Saturday, September 30, 2006

Pennask Lake Road Trip

Participants Ron Patrick and Ed Pedersen

Where: Merritt area of B.C.

Photos can be viewed on my Flickr site at:

Click on the "Pennask Lake Trip" album.

It's getting late in the year, almost autumn, and I was way down on my quota of back road trips, so I decided to do something about it. I rousted Ron Patrick from his Sunday chores and we headed up to the Merritt area not having a clue of which direction we wanted to go in.That's because we didn't have an agenda for the day. I left the gate wide open as to where we would go, but both Ron and I found it difficult to suggest new territory with new sights to see. So I suggested that we head up to Merritt and upon arrival pull out the map and make some decisions there.

Well, in Merritt looking over the map I came up with a good day's worth of driving, approx. 200 miles of gravel backroads over new ground. The agenda was to go north from Merritt on Hwy 5A to the turn off to Douglas Lake Road, then follow Douglas Lake Road to Pennask Lake Road south to Minnie Lake, and then turn east, still on Pennask Lake Road, headed for....Pennask Lake, of course!
From there we planned on following the road south east crossing Hwy 97C and arrive in Peachland. Then we would drive south to Summerland, and pick up part of the old Kettle Valley Railway route that was now known as the Summerland to Princeton road, driveable in summer only.

From Princeton we would take the Crowsnest Hwy ( Hwy#3) west back through Manning Park to Hope, and then Hwy#1 home to Maple Ridge.
Well, the agenda was well planned ,but, as you know, the best laid plans............

The Merritt-Nicola Valley area is the lower part of a major land formation called the Thompson Plateau. This sub area is known as the Douglas Plateau. The plateaus were created thousands of years ago during successive Ice Ages when glaciers covered most of North America over a mile thick. The shear weight and mass of the glaciers ground down the mountains to mere "flat land'. Where the mountains once stood are now highland plateaus.

Ron and I got a good head start on what was going to be a wonderful Indian Summer day. We were on the road by 7.00 AM and in Merritt by 11.00 AM. That included some dilly dallying as we stopped often for picture opportunities and side road explorations.

At Merritt we opened up the map and after some discussion came up with the idea of criss crossing the Thompson Plateau from west to east and back again. Very doable even in these short days of sunlight.
We headed up from Merritt north on Hwy 5A through the small town of Nicola, (once the heart of the area and the site of a large Native settlement pre-contact times) and then east along the Douglas Lake Road headed for the small Native settlement of Spahomin.

At Spahomin we turned south on Pennask Lake Road aiming for the junction where Pennask Lake Road turns south-east and Minnie LakeRoad turns west. This entire area is rolling semi arid grass lands punctuated by glacial features. End moraines, side moraines, eskers, drumlins, and glacial erratics were all evident through out our drive along the good gravel roads. (HUH, what did he say? You'll have to pull out your old geography books to find out)

As we ambled along the farm roads Ron had to keep reminding me which one of us was driving...good thing he was watching the road. I was too busy trying to identify birds, marvelling at the terraine, and over all sight seeing to watch the road....We had only been on the gravel road for half an hour when Ron, who I made pull out pen and paper, filled up the first page with bird names and locations in which we observed them.So far the tally was:-
-a raft of 200 American Coots on Nicola Lake
-Western Grebes
-15 Female Common Mergansers
-Several Common Loons
-Canada Geese
-Coopers Hawk
-Several Osprey nests

Well at least he was doing something useful !! Once we reached the fork in the roads, we headed south-east on Pennask Lake road and immediately spotted an old irrigation flume 20 feet in the air spanning a marsh area. The flume's destination was the large fields of the Minnie Lake farm, now part of the vast holdings of the Douglas Lake Cattle Company. The flume reached back into the hills for a mile or so, with it's origins in a hollow (that's a "holler" to some of you folks) containing a small lake.

The area was called Flume Basin, and is now part of a Ducks Unlimited waterfowl restoration area. In the lake we saw Barrow Golden Eyes, Lesser Scaups, and European Widgeons having a relaxed swim, unbothered by the tourists that we were.
This part of the land had changed slightly. As we moved to the south east, the land was hillier, with more marshes and ponds. Greener as well, due to the ground retaining the water within the depressions and basins of the land. As well, we saw more bird life. Around one particular turn a large Red Tailed Hawk launched itself off of a low hanging branch on a Ponderosa Pine, and sailed right over the Jeep. Now I know how a meadow vole feels....

The road now was less of a "byway" from place to place, and was more of an old road that meandered to long gone farms. In places we saw areas where trees had been cleared but was devoid of buildings. Or we would see conspicuous clearings that we both said would be a natural setting for a ranch house. The people that haven't forgotten about this area are the cattlemen, as we began to come across more and more free range cows meandering along the road. You could tell that they roamed where ever they wanted, unimpeded by vehicular traffic this far from civilization. Ruts created by their repititive hoof steps ran across the fields and roads in their territory.
More and more birds flitted care free through the air here too; Wrens, Vireos, American Blackbirds, Black Capped Chickadees, and Red Winged Blackbirds took full use of the old Ponderosa Pines for perching, and made their nests in the Trembling Aspens, Larches and Birch stands that dotted the land scape. Occasionally Ruffled Grouse would shoot off the road scurrying for cover as we drove along.

