23-Aug-2002 -- The first visit on a trip through the Rocky mountains to the Peace River. All three visits were connected to the energy industries, firstly to Hudson’s Hope: Coal and hydroelectricity.
Hudson’s Hope is the last settlement on the Peace River before the vast W.A.C. Bennett dam and Williston Lake. It’s the oldest settlement in mainland BC, a trapping post dating back to around 1809, and today is an attractive small town, somewhat shrunken from the peak of its population in the 1960’s when the dams were being built. Once connected to the outside world by river steamers, it is now on the road and an attractive stop off for folk heading for the Alaska Highway.
The area is a peculiarity , being an agricultural plain, east of the Rockies and yet in British Columbia. This peculiarity dates back to the fixing of the border before the area was explored. The Alberta (then property of the Hudsons Bay Company) boundary was defined as the crest of the Rocky Mountains, as far as longitude 120 W and then along that line of longitude. The hill at the point of deviation, Intersection Mountain, just south of 54N 120W would be a good place for a Special Visit.
The Peace River was a strange far away land as far as BC was concerned, all communications were through Alberta, the place is on Alberta Time ,at least in Winter. The first roads and railways to the rest of BC were not completed until after 1950, and it was this Pine Pass road that I used to travel to the area. Another strange feature is that the Peace River breaches the Rocky Mountains, and has a huge watershed, west of the mountains, a fact exploited by the hydro electricity industry.
Amazingly given the huge area of forest and lake in the area, the confluence is close to a road and the town, and proved to be an easy if not always straightforward acquisition. Its an interesting area, the skirts of the Rocky Mountains and immense wilderness on one side, and to the east the grain lands of the Peace River basin.
The Peace runs through a canyon from the W.A.C. Bennett dam down to a further river run hydro dam and suspension bridge near the confluence. The surrounding land is a plateau with steep bluffs running down to the river. There were two approaches, a long one from the dam road which is flat, and the shorter way, from the river that involved a stiff climb from the river to the plateau. I, probably unwisely, chose this option and parked near the hydro powerstation of the Peace Canyon Dam.
The route was fine at first, following a powerline clearcut through swampy ground to the base of the bluffs. This was a mistake as I later found a parallel track avoiding some evil bushwhacking. Unfortunately I went the hard way, got so far up before realising that I had somehow lost my camera. Fortunately I was able to find it again soon. All the time I was making a merry noise so as to let the bears know I was about. There were no mosqitos.
The south facing steep slopes are sunbaked and often too dry for trees, so a series of meadows became a useful tool in making upward progress. Trails came and went, but always ended in dead ends or plunged down hill away from the target area. With 400 metres to go I plunged into the aspen, side hilled for a while before realising that the point was on the top of the plateau after all. A map would have helped, but as the topos are quads based on latitude and longitude you need 4 maps per confluence, a big expense. You can imagine my frustration when at 200m to go I happened upon a cut line aiming straight at the confluence. This would help in getting out again.
The point was near a clearing on the edge of the scarp. Sunlight highlighted attractive yellow undergrowth amongst the slender aspens. A great feeling of achievement, first hit on a new continent, and so different to the open boglands of Scotland. The woods prevented a better fix than 28m and I did not bother dancing. Now to get back.
The cut line eventually declined the plunge back to the Peace, so some sidehilling through the meadows was required to pick up my original game trails, from here a track unseen on the ascent soon led me back to the powerlines and the car. Nice and easy, no bear sign and a beautiful forest.
This area is however heavily industrialised, the sedimentary basin, east of the big mountain ranges is rich in hydrocarbons, huge coal deposits are still here and were mined near the confluence. There is gas ,oil and gold here too. Sedimentary rocks here are also famed for dinosaur footprints. The most obvious source of energy is the river itself. A plan was made for three dams along its length. Two were built, the middle one, at the confluence to extract energy from the rapids in the canyon. One dam was never built, and would have flooded the river between Fort St John and Hudson’s Hope, and finally the big one, the W.A.C. Bennett dam was built, 200m high, 2km across and impounding the river through the Peace River Pass and into the Rocky Mountain trench on the western side. This is Williston Lake, and it will feature in somebody’s future visits, visits that will be epic expeditions. Several confluences lie on its shores and one upon the lake itself. It is sobering to see this sheet of water lying across the spine of such a great mountain range and impossible to imagine the vastness of the lake when crossing the dam. Power from here, 2.7 million kilowatts, is exported southwards as far as California.
Finally a word from the first recorded vistors to this spot.
The Peace River was the route taken by Alexander Mackenzie's team in their crossing to Bella Coola in 1793. The first Europeans to cross the Rockies and the Continent. He even mentions this spot in his journal. Scorning an obvious portage trail we find him struggling up the river, which passes only 1km from the confluence.
"It now became necessary to make a traverse, where the water was so rapid that some of the people stripped themselves to their shirts so that they may be better prepared for swimming, in case any accident happened to the canoe, which they seriously apprehended; but we succeded in our attempt without any other inconvenience except that of taking in water. We now came to a cascade, when it was thought necessary to take our part of the lading. At noon we stopped to take an altitude, opposite a small river that flowed in from the left: while I was thus engaged, the men went on shore to fasten the canoe, but the current was not very strong , they had been negligent in performing this office; it proved, however, sufficiently powerful to sheer her off, and had it not happened that one of the men, from absolute fatigue had remained and held the end of the line, we would have been deprived of every means of prosecuting our voyage, as well as of present subsistance. But not withstanding the state of my mind on such an alarming circumstance, and an intervening cloud that interupted me, the altitude which I took has been since proved to be tolerably correct and gave 56 North latitude. Our last course was South-South-West two miles and a quarter."