Itcha Mountains Short Story:
The Itcha Mountains, a volcanic range, is part of the Anahim Volcanic Belt, which formed when the North American Plate moved over a hotspot, similar to the one feeding the Hawaiian Islands. Today, the Itcha Mountains are part of Itcha Ilgachuz Provincial Park which is comprised of almost 112,000 hectares.
In recognition of the fact that the area is home to the largest Woodland caribou herd in southern British Columbia, a small heartland portion of the Ilgachuz mountains was dedicated as an Ecological Reserve in the 1970s. The reserve was quite limited in size so Dave Neads of BC Spaces for Nature propelled the vision of a much larger Itcha Ilgachuz .
A park was recommended for protection under the Cariboo-Chilcotin Land-Use Plan, and designated a Class “A” Park in 1995. Itcha Ilgachuz Provincial Park is a wilderness park set aside to protect alpine grasslands, wetlands, and wildlife habitat, including the largest herd of woodland caribou in southern B.C.
The Itcha and Ilgachuz Ranges are examples of isolated shield volcanoes, rising up to 2400 metres above sea level. These ranges are situated in the rain shadow of the Coast Mountains.
There are wonderful hiking opportunities throughout the park. Trails are horse trails and are unmaintained. Hiking, therefore, is for experienced wilderness travelers.
The earliest inhabitants in the Itcha Ilgachuz area were the South Carrier and Tsilhqot’in Peoples, who hunted, gathered, and lived in what is now the park. Around the beginning of the 20th century white settlers began to arrive from the coast and set up ranches. Most of these are still operating ranches to this day.
I was introduced to Wanda and Roger of Six Mile Ranch in the mid 1990’s when I wanted to photograph and publish a book on the Chilcotin. They welcomed me into their family and took me on a pack trip into the Itcha and Ilgatchuz Mountains. I have been traveling and photographing in the Itcha and Ilgatchuz Mountains ever since.
ROGER AND WANDA WILLIAMS own and operate Six Mile Ranch, which is a family-run, commercial cow/calf ranch operation. In conjunction with their daughter Terra (Punky) and husband Eli Hatch, they run about 600 head and maintain a herd of approximately 50 horses. In about 1978, between range riding and haying, they decided to take guests to some of their favourite places in the Itcha and Ilgatchuz Mountains. There has not been a summer missed in the mountains since, and they still find that they enjoy their time showing off this beautiful area as much as the guests enjoy seeing it.
While Roger came into the country from Illinois in the early 70’s, Wanda was raised in the Chilcotin and never had much desire to leave. Her father was the late Lester Dorsey, who has been immortalized in many books including those by Rich Hobson, Paul St. Pierre, Diana Phillips, and most recently, Corky Williams. Both Lester and his wife Mickey were well known for their need to “see the other side of the mountain” and they instilled that in their only daughter as well. Roger worked for Lester, and many others in the country and remains an accomplished trapper, big game guide and rancher. Between the two of them, you are guaranteed a trip you won’t forget. Full of rich history, amazing landscapes, sure footed ranch/mountain horses and experience born of a lifetime in the area. The majority of the clientele are repeat customers or have arrived by “word of mouth”. Many close friendships have been formed as the result of this little business and no doubt many more will follow.
- I have ridden through these mountains by horse on several occasions and then there was the hike that Rita and Mike and I did for Motherstone. I’ll start with the story of our hike…boots on the ground. For me there is nothing better than hiking. The closer I am to the Earth, the more of me that touches the Earth, the better, and the better I photograph as well. I am just plain more connected both physically and creatively in terms of thinking photography and composition. Way better!!
- Like all my trips out there, they all start in Wanda and Rogers’ ranch home, at that table where they are sitting. That is where the maps come out, the coffee is served, and the booze is poured. It’s also where the fresh moose steaks and potatoes are served. This is where I was welcomed in back in the mid 90’s and it still goes on. Rita and Mike, of course, have become a part of this welcoming. We are always excited to visit. It has the feeling of going home. There are always other people there as well…it’s home to a lot of people! There is never any fuss made about anyone being there either. You are just there and you are just welcome!
