Chilcotin Canada’s Last Fron­tier

Free­dom Road (High­way 20) is a per­fect snap­shot of Wild West his­tory

Our Canada - - Features - by Cindy Phillips and Gor­don Baron, Daw­son’s Land­ing, B. C.

Cindy Phillips and Gor­don Baron of Daw­son’s Land­ing, B.C., ex­plore the fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of the prov­ince’s fa­mous “Free­dom Road.”

Prospec­tors came to Bri­tish Columbia for the gold, and set­tlers came to the Chilcotin for the land. The First Na­tions Tsil­hqot’in (Chilcotin) people in­habit the land stretch­ing be­tween the Fraser River and the Coast Moun­tains in the in­te­rior of the prov­ince.

Bri­tish Columbia was one of the last fron­tiers to be ex­plored in North Amer­ica. The first Euro­pean ex­plor­ers to visit the Chilcotin were Sir Alexan­der Macken­zie and his voyageurs on the last leg of their his­toric jour­ney cross­ing the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent in 1793. It wasn’t un­til 1829 that the Chilcotin people had reg­u­lar con­tact with Euro­peans, when the Hud­son Bay Com­pany built the Fort Chilcotin fur trad­ing post. Rancher Hugh Bayliff us­ing the wagon road his fore­fa­thers built.

The “Free­dom Road” links the Chilcotin to the Pa­cific Ocean. It starts in the B.C. in­te­rior town of Wil­liams Lake. Head­ing west, the 456- kilo­me­tre high­way crosses the mighty Fraser River and climbs up to the rolling hills of the Chilcotin Plateau, where thou­sands of cat­tle roam the

grass­lands. It ex­tends to the alpine mead­ows of Tweedsmuir Park, then de­scends through the Coast Moun­tains to the vil­lage of Bella Coola. The last, steep sec­tion of high­way ( 18 per cent grades in places) from Anahim Lake to the Bella Coola Val­ley was com­pleted by the lo­cal people in 1953, giv­ing them ac­cess to the in­te­rior vil­lages of Anahim, Nimpo Lake, Tatla Lakes, Red­stone, Alexis Creek, Riske Creek, Hanceville, Wil­liams Lake and be­yond. This was their road to the out­side world.

The gold rush of the 1860s brought thou­sands of gold­seek­ers and ad­ven­tur­ers from around the world to the in­te­rior of Bri­tish Columbia. Set­tlers came from Europe, built homesteads and started ranch­ing to sup­ply beef for the Cari­boo Gold Rush towns of Horse­fly, Ques­nel and Bark­erville, and into the Yukon Ter­ri­tory.

The Chilcotin is known as “cat­tle coun­try.” De­scen­dants of the orig­i­nal pioneers still op­er­ate

their fam­ily ranches, and ev­i­dence of this is vis­i­ble on the Free­dom Road (also known as High­way 20). Work­ing cow­boys and cow­girls ride the range of the Chilcotin Plateau. Ranch­ers use the main road to move their cows on horse­back from the win­ter range­land to their sum­mer mead­ows and back in the fall, just as they did more than a cen­tury ago.

Driv­ing the Free­dom Road in Oc­to­ber, we were mes­mer­ized by the fall colours lin­ing the Chilcotin River. This time of year, ranch­ers are work­ing the fields, putting up hay to feed their cows and horses over the cold win­ter months. The high­way crosses the heart of the Chilcotin, where the wildlife have no bor­ders. As well as see­ing cows and horses on the road, we en­coun­tered deer, bear and moose.

Old homesteads, barns, equip­ment and fences dot the Free­dom Road. Here, com­mu­ni­ties and vil­lages are named after the pioneers and First Na­tions chiefs that set­tled the area. This is a part of the Wild West where deals are still made with a hand­shake, neigh­bours help neigh­bours, and cat­tle drives are a spring and fall rit­ual.

Fam­i­lies and friends have been get­ting to­gether since the first pioneers came to this area in the 1800s. Sur­names such as Gra­ham, Bayliff and Bliss are house­hold names in the Chilcotin. Th­ese fam­i­lies have strong ties to their her­itage, and their le­gends live on.

The old log hospi­tal turned 100 years old in 2014 and is still in op­er­a­tion. The land it sits on was do­nated by Alexis Creek pioneer Alex Gra­ham. Fam­ily rel­a­tive Val Telford man­ages the vol­un­teer visi­tor in­for­ma­tion centre across the high­way from the hospi­tal and has many sto­ries from the early pioneers. The Gra­ham Inn at Tatla Lake is a his­tor­i­cal land­mark and op­er­ates as a restau­rant in the spring, sum­mer and fall sea­sons.

Hugh Peel Lane Bayliff came to Bri­tish Columbia from Eng­land in 1882. His an­ces­tors in­cluded Sir Robert Peel, who twice served as prime min­is­ter of the United King­dom in the 1830s and ’40s.

Hugh Bayliff bought a piece of prop­erty next to the scenic Chilcotin River near Red­stone, and started the Chi­lanko Ranch. Five gen­er­a­tions later, ranch­ers are still rais­ing cat­tle, cutting and bail­ing hay, and mov­ing cows by horse­back on the old wagon roads built by their fore­fa­ther.

Le­gendary 90-year-old work­ing lady rancher Nives Bliss runs the Bliss Ranch. She op­er­ates and ser­vices her trac­tors, builds and fixes fences, and uses a power saw when needed. The his­tory of this fam­ily in the Chilcotin goes back to 1903, when Wil­liam Henry Bliss was hired by Regi­nald Fitz-nigel New­ton to bring the first Ara­bian stal­lion from Eng­land into the ter­ri­tory to raise polo ponies.

The old Bliss homestead and first school in the area are still stand­ing on the prop­erty next to the his­toric wagon road known as the Chilcotin High­way.

Trav­el­ling through the 300 kilo­me­tres of grass­land of the Chilcotin Plateau, you start to vi­su­al­ize some of the hard­ships of the first pioneers and gain re­spect for the fam­i­lies that have en­dured the chang­ing times of the cat­tle busi­ness. This is a land with no bound­aries, where the pi­o­neer­ing spirit lives on and le­gends are born. This is one of the last true fron­tiers where you can live the ad­ven­tures of Canada’s Wild West.

Be­low, from left: Tsil­hqot’in fish­er­man on the Chilko River; the con­flu­ence of the Chilcotin and Chilko Rivers; Nives Bliss on her old David Brown trac­tor.

From top left: Re­tired rancher Val Telford is re­lated to pioneer Alexan­der Gra­ham; St. Luke’s Church in Alexis Creek; morn­ing light in the Chilcotin; the old Chilcotin wagon road runs par­al­lel to the Chilcotin River.

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