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CASUAL COUNTRY: Ulkatcho youth on top of the world

Potato Mountain sets the stage for horseback adventure

Wildfires were raging in early July around Anahim Lake and hopes for a mountain horseback expedition for four Ulkatcho youth were fading fast. Then the weather changed. Rain and cooler temperatures opened the door of opportunity, and Christian Sill Jack, 17, Aiden Squinas, 16, Pacey Sulin, 13, and Kyle Squinas, 12, jumped through.

The young men were under the care and tutelage of language and culture educator Orrie Charleyboy, and Jonathan McEwan, a seasoned horseman from Fish Trap as they headed 150 km south and east to Tatlayoko Valley to spend a week in the Potato Mountains. Seven days later they came home with bucket loads of great memories.

That was the intent says Charleyboy, who grew up going to the Potato Mountains by horseback as a kid. For the past two years, he’s been working with the youth at Ulkatcho and Anahim Lake School.

Last year Charleyboy supervised six young people on a similar seven-day horseback venture into the Itcha Mountains led by Terra Pare Hatch and Wanda Dorsey Williams. The trip was so successful they wanted to do it again.

This year three of last year’s riders were joined by newcomer Kyle Squinas. Again, fate dealt them another lucky card. A last-minute cancellation at Alex Bracewell’s Alpine Wilderness Adventures enabled the group to book a guided alpine experience, with Bracewell providing the horses, trail guides and accommodation, and the Potato Mountain Trip 2023 was underway.

Thanks to an after-school horse program in Anahim Lake the kids were introduced to basic horsemanship skills. Rikki and Faith Lowrie gave the instructions at their ranch and at the Anahim Lake Stampede rodeo grounds.

Lyle Squinas, the great-grandson of game guide, Mac Squinas, describes how this went for him.

“First we learned how to get on the horse. Then they led us around a bit. Slowly they let us ride on our own.”

It was meaningful that Orrie Charleyboy experienced the Potato Mountains as a child. His mother Minnie Lulua Charleyboy was raised at Henry’s Crossing, and his grandmother Emily Lulua Ekks lived nearby at Gwedzin (Cochin Lake), and they were part of the annual horse migration to the Potato Mountains to dig the sunt’iny, or wild potatoes, that grow there.

Every July Tsilhqot’in people from across the plateau, from Anahim Lake to Riske Creek, travelled by horse and wagon to the Potato Mountains, known as Chonoz-ch’ed to some families, Tsimol-ch’ed to others, and Chinaz-ch’ed to still others, depending on which local dialect they spoke.

They’d be up there for a month digging the small tuberous roots of the sunt’iny. At the same time, there would be horse races on the mountain along with other competitions like running races, wrestling matches and lahal games. Besides digging the sunt’iny, berries were harvested and deer were hunted, and drying racks would be set up to preserve this bounty from the land for the coming year.

Orrie says it’s been more than 20 years since he was last up on Potato Mountains.

“The first time I went up there I was nine years old. My mother and grandmother and my aunts and uncles told me stories of horse races and games people used to play up there.”

So Orrie took particular delight in showing his young charges where his family used to camp and where the rodeos, horse races and other competitions were held.

“The last time I was up there, there were hundreds of cows around. Now all the flowers have come back.”

He says since the 2014 Tsilhqot’in title case, cattle have been kept out of the Potato Mountain alpine.

“It’s made a big difference.”

Possibly because of drought conditions, the snow came off the mountain early this year, and the usual places where the sunt’iny can be spotted weren’t so obvious.

“So, we weren’t able to find any sunt’iny,” Charleyboy says.

But that didn’t stop the kids from having fun.

“They got off their horses after a long day’s riding and went swimming. In the evenings they sat around the campfire and sang songs and woke up the spirits of our elders.”

Seventeen-year-old Christian Sill Jack, leader of the campfire songs, says the Potato Mountain trip was a fun experience.

“There were great views from the top of Potato Mountain,” he says. “On one side you could look down on Tatlayoko Lake, and on the other side you could see Chilko Lake and look all the way past Nemiah Valley. There were lakes to swim in and wildlife here and there. We saw a grizzly bear and a couple of bucks. It was pretty exciting.”

The young guests stayed in the Bracewell cabin on the top of the mountain, equipped with a sauna beside the lake.

Though the group saw several deer on their expedition up the mountain, they didn’t pack a rifle. But on their way home after leaving the lodge they spotted a young buck deer at the side of the road.

“We figured he offered himself to us,” Orrie says. “So we shot it.”

Jonathan McEwan, a seasoned hunter, quickly gutted and cut up the animal. He can trace his ancestry to four distinct Indigenous communities across the region. On his dad’s side, his great-grandfather, Joe Saunders, was Nuxalk, and his great-grandmother, Emma Stillas Jack was Dakelh. On his mother’s side his grandfather, Gus Cahoose was Dakelh, and his grandmother, Susan Cahoose was Tsilhqot’in and Secwépemc.

His mother Jessie McEwan says Jonathan really likes hunting.

“He takes after his dad, the late Fred McEwan and his grandfather, the late Gus Cahoose who was a guide outfitter.”

Jonathan also has a sense of humour. When he headed up the trail to the Potato Mountains he told Alex Bracewell’s trail guides that he was a greenhorn. They soon found out he was kidding. When his horse jumped a small ravine and he easily stayed in the saddle, they realized this wasn’t his first rodeo.

On Monday, July 30, a celebration was held in Anahim Lake to honour the four young riders and the Potato Mountain Trip 2023. The deer meat they brought home from the trip was shared at the feast held in their honour.

Orrie says he noticed a big change in the youth following last year’s horse adventure to the Itcha Mountains.

“Last year when Pacey came with us to the Itchas, he wasn’t in school that year. This past year he returned to school had one of the best attendance records.”

Charleyboy says making the equine program part of the school curriculum inspires the students to learn.

“Working with the horses is tied in with their classroom studies.”

He says Pacey is a natural-born leader.

“He’s in his element when he’s out on the land with the horses.”

Charleyboy says reconnecting with his old stomping grounds on the Potato Mountains brought back a flood of memories.

“My wish for the boys we brought from Nagwuntl’oo (Anahim Lake) was to feel the excitement and wonder of being on top of the world and not having a care in the world. When I’m up there I want to stay forever, riding and exploring the beauty of the place.”

He says he wants to continue the horse program with Nagwuntl’oo kids following other mountain trails throughout the region in years to come.

“Maybe the Rainbow Mountains, following the Grease Trail to Bella Coola. Hopefully this will inspire dreams of other possibilities as this next generation moves forward.”