- Out of the livingroom window you look out and see this…the road out to one of their many pastures but it is also the road to the Itcha’s which you can just see in the distance. All trips to the Itcha’s start here. It takes two days of hiking (or riding) to just get to the mountains. Then your trip really begins!
On this trip, Wanda and Roger agreed to carry our main hiking supplies as far as Ptarmigan Basin. They would then leave us and continue on their journey through the Itcha Mountains. The plan was that we would hike and photograph our way through the mountains following a route I had designed for photography, and with any luck we would meet them again in 8 days time at a pre-arranged location. If anything went wrong and we missed them, we would have a long two day hike out of the mountains without any food. We would do our best!
- Eventually we get to the mountains. It’s the youngest of the three shield volcano ranges but for some reason it is the softest; rolling hill-like mountains with big valleys and open passes. It’s very friendly for hiking and of course riding. There is lots of wildlife but because of the expansiveness of the area a herd of 500 caribou can hardly be seen. 50 mountain goats are like little white specs. The biggest of grizzly’s is a mere wolverine. So one has to stay extremely alert to spot any wildlife.
I have to say, at first I was always drawn to the Rainbow and Ilgatchuz landscapes. They were the real mountains; spectacular and beautifully coloured. But over time, the Itcha’s has become my favourite volcano. The same is true for Rita and Mike. This landscape grows on you. It seduces you…much like the grasslands grow on you. Eventually, that is just where you want to go…so we do!
This is the trip where the now famous caribou story originated. The fact is, that on any trip that I was on, we would only see one caribou. I gained a reputation. No one wanted to go on a ride with me if they wanted to see caribou. Stories abound with the sightings of hundreds of caribou on every other trip. Determined to break this jinx on my hike to photograph for the Motherstone book, I spent the entire winter/spring visualizing that I would see 1000’s of caribou when I approached Ptarmigan Basin. Ptarmigan Basin was this vast ‘Serengeti’ of the Itcha’s where 100’s of caribou often gather to feed. I so much as bragged that I would break the jinx on this trip.
- On day two of the hike we were approaching the Basin, hiking in rain and driving wet snow. It was miserable. As we approached the spot where we were going to be able to gaze down into the Basin I turned and yelled back to Rita and Mike…any moment now we will see 1000’s of caribou. They just laughed…they thought I was crazy.
- Then, suddenly, a SINGLE cariboo appears in front of me, coming up from the Basin below. I thought to myself…oh no….not another single! This can’t be. Rita and Mike said nothing. I didn’t give up hope; I just kept going. I wanted to get a closer look down into the Basin.
- Then it happened! I reached a lookout point and peered over the edge. There they were; several hundred caribou. I almost leaped and shrieked; I just wanted to jump with joy when I realized that I had to remain totally silent and remain hidden. They were still too far for a top book image. What could I do next to get my shot, I wondered.
Then they caught wind of us and a bunch broke off from the herd and started to move off up a ridge in front to me. I watched and tried to shoot. I was still in the rain, trying to keep my lens dry. This was not working.
- Then it really happened. The rain suddenly stopped and a beautiful bull led his herd over a snow patch in front of me. Perfect. I quietly moved closer, shooting as I went. The setting was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for more. My jinx was broken. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. (Harold…we sold this image as a print this past year…8ft. wide for a beautiful home here in the Cariboo!!! Now you know ‘the rest of the story’!!!)
- We descended down into the Basin and established our camp for the night. The Roger and Wanda team arrived with the rest of our gear. After getting full instructions on where to meet up in 8 days time, they left and continued with their journey.
- We camped in Ptarmigan Basin for an extra day and explored. It was still rainy but this saturated the colours and textures. It was such beauty…subtle saturated textural colour. It was so very volcanic. Lava everywhere beneath our feet. We were walking the Motherstone, deep within the Ark.
