Sunday, November 7, 2010

Squaw Valley - published BC Outdoors Nov/Dec2010

Squaw Valley/Silver Hills Loop
A Breathe of Fresh Air High Above the Shuswap River

Story by Trevor Shpeley
Photos by Travis Shpeley

I was pretty sure what I was looking at was a bear. It was cinnamon brown, it was big, round and hairy and it seemed to only have one ear. I gave it a second look and with a subtle shift in perception I realized I was looking at the back end of a bear while the front end was totally engrossed in ripping apart a rotten cedar log that was lying on the ground just off the Silver Hills Forest Service Road.

I stopped the truck to get a good look and after a quick stand up survey from the hungry bruin it was obvious that the bear ranked me only slightly above a Hamster in terms of the potential threat and danger I represented and with a contemptuous snort the unconcerned bear went back to his grubs or whatever tasty bug was on the menu that day. After watching him for quite awhile, I continued my drive around the wildlife-rich Squaw Valley/Silver Hills FSR loop confident that the bear was not the last forest creature I would be observing that day.

At just 50 kilometres long, the Squaw Valley/Silver Hills route is the perfect length for a day trip to escape the stale air and sullen heat of the Provincial campground in the valley below and enjoy a few hours of fresh cool breeze, animal viewing and maybe a little fishing or canoeing. For those who would like to stay awhile there are some limited opportunities for rustic overnight camping on some of the waters discussed here but it would be a bit of a stretch to call this a major camping destination due to the sometimes difficult access and the lack of full facilities at most of the small recreation sites.

It would also be a little optimistic to treat the lakes in this area as serious fishing destinations. That's not to say the fish aren't willing or that they aren't a joy to catch, especially the colourful little Brook Trout in Kathy Lake, it's just that the short growing season and limited nutrients in these waters tend toward adult fish being somewhat smaller though no less feisty than their cousins in the lower level, more fertile lakes.

If you are planning to fish, all the usual suspects apply. Leeches, Balanced Woolly Buggers, Mayfly Nymphs, Chironomids, Bloodworms and Sedge patterns all work well. The hatches are all delayed due to altitude and there are still plenty of sedges fluttering around in mid August.

Starting from Mabel Lake Road, ten kilometres North of the bridge across the Shuswap and six kilometres South of Mabel lake provincial park, the Squaw Valley road heads East into the forest from a small bridge across Mabel Lake Road beside a large sign for the Silver Hills Lifestyles resort. Old and yet still functioning iron irrigation pipes leading from a small water control dam are visible from the road as you climb through the Birch and Pine trees that line the creek tumbling down to it's rendezvous with the Shuswap River in the farmland below.

Before long the narrow creek valley opens up onto the working lands of the Squaw Valley ranch. Open hay fields and fenced pasture have been carved from the rolling hills and a large first nations inspired carving announces your entry to the ranch proper. People and animals live and work on both sides of the road so please watch your speed and be alert to unexpected company on the road you are sharing with these permanent residents.

Shortly after you leave the ranch you cross the parking area of the Lumby/Mabel Lake Snowmobile Club and face a choice of roads to your left and right. For the purposes of this article you want to take the road that climbs off to your right, the road identified on maps as the Silver Hills FSR but somewhat confusedly signed as the “Ireland Creek FSR on the road itself. Disregard the disagreement between the map books and the roadside sign and begin the long climb up the switchbacks from the valley bottom to the 4300 foot top of the ridge-line that separates the Mabel Lake valley to the West from the Sugar Lake basin in the East. The climb will be fine for any vehicle with reasonable clearance but a moment or two of inattention could result in a long lonely walk back down the mountain to the nearest phone.

Wildflowers carpet the road as you climb out of the valley and the Pine, Birch and Aspen of the lowlands give over to the towering Hemlock and Cedars of the ridge top. The forest floor goes from hard and dry to soft and mossy and small burbling streams cross under the road at frequent intervals.

