Ralph Gravelle's pickup grinds to a halt on the Phillips Creek logging road. We have travelled only a few kilometres, but already deep snow and ice make it impossible to continue.
The Ktunaxa (pronounced "k-too-nah-ha") elder from Tobacco Plains stands silently at the roadside as we haul heavy backpacks from his truck and adjust our headlamps. Heavy white flakes pour down from the dark night sky.
Ahead, tucked in the quiet southeastern corner of British Columbia, lies a historic hunting route through the Flathead Basin and across the Rocky Mountains. Known as the Buffalo Cow Trail, it was abandoned more than 150 years ago, following the decimation of the great herds.
"They'd go in January," Ralph tells us. "Wait till a warm spell that was followed by a cold snap, hoping to get a good strong crust on the snow."
While most mountain-dwelling first nations travelled to the Prairies each spring and fall to hunt buffalo, only the Ktunaxa mounted a gruelling winter hunt as well. Without the aid of horses, returning warriors struggled under loads of meat and skins weighing more than 100 kilograms. Staggering a kilometre or less at a time, they would pass their burden to another before collapsing, and leapfrog the entire 10-day journey home.
We are about to retrace these steps, although fat skis, synthetic jackets and mere 30-kilogram packs will make our journey over the mountains a world easier.
At the height of its use, the Buffalo Cow Trail was literally carved into the land. Generations of passing feet and hooves created a trench 50 centimetres deep or more in places. Today, time and nature have obliterated the last remains of such trails, which once crisscrossed the mountains like highways. Only the knowledge of elders and journals of early travellers keep the route alive, but we are following a fading memory.
The three of us shake hands with Ralph, and prepare to ski into the night. He becomes grave. "Take good care of each other out there. Real good care."
Suddenly Ralph digs behind the pickup's seat, retrieving a handful of black garbage bags.
"Been a warm winter. The Flathead [River]will be open, so you'll be wanting these. Official issue. Ktunaxa gaiters."
Grizzlies, prospectors and a gritty American Senator
Take a peek at the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on a map, and you'll notice it looks like a pie - with a large slice cut out. That slice is the Flathead. Hidden on three sides by towering mountain ranges, and to the south by the impassable U.S. border, this remote river basin is a land that guards its secrets well.
In recent years, a real western-style dust-up has been erupting over the fate of the Flathead. The only unsettled, low-elevation valley of its size in southern Canada, and home to the highest concentration of grizzlies anywhere in the North American interior, it is also rich in resources. And plenty of fingers have been reaching for that slice of pie.
For years, conservation groups have pressed for an expansion of Waterton Lakes National Park to encompass a third of the Flathead Valley.
Things began heating up in 2002, when Parks Canada denoted the region an "area of interest." But it would move ahead only if British Columbia and the Ktunaxa First Nation agreed.
British Columbia did not agree, and instead accepted a steady stream of proposals for oil, gas, coal bed methane, mining and logging development in the basin. To the dismay of many, they also continued to permit trophy hunting and off-road vehicle use.
The brouhaha hit full stride when Max Baucus (a gritty Democratic senator from Montana who is notorious in B.C. for his stance on softwood lumber) took up the cause and began expressing concerns for Glacier National Park, which lies just downstream of the Canadian Flathead. (Note: The U.S. file would eventually reach the desk of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and later Barack Obama who, as a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, opposed a proposed open pit coal mine on the headwaters of the Flathead River.) In response, provincial cabinet minister Bill Bennett confronted Baucus on a street in Fernie, B.C., telling him he was not welcome. Later, in the legislature, Bennett wondered aloud, "What unscrupulous, traitorous twit sunk so low as to invite this guy to B.C.?"
Last summer, the United Nations waded in, sending a fact-finding team to the Flathead. The mission: Evaluate threats to the adjacent World Heritage Site. The report, due to be tabled this summer, is expected to recommend a moratorium on all mining, in the area, and the development of a comprehensive transboundary conservation and wildlife management plan. It was in January of this year - just as a new gold strike was being enthusiastically announced in the Flathead - that our team began planning a traverse of the great basin. Our goal: to leave the hullabaloo behind, and simply explore the vast wilderness during its most remote season.
And then British Columbia blindsided everybody (including us) by abruptly declaring a ban on all mining, oil and gas in the Flathead during the Feb. 9 Throne Speech. It is a move that has many people wondering if Canada's next national park could be far off.
I awake with ice and cold nylon pressed against my face. A night of heavy snow has crushed the teepee, only the centre pole keeping it up. We dig our way out to find it looks like a handkerchief being pulled through a small ring.
