Living: Passion for a pristine park

Wells Gray Park has kindled the passions of outdoors enthusiasts for decades. Now there's an effort to rejuvenate interest in the park and to have it preserved as a World Heritage Site for future generations

Michele Young / Kamloops Daily News
November 19, 2012 01:00 AM

Reporter Mike Youds, a longtime park enthusiast, gives an appreciation for Wells Gray in this audio slideshow. Click on the Play button to get started.

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The footage is so old, it's been converted from 16-mm film to VHS to digital.

But it's what it shows that enthralls Frank Ritcey.

Parks employees building a moose corral, with trip wires to drop big gates capturing the animals, then attempts to lasso and hog tie them so they could be ear tagged and collared.

Ritcey said the attempts didn't go so well, so there was subsequent footage of a squeeze box being added to keep the moose still while being tagged.

The film was taken by Bob Miller, a Clearwater resident and parks staffer who worked in Wells Gray Provincial Park more than 50 years ago.

So much has changed since then - not just the recording technology, but the development pressures on the park and the way people want to use it.

Wells Gray was Ritcey's back yard - a 500,000 hectare backyard. He grew up there, hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, even creating a mountain bike club.

For the most part, the park was left for the hunters and anglers and hikers to use, as the rugged terrain made formal development challenging and expensive. But a master plan exercise in the 1980s threatened that, he said.

"People have really fought vociferously against development in the park," he said.

"Wilderness is a shrinking commodity. They're not making any more wilderness."

Most park visitors make a stop at Helmcken Falls, which marks its 100 thyear of discovery in 2013. But the park has a lot of other features; volcanoes, mountains, deer, grizzly and black bears, and a waning population of mountain caribou.

Ritcey wants more people to use the park, but to use it respectfully and within the limits that are set. He welcomes next year's scheduled opening of the Thompson Rivers University Wilderness Centre, which will see students doing research in the park.

The more studies and reports that come out of the park, the more people will see the value of it, he said.

"The idea is to get people excited about the park again. I want people to see the possibility."

The park has been a living laboratory for decades.

Back in the 1950s, Miller and his wife Hettie wrote pages of notes of observations on their natural surroundings in the park. Hettie had no formal training, but became what Ritcey calls a "citizen scientist," detailing information about birds, moths and butterflies and collecting specimens that are in museums across Canada, he said.

Some of the 350 clips that Bob Miller recorded with his 16-mm camera have been turned into a film Ritcey is working on with Miller's son, Peter and another collaborator, Lloyd Bishop. It's about 10 to 15 minutes long, focusing on wildlife research and what the biologists got up to in their work.

Eventually, Ritcey hopes to turn it into a full-fledged documentary about the park.

Those biologists weren't the only people to be captivated by the beauty of Wells Gray.

Trevor Goward has been fascinated by one of the most low-key of plants, lichens, which are a symbiotic combination of fungi and algae. Wells Gray isn't just a forest of trees, it's a lichenologist's playground.

"I've done enough study and others that it turns out this valley has a larger number of lichen species than anywhere else in the world," he said.

"I'm in paradise here."

Goward's paradise needs protection, with a proposal for logging up against the park boundary being discussed and the mountain caribou that live there diminishing in number.

That's why he, Ritcey and others are trying to launch a Wells Gray World Heritage Site effort, as well as working with TRU and dean of science Tom Dickinson to open the wilderness centre there in 2013. Goward donated the land for the centre and plans to leave his home, Edgewood Blue, to The Land Conservancy of B.C.

"What drew me to live here is five feet off the road or trail, you're in a place nobody's ever been before."

There have been efforts in the past, to dam the area's rivers or log in the park. If the logging occurs, it will create a huge predator population which will decimate the already struggling caribou, he said.

"For the caribou, you have to think outside the boundaries of the park or you're going to lose them."

More than anything, he wants people to be aware of the hidden gem that Wells Gray is and to fight to keep it.

"Canadians have forgotten their wilderness."

He wants people with stories and memories about Wells Gray to come forward. There's also an effort to bring in big-name speakers next year to put a bigger spotlight on the park.

On a map, Wells Gray looks like a leaf. It's actually the shape of the watershed. There are a couple of arms that aren't connected that Goward wants to see linked up to complete the park.

"We need to finish the park in the next while. Then we will really have an absolute treasure," he said.

"What appeals to me about Wells Gray is that there is so much area I'm never going to see or nobody will ever see. Or if they do, it'll be a tremendous cost of energy and desire.

"It's not explored to death. It hasn't been shaped by the mind of humans. I really believe that our future is in the past, it's recognizing the traditions that establish themselves."

Despite growing up in Wells Gray and returning when possible, Ritcey admitted he hasn't seen it all.

"There are parts of that park I will never get to. But it's good to know it's protected," he said.

"When you get into some of the park's northern country, you've stepped back in time."


For more information about what's happening at Wells Gray Park, try the following web sites:

* Trevor Goward's site:

* The effort to have the park declared a World Heritage site:

* From the tourism side:

* From the province's perspective:

* TRU's research station:

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