- I was so excited to be walking on such textured colour. Using my ‘landscape’ 14mm lens, I searched for compositions that spoke to me. It was difficult in the rain. There is a tendency when uncomfortable to take shortcuts. But I had to resist that knowing that this was a once in a lifetime situation and I was shooting for book quality images. I had to do my very best. That meant tripod and careful attention to compositional detail. With rain covers over my lens and camera body (and myself) I went about my work. (you can see this image in my website Newsletter #49; Mike can’t find his image)
- While hiking across the Basin we noticed what wonderful condition the altai fescue was in considering the 1000’s of caribou that graze here. It was an example how wild herds maintain the foraging areas they use…nothing was over-grazed. It was beautiful.
- The next day we were to move on, no matter what the weather. It was still very overcast; drizzle and low cloud. We pushed on toward Misery Pass. Near the top of the pass the low cloud got so thick I could not see where to go in order to get to Goat Pass. I stopped everyone, put my pack down, and got out my topo map and compass.
- I took careful bearings for there was no trail and no view of the land. We were in a whiteout and I had to completely rely on map and compass. Once I had my bearings we set off again…into the void!
- An hour later the cloud lifted, just as we reached Goat Pass. A pass is never a great place to have lunch due to the wind, but we were starved and it wasn’t blowing, so I remember eating close by here before we headed over the pass and down into the next valley toward Lunch Lake where I had decided to camp for the night.
- Eventually we reached Lunch Lake. We were cold and wet. I quickly set up an tarp amongst some firs and got our little camp stove going for Rita to make some tea and supper. I remember Rita wanting me to make a small campfire with some dead wood scraps to get warm but I felt I had to go photograph. So I left (she was not happy!!!!!). I wanted to scout the area just in case we had some light before dark. I was doing that when suddenly there was a clearing and a volcanic cone appeared. Then the sunlight hit it; only for a few minutes before it set below the mountains. If I had not pre-scouted a good location while it was still miserable out there, I would never have made this image. (Rita still doesn’t forgive me!!!!)
Photography has influenced my life and taught me a lot. Firstly, I love to go where I have never been (and where no one else has been as much as possible). I could never go the Grand Canyon to photograph. Millions have been there and done that. I can’t do that.
Secondly, photography drives me to live intensely. It requires persistence. Inconveniences and hardships cannot stand in the way of me getting my image…even the possibility of getting that image. Capturing the ‘sense of place’ feeling over-rides all adversity and any discomfort. The camera effects how I live my life.
- The next day we took off in order to day-trip and explore this valley before pushing into another one. It was a beautiful wide expansive valley with gorgeous grass and lots of fresh delicious runoff water. (Rita wrote about this water in Motherstone, pp130-131) We could see why it was a great place for wildlife…lots of food here.
- Then I looked up at the ridge above Goat Pass where we had hiked through the day before and sure enough, there they were. A herd of over 30 mountain goats. We know why this was called Goat Pass!! We spent a wonderful day exploring the valley.
- The next day broke with sunny skies. This was fortunate as it was another map and compass day that was to take us over a high mountain pass. Once again, no trails. Approaching the pass with very heavy loads was not easy. The terrain was that of large unstable rocks and boulders. You can see the smattering of red volcanic rock; I called this Red Rock Pass.
- Then it happened. We came over the pass and I saw a vista that immediately sent me to tears. It was so volcanic; this was like a dream. With smoke drifting in from a Yukon forest fire, it felt as if the volcanoes were still erupting and fuming. The volcanic shapes were everywhere. I took off my pack, got my camera gear out and slowly and very deliberately went to work. This was a very special moment and I was totally aware of how special this was. I made this image as a panorama to get the grand vista.
- Once I had captured the big landscape, I changed to my wide angle landscape lenses to capture the very coloured and textural rocks at my feet and yet maintain the distant volcanic shapes for context. I spent at least an hour here trying to take it all in; trying not to miss an important perspective, relationship, or specific subject. This spot represents one of the most memorable shooting locations of my photographic career. It was tied in with extreme emotion. I know I would never have felt this extreme emotion had I been on a horse. To capture the real essence of a place I feel I have to be ‘boots on the ground’.
