There is something inexplicably extraordinary about Wells Grey. A subtle magic can be found in the simplicity and beauty of this place. This magic runs through the grass, through the horses, through the trees and rivers, through the clouds and the fields and the mountains and the light. It’s an energy that can be felt, a peaceful aliveness that cuts through the bitter cold setting in now that fall has arrived.
A long drive awaited us this morning so we hit the road early. It was Don’s first time driving, and while he almost attempted to turn into the left lane several times, a car full of people yelling “stay right! stay right!” averted disaster. The road trip from Whistler to Wells Grey Guest Ranch was amazing. We passed through mountain ranges, small towns and desert, taking in views of towering snow-capped mountains, sheer cliffs, rolling velvet hills, golden shimmering trees, railway tracks and mirror-like lakes. We only made a couple of stops due to the long drive, but Joffre Lake was an absolute highlight. The water was turquoise and still, looking more like a sea of molten gems than water. Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Cat Stephens and Phil Collins saw us through the rest of the journey to the ranch.
Our Jeep, “Sooty”.
We arrived just after 4pm, so the drive took roughly 6 hours. The guest houses at Wells Grey are small basic cabins overlooking a paddock. In our room, we have 3 single beds, a little table, fridge, small bathroom, and – my favourite – a heater. There’s no cell phone signal, and there’s no Wi-fi. It’s actually been great unplugging from the phone and internet for a couple of days. We pulled up chairs on the wide verandah, made some tea, talked, and watch the horses feed in the field while the sun went down. A little cat appeared and decided to hang out with us for a while as well. He particularly liked Justin.
We also met our neighbour. She is staying in the cabin between us and Don and Bron. She’s a tiny little Asian lady here for a moss and lichen foray in the park. Rather excited about the whole thing, she invited us along to a gathering in the community hall to learn more about it. After a wet winter back home, I’ve seen enough green stuff in our wardrobe to last a lifetime. We passed on the moss gathering and went to dinner instead.
A western-themed saloon adjoins the main building at Wells Grey Guest Ranch and this is where we had dinner. It is complete with a giant moose head and a huge buffalo head mounted on the wall, juke box and portraits of native indians. A couple of old guys, one being native indian, cooked a barbecue so we had some local fresh salmon with chips, beans, rice and veggies. It was delicious. We also met the owner of the Ranch, Mario. Mario, despite having an Italian sounding name, is actually an Austrian man who moved to Canada and took over his uncle’s ranch. He had quite a negative attitude in general at first, but slowly warmed up to us over the night. He shocked us with a few random F bombs here and there, but overall seems a genuine guy. After more discussion with him, it turns out that they are at the very tail end of a long tourist season and he’s just a bit over having guests around and is looking forward to his holiday. He regaled us with stories (in an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like accent) of “dumb German tourists” and told us about winter in Wells Grey and how he likes to take snow dogs and sleds out. Bron asked him if tourists get to see his dogs and he said no, the dogs are way too shy, but he told us about their quirky personalities and after expressing his frustrations about how hard it is to keep them in line, dubbed them “complete assholes”. Mario has a strange sense of humour, but he grew on me after a while. He just calls it like it is for him and it was refreshing.
The real cowboys at the bar.
The city slickers at the bar.
A tough challenge lay ahead of us- It was freezing cold, rainy and we were booked in for a tour of Wells Grey Park, including a couple of hours on the water in canoes. All rugged up, Mario packed us into his truck and off we went. Mario was a great tour guide. He knew the park well and his unique sense of humour kept us laughing the whole way. He told us that there are around 20,000 bears in the park, 1 for each kilometre, but despite the high number, it was unlikely that we’d see one today. A bear, along with a few other animals, was on the top of our to-see list, so I was a bit disappointed that we probably wouldn’t see one, and then… not too far down the road, there he was. A nice big black bear strolled nonchalantly up the road toward our car. A few other vehicles had stopped as well, but we got a great view of him. We watched him for about 30 seconds before he disappeared into the forest, but we were super happy we got to watch him for a while.
The canoes were already at Clearwater Lake so we just had to put them in the water, strap on our life jackets and get in. It was 2 to a canoe, so Justin and I went in one, Don and Bron went in another, and Mario flew solo. Cruising across and then down the lake with the wind was great. The wind was on our backs and the small waves helped us along. It was cold, but we were having fun so it didn’t matter. The wind started to pick up however, and by the time we reached the shore area where we were to have lunch, it was about zero degrees. It was absolutely freezing. Mario had packed us lunch so we ate our sandwiches while shivering. My toes had gone completely numb so I wasn’t sure if they were still attached or not. Mario had brought a survival kit with him so he cut up some fire wood and started a fire. It was our saviour. We huddled around the flames and warmed up slightly, but had to start the journey back to the dock, against the wind and against the current. No one particularly wanted to leave the fire but we had to get back some time. The paddle back across the lake was the toughest part as we were completely exposed, but once we reached the shoreline on the other side, it was slightly easier. We paddled our little hearts out and eventually made it back, proud of our efforts, but oh so ready for a hot shower and a drink!
We made a couple of stops on the way back. One was Bailey’s Shoot, an extremely fast moving waterfall where we saw a few salmon attempt to jump up without any luck. We also stopped at Helmcken falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in Canada. It was pretty spectacular.
By now, Mario seemed super comfortable with us and he absolutely made my day by inviting us back to his private home to see his gorgeous Canadian Eskimo dogs. We got to watch them as he fed them and put out fresh water. Some were howling and most of them were running around with excitement. It was so special. They are beautiful creatures and I really wanted to cuddle one, but thought I’d better not. They certainly had a wild streak in them. Mario said he has 19 but we could only see about 12 dogs on the day. I just grinned from ear to ear the whole time we watched them. I’ll never forget that, and I was so grateful that Mario gave us that experience as it’s extremely rare that he lets guests see his precious pups.
As soon as we got back to the ranch it was straight into a hot shower to thaw out. Our usual barbecue dinner with salad awaited us in the saloon. Another group had also shared the ranch with us while we were there- a large tour group of older English men and women. We had spent a small amount of time chatting with a couple of them, and as it turns out, they all desperately wanted to see a bear while they were there. When we told them that we’d seen one and showed them the photos to prove it, they didn’t believe us. The called us ‘the convicts’ and we think they had their pommy noses a little out of joint by our fortunate encounter!
Mario was thankful for our help with loading the canoes and paddles back onto his truck earlier that day so he shouted us a few drinks after dinner. We all had a Jaegermeister shot and chatted around the bar for hours with Mario and his staff, who seem more like family than employees. Mario shared stories of Austria and made jokes. It was an all-round fantastic day and I am so glad we got to spend this time at Wells Grey.