By Sage Birchwater —
Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) made a key acquisition in the Chilcotin this spring, with the purchase of the picturesque 470-acre Poet Place in the Klinaklini Valley.
The property, located 250 km west of Williams Lake and a dozen kilometres down the Klinaklini Valley from Highway 20, is book-ended by two waterfalls in the Klinaklini River.
Poet Place is the second property in the Klinaklini Valley obtained by the NCC in the past two years. In 2012, the Conservancy purchased a 160-acre parcel at Wheeler Bottom, 20 kilometres beyond the Poet Place, and named it Dalton’s Hideaway. Local lore inspired the name after a trapper who lived in the valley for many decades was reputed to be a member of the notorious Dalton Gang of train and bank robbers in the 1890s.
NCC now has nine properties and four covenants preserving wilderness and conservation values in the Chilcotin. The heart of the Chilcotin project area is Tatlayoko Valley, where the majority of the properties are located. The organization has more than 80 projects in British Columbia, protecting more than one million acres of the province’s most ecologically significant land.
Poet Place and Dalton’s Hideaway are two of only three deeded properties along a 38-kilometre stretch of river, says Peter Shaughnessy, manager of NCC lands in the Chilcotin.
“That’s a big chunk of wilderness,” he says.
He says securing both properties is a big step toward securing this intact wilderness from development and safeguarding the wild nature of the valley.
Shaughnessy says the Conservancy would ultimately like to acquire the last remaining deeded parcel along this stretch of river if a deal can be reached with the landowner.
What makes Poet Place so special?
The property straddles the Klinaklini River and is prime habitat for grizzly bear, moose, mule deer, wolf, and bull trout, as well as giant old-growth aspen and cottonwood trees. The valley is also home to cougars, black bear, trumpeter swans, wolverine, and a host of other furbearers like marten, fisher, otter, muskrat, and beaver.
NCC’s management plan is to allow Nature to reclaim the once vibrant homestead that has a rich and colourful past.
The property was originally pre-empted by Jim Brown, trapper, in the early 1900s. Brown built a small cabin and fenced the natural meadows for his horses. The only other occupants in the valley at that time were trappers George Turner and Baptiste Dester and their families.
The Great Depression brought an influx of people into the valley hoping to scratch out a living during the 1930s. At Wheeler Bottom the Klinaklini River meanders through a rich riparian area of hay meadows and lush growth, and the moderate climate is conducive for fruit trees and gardens. But deep snow in winter, horrendous mosquitoes and high water in summer, and the difficult access and isolation convinced most people not to stay very long.
Despite its romantic inference, Poet Place got its name from crop-duster pilot, Dick Poet, who purchased the property from Jim Brown in 1956. Poet first visited the Chilcotin six years earlier with his wife Helen, and Bob and Ginny Stewart. Dick was looking for a small ranch and the opportunity to run a game guiding business. Bob’s dream was to own a fishing lodge.
On that initial journey Bob bought 40 acres on Nimpo Lake and hired a local man, Sam Sulin, to build a log cabin for him. The following summer he and Ginny started Stewart’s Resort, and hired Dick Poet to fly their guests into remote fishing lakes around the country. The venture proved very successful.
Dick and Helen’s daughter, Nancy Hodson, was 13 years old when her family bought the property in the Klinaklini Valley.
“There was nothing there except for an old trapping cabin,” she remembers.
Dick hired locals, Terry Nicholson and Billy Woods, to build log cabins and a barn and get the hunting area started down at Wheeler Bottom. Land was cleared and fences were built, and Dick and Helen named the place, Hidden Valley Ranch.
“I remember us coming up and living in the log cabins and working and washing clothes in the river,” Nancy recalls. “We didn’t have running water or anything like that. Every summer we’d come up and just thoroughly enjoy ourselves as a family. Dad would be flying for the Stewarts; then he got busier and busier and busier.”
At first Dick figured he could develop the ranch in his spare time while flying fishermen for the resort. He would land his plane at Big Stick Lake for the night and built a jeep road down the steep slope to the ranch. After a couple of years Dick realized he couldn’t do both, so he relocated his family to Nimpo Lake during the summer.
In October, 1964, the dreams the Poet family had for Hidden Valley Ranch were shattered when Dick crashed his plane into Fenton Lake in Tweedsmuir Park and was killed. Helen eventually sold the property and moved back to Oregon.
Poet Place sat dormant for five years until Mike and Kate McDonough discovered the wilderness Shangri-la in the summer of 1969. They got permission to look after the property from the new owners and lived there for seven years.
“We put in a garden, cleaned up the cabins and took the boards off the windows of the barn,” Mike recalls. “During the winter we were snowed in and I travelled by snowshoe the 12-mile round trip to Kleena Kleene Store for mail and supplies.”
The McDonoughs put in a large market garden for a couple of years to supply the West Chilcotin with fresh produce. One year they raised butcher lambs.
The 1970s ushered in a lively and colourful era for the Upper Klinaklini Valley. The historic back-to-the-land movement had begun and Kate says every summer a steady stream of people came down the road and invited themselves to stay.
Several other households got established in the valley and Poet Place served as the nerve centre for families seeking an alternative way of life. At least two babies were born at Poet Place.
In 1976 the McDonoughs moved out of the valley, after getting concerned about the fire hazard brought about by the mountain pine beetle.
Pete Bookmyer and Ginger Dowd took over Poet Place, and continued its tradition of being a social centre. Their daughter Snow Dowd grew up there and her most vivid memories are the long treks in and out of the valley.
“You got to know every single landmark along the way, on foot or by horseback.”
The old homesteads further down the valley had local names like Tipi Place, the Turner Place, and Baptiste’s Cabin.
“Even though it was wilderness, it felt like people had been there lots,” Snow remembers.
She says her parents were in the valley for 20 years and never once had an incident with a bear.
“Bears would graze with the horses, and we never thought to carry a gun. There was enough room for everybody.”
When she was 10 years old Snow and her brother Andy attended public school for the first time by riding their horses from Poet Place the six miles to the little one-room school at Kleena Kleene.
“We only went to school for three months,” she says. “In November it rained then it froze so we couldn’t use the horses.”
Snow is thrilled with NCC’s purchase of Poet Place and Dalton’s Hideaway.
“How wonderful that those special places will be preserved for creatures big and small,” she says.
Like Dalton’s Hideaway, Poet Place will have unrestricted access, says Peter Shaughnessy.
“We might put up a sign asking people to respect it; otherwise it will be unchanged.”
He says both Poet Place and Dalton’s Hideaway were purchased by NCC with funding from the estate of Duncan Donald McGeachy.
McGeachy briefly passed through the Klinaklini many years ago with his family, and was awestruck by this place, so he created a foundation, Shaughnessy says.
“Donald was ahead of his time in recognizing that Canadians need to be conservationists. During his life and upon his death, he gave generously to protect and preserve special properties in Canada.”
Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing and authoring books, hanging out with his dog, gardening, and being part of the rich cultural life that is the Cariboo- Chilcotin Coast.