Some photos provided by Steve Dillen
With the cancellation of the Island Rock Crawl, 2001 was the first time in 6 years that I spent the Victoria Day long weekend on the mainland. I was tempted to attend the Quesnel Canyon Crawl but it was a 6-8 hour drive and my Jeep was still fresh from recent changes; I didn't want to stray too far from home in case some problems popped up.
Those were the circumstances that led to my planning another trip to Nickel Plate Mtn. As you may have read in my earlier trip reports, Nickel Plate Mtn was once the site of a booming gold mining community. Although the original mining companies have long since closed down, they have left behind a legacy of tunnels, roads, and structures, ready to be explored by anyone who has the time and inclination. I had the time, I had the inclination, and after sending off a few emails, I had the participants. A couple of BC4x4 list members, Gord Land and Steve Dillen (and his daughter, Mackenzie) immediately agreed to come along, as did my brother (Bill), sister-in-law (Carolyn), their daughter (Reah), and Carolyn's friends, Connie, Mo, and Lona. The dog-people contingent consisted of Steve's Rottweiller, Sam; and Bill and Carolyn's passenger, Luna, a Belgian Malinois. This would be a laid-back trip where we would spend our time exploring and enjoying the scenery, rather than focusing our attention on trail obstacles. For that reason, my wife, Sue, also came along. I assured her that it wouldn't be the kind of trip where a dozen rock monkeys spend half an hour for each vehicle, watching it clamber over a 20-foot obstacle.
Even though this trip was not planned as a fourwheeling excursion, it started in typical rock monkey fashion: Carolyn's Cherokee's water pump started making its death rattle two nights before we were to depart. So, after getting the parts the next day, Bill and I spent our last evening swapping in a new pump. This was our first camping trip since the fall and it was painfully evidenced on the day we left, by the amount of money we spent at Canadian Tire. Rusted BBQ grills, missing frying pans, lantern mantles that looked moth-eaten, and empty naphtha cans all required replacement. And so, after re-fitting our camping kits, we convoyed east from Vancouver to Hedley. The mountainous Hope-Princeton section of Hwy 3 revealed that Project YJ had a cooling problem that I hadn't noticed before. Fortunately, I was able to keep the temperature under control by reducing my speed.
Upon arriving in Hedley, we stopped at the museum to have a look at the maps and artifacts. The curator came out to welcome us and gave us a talk about the Nickel Plate and Mascot mines' history. Inside the museum, Bill gave his own talk, explaining to us in great detail how gold was extracted from the ore. The young girl who worked inside was noticeably impressed and somewhat taken aback. By way of explanation, Bill mentioned that he used to work as a geologist up north, which was how he knew more about some of the items than she did. But if you knew Bill, you'd know that he probably already knew that before he became a geologist. There's a good reason why his wife calls him, "Encyclopedia Brown."
Now that everyone had some background information on the area's history, proceeded to the trail head which was less than five minutes up the highway. Thirty minutes later, after negotiating a series of dusty switchbacks, we were at the turn-off to the site I had chosen for our camp . Our vehicles consisted of my Jeep (Project YJ), Gord's lifted Cherokee, Carolyn's stock Cherokee, Mo's stock Mazda 4x4, Steve's stock Ranger, and Connie's Ford Tempo. Yes, that's right, a Tempo. Like I said, we weren't here for the fourwheeling. Connie was able to drive to within 100m of the camp which was close enough. Camp was a wide shelf on the side of the mountain, about 100 m from the French Mine and bestowed with enough trees to provide a bit of a wind break.
The altitude wasn't particularly high but it was noticeably cooler than down at the highway. Because our camp was on the side of the mountain, there was also a fairly strong wind that came and went (and always came back, much to our disappointment). While everyone set about pitching tents, I helped Gord skid and buck some downed trees to provide the weekend's firewood. Before long, camp was set up and we were settled in with a toasty warm fire. Dinner consisted of some delicious steaks that I dropped in the fire (sadly, this is standard operating procedure for me) and baked potatoes from Carolyn. Gord contributed a huge container of potato salad he made and intended to eat for the rest of the weekend. After dinner (the steaks were marvelous, by the way) we went for a short spelunk (this is amazing, the spellchecker didn't mark that word!) in one of the French Mine's tunnels. The requisite photos were snapped and people who felt nervous in claustrophobic areas were readily identified. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying the warmth of the fire and making sure the dogs didn't get into the food.
The next morning, we awoke to an almost perfectly clear sky. It would be warm but hopefully not hot. After breakfast some of us went for another look in the French Mines before getting ready for the day's adventures. Of course, the word, "adventure" can mean many things. For Gord, Steve & Mackenzie, Bill, Connie and myself, it meant exploring the mountain for old trails and mines. For Sue, Carolyn & Reah, Mo and Lona, it meant driving to Penticton for shopping.
