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CASUAL COUNTRY 2022: In search of gravel as gold in Cariboo-Chilcotin

Gravel bikes and gear ratios were key to short bike tour survival
Steffi Fischer rides up the Sheep Creek Hill with a smile on her face. (Ruth Lloyd photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Riding a bicycle up the Sheep Creek Hill made my muscles sore, but perhaps not the muscles you might think.

On a breezy afternoon in May, without extensive preparations or training, my friend Steffi Fischer and I set out for a three-day road and gravel tour west of Williams Lake.

We wanted to get our wheels under us for bigger trips, so a three-day credit card tour was a good spring starting point.

What is a “credit card bicycle tour”? Well, while we would be bikepacking, carrying bags on our bicycles, we would not be carrying the additional load of camping gear. Instead we would enjoy the comfort and simplicity (in terms of work for us) of staying at the Chilcotin Lodge, where they would feed us and provide comfortable accommodations, reducing the weight we had to carry up Sheep Creek Hill and then back up from the Rudy Johnson Bridge on our return to Williams Lake.

So we planned a three-day excursion out to the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) Plateau, where we could challenge our legs to some climbs and enjoy some gravel riding, something we were both fairly new to but eager to do more of.

Steffi had just purchased her first gravel bike this year, unwrapping it from shipping just the week before our trip, and I had been using mine for commuting and road riding, with only the occasional gravel section thrown in. We were keen to get out to ride some dirt roads and get off the beaten track.

Leading up to the trip, we outfitted our bikes with the collection of bags I had on hand, Steffi used a handlebar bag and a seat bag along with two cages I had which attached to her front forks. I rode with a rear rack, which I could put two panniers on -bags which are designed to carry a load on a bike and attach to the rack - which I also supplemented with two small bags near my seat. I also had a small camel-back which attached around my waist at my back, called a hip pack, which I used to carry water and a couple of snack bars.

Due to it being a “credit card tour” we only had to bring snacks, water, toiletries, raincoats, and clothes and footwear for off the bikes, leaving us with relatively light loads for what would be Steffi’s maiden voyage on her new bike and my first multi-day tour since 2020.

On the Friday, we left at noon, meeting up at the Williams Lake Farmer’s Market for some delicious lunch care of Fabiola’s Mexican Food and while I worried over the wind and the possibility of rain, we pointed our bikes west.

The climb up out of town is a gradual one, and we were getting into our groove before we descended towards the Sheep Creek Bridge, with views which never disappoint, no matter how many times you see it.

Surprisingly, dropping down from near Hodgson Road, the head wind was so strong we could continue to pedal, despite the steep downhill grade, and I stopped to try and grab a couple of photos along the way.

We crossed the bridge with big grins on our faces, and as we began the climb out and away from the Fraser River, we were euphoric.

“I love everything about this day!” exclaimed Steffi at one point, and I was laughing and smiling away, overjoyed the weather had gone our way. We were happy to find we were sheltered from the wind on the west side and with sunshine and moderate temperatures ideal for exertion, we began to pedal our lightly loaded bikes up the hill.

Anyone who has been out that way, knows the road up from the Sheep Creek Bridge heading west is a fairly steep grade and a long hill, but despite having been on the road what seems like a million times myself by vehicle, it still felt far longer than I remembered. When we hit the dog leg corner with the pull out, I was not worn out yet, but the road climbs past there for quite some time, and the fun factor decreased, given the views disappear and it just grinds up and up.

We were definitely happy to reach the top, where it flattens off and is an enjoyable rolling ride for the final section to the Chilcotin Lodge. We happily made a stop to take photos at the sign welcoming people to the Chilcotin, along Becher’s Prairie, a landmark we had been looking forward to as we neared the top.

In total, we rode 48.7 km and climbed 1,013 m in elevation over three hours and 13 minutes.

Steffi’s best quote of the day was probably “I feel like an old woman” despite only being in her twenties, and we were both really happy to roll into the picturesque setting of the Chilcotin Lodge, where we were greeted warmly by our hosts and we sat down overlooking the view of the grasslands with cold and refreshing drinks in our hands.

My legs could feel the ride, but surprisingly, my face muscles were just as sore, having laughed and grinned hard for much of the three hour ride.

With the cool evening air on the high plateau, we only lasted for one cold drink before moving inside to where our hosts had started a cosy fire in the lounge where we waited for dinner. I highly recommend the Maple Whiskey Sour as a cocktail treat if you like bourbon.

We were also given a tour of the historic lodge, a building which has seen many changes over the years but still maintains the original 1940s character and features a ton of authentic old-fashioned items, like a pay phone -because there really is no cell service, something those of us from the area take for granted but which could catch newcomers by surprise.

I almost wanted to make a call on it just for the sake of nostalgia, but instead Steffi and I played a game of pool on the restored slate pool table. We finished the night off with a movie in the mini-home theatre we had to ourselves. We chose the 1991 Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers from the extensive selection of western-themed DVDs, which seemed appropriate for our greenhorn gravel dreams. It was a fantastic first day.

On day two we woke up to an amazing breakfast of homemade scones, granola and Greek yogurt with fresh fruit to get us rolling and then had packed lunches to put in our bags for the day’s ride.

Despite ambitious plans, the conditions and our lack of experience truly collided on day two with both our bodies and our egos taking a beating.

We planned to ride out along the Farewell Canyon Road to the overlook point where it is possible to turn onto the junction track, a seasonal 4x4 route closed for some of the year to protect critical sheep habitat, but open for part of the year. While we knew it would be a rough road, it isn’t a really long trip out there and back to the lodge.