- Eventually we had to don our heavy packs once again and head off into the volcanoes. This walk was still charged with emotion. The scattering of the red volcanic boulders that you see ahead of Rita…everything around us spoke of what had happened millions of years ago. It also spoke of more recent ice ages. There was mystery and story all around us. We felt the creation of the planet. I wanted to stop at every one of those boulders. Everything spoke to me.
- As we hiked down into the valley, I turned my thoughts to what we were walking over. Texture and colour everywhere. Rita and I found this incredible BLUE rock and juxtaposed with the red lava, it looked beautiful. The blue rock was like no other Rita had ever seen. We picked up a piece to bring home, but we found that when we looked at it back at camp, it had lost its blue. (I had found this phenomena once before and also picked up a piece to take home to show Rita only to find it lost its blue.) So Rita had heard of this happening and here it happened again. Now she understood. I have no idea what happens here. In the field it is an AMAZING blue, but remove it from its home and it loses that colour. (and no picture does justice to the blue)
- There was not just textured rocks, the texture of the land overall was comprised of rocks and plants…amazing plants that struggled for survival amongst the rocks. Receiving shelter, heat, and stability, the plants gave back their beauty….
- ……and their colour which seemed to reflect off the surrounding rocks and boulders.
- Eventually we stopped near a creek with a view of Mount Downton; the highest and largest mountain in the park. Between us lay a pile of yellow so large that it was almost a mountain in and of itself. I don’t know what it was other than yellow rock.
We were so happy to establish a little home for
ourselves. It had been a difficult day of hiking yet one of the most
rewarding experiences ever for everyone. As a photographer shooting for a
book about volcanics, it was beyond the beyond!
I knew it was risky to camp here as were venerable. We were above tree line with no protection from the elements, but the weather seemed stable and the scenery was so staggering, I decided to take the chance.
- Rita was amazing. No matter how difficult the day was, she always had the energy to cook up a delicious meal for us. Mike and I were always grateful.
- That evening after supper Mike and I hiked high above camp where I could oversee the entire landscape. I had never been here before and I wanted to make the best of our next day, laid aside for local exploration and photography.
There appeared to be two main areas I wanted to photograph. One was to approach Mount Downton which you see directly behind Mike who is just joining me at the lookout. The huge yellow coloured basalt columns on the slopes of Mount Downton looked very intriguing and of great interest to the study of volcanoes.
- Looking in the other direction I saw a soft, gentle landscape with subdued coloured shapes that appeared to be flowing downwards with the pull of gravity. The movement of that landscape with its shapes and drainage patterns was far too strong a pull for me; that was where I was going first. I went to bed excited for my next day of photography.
- After breakfast we were off. The land was gentle and the lava was comprised of small tiny rocks making it easy to walk. As I walked slowly upwards, I tried to absorb the juxtaposition of form, planning my route carefully in order to take best advantage of each line, and each mass of textured colour. I stopped frequently, trying to see ever more deeply, for I knew this was a very special day for me. I could strongly feel it. This was my landscape and I wanted to be sure to communicate what was happening to me here. I was totally in the present.
- I was stimulated by pure design. I felt what I loved….shapes, patterns, textures, colour, line, rhythm.
- I knew that this was subject matter that really mattered to me. I felt exhilarated, awe-inspired, and almost overwhelmed. I just tried to concentrate in making the most powerful and expressive compositions I could to emphasize my response to the beauty that surrounded me.
I wanted to make images about the land, not of the land. I am inspired by the landscape, and by my experiences in the landscape. I found a deep sense of belonging here.
- As if the shapes of the land were not enough, a small herd of mountain goats traversed through them. I merely stood there carefully awaiting for the moment when they were all separated, each a form within a greater form.
