Hidden in the Sands: Northern BC’s “Peace Sanctuary”

The dunes emerge out of the landscape under the watchful eye of Portage Mountain

The hot summer sun was relentless. Portage Mountain’s bold ridge-line loomed in the distance. My anticipation built as I pushed up the gravel access road into one of British Columbia’s unique geographic features: the Portage Mt. Sand Dunes, near Hudson’s Hope. As I crested the hill and emerged on an open bench the wind blew hard off of Williston Lake bending the cottonwood saplings into submission.

Riding towards the eastern rim, I found a large 4×8 ft. sign lying on the ground. Its white background and multi-colored letters seemed incongruous to this desolate dune. It was made of thin aluminum sheeting on plywood. Lifting the sign and gingerly balancing it against a couple of sticks I snapped some pictures. Suddenly, a burst of wind snatched it from my grasp.

The abandoned sign

What was this? Why was it here? I was curious and slightly unnerved. Someone put serious effort into this sign. I looked around the dunes, but I was alone. The printing was clear in some places and fuzzy in others. A dark black tire mark crossed the center of the sign like a redactor’s slash. Quickly reading the text, ““Peace Sanctuary” by Canadian artist Deryk Houston.” I also noticed Iraq, children and rock. As I rode around the dunes I saw nothing but sand, an infinite number of tracks and a few rock piles.

Unbeknownst to me, beneath the sand in a depression  to the north, lay a massive landscape art project consisting of rings with paleolithic-like faces and symbols within the center. Called the “Peace Sanctuary,” this was the first major project of the artist Deryk Houston. While presently only visible from Google Earth, this massive design connects two different countries and cultures, raising awareness about the devastating effects of war in the hopes of creating lasting peace.

Portage Mountain Sand Dunes

A Google Earth image showing the sand dunes and access trails

Located 23 kilometers west of Hudson’s Hope and adjacent to the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, the Portage Mt. dunes are actually a massive Glacial Moraine. This geologic feature is a result of advancing ice sheets picking up and grinding rocks which are then exposed–on the edges, and at the end–as the ice retreats. Moraines are characterized by unsorted sands, gravels and stones. While this area is well-known to local ATV and dirt bike enthusiasts, I was hard pressed to find any who had actually been there. Fortunately, the local ATV club had posted a .gpx file of the trail network, on the internet, which I downloaded into Avenza Maps on my iPhone 6.

The gravel access road gradually ascends to to a bench which provides a great view of both the mountain and dunes. While easy climbing, the road can be tricky to negotiate due to the loose gravels and stones that cover the surface. It was perfect for a fatbike with four inch tires.

The Artist

Deryk Houston is a Victoria based Canadian-Scottish artist who has exhibited his work internationally. His farming background, love of working with his hands and a fascination with ancient art forms such as earthworks, spirals and labyrinths has influenced his large public pieces. Houston also paints. His works are characterized by a vibrant mixture of orange, red, blue and black lines, stars, waves, clouds, text, animals and primitive stick figures. He also has created some interesting 2-D paintings. Perhaps more importantly, he is a dogged advocate for peace and those impacted by war, especially Iraqis affected by the first Gulf War, subsequent conflicts and international sanctions.

In 2000 he visited Iraq and installed his “Sanctions Painting” at the Baghdad Arts Center and the following year a “Bomb Shelter” piece in a bombed out building that is now a memorial to those who died in a US attack. In 2002, he exhibited at the “Art for Mankind” show in Baghdad and supervised the construction of a 24 foot bronze sculpture in Iraq’s Peace Sanctuary. The same year he constructed the massive “Peace Sanctuary”  stating that his “intention was to help the Iraqi people and try to get the world to understand that bombing only causes other problems…At the same time, it helped to heal my own heart after witnessing some terrible things in Iraq.” The “Peace Sanctuary” garnered national attention: so much so that the National Film Board of Canada commissioned a film—“From Baghdad to Peace Country”—which premiered internationally in 2003. Houston feels that his work has made an impact on Canada’s geopolitical position towards Iraq and the Gulf War.

The Peace Sanctuary

The “Peace Sanctuary” (Photo Credit: W. Sawchuck, D. Houston)

Deryk’s trips to Iraq marked his soul. The crumbling buildings, open sewers, poverty and