Little did we know, the Farwell Canyon Road had just been graded, likely even the day before, and was similar to riding on marbles. Of course, those who ride gravel know we should have immediately deflated our tires. We knew this, but in our greenhorn state of excitement, forgot to do it until later in the day, so we suffered horribly trying to ride the challenging gravel conditions, facing down free-ranging cattle defending young calves along the way, were surprised by a herd of pigs free-ranging along the road and basically getting beat up on what should have been an easy day. We gave up before we even made it all the way to the river junction which was our planned turnaround point, turned off by a lot of short, steep up and downs we had to push up or walk down along the way and some uncertainty around our route.

Read more: 1,000 km route opens northern Vancouver Island to bikepackers

In the end, we were sunburned, battle-scarred and felt like we had ridden 100 km instead of the only 54 km we did with 990 metres of climbing over five hours. It was slow, torturous and poor Steffi had to ice her sunburn when we got back and was developing a sore knee, something which concerned us for the next day’s return to Williams Lake.

We ticked off a long list of learnings from the experience: adjust tire pressure to conditions, research and map your route well, and wear sunscreen. I would put that one in all caps, but I don’t want to yell at you. Let’s just say, we paid for our mistakes in pain.

Luckily for us, we were returning to the super-comfortable accommodation of the Chilcotin Lodge, and we had the luxuries of ice for sore knees and burns, shower facilities for the dust and sweat and an incredible multi-course menu offered for a special event dinner that night.

To our delight, we were served an amazing steak dinner, with fresh seasonal asparagus and even chocolate mousse for dessert.

We chose our second western movie of the trip, and only one of us managed to make it through Pancho Villa, a 2003 Antonio Banderas vehicle well worth a watch.

It was a restless night, trying to sleep despite the heat, our sunburns and perhaps a touch of overeating, so we woke up a bit slow and sore on the final day.

We rode to the Meldrum Creek Road in cooler temperatures, enjoying the rolling terrain but excited to get off Highway 20 and onto some more solid gravel.

Meldrum Creek is a lovely ride, through rugged plateau with glacial erratics deposited on the grasslands by retreating ice sheets creating scenic landscaping of the very best kind -au naturale.

It takes you down through to lush, green bench lands a long the mighty Fraser River. Until the Moon Ranch, the gravel was dreamy -smooth and hard-packed. A wedding was taking place on the ranch, a white tent with beautiful lanterns strung all throughout. We saw a bit more traffic than would normally be expected, maybe half a dozen, and we heard a few gunshots in the distance, probably due to the spring black bear season which was open at the time.

The rich grassland and blooming trees were stark contrast to the overgrazed plateau we had ridden through that morning.

Riding was hard due to our lack of sleep and while I felt fresh until the Moon Ranch, the rougher gravel we encountered after this point and short, steep climbing sections, soon took the wind out of my sails. The temperature also climbed and then we had an exciting, steep descent to the Rudy Johnson Bridge, where we enjoyed a break by the river on the sandy beach.

We snacked and I cooled my feet in the river before tackling the climb up towards town.

We took the climb in stages, due to our fatigue and the heat, stopping a couple of times to seek out patches of shade where we could.

Steffi was in some knee pain as we completed the gravel and the rest of the climb was a struggle for her, despite the pavement but she toughed it out. Determined to make it home under my own power, when we reached Steffi’s house, I turned down a ride for the final few kilometres, and managed to make it home by bike, meandering through town and stopping to chat with people I knew along the way. It was a slow and relaxing finish to what was a tough but beautiful bike trip.

I finished the day with 85.7 km of riding, 855 metres of climbing over five hours and 27 minutes.

We didn’t win any races, but as we all know, the tortoise come out on top in the end.

Read more: Bicycle tourist visits Williams Lake en route back to Quebec with his dog

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ABOVE: The author, from left, and Steffi Fischer pose for a photo at the sign marking the entrance to the Chilcotin.(Ruth Lloyd - Casual Country 2022)
Steffi Fischer enjoys being on the flat again as she rides on the Chilcotin Plateau, after climbing the Sheep Creek Hill. (Ruth Lloyd photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
ABOVE: Inside the historic Chilcotin Lodge is a trip through time where warm fires burn and books full of Chilcotin stories sit ready. (Ruth Lloyd photo - Casual Country 2022)
Steffi Fischer gamely rides the rough track towards the junction of the Chilcotin and Fraser Rivers. (Ruth Lloyd - Casual Country 2022)
Steffi Fischer disappears into the distance on the rough track towards the junction of the Chilcotin and Fraser Rivers. (Ruth Lloyd - Casual Country 2022)
A parks cabin sits unused in the Junction Sheep Range Provincial Park. (Ruth Lloyd - Casual Country 2022)
Steffi Fischer lifts her bike in victory after riding over freshly graded gravel roads out towards Farwell Canyon and back. (Ruth Lloyd - Casual Country 2022)
Steffi Fischer rides along Meldrum Creek towards the Rudy Johnson Bridge. (Ruth Lloyd - Casual Country 2022)
Steffi Fischer descends to the Rudy Johnson Bridge along the West Fraser Road. (Ruth Lloyd - Casual Country 2022)
ABOVE: Steffi Fischer crosses the Rudy Johnson Bridge over the Fraser River, heading east towards Williams Lake. (Ruth Lloyd - Casual Country 2022)
Steffi Fischer makes her way up the hill from the Rudy Johnson Bridge, on the Soda Creek Road overlooking the Fraser River. (Ruth Lloyd photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Ruth Lloyd

About the Author: Ruth Lloyd

After moving back to Williams Lake, where I was born and graduated from school, I joined the amazing team at the Williams Lake Tribune in 2021.
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