The McCabe Creek probe

Lynn and I have, for many years, hiked with friends who are up for almost anything—and who will set out under almost any circumstances because you just never know. That fog might lift, that threatened rain might not materialize, there might be an inversion that raises the valley bottom -25° to something more pleasant.

The view from Harvey Mountain looking down at the junction of the creeks.

Here at the cusp of winter, it’s especially hard to adjust. To stuff the down jacket, the warm mittens and the toque into a day pack that’s already fat enough. To be sure to carry a headlamp because it gets dark so damn early. But good hiking companions won’t quail when you ask them to join you on a little bushwhack, a little probe. Karen Diemert and Jim Pojar took the bait when we told them we wanted to try to find an old cabin built in 1936 by Al Fletcher* and his brother Edison on the banks of Driftwood Creek just below its confluence with what we have now named McCabe Creek.

You won’t find that name on any map, but if you’ve walked along the north side of Harvey Mountain you will have seen it. It is created when a triplet of creeks—one that runs out of two little lakes on the south end of Hyland, one that runs out of Copper Lakes on the McCabe Trail and one that runs down the headwall between the two—join forces to make its way through some wet meadows to join Driftwood Creek below Silverking Basin.

Morgan Hite map showing McCabe Creek’s junction with Driftwood Creek.

Our Gilbert Road neighbour George Loset—George has done more solo exploring of the Babines than almost anyone alive—directed us to drop down to Driftwood Creek where Valhalla Creek crosses the Silverking trail and follow the creek upstream. When he was last there, close to 40 years ago now, he found an old horse track and Fletcher’s cabin, its roof caved in but otherwise intact. He also snowshoed up into the meadows, a route he said the prospectors took in winter to avoid the avalanche chutes crossing the McCabe Trail. That was the route, he said, that Ralph Dieter, Ben Nelson and a policeman took when they packed out the body of Martin Cain, who died on a snowshoe trip into Little Joe where Axel Elmsted was “living a hard-working, solitary life … working in the tunnel alone.”

It seemed like now or never. We could still drive to the summer parking lot, there was just a skiff of snow in the bush and that could all change in a week or two. Plus there was a little window of clear weather.

Karen follows the old horse trail.

Valhalla Creek crosses the Silverking trail just above the four km marker. We were ready to get soaked in the underbrush, but the descent was dry—our boots sank into the frozen moss, the few deadfalls were easy to skirt. Just a few minutes and we were there. We stuck close to the creek until a tangle of downed trees sent us higher where Jim spotted the remnant trough of the trail outlined by the snow. We found a few blazes on the trees, but nothing clear enough to guide us when the trail lost itself in the underbrush.

When the current road was driven into Silverking in 1946, the old trail was likely only used if Fletcher was trapping or perhaps guiding hunters—in 1949, he was given the first guiding license in the Babines and his third client killed the goat that set the Boone and Crockett record and is memorialized near the junction of Highway 16 and Main Street. Now that the mountains are protected, signs of the older uses—the mineral workings, cat trails and sawdust piles—are disappearing back into the bush. As is Fletcher’s old cabin.

We had dropped back down to the creek after losing the trail and there it was, an insignificant heap of logs, the sawn ends still visible, a few lengths of stove pipe and one lamp. A small flat spot near the creek but high enough to survive any big runoff events. Dark though.

One success. The confluence, George had told us, was nearby. Steep banks and more deadfalls sent us up away from the creek. We were getting ready to give up and look for a good lunch spot in the sun dappling the moss when Driftwood Creek made a hard turn north. A beautiful little esker, all green moss, led us back down and sure enough, there was the tributary joining the main flow.

As we stood there, jubilant, two dippers flew down Driftwood Creek and paused, chattering and bouncing at the confluence. The first we’d seen in months.

It was enough. Those alluring meadows were on the other side of a very cold creek and a rocky scramble up into who knows what. We already had a few hours of hiking remaining, first finding our way up to the Silverking trail and then back down to the summer parking lot. Another time perhaps.

 

*Al  Fletcher was our neighbour for several years. He lived on the ranch his parents, Eli and Laura, homesteaded in 1913. The year he built the cabin, he also registered a trapline, one that had been registered in 1926 to Peter Bazil or Wah tah K’eght—and the trapline, which followed Driftwood  Creek up into Silverking, was in his territory—now that of the current Wah tah K’eght, Henry Alfred. That’s another story I hope to chase down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

McCabe Trail

Three routes from Driftwood Road give access to Harvey Mountain: Lyons Creek, Harvey Mountain and the McCabe trails.