After a while we came to a large clearing that backed on to a tree lined gully with a small creek flowing through it. In the clearing sat an old log cabin that had fallen apart, so naturally we had to stop and walk over to the cabin to take pictures. While we walked across the clearing we could hear the thunder of hooves from the cows as they ran along the gully paths and up past us through the clearing. It occurred to me at this time that I REALLY hoped one of those bovines was not a steer !

At kilometre 39 we came to a sign informing of several small lakes which could be reached down a fork to the right. We knew that these lakes were close to Pennask Lake, but were not on today's planned route, so we chose the left fork to explore instead. We didn't get 100 yards down the road when we began to realize that this wasn't the road well traveled. Grass began to grow between the tracks, and cross ditches had been dug across the road way to limit erosion from water flow. When the brush began to crowd the road, we turned around and decided to try the other fork.

Down the second fork were small marshes and lakes that I had never heard of, but obviously the fishermen in the crowd had. The signage stating the regulations for fishing each lake was a good indication that these bodies of water were ideal for fly fishing.
Oddly, we had not seen another vehicle on the road recently. As a matter of fact, Ron and I struggled to remember when we did see the last car...let's see now..9K down this fork, 39K down the last one, and 10K down the one before that...WHERE WAS EVERYBODY?

Actually, Ron and I began to wonder...where were we? By now we should have reached Pennask Lake, and the road we were following was getting less and less used as we went along. After we past the last lake the road began to climb into the hills and it was evident that we were traversing bioclimates. Gone were the semi arid grass lands, and in their place were thin forests of pines and firs. This was good news of sorts, as it meant that we were heading in the general direction of where we wanted to go.

Hwy 97C, also know as the Coquihalla Connector, runs from Merritt south east to Peachland. I have traveled this route a few times, and I know that this highway traverses a high mountain plateau, part of the Pennask Plateau. This is the worst area during the winter to drive through.
While Hwy #5 from Hope to Merritt is known for it's heavy snow falls, (some years over 100 feet), this area is more like the high prairies. It is extremely dry, windy and cold, and if you drive it during a winter storm, it is more like driving in Northern Alberta. Barren, windswept, and extremely cold...brrrr.

However, today it looked good to me because I knew we needed to be in this general area. Ron and I followed along this road, now a disused logging road,
as it climbed higher still into the hills. Eventually we had to start dodging fallen trees that wanted to poke out the front windshield, and blow downs that begged to puncture the tires. A couple more miles and the road dead ended in an old log dump area. We stopped and pondered our predicament for a few minutes.

We broke out the maps and consulted the guide books for the area. Some where back around kilometre 32 we should have made a left turn on an unassuming, unmarked side road. Some where, I guessed 3 miles to the south of us was Hwy 97C that I wanted to reach...but as they say in the country..."Ya can't get there from here"

So, Ron and I realized that it was now 3.00 pm and we only had approx 2-3 hours of sunshine left, so we made the decision to forego the rest of our planned route, and hightailed it back down the way we came. We drove all the way back to the fork where Minnie Lake and Pennask Lake roads meet, and turned north west along Minnie Lake Road headed for Nicola Lake and Hwy 5A.

As we drove along the now good gravel roadway, we once again played tourists and looked in every salt pond and marsh for whatever birds we could see. There were some waterfowl too far off in the marshes to identify, and other song birds flew past to fast to identify. Once again we saw several types of hawks gliding along the field tops searching for a tidbit to snack on before darkness fell.
We even scared up the odd coyote doing their best to get away as fast as they could across the open field. No doubt the ranchers in the area are less tolerant of them then we were.

Back in Merritt we gassed up, washed the bugs off the windshield, and I made a mental note to take the Jeep to the car wash to power blast the fresh road pies off the under carriage, courtesy of those free range cows.

We decided on one last side trip on the way down Hwy#5 to Hope.
We drove through the small town of Merritt, through it's historic downtown, and picked up Coldwater Road.

Coldwater Road followed the same path as many trails before it. This was the first road through the Coquihalla Canyon from Merritt to Hope, and before that it was the rail bed of the Kettle Valley Railway as it ran from Merritt to Hope. The divisional point for the railway was half way to Hope, at a small town called Brooksmere.

At Brooksmere the railway way went southdown the Coquihalla to Hope, and the other went south east through the Otter Valley to Princeton, before it turned north east and went to Summerland.
THAT was our return route that we had originally planned to take...the Summerland to Princeton back road whichfollowed the KVR route.

But not today...sigh.....But I I was saying...before the railway came, cattle men drove their herds to the Vancouver market along this treacherous route. Many cows were lost through the canyon. And even before the cattlemen, the Natives had used this trade route for centuries, trading local crops and red ochre for Pacific salmon and sea food.

Before long Coldwater Road joined the 4 lane Coquihalla Hwy, and our back roading time was up.
On the way home Ron and I summed up our day as the following;
-we saw some new and pretty scenery
-we saw lots of wild life and birds
-we saw some ranch history
-we saw some history of this province
-we got to be in awe of the forces that shaped our land and overall had a great day on the back roads of BC.

We came away with a smile on our faces, and a new plan of attack for getting to Pennask Lake !!
Next Time !!

Maple Ridge

Hope you made it to the bottom of the report..if you did, hope you enjoyed it. Maybe next time I'll see you on the trails...