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Day 23: Tete Jaune Cache, B.C.
Observations of 1864 trekker ring true
in solemn stillness of B.C. bear country


Thursday, August 31, 2000

When Viscount Milton, a gentleman British explorer, passed through this valley on horseback in 1864, he remarked on eastern British Columbia's stunning beauty, drawn by "steep, pine-clad hills," narrow gorges and salmon-stuffed streams.

And how hard it was to escape.

In his book, The North-West Passage by Land, which swept English society, Milton wrote of a gruelling, summer-long journey from Edmonton to Kamloops that nearly cost the viscount and his party their lives when they could not find a way forward from Tete Jaune Cache and were forced to eat one of their horses to survive.

Since then, many of the pine-clad hills have been clear-cut, and the salmon are struggling against more than fierce currents.

But if one thing remains unchanged in Tete Jaune Cache, where there are now a few houses and a wood bridge over an upper reach of the Fraser River, it is still an unforgiving mire, at least for the humble hitchhiker.

Just south of Tete Jaune Cache, in the new town of Valemont, I waited slightly less than five hours for a ride down the Yellowhead South Highway, watching RVs, tour buses and horse trucks rumble out of the Rockies and down the twisting 375-kilometre course to Kamloops.

With B.C.'s timber industry in a slump, not a single logging truck was on a road built for their use. The summer tourism flow was also drying up. The first chill of autumn had come overnight, leaving the Caribou Mountains to the west capped with a fresh sprinkling of snow.

When a couple of women from the next town finally picked me up, they explained the reluctance toward hitchhikers, what with so many long stretches between towns as the road cuts through gorges and thickly forested bear country.

They assured me the next stop would be better, at Blue River, where a new ski resort, that eternal hope in B.C., is coming up.

Two hours after the women dropped me at the end of Blue River, after I watched an excavator clear part of a ski run on the mountain above, perfected my pitch of stones against a stop sign and considered Milton's 135-year-old description of "the solemn stillness, unbroken by note of bird or sound of living creature, and the deep gloom of the woods" -- two hours after all this, a big yellow taxi stopped.

Corey MacDonald, a young tree planter from the Tete Jaune Cache area, was on his way to Kamloops and knew my plight. Before buying the old taxi for $1,000, the 20-year-old had been stranded on the Yellowhead more times than he could count. One time he was stuck just below Tete Jaune Cache for 4½ hours.

"Did a lot of people give you the finger?" he asked.

I nodded.

"Yah, it's all rednecks racing by," he explained. "Valemont is definitely the worst."

The big old Parisienne seemed to float down the highway as the gorges and forests gave way to what Milton called "a California aspect -- the colour of a lithograph -- rolling swells, brown with bunch-grass and studded with scattered yellow pines."

After 17 days in the B.C. mountains, he was delirious to see the curious desert that opens up before Kamloops.

After 10 hours, I was starting to understand why.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.

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