We drove back to the main mountain road and headed upwards. We were going to continue the exploration of a trail we found on our last visit. One thing I had noticed from previous trips is that there was an abundance of wildlife in this area. This was somewhat surprising to me because of the presence of the huge Homestake open pit mine (which had been mothballed a few years ago) . On this morning, we saw eagles, deer, grouse, and sunbathing marmots & groundhogs. The first trail we tried was not far from the Homestake property. Intermittent patches of snow soon gave way to a foot-deep blanket of crusty, coarse snow. It was the typical spring thaw variety that was a major pain to drive through. After slogging through this for a while, we conceded defeat. Although we could have gone farther, there were some long, steep hills ahead of us that would have been impossible to traverse. Instead, we decided to look for some mine shafts whose locations had been given to me last year.
The turn-off to these shafts was half-way along a winding spur road that hugged the side of a steep mountainside. It dead-ended with a view of the old Mascot Mine buildings. Since a trip to Nickel Plate Mtn wouldn't be complete without a view of the mine, we decided to drive to the end of the road for a peek. Well, we got a peek of more than just the mine. Coming around the second to the last bend we saw, as expected, a dramatic view to our left of the Mascot Mine buildings and their perilous perch on the side of the mountain. Steve was about a hundred metres ahead of us and for some reason, he was backing up. I wondered if he was having problems when Gord pointed out over the radio that perhaps Steve was concerned with the "big brown bear." Huh? I looked ahead to the of the trail that was about 200 metres away from Steve's Ranger. There, in the landing that marked the end of the trail, was a very large, brown bear. There's no way it could have missed the sound or sight of oour trucks but it showed absolutely no alarm at our presence. It continued snuffling around and, in fact, started trundling along the road toward us. By this time, Steve had parked his truck near us and expressed surprise when we asked him about the bear. Apparently, he was more concerned about the trail and was only backing up to get another look at the terrain. As the bear approached, it was hidden from our line of sight by the rise I the trail. We waited for about fifteen minutes, hoping to get a better view of the big bruin. When it didn't re-appear, Steve decided to slowly drive to the end of the trail and perhaps flush the bear in the process. We followed at a respectful distance behind him but were disappointed when we crested the hill and saw no bear.
The landing we were on appeared to be built for a former mining operation. At least that was Bill's guess as soon as he saw it. He pointed out a large pile of rock and speculated that it concealed a buried shaft. Odd, the last time I was here, I didn't really notice the pile and simply assumed they had blasted the rock in this area to obtain some ore samples. But once he mentioned the possibility of a mine shaft, I had a closer look at the top of the pile and noticed that there were signs of digging at the top. I clambered to the top and was rewarded with the discovery of a hole t hat was just wide enough for a person to crawl through. Of course, with the recent bear sighting and the fact that we didn't know where the bear went, I was reluctant to grab a flashlight and go spelunking in this particular hollow. Steve tried to coax Sam, his Rottweiller, into having a look inside but Sam just ignored him in that way that dogs do when they think your "command" was more of a humorous suggestion.
Lacking the courage to explore the tunnel, there was nothing left to do except head toward the turn-off to see if we could find the other mines. The locations I was given were in the form of GPS coordinates that I had uploaded into my GPS before the trip. I knew which trail would take us to the general area of the mines but the exact trails we needed to follow were unknown. The turn-off immediately began a steep descent with a few switchbacks thrown in for variety. After a short bit of driving, we saw a clearing below, to our left. Its far side dropped off into the valley and in its center was dark brown barn-style cabin. It looked like its construction began many years ago, was abandoned, and only recently was taken up again with the installation of glass and drywall. Hiding among the trees were various out buildings. A concrete foundation near the cabin was one of the few remaining remnants of the tram line that once hauled ore carts down to the stamping mill in Hedley. We parked the trucks and had a look around. Looking over the edge of the clearing we saw an elevated portion of the tram way. It was severely weathered and rotted but it was mostly there. The cabin must have been built where the tram operation buildings once were.
Since it was the middle of the afternoon, we sat in the shade and ate lunch. Steve and Mackenzie went back to camp for their lunch and to do some more poking around in the French Mines. After eating, I took a walk around and spotted a road that continued down the mountainside. Bill, Connie and I (Gord is deeply opposed to walking as a form of recreation) hiked down the hill through some brush to take some photos from the tram way. Upon reaching the tram's trestles, we discovered a road that I guessed was a continuation of the one I saw near the cabin. As we were picking our way along the rotted timbers, Bill announced that he found a woodtick crawling on his shirt. I immediately looked down and saw a wood tick crawling up my sleeve - and another on my torso. My skin crawled as I frantically flicked them off my body. I HATE wood ticks. My last encounter with a wood tick a few years ago involved my brother trying to scrape one out of my chest with a utility knife - this was after we accidentally killed it while trying to coax it out with a burning twig from the fire. I ended up getting burnt and was left with the ass-end of a tick hanging out of my chest.