I first set foot on the McCabe trail in 1977 or 1978, can’t quite remember which. Joe L’Orsa took a group of us (including Walt Taylor, Mike Morrell and his son Tomas) up the Lyons Creek trail to the lake just above its headwaters where some of us swam. We then dropped down on what is now called the Blix trail until a tiny path emerged out of a wet meadow full of flowers. Mike and his son went right to follow the McCabe trail to its summit above the Little Joe lakes; the rest of us turned left to follow the trail down to Sunny Point.

This was not yet a park and there were no signs signaling trail heads or route distances. But we had Joe who grew up travelling in these mountains with his family. At the hike’s beginning, he stopped just below the Lyons Creek trail entrance to show us where the trail originally began. It used to be called the Gale & Lifton trail and was, he wrote in his unpublished A History of the Babine Mountains Recreation Area, “already considered an old trail by 1921. It may have followed an ancient Indian entry route, possibly into the marmot ground near Ganokwa Basin.”

We passed the old sawmill site, the remnants of which are still visible, and struggled up the hill to the long central stretch where the climb abates for a few kilometres. The trail was often muddy and not always clear. Joe was very patient as we struggled towards treeline. Hiking was still new to me and I suffered from the delusion that if you sweated and struggled up steep inclines swatting mosquitoes, you weren’t having fun.

Once in the alpine, we followed the trail around to its junction with the route leading over Padella Pass and turned left to follow the creek up to the lake we call Number Six Lake (if you look down from Harvey Mountain you can see a six or a nine clearly drawn by the lighter sediments on the lake bottom). The shintangle almost obliterated the trail up the creek, and the route down was equally sketchy. It was hard at the time to believe Joe’s stories of taking horses down there. It’s still hard.

Once on the McCabe trail, we had a pleasant walk out though I don’t remember much of that specific trip. When I think about how many times we’ve walked it since, the years blur together. We often take visitors up to a lookout point where you can see across into Silverking and catch a glimpse of the cabin there. The dramatic drop is stunning and we almost always see goats.

According to Joe’s research, the trail was built in 1919:

The famous McCabe trail was constructed, from the wagon road below Sunny Point, along the backside of Harvey Mountain, to the Copper Lakes area. This trail was built – or caused to be built – by Red McCabe, on a trail grant under the provision of the Mines Development Act.

Red McCabe didn’t get his name from the colour of his hair: he was the president of the local chapter of the old Socialist Party of Canada and prospected with two other party members – Pat McPhee and Jim Carson.

McPhee had been prospecting in the area for at least fifteen years by then. Joe describes a trip taken in 1905:

Provincial Mineralogist W. F. Robertson makes a major trip from Quesnel to Hazelton. From a camp at the Hudson Bay Ranch in Driftwood, he visits the Babine Range, with Pat McPhee as a guide. Apparently they went up what is now the Lyons Creek Trail and visited the … claims on what is now known as Harvey Mountain.

Jim Carson had a camp just above the bridged creek that crosses the trail below its opening into the boggy meadows where the Blix trail takes off.  Joe showed us the remnants of his camp as we walked out. The only evidence now is a wire scar left in a big spruce tree where he pitched his tent. (Carson Basin, a long gentle slope on the north flank of Pyramid Mountain, is also named for him. If you poke around up there, you’ll find lots of old adits.) I’ve been told Axel Elmsted, another longtime Babine Mountains prospector,  used to call the mountain Bolshevik Hill because of the three men’s political affiliations.

After crossing several brushy slide areas, the trail further down traverses a big rock slide that pre-dates its original construction. If you stand on it and look down, you’ll see just below another path crosses the rock – this is the trail that leads down to the spot on Driftwood Creek where the engineers who surveyed the trail (hence it’s pleasant grade) camped. More on that another day.

Tony L’Orsa, Joe’s older brother, still remembers when the McCabe trail was wide enough to be the wagon road instead of the narrow path it is today. There used to be a cabin not far from Sunny Point which was burned down by the forest service, he said. Later exploration tore up the original trail’s beginnings, but it remains one of the most scenic routes into the Babines and, on its lower reaches, provides splendid views across the upper Driftwood watershed.