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Crossing the Chischa River in Muskwa-Kechika. Even in late June, vast pans of snow remain on the shady banks. (Bruce Kirkby)
Crossing the Chischa River in Muskwa-Kechika. Even in late June, vast pans of snow remain on the shady banks. (Bruce Kirkby)

Ride through the ‘Serengeti of the North’ Add to ...

“Did you hear that?” Wayne Sawchuk whispers, freezing mid-stride. For the past 24 hours we have tracked a lost horse through dense woods cloaking British Columbia’s northern Rocky Mountains.

Well, more accurately, Sawchuk has tracked the young horse, and I have followed Sawchuk, who is making me feel like a neophyte in the wilderness for the first time in decades. The logger-turned-cowboy-turned-conservationist stoops often, finding clues that I would have missed, running his hand over blades of bent grass and scuffs on rocks, changing direction, retracing his steps, muttering, and all the while deciphering the mystery of the horse’s flight. Scars in alder bark show where the frantic mare smashed the panniers. Prints of elk, moose, deer, caribou and galloping horse litter the thick carpet of moss underfoot, and Sawchuk patiently points out the differences. Despite such tutelage, they all look the same to me, as if a drunkard hopped through the forest on a pogo stick.

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Every summer since 1989, Sawchuk has mounted gruelling (upward of 90 days) horse journeys through this vast and virtually forgotten corner of Canada – and brought commercial clients with him. These are no run-of-the-mill eco-tours. “Participatory expeditions” is how Sawchuk describes the experience. The guests who join him for two-week stints – flying in and out on float planes while the pack string continues its march over the rumbled landscape – are expected (and desperately needed) to pitch in with saddling horses, loading packs, cooking meals, gathering wood and setting camp.

Two days earlier, an 18-wheel transporter unloaded 20 of Sawchuk’s horses at Summit Lake on the Alaska highway; eight for riding, 12 for packing. After a fitful sleep under the midnight sun, our nascent team of strangers leaped atop saddles, and the excited pack string thundered up a steep trail leading to alpine tablelands.

Sawchuk’s string is made up of proven, trusty mounts. Hazel, the patriarch, is the veteran of 27 expeditions. But each year, a handful of new horses are broken in. It was after a lazy lunch on the banks of a clear creek that Buddy, one of three novice pack horses, panicked and bolted. By the time we realized something was amiss, Buddy had vanished into the tangled choke of trees that rise steeply above the north fork of the Tetsa River.

Dismounting, we followed on foot, retracing Buddy’s trail through a maze of trunks and fallen trees. “Poor horse was out of his mind with panic,” Sawchuk noted. “It will be a miracle if we find him alive.” Every bash and bang of his hard plastic panniers would have added to Buddy’s terror, and his continuing full-out gallop was evident in his wake. Tent poles, cans of beans and fluorescent jackets were strewn through the forest, leading us in an enormous loop. Eventually we found ourselves lost in a confusion of hoof prints going every which way. Riding our horses to the top of the mountain, we scoured the upper limits of the forest to ensure he had not crossed into the next valley, but found nothing.

“He is still down there somewhere,” Sawchuk declared at day’s end, “and we’ll find him.” I did not share such confidence. We were travelling at a snail’s pace, trying to find a charging horse with a full day’s lead on us, amid a wilderness so large that Ireland could fit within its borders. It felt like the proverbial search for the needle in the haystack.

The next morning, as we prepared to resume the search, Sawchuk slipped a lever-action .308 Browning rifle into his backpack. (This rifle, along with a mirror-polished ax, are always slung from Sawchuk’s saddle, within arm’s reach.) It was a reminder of the grim reality: If we could not find Buddy – who might already be dead, or lying stricken with a broken leg – he would surely perish in the days ahead. Sawchuk’s packhorses are fitted with a muzzle each morning, to prevent grazing on the trail. If bears and wolves didn’t get him, starvation would.

Now, after six hours of painstakingly following whispers of Buddy, Sawchuk – who auditioned for the part of Mantracker in the popular television show – has heard something. We stand motionless. Clouds of mosquitoes press around our face and ears. A squirrel screeches in protest at our presence. A chipping sparrow flits past, and on a nearby snag, a pair of hairy woodpeckers dance in circles. Then, hidden amid these gentle sounds, comes a faint grunt.

“That is the sound of a struggling horse!” Sawchuk exclaims, and strides off at a near sprint. Soon we’re before Buddy, who is standing motionless in a cluster of pines. The remains of a saddle and rigging hang in a tangle beneath his belly. Sawchuk approaches slowly, steadily, whispering encouragement. The horse is exhausted but unharmed. Gently wrapping an arm around Buddy’s neck, the normally stoic Sawchuk turns with misty eyes and asks me to snap a picture.

CANADA’S BEST-KEPT SECRET

If you spread a map of North America across a table, then poured a bottle of red wine upon the heart of the continent, the stain – soaking the high mountain cordillera to the west, drenching the Prairies, engulfing the Great Lakes while seeping south toward Mexico and north to Alaska – would represent the historical (or “pre-contact”) range for most of the New World’s large carnivores and ungulates.