Eventually you will reach the top of the ridge and it is possible to look behind you into Mabel lake and the lower Shuswap river while in front of you, Sugar Lake and the Upper Shuswap river valley can be seen in the distance. Picture yourself in the open space near the bottom of a capital “U” with the Shuswap river being the “U”. Spectacular panoramic pictures are possible but to get a good one you would want to time your visit to occur sometime outside of the forest fire season or the smoke in the valleys will make great pictures impossible.

Approximately 20 kilometres from the beginning of the road an unmarked side road heads off to your left and up the hill to Sigalet and Haggkvist lakes. The road to this point has been bumpy but fully passable by any vehicle with reasonable clearance. The road to Sigalet is fine with any high clearance two wheel drive but if you should decide to visit Haggkvist Lake by means of the short access road that splits off to the right about a kilometre up the Sigalet Lake road, you must, and I can't emphasize the word “must” enough, have a very competent four wheel drive vehicle. The road is very rough, very tight and involves a rock climb which would quickly tear the drive-train out of any vehicle not up to the task of navigating it. There are no campsites at the lake, no real boat launch and precious little room to turn around which should be OK because you aren't getting a trailer in there anyway.

For most people Haggkvist is best left as a walk-in lake however if you are observant and pay careful attention to clues on the roadside and the screen of your GPS, you may just find a hidden trail or two leading off the Sigalet Lake road that will save the adventurous float tuber a lot of walking and wear and tear on the truck.

Sigalet lake is a gorgeous little lake first thing in the morning when the fog is thick off the mirror smooth water and crisp window panes of ice trace the edge of the crude boat launch as is common for much of the short season. There are two or three small camp spots at this tiny rec site and trailering in a cartopper is no problem. The water is very clear and a depth finder is useful for mapping out the detailed bottom structure along the shoreline. Anchoring and casting works very well as does trolling a small leach or Mayfly nymph.

Back down on the main FSR assuming you haven't left your vehicle on the Haggkvist lake road as a permanent monument to your inability to heed a strongly worded warning, the road meanders about about the top of the ridge, passing through prime bear and Moose territory before beginning it's gentle drop back down the mountainside. Free ranging cattle are everywhere and as likely to be in the middle of the road as off it. When you come to them just drive up to them very slowly, they will eventually move out of the way once they realize you aren't the truck with the hay.

As in any backroad adventure, a GPS and a backroads mapbook will not only ease your navigation tasks, they will raise the level of your enjoyment, exposing you to sights and features you would drive right past without even being aware of them otherwise. Such is the case here for as you begin to head back down the hill you will spy on your screen a medium sized lake sliding by just to your left with no visible indications of it's existence. It will seem like you are driving away from the lake but not to worry, you will come back to it.

Ignore the tempting old grown-over fire road you come across that seems to lead straight to the lake and continue on until you come to another well travelled FSR that turns back almost 180 degrees to the road you are on, this is the Sugar/Holstien FSR.. Take that road for a half a kilometre or so and you will find a rough road heading up the hill to your left and your mapbook and GPS will confirm that this is the road that goes to Holstien lake. While not as severe as the road to Haggkvist, this is still not a road to be attempted in your family car especially one you might have some sort of attachment to. High clearance 2WD is good, 4x4 would be better especially if the road is wet.

Holstien lake is a relatively small piece of water, bordered in rich green grasses and open to the sky on all sides. There are a couple of decent unimproved camp sites at the end of the short access road but no other facilities. Holstien Lake would be a great place to just drift in a canoe with nothing but the sound of the wind and the occasional moose grazing the marshy shoreline for company. There are fish in this seldom visited water and there are even rumours of large fish being spotted but you couldn't prove it by me from the several trips I have made here. The smaller fish are tons of fun and there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Once you get back to the main road it's only about another kilometre to Kathy Lake. Kathy has Brook Trout and Rainbows and they both come readily to the fly. The water is crystal clear and extensive mats of weeds are visible along the bottom making cruising fish tougher to spot but also pretty much guaranteeing they will be there eventually. The Brook trout in the fall move up into the shallower water and even the smallest fish look like a Van Gogh painting when you get them into your net.

