After taking care of the horses and tack, it was time for another hearty dinner and updates with our supervisor via satellite phone. An early curfew was given by Wayne, as tomorrow we needed to pack up camp and make the trek back to the trucks. With mixed feelings, I slowly fell asleep next to my snoring tent-mate, and hoped for more hunters on the way home.

Friday September 20 Yet another gorgeous day in the backcountry, but unfortunately, we had to leave. Breakfast consisted of any leftovers we had, which included canned fruit, instant oatmeal, dried fruit, and Wayne’s specialty hot cakes with brown sugar. Micah and I offered to round up the horses, and did not break any time records, but got Cassiar, Percy, Paint, Bonus, Tuchodi,
Gataga, Tony, Hank, and Kyllo back to camp and ready for packing. We were on the trail before ten o’clock and making our way back down river. Just as we left camp, we spooked a group of moose on either side of the trail, and we had the pleasure of watching three bulls as they tried to court some females, with little success. Micah and I tried to make the trip back as slow as possible so we could enjoy the landscape and all it had to offer. We passed by the guide’s camp again and made our final check on them. Same as last time, there were no violations.

The most amusing part of the trip was when Micah and Percy had a little disagreement (alluded to earlier) regarding a rest for some water. It seemed that Micah needed to refill his water bottle as we crossed the lower Tetsa River, and Percy decided he did not want to wait for him and fall behind in the pack string. I was trying to not laugh aloud as I watched him run after Percy, cussing him for a good 100 metres. To top it off, when he finally caught up, Percy really didn’t want anyone in his saddle, so it is safe to say that Micah did a little jumping around with one foot in the stirrup!

After Percy and Micah worked things out, the pack string trudged along the well-known trail and we were only interrupted as we neared the Alaska Highway and found large bear prints in the mud, indicating that a grizzly had walked out in front of us. It was easy to see that the horses were a little concerned as we crept through the dense forest and kept our senses alert for any movement in the bushes.

Our arrival at the trail head was a little disappointing, but enjoyable as well, as we were lucky enough to run into a group of five hunters packing their horses for their trip into the Tetsa River Valley. Again, no violations were found, and we had 100% compliance throughout our pack trip.

Our final task was to assist in unpacking our horses, which we had gotten to know and trust. We left Wayne and Alex with our gratitude and thanks and were on the road to make it back into Fort Nelson to check in with our supervisor. We learned later that week that there were upwards of 20 hunters in the Tetsa River Valley while we were there. Oh well, nothing we could do to change that now, and all in all, it was an experience that Micah and I will never forget, and we hope that we can conduct a similar patrol in the future.

Our thanks go out to Wayne and Alex for their willingness to provide a pack string and guide us on our patrol, after already spending the previous three months in the bush. Two greenhorns like us would never have made it off the highway without you!

Author: Joel Kline. Joel is a member
of the British Columbia Society of
Conservation Officers.

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