Our spirits are high. Despite an abysmally thin snowpack across British Columbia - the last persistent patches of snow disappeared around my home in the nearby Columbia Trench more than a month ago - any worries we harboured about completing the journey on skis have suddenly been erased.
Dawn turns to day, and we crest the Galton Range. Descending toward the headwaters of the Wigwam River, we drag our packs behind us atop plastic children's toboggans. Heavy wet flakes continue to plaster the forest, and the storm shows no sign of abating.
Plowing down the trail beside me are good friends Dave Quinn, a local wildlife biologist, and the bull-strong, silver-haired John Bergenske, who came to these mountains 40 years ago as a young homesteader. Both are well-seasoned backcountry travellers.
By late afternoon, cloud and blowing snow have obscured all visibility. Crashing through dense forest, we are unsure of where we are. Lost, I suppose, is the correct word.
"Did you bring a GPS?" Dave turns to ask, and I shake my head. We both look to John, who has just pulled up behind. "Nope."
The route looked so simple from the comfort of home, yet now, less than 24 hours after Ralph dropped us off, we are already lost and exhausted.
Increasing the navigational challenge is the fact we are within kilometres of the U.S. border, and our topographic map ends at the 49th parallel: Meaning the ridgelines and summits to the south that occasionally peek from the swirling storm offer no help in determining our position.
Convinced that the U.S. border must be within a few hundred metres of where we stand, the three of us crash southward, scratched and clawed by a sea of undergrowth and dead branches.
Suddenly the dark woods open up, and we find ourselves standing on an arrow-straight slash. Cleaved through hillside and mountain peaks, it continues due west and east for as far as the eye can see: the border.
A wave of euphoria passes through our team; I don't think I have ever been so happy to see a clear-cut.
Moving quickly now, we head west, past steel obelisks that protrude from the snow every few kilometres, marked "Canada" on one side and "United States" on the other, in black engraved letters.
Home on the ranges
Between the Ktunaxa homeland and the buffalo hunting grounds of the Great Plains rises a formidable series of mountain ranges. Crossing these peaks would normally present a serious challenge, but a string of (miraculously) low passes made it possible for elders, children and even thousands of horses at a time to follow the well-trampled Buffalo Cow Trail. Meandering back and forth across the 49th parallel, the route followed the path of least resistance.
Then, in 1861 the international border was carved across the wilderness.
"The border didn't mean anything to my people at first," Ralph told us. "My great grandparents and even my grandparents used to cross back and forth into the United States any time, anywhere they liked."
But by the 1930s authorities began cracking down and today, anyone who wanders across the line faces a real chance of jail time. Which is about to make things more difficult for us.
As the Buffalo Cow Trail approached the high ramparts of Couldrey Ridge, it veered southward and easily bypassed the obstacle by following the Weasel Creek. But today the border blocks that way. So instead, we must hoist our packs to our shoulders, strap the toboggans on top, attach climbing skins on our skis, and start grinding upwards into the clouds.
As dusk nears we discover a helicopter-landing pad hewn from the thick forest and decide to camp there. The next morning, we continue upward.
It is noon on our third day of travel when we finally stagger atop Couldrey Ridge. A sea of snowy peaks stretches at our feet. To the east lies the grand Flathead Basin, with the stark, white border line draped over every rise and undulation. Beyond rise the bunched summits of the Clarke Range and Waterton Lakes National Park.
Our immediate concern is finding a way down. It doesn't look easy. The east side of Couldrey Ridge drops into a mess of dark cliff bands. There are a few gullies breaking the face, but with avalanche conditions near extreme, these are not options. Ominous "whoomphs" emanate from the snowpack every time we shuffle forward, and cracks spread from our ski tips.
A lone spur to the north offers the only glimmer of hope. We carefully traverse to the top. Below, the narrow ridge falls away steeply and most the majority of the route is blocked from view.
Sidestepping gingerly downward, we each remain silent, hoping that this will not be a dead end: No one wants to struggle back up the heavy, loose snow.
After an hour, we reach the final drop, and thankfully, by taking our skis off, are able to down climb past it.
Below, the mountainside mellows. Entering a mature forest of whitebark pine, we float between the broad trunks, raising billows of soft snow, swooshing downward. Skiing faster and faster, it is thousands of feet below that we skitter to a stop at the head of a logging road.
After waxing the skis, we follow the recent tracks of a large lynx down the road, at last entering the great Flathead Basin, which we have travelled so far to see.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Next Week: Discover the heart of the Flathead wilderness