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Clearwater: a folksy gateway to Wells Gray.

It's Saturday night in Clearwater. In the dimly lit pub of the Wells Gray Inn, the Vancouver Canucks hockey team is skating across the big screen, barstools are in short supply, and three denim-clad couples are two-stepping on the dance floor. Under a flickering neon sign, I relax in a vinyl booth and regard my "appy" special: a platter the size of a 10-gallon hat's rim filled with all things breaded and deep-fried. As Lee Dinwoody, a guitarist with a handlebar moustache and a voice full of sorrow, begins to sing about living the honky-tonk dream. I am reminded that Clearwater is not your typical tourist destination. It is small-town British Columbia at its most authentic--a place a country crooner might describe as "a diamond in the rough."

Clearwater (pop. 4,976) is located in the central Interior, 125 kilometres north of Kamloops. Its name originated in the 1860s with French fur traders who called it Fourche L'eau Clair for its pristine river water. Today, the long-time logging town is courting tourism.

Framed by the Monashee Mountains to the east and the Cariboo Mountains to the west, Clearwater is a gateway to the spectacular wilderness of the North Thompson Valley. What this town-in-transition lacks in charm, it makes up for in backcountry excitement. Clearwater is slowly gaining a reputation as a hub for winter recreation.

My winter adventure began this morning in a handcrafted sled in the Trophy Mountain area just northeast of Clearwater. Twelve Alaskan huskies, each a 20-kilogram bundle of howling, harnessed energy, pulled me up and down the snowy hills at up to 30 kilometres per hour. At each hot-chocolate break, the panting dogs looked plaintively at their owner, Steve Mullen, "Hurry up, let's go," their barks seemed to say.

"This is their life," explained Mullen, a professional dogsled racer and owner of Alaskan Husky Adventures. "When we put on their harnesses, they're like football players putting on their jerseys. They're pumped up and ready to play."

He and his wife, Tannis, moved to the close-knit community of Clearwater from Alaska several years ago to raise their family and start their dogsledding business. Today, the couple owns 48 working dogs and 10 puppies. Together, they have 25 years of mushing experience. It shows. As we sped around hairpin turns. Tannis kept the dogs under control with shouts of "ha," "gee," and "whoa" while I sat safely ensconced in the sled.

My turn riding the runners was not quite as smooth. As soon as the anchor was ripped from the snow, the dog team tore down the trail. From my new perspective behind the sled, the dogs' speed seemed to have tripled. My cheeks burned in the wind; wet snowflakes clung to my eyelashes, impairing my vision. We careened down the hillside, veering precariously close to the edge of a deep ravine. Clutching the wooden handlebars in a death grip, I tried to steer by adjusting the balance of my feet on the narrow runners. Eventually, under patient direction from Tannis, I mastered the art of braking and really began to enjoy the ride. Though cold and wet by the end of our run. I came away convinced--this is the ultimate way to experience the winter beauty of the Clearwater-Wells Gray region.

One hot tub dip, satisfying meal, country concert, and night of deep sleep later, I'm ready to explore Clearwater's headline attraction: Wells Gray Provincial Park. This is B.C.'s fourth-largest park, encompassing the majority of the Clearwater River watershed--540,000 hectares of wilderness. To the park's south and west is the elevated plateau of the Shuswap Highlands. To the east and north are the jagged peaks of the Cariboos.

The park's tumultuous geological history accounts for its varied landscapes. Almost half a million years ago, erupting volcanoes filled the river valleys with lava that was later covered by glaciers. Thousands of years of glacial erosion sculpted Wells Gray's mountains and canyons. Today, meltwater laden with silt and sand continues to shape the land. The result is a park of dramatic alpine and volcanic features: the horn of Garnet Peak, the cinder-cone volcano at Kostal Lake, the basaltic columns of the Flatiron in Hemp Creek valley. But it is for its waterfalls that Wells Gray is most renowned.