The Campground at Kathy Lake is the largest in the area with four or five spots. There are hiking trails in the bushes around the lake and quad trails in the vicinity.

The rest of the road down to where it joins Sigalet Road on the valley bottom is gentle switchbacks with the occasional eye opener of a drop to the creek bed to keep you on your toes. A picture perfect view of the surrounding farmland and the hills above Mabel lake presents itself shortly after you hit pavement and would make a great postcard to show your friends back in the dreary city. Sigalet Road deposits you back on Mabel Lake Road, two kilometres South of your starting point.

Quick side trips in the immediate area

Mabel Lake Provincial Park
Mabel Lake provincial Park sits at the South end of Mabel Lake and is a very popular spot for the trailer and motorhome set. 81 Vehicle sites, good boat launching, swimming and playgrounds combine to lure thousands of visitors every summer, especially when the Spring Salmon move into the lake in July and August. Even when the Salmon are absent however Mabel is known for good fishing for large Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden, Lake Trout, Whitefish and Kokanee. Trolling is most popular but try fly fishing with fry patterns around the creek mouths in early spring.

As always, check the fresh water fishing regulations before you fish any unfamiliar waters and if you haven't called ahead, watch for roadside signs in the village of Lumby advising as to the availability of campsites in this popular park. As of this writing single campsite reservations are not possible.

Cascade Falls
These approachable and very scenic waterfalls are reached by foot up a short, 500 foot trail that leads from the centre of a sharp U-shaped corner approximately 15K from Mabel Lake Provincial Park. Look for an unmarked two car parking area in the middle of the corner. The trail is not really suitable for those with walking difficulties but anybody else with moderate fitness should be fine. Take the trail to the left, the right hand trail leads to an outhouse and small picnic facilities.

The falls themselves spread a thin veil of water over a mossy rock face approximately 25 meters high into a shallow pool. For the classic waterfall picture, put your camera on a tripod and set your shutter to the slowest speed it will go. Digital cameras allow you to experiment a little until you get one you are happy with. Late spring is the best time to view Cascade Falls. Don't leave your camera in the spray too long!

Mystic Beach Trail
About two Kilometres North of Cascade falls, you will see a tree on the left completely covered in footwear of all descriptions. This is the head of the Mystic Beach trail. The short path down to the water is full of surprises including a small log cabin housing Goldilocks and the Three Bears, strange sculptures made of bones and moss, fantasy castles, bat houses, spider webs, old dolls in various degrees of decrepitude, and tiny wooden furniture. Almost everything else that can be imagined and some that can't will be seen here. There is even an “Inukshuk garden” along the shoreline at the end of the trail. This trail is not a commercial venture nor is it commercially slick but it is moody and interesting and it is lovingly maintained by those that add to it. If you visit, take nothing and damage nothing, a lot of people, many of them children have worked hard to make this enchanting little trail what it is.

Shuswap Falls, Wilsey Dam
The Wilsey Dam was originally constructed in 1929 by the West Canadian Hydro Electric Corporation. The dam was built as a “run of the river” type project at the site of the 21 meter Shuswap Falls with a spillway constructed just to the North of the falls. Later a reservoir was constructed by damming the outlet of Sugar Lake which added another 5.2 MW of generating capacity to the Wilsey site. The Wilsey Dam supplied most of the power for the North Okanagan for 22 years until 1951 and is still in operation today.

Today the Shuswap falls recreation site offers a large picnic area, 40 car parking, a hiking and canoe portage trail, viewing platforms and restroom facilities. Visit the Wilsey Dam in late spring for the most dramatic photos of the spillway in full flow directly beneath the raised viewing platform. The river is fenced off but dogs will have no trouble getting through to the river if they have a mind to and if they fall into the strong current, there would be little possibility of a rescue so please keep your pets on a leash in this scenic historic park.

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