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Saturday 4 December 1999

The road to hell

We were looking for a little adventure when we headed our Honda for the wilds of British Columbia. We found it on a dirt track to nowhere.

Katharine and Eric Fletcher
The Ottawa Citizen

In July, we loaded our Honda Accord with camping gear, fastening our homemade cedar strip canoe to its roof. We set off, bound for adventure in the backcountry.

Our diary entry for July 12 sums up our road trip from hell: "We had a pretty hair-raising day yesterday ..."

While exploring backroads of British Columbia's remote Chilcotin region, we'd made our way back to paved Highway 20 West to refuel at Hanceville. Clutching our well-worn B.C. road map, we asked the gas station attendant about the dusty road leading south. It appeared to make an interesting, loop back to the highway about 190 kilometres further west.

The lure of remote mountain lakes beckoned ... but could our '92 Accord make it? The helpful cashier called her boyfriend in a reservation along the road, near Chilko Lake. "The road's fine." Elated, we drove off, glad that for once we asked for local advice.

Good gravel roads for the first 80 kilometres lulled us into thinking we were crazy to have worried. Aspen groves clung to undulating rangeland and, after cresting a rise, we gasped at the view of Kooni Lake, a rippling azure ribbon. Life was good, the sunshine warm ... and we got out to breathe deeply of the pungent sage.

Five minutes later we were lost.

After a bend, the gentle road plunged into dense forest, branching into several, unmarked routes. After a couple of wrong turns down narrow, twisting dirt tracks to nowhere, we spied a cluster of new homes. We knocked on the front door of one, asking, "Is this the road to Tatla Lake? Can our Honda get through?" The aboriginal woman peered at our car. "No problem. It gets rough for a bit, then improves."

Well, she was right about one thing: It got rougher.

We crept cautiously over deep, pitted ruts. Each threatened to tear our tires. Around a bend, the ruts became muddy, with mucky holes needing careful investigation prior to easing the car through. Katharine was directing me as I navigated the muck. All of a sudden, I saw her freeze ... I joined her at the side of a puddle. We stared at an immense grizzly-bear footprint, still muddy in the water beside her.

The implications of getting stuck or breaking down suddenly became a lot more serious. We had a mini conference -- in the car -- and decided to continue. After all, surely the road would improve soon. It didn't.

But after creeping through a minor boulder field and some shallow streams, we arrived at Chilko Lake. Reprieve. Our diary reads: "The lake is in a valley of snow-capped mountains -- some over 3,000 metres -- water a cold blue."

Oh how we wanted to stop, pitch camp and take our canoe for a paddle.

But we looked at our watches in alarm: In the two hours since leaving Kooni Lake, we'd only covered 10 kilometres. We pushed on, by now aware that our map was nearly useless.

Suddenly, the road graduated to a good two-lane track. Beyond a gate, a large twin-engine plane rested on a grassed landing strip below a spectacular log lodge.

Our astonishment was interrupted by a plume of dust, announcing a fellow in a jeep. He wasn't very pleased to see us and didn't volunteer much, only mumbling that the closest campground was 10 kilometres away before roaring off.

Then it dawned on us that this was a fly-in fishing lodge where people paid a lot to be flown to a wilderness lake. Having our car drive through would raise awkward questions from his clients. We pressed on to find the campground. Surely now we'd be fine.

Guess again. We became increasingly discouraged as the road narrowed yet again. But discouragement flared to alarm: Ahead of us loomed our greatest obstacle yet -- a swollen creek cascaded down the wooded hillside to our left, obscuring the road.

We just couldn't bear the thought of heading back in the looming, grizzly-filled darkness! So, with boots and socks off and jeans rolled up, we waded across the deluge, water up to our knees as we rolled large rocks away. Finally, Eric returned for the car. I remember the last of the evening sun flashing off the snow only a few hundred metres above us -- the source of this bone-chilling creek.

Neither of us wanted to name our fears ... Would the car flood? Would the frigid water split the engine block? We held our breaths: A splash, a lurch to the right, and the car was through. "Who needs a four-wheeler!" we cried with some glee.

We never did find the campground.

Now using headlights, we found ourselves on ever-improving roads, though still mostly unsigned. Rounding a bend just after 11 p.m., we came to a T intersection ... and pavement!

It was over. A sign indicated 10 kilometres west to Tatla Lake -- or 120 kilometres east to Hanceville where we'd gassed up eight hours earlier. Breathing tired sighs of relief, we turned west, with happy thoughts of a cosy bed at Tatla Lake.

But our ordeal wasn't over. The cheerful motel sign claimed "Open 24 hours. Welcome. Ring bell." But we rang to no avail. After peering into the dimly-lit cafe and hallucinating about a hot cup of tea, we dragged ourselves back to the car.

We'd just agreed to put up our tent at the next gravel pit when the headlights illuminated a sign tacked on a fencepost: "Warning! Good Food Ahead." Two kilometres more, the lights of "1/2 Way Ranch" glowed in the dark.

After knocking, we pushed open the door, wondering what sort of welcome we'd get this close to midnight. Two lean cowboys stretched out in cafe chairs glanced up in surprise. We relaxed as warm smiles rippled across their faces.

"Need help?" A woman's voice called out cheerfully, and a friendly face peered around the kitchen corner.

"We need a bed or a tent spot -- do you have one?"

Both, was her answer. And so it was that we found exactly what we desired: an adventure, a comfy bed, and a warm western welcome.

In the morning, our hosts told us we should never have made it through that seasonal, four-wheel-drive only road.

They recounted how a couple in an RV had become stuck only a few weeks earlier. They'd walked out, and had to spend $1,500 getting a bulldozer to pull them out.

So much for asking the locals for advice