I am headed to Helmcken Falls, Canada's fifth-tallest waterfall. As I walk toward the canyon edge, the top layer of granular snow crunches like sugar under my boots. I can hear the roar of rushing water, but fog hides the cataract itself. When the mist clears, I gaze at the singular curve of water plummeting down 137 metres. The canyon's striated walls and the snow-topped treeline form a backdrop for the falls' dramatic plunge. A 20-metre-high cone of ice has formed at its base, a winter oddity that resembles the meringue on a Baked Alaska dessert.

After a long afternoon spent cross-country skiing along the Murtle River, enjoying views of Pyramid and Battle mountains, I start the short drive back to Clearwater on the winding, icy park road. I pump the brakes when a large, dark shadow crosses the road ahead. Peering into the inky dusk, I see what appears to be the back end of a moose loping into the forest. I recall my chat with an old-timer at the Wells Gray Inn pub. According to local lore, a moose sighting is a harbinger for imminent snowfall. That night, tucking into a plate of Wiener Schnitzel at the Little Martin Restaurant, I look out the window at the three-quarter moon. Snow is falling on the town of Clearwater.

GETTING THERE

Clearwater is 125 kilometres north of Kamloops on Hwy 5, less than a two-hour drive. Kamloops is 355 kilometres east of Vancouver.

WHAT TO DO

* Visit Wells Gray Provincial Park's star attraction: 137-metre Helmcken Falls. * Slide into cross-country skies at Helmcken Falls Lodge (250-674-3657) and explore Wells Gray's 32 kilometres of groomed trails. * Go dogsledding with Alaskan Husky Adventures (250-587-0037; www.dogsleddingadventures.com).

* Strap on snowshoes to view the 75-metre frozen waterfall at Spahats Creek Provincial Park, 10 kilometres from town, just off Clearwater Valley Road. * View pioneer and native artifacts at the Yellowhead Museum (250-674-3660), by appointment only.

* Don a cowboy hat and saunter into Wells Gray Inn pub for live country-and-western music. * Suit up for snowmobiling with BC Backcountry Adventures (250-674-2792). * Tour Clearwater Trout Hatchery, 40 E. Old North Thompson Hwy. * Join the locals for snowboarding or downhill skiing at the Clearwater Ski Hill (250-674-3848).

WHERE TO EAT

No-frills, down-home dining. * Little Martin Restaurant, 748 Clearwater Village Road--locals rave about German-Canadian fare, including three different types of schnitzel. * The Old Caboose Restaurant, Hwy 5, for burgers, soups, fish 'n' chips. * Wells Gray Inn pub, Hwy 5, for "appies," cold beer, and live music. * Flour Meadow Bakery & Cafe, 444 Clearwater Valley Road, for good coffee, desserts, and fresh bread.

WHERE TO STAY

Many options: browse the British Columbia Accommodation Guide (800-435-5622) or Wells Gray Park website (www.wellsgray.ca).

* Helmcken Falls Lodge (250-674-3657; www.helmckenfalls.com), Clearwater Valley Road, just before Wells Gray Park entrance. Cozy accommodation in a restored 1948 lodge and rustic log chalets; rates include gourmet breakfast, lunch, and dinner. * Clearwater Lodge (250-674-3080; www.clearwaterlodge. bcresorts.com), 331 Eden Road. A modern hotel with pool, hot tub.

MORE INFORMATION

* Clearwater Visitor Info Centre (250-674-2646; www.ntvalley.com/clearwaterchamber).

* Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (250-860-5999; www.ThompsonOkanagan.com).

* Exploring Wells Gray Park by Roland Neave (Friends of Wells Gray Park, 1995).

* Nature Wells Gray by Trevor Goward and Cathie Hickson (Lone Pine Publishing, 1995).

photography CHRIS JAKSA
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Title Annotation:Destination; British Columbia
Author:Tanod, Lynn
Publication:British Columbia Magazine
Geographic Code:1CBRI
Date:Dec 22, 2002
Words:1262
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