Caution at a moody, dangerous lake

Pitt Meadows explorer Chris Cooper is drawn to Chilko Lake every year, but it has its risks

Azure blue waters of Chilko Lake and Chris Cooper's 10-person canoe named Samboulyan.

Azure blue waters of Chilko Lake and Chris Cooper's 10-person canoe named Samboulyan.

It’s a wild place.

If you go out on to Chilko Lake, which you reach by driving about 115 kilometres down a gravel road, expect the unexpected.

The storms are bad up there, at an elevation of 1,200 metres, in the middle of Ts’il?os Provincial Park, southwest of Williams Lake.

“It’s actually a very moody lake,” says Pitt Meadows explorer Chris Cooper.

The lake, the main jewel of the park, is unpredictable, the storms, “horrendous.”

If you’re on a canoe trip up there and a storm sets in, you can be stranded for days, unable to get on to the lake and return from where you started.

That’s why Cooper always brings his 10-passenger expedition canoe on his annual visits and tours.

It can withstand the waves and wind that rival the ocean’s.

“If you go in a small canoe, you’re risking your life.”

According to B.C. Parks, Chilko Lake is also the largest, natural high-elevation freshwater lake in Canada.

The weather and the wilderness, though, are only one attraction. Cooper makes annual pilgrimages to the lake in the middle of the rugged Coast Mountains to share with his friends the thrill of venturing into grizzly-bear country.

While camping on the lake shore during his last visit in September, Cooper and nine friends, two of which were from Maple Ridge, saw 15 grizzlies ambling along the beach, a stone’s throw away. Often, he’d wake up and see the bears 20 metres away. It’s a humbling experience to be that close, he adds.

The bears are so common, he came up with the title, “Sleeping with the Grizzlies,” for a possible book.

“The salmon are coming up there and they’re down there to greet them as they come up,” he said.

And it’s the bigger grizzlies he’s seeing, not the more common black bears.

“There are black bears in the region, but you seldom see them. The grizzly bears will go after them.”

He explains later that the larger grizzlies will kill the black bears, something which can be heard in the life-and-death battles across the water during the dead of night.

Despite their reputation, Cooper says the grizzlies generally don’t bother large groups of hikers.

The main thing is to give the bears space, he adds.

“Don’t approach them. That’s the last thing you want to do. Stand your ground and they’ll walk their way around you.”

Cooper has spent a lifetime on wilderness tours and generally only packs bear spray or starter pistols for any encounters.

“The only time we have firearms is up in the high arctic with polar bears.”

Cooper said he was “most impressed” with grizzlies, “that they were so respectful of us.”

The bears could have gone after the large kitchen and food supplies that the group was packing, but never did.

Cooper, though, did have one uncomfortably close encounter with a grizzly

Three years ago, he and his group surprised a mom and three cubs on a trail. He told his group to walk back the way they’d come.

But within 10 seconds, the mother grizzly did a false charge.

Cooper didn’t run.

“I stood there, and faced the bear,” he said.

It was a false charge and the bear stopped several metres away.

“It was such a surprise to us. I couldn’t even think of grabbing my bear spray.”

• Ts’il?os Park is co-managed through a Memorandum of Understanding between B.C. Parks and the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations Government.