- The goats passed, and I was once again immersed in form. I was intrigued by the giant wave of golden lava earth, filled with the moisture of the last melting snow packs, it moved with gravitational pull. The moisture being released formed the very headwaters of the Blackwater River which flows into the Fraser River near Quesnel. These waters, while on their way to Vancouver, would help the sockeye salmon run later in the season travel from Vancouver back up into the Chilcotin. The story I was photographing was immense, and I felt it as I worked. I was working amongst the angels.
- It was almost 1pm when I re-joined Rita and Mike at the top where we sat and enjoyed the land we had walked in all morning.
- We were about to have lunch when I remembered seeing on the topographical map a small lake that was close by where we were. A very short hike behind us revealed the hidden treasure. That was where we hiked for lunch!
- From the top I could see more beautiful shapes of colour; a little more dramatic than what we had seen that morning. I chose a route that would pass by them.
- This was certainly my day of expressing the land through form.
- I felt creatively exhausted as I made my way back to camp. It had been an extraordinary day. As exhausted as I was in one way, I was also feeling completely uplifted.
- On the way back we came across a couple of small lakes, perfect for a refreshing dip after an extraordinary day. Rita and I jumped into one while Mike chose the other one around the corner.
- I had just got out when I looked up and saw a young caribou. I grabbed my camera when I saw it take one look at Mike and then it bolted. I guess seeing Mike in the raw was too much for this young gal!! (true story!!)
- Back at camp we had an early supper, for I still wanted to see the basalt columns on Mount Downton. Feeling refreshed and energized, we headed off toward the mountain.
- It wasn’t long before Rita spotted another herd of mountain goats. While two grazed, two dug holes in the earth to create a cool bed. They seemed undisturbed by our presence so I photographed for several minutes before heading off once more.
- There was not a lot of vegetation at this high rocky elevation, but it didn’t stop some flowers from trying. This beautiful buttercup plant appeared to be holding on as the lava earth slowly moved downhill. It guided us directly to the mountain.
- It became more and more apparent that we were being guided to the mountain. Suddenly another goat popped out from behind a huge outcrop and said, “this way, follow me”!!
- We did, and he continued to show us the way. We were headed straight for the yellow lichen covered basalt columns.
- Eventually we were beneath the mountain, looking up at what was probably the core of the Itcha Volcano. It felt powerful. We felt insignificant.
- We climbed closer to the coloured columns.
- At this proximity, they were massive. We felt the power of the mountain. It towered above us. Any piece that broke off would probably end our journey.
- I got as close as I dared. The columns appeared strong and foreboding on the one hand, weak and fragile on the other. It felt like they could all come crumbling down and devour us. I made my images and retreated.
I slept well that night, for I felt really blessed at all that had transpired on our trip, especially in terms of photographing for my book on the volcanism of the area. I couldn’t have asked for more. All hardships led us to the best places; all the good and bad weather provided me with the best light.
The next day was an important one. We were given a specific location to rendezvous with Wanda and Roger, about 10 km over several valleys and ridges to the west, and it was my job to find it with my map and compass. In a way it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but with map and compass, I knew I could do it. If they had made it there themselves, there would be horses and smoke from a campfire. We set off.
It was a long day. When we got to what I felt was the last ridge we looked out over a huge valley and saw no signs of smoke or horses. An uneasiness set in as we scanned the valley. I felt confident we were in the right place, but where were they?
Finally I saw the pack train moving slowly up through the valley. They just hadn’t arrived at their camp yet. We felt relieved as we started a long bushwhack down into the valley. By the time we reached the campsite, Wanda and Roger had a fire going; the familiar black pot was steaming and we were ready for a hot drink (I think a hot toddy was the actual drink!!).
We celebrated and enjoyed a wonderful evening around the fire sharing our trip stories.
The trip ended with a two day hike out, back to Six-Mile Ranch. The good thing was that the horses carried the heavy loads. Rita, Mike and I had only day packs. Still, it was a long hike out.
Exhausted and exhilarated, we reached the ranch 12 days after we had left. As always, friends were there to greet us; to help unpack the horses, and host us with a delicious home cooked meal. Beer was on the ranch!!!