Six years. Twelve wilderness campsites created. Seventy-four kilometres of trail restored. Thousands of hours of paid and volunteer labour — and it all came down to an overnight camping trip in the snow and sub-zero temperatures to put the finishing touches on Blackeye’s Campsite on the Tulameen Plateau.
The Hudson’s Bay Company (1849) Heritage Trail is now complete, though it likely will rest under a blanket of snow until next year’s hiking season. The trail starts at Peers Creek, east of Othello and carries on to Tulameen, north of Princeton.
On Tuesday last week, Hope Mountain Centre’s program director Kelly Pearce was joined by Glen Keil of Hope, Kelley Cook of Princeton and Maurie Jackson of Burnaby for the final installation of signage and a roof for the bear-proof cache.
Keil and Jackson drove in with Pearce, taking the Britton Creek exit off the Coquihalla Highway to get onto the Tulameen forest service road, then the Loadstone forest service road, which brought them within 8 km of the camp.
Cook drove in on backroads from Tulameen, accompanied by her dogs Feral and Wheels.
A few weeks earlier, it might have been an easier hike — but the plateau camp is at 1850 metres, 200 higher than the peak of Mount Ogilvie. Snow was falling as they headed up with their overnight gear, tools and hardware.
By the time they got to thecamp the snow was almost up to their knees. Snowshoes might have been an idea but they were warm and dry at home.
“We started hiking at 10 a.m. and got to the camp by 4 p.m.,” said Pearce. They set up their tents and got a fire and supper going before working on the site improvements.
“There was quite a bit of work to do and we worked into the night with headlamps,” said Pearce. “A big frontal system was coming in, so we wanted to get it done.”
Routered wooden signs, made in Hope by Justin Brown, were bolted to prominent trees and the metal-and-wood roof was attached to the bear-proof food cache.
“The camp was named after Chief Blackeye, who was based in Tulameen,” explained Pearce. “His family used the trail to get from Tulameen to the plateau for hunting and for harvesting berries. Blackeye showed the trail to the fur traders.”
Over the six years of redeveloping the fur brigade trail, campsites have been built at four historical stopping points, said Pearce. A further six sites have been built in the gaps between, for hikers laden down with their gear.
“Brigades travelled 20 miles a day, which is far more than the modern day backpacker would cover,” said Pearce. “But they had horses to carry most of the load. There was still plenty of work to do, though.”
Pearce said the brigades wouldn’t have used the trail during the snowy months — but one of his work crew got a life lesson in the harshness of the high altitude wilderness.
Three of the four had winter-rated sleeping bags and by bedtime the thermometer had dipped to -12º C. Keil was sure it was -15 — and he was the one with the sleeping bag that was only rated to 0º. He had borrowed it from his son, Adam. “Even the dogs were begging to get into the tents, so they were let in,” said Pearce. “Glen should have taken one.”
“I wore all my clothes and my down vest but not my outer jacket because it had snow on it and felt frozen,” said Keil. “I maybe slept for two hours at the most in the early morning. I woke up at first light, at maybe 6:30 a.m. and decided to get up because I was cold, so best to move around.
“My boots were covered in snow and wet from perspiration so they froze overnight,” he added. Not something he’s used to, rolling out of bed at home.
“I’ll try winter camping again — but I’ll borrow or invest in the right gear,” said Keil.
The Hope Mountain Centre for Outdoor Learning has plans for a grand reopening at both ends of the trail on the May long weekend in 2016, with historians and historical actors, horses and black powder guns. Watch for details closer to the date.