With time, that spill has been steadily mopped up. A recent study by the American Institute of Biological Sciences shows just a splash survives today. Plotting the current populations of North America’s large species (10 carnivores and 7 ungulates) reveals that in one – and only one – spot on the entire continent does the full palate of original wildlife remain: the Muskwa-Kechika, a sprawling wilderness straddling the northern spine of British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains.

Arguably, no one has played a bigger role in protecting the Muskwa-Kechika than the misty-eyed man with his arm around Buddy’s neck.

In the early 1990s, British Columbia set the ambitious goal of developing a comprehensive land use strategy for the northern half of the province. The provincial government gave a unique directive to northern stakeholders: find consensus. No votes, no split-decisions; policy must address and satisfy all concerns. And everyone was invited to the table: forestry, mining, oil and gas, recreational users, organized labour, guide outfitters, trappers, conservation groups, hunters, first nations and local government.

Sawchuk – who knew the wild lands of the northern Rockies intimately – leapt headlong into the process. In the 1950s and ’60s he watched his father raze forests, farms, orchards and entire towns in advance of dam construction. The loss of so much beauty felt wrong; he didn’t want to watch it again.

The solution the diverse group of stakeholders eventually arrived at represents a unique attempt to find balance between the competing needs for wilderness protection and industrial activity. Ultimately, 6.4 million hectares – an area 10 times the size of Banff National Park – was set aside; 1.6 million hectares are protected in a constellation of 20 protected areas, and 4.7 million hectares are in a special management zone, where industrial use is permitted, but wilderness and cultural values are taken into account when operations take place, and the land is returned to its previous state afterward. An advisory board – with members representing every interest – reviews all plans and proposals, offering their opinion to the provincial government, which makes the final decision.

Fate has played a hand in diminishing tensions in Muskwa-Kechicka, as timber prices are at record lows and there are no significant gas discoveries within its boundaries. Still, why does it work? Sawchuk is unequivocal: “Consensus. If the board wasn’t obliged to consider every view, it would all fall apart.” One recent example involves shale and sheep. When shale gas deposits were found in an area designated as critical stone sheep habitat, the board ordered a detailed population survey. Because sheep utilized only half the zone set aside for them, development proceeded in the other half, in winter, when the footprint was almost nil. Despite its size and success, Muskwa-Kechika remains one of Canada’s best-kept secrets.

RIVERS THE COLOUR OF BOMBAY SAPPHIRE

With Buddy safely back among the pack string, our party continues south, travelling against the grain of the land, rising and falling as we cross the rumpled foothills of the front ranges. The desolate alpine grasslands are spotted with the purple and white of spring – lupines and avens that our horses greedily nibble. Far to the west, snow-capped peaks crowd the horizon. Aspens cloak closer hillsides like summer grass, their leaves rippling in waves with every passing gust.

The rivers draining these peaks – impossibly clear and the colour of Bombay Sapphire gin – have carved narrow canyons through limestone bedrock and beg exploration. I find myself guzzling litre after litre, the water tastes that good.

We follow whispers of ancient trails, carved by outfitters, guides, explorers and first nations long before us. Some wind through ghost forests of burnt spruce, others beneath sheer rock faces, thousands of feet tall. The pack string acts like a rototiller, 80 hooves pounding into the soft earth, exposing rich brown soil – the aroma mixing with the scent of our horses. In places where the trail has been dug into a trench, the horses prefer to balance on the edge, perched (perilously it feels to the rider) on the narrow ribbon between gulch and forest.

One of the grand luxuries of horse travel is not having to perpetually stare at your feet, or “push bush.” This lends itself to constant observation – a good thing, as there is plenty to see in this so-called Serengeti of the North. One day alone we spot 160 elk, 35 caribou, a dozen stone sheep, two moose and a black bear. And as hunters have long known, wildlife that would flee a walking human doesn’t vanish at the appearance of a mounted rider. The mountain caribou are particularly curious, running toward our horses, sniffing the air, sprinting away, then returning to tail us.

“I want to show you something,” Sawchuk says after dinner, rising from the campfire on one of my last nights in the Muskwa-Kechika. We set off together down a faint game trail near camp. A night hawk calls, and to the east, a waxing moon rises in a purple sky. After several hundred metres, Sawchuk drops to his knees and combs the gravel.

Then he finds it – a tiny piece of black chert, or stone, no larger than a dime. I turn the piece in my hand, and the smooth face of a colloidal fracture glistens in the fading light.

“That was napped by someone hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago,” he explains.

A tingle passes over me as I ponder the history of the flake. Chert doesn’t naturally occur in the area, and whoever brought it here almost surely was shaping a weapon where I now stand. My eyes stray over the land. Little if anything has changed in the centuries since the flake landed amid the river-smoothed gravel.

“Why do you leave it here?” I ask.

“Why would I take it away?” Sawchuk counters. “I worry a horse may step on it one of these years, but this is where it belongs.”

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