As you can imagine, the presence of the wood ticks made us very reluctant to bushwhack our way back up to the cabin. Bill and Connie elected to wait on the road while I walked up the road which was free of brush and, I hoped, wood ticks. My guess was correct and I soon found myself back at the cabin guarded by a dozing Gord. We hopped in our Jeeps and drove down to our waiting passengers. From there, we followed the road as it continued its steep descent along some very steep switchbacks. The GPS showed us getting close to the mines but each time we thought we would reach them, we encountered another switchback that pointed us in the opposite direction. Of course, the other issue was that the GPS coords didn't include altitude so although we knew we were getting close from a lat/lon perspective, we had no idea if we were too high or too low (yes, the terrain was that steep). Our assumption was that any operating mine would require a road so the odds were very high that they would be located on this or a nearby road.
At one point we speculated that this might be the road we heard about that goes down behind Hedley. That possibility was eliminated when Gord radioed that we had reached the end of the trail. At the absolute end was a large log building that was apparently a bunkhouse or shop for a mining operation. Behind it was a trail that went around a bend to a shaft which had been blasted closed. The GPS waypoints corresponded with this shaft and the building so this confirmed that we had reached our goal. Aside from the building, there really wasn't much else to see. The only "artifact" to be seen was a piece of an old wood burning stove. Bill had a short walk on another trail marked by a small cairn but didn't see anything of note. He thought it might be a mountain bike trail.
On the way back to camp, Gord wanted to explore some turn-offs on the road to the camp so off we went again. Our curiosity was rewarded with a spectacular view of the valley. Really, it was breathtaking. Our view came to an end as the trail veered off into the trees and took us toward the middle of the mountain. We soon had a wide variety of trail choices. Forks and intersections abounded. We stuck to the most well-travelled route although the distinction wasn't always clear. At one intersection, Gord saw some sticks on an off-shoot trail that were arranged to form an arrow. Obviously, it was a marker for someone to get somewhere. Hey, maybe it was for us!? We followed it and soon found ourselves at another old mine site. Like the last one, this one was also closed up by a huge pile of rock. Twisted rails emerged from the base, betraying the existence of the buried tunnel. Bill scouted around the area and found an open shaft. Unfortunately, it was only about 30 feet long. This was clearly a recent, exploratory shaft. Further exploration revealed what we guessed was an explosives shack and a road with another one of those arrow markers.
By this time, we had a long way to travel to get back to the camp. We had a hunch that by following the arrow markers in the opposite direction, we would soon reach a main road. We agreed to take a gamble and went against the arrows' direction. After we had been driving for about 15 minutes, we heard Carolyn on the radio, asking for help. They had just come back from Penticton and the Cherokee had suddenly stopped about 1/4 of the way up the mountain. We radioed that we'd be there as soon as we could although we had no idea how long that would be. But luck was with us and we reached the main road 10 minutes later. And 15 minutes after that, we pulled up beside the stricken Cherokee. Carolyn, Reah, Sue, Mo, and Lona were milling around the vehicle. We did some quick diagnostic tests and Gord concluded that the fuel pump was dead. Bill and I were hoping that the fuel filter was badly clogged or perhaps something was obstructing the pick up tube in the tank. We pulled the Cherokee farther away from the road into a wide area, parking it where there appeared to be the least density of cow pies (yes, this was cattle country). After spreading out a tarp to lie on, Bill crawled under the Jeep to start pulling the fuel filter. Meanwhile, Gord emptied out his Cherokee and everyone else piled in to get a ride back to camp. Just as Gord drove off, Bill called me over to have a look under the Jeep. He told me to look
Gord soon returned to pick up the rest of the gear and we all headed back to camp. Meanwhile, Carolyn was assuming the worst and was making plans with Mo, Lona and Connie about who would stay with the Jeep and who would go with Bill back to Vancouver to get another pump. We (I) decided that it would be a lovely surprise for Carolyn to see her Jeep drive into camp so...I radioed them, telling that we had to leave the Jeep where it was. As planned, Carolyn (and everyone else at the camp) was wide-eyed with surprise when they saw the resurrected Jeep roll into camp.
After the explanation of the fix was made, Connie, Sue and I began packing up our gear since we were heading back to the coast that night. Sometime during our packing, Steve's daughter, Mackenzie, called out from their tent. Steve went to check on her and quickly returned, informing us that they would also be returning with us. Apparently, Mackenzie was feeling quite ill and had "gotten sick" all over their sleeping gear. Our drive home was punctuated by Steve pulling over every now and then to pull out new items in the cab that Mackenzie got "sick on" and me keeping a nervous eye on my engine temperature. (I later discovered a had swapped in the wrong radiator when I replaced my old, corroded rad.)
The following day, back on the mountain, the rest of the group had some excitement. It seems that a rattlesnake visited the camp. It was near the Cherokee and Bill's first reaction was to slam the liftgate shut. Had Luna, who was laying inside the Jeep, noticed, she would have immediately gotten her inquisitive nose too close. The snake slithered away but then changed direction and headed back to the Jeep. Bill ended up having to push it away with a long stick. I've never seen a rattlesnake in the wild (except for once in Washington state) so I'm a bit regretful that we didn't stay another night. Of course, Sue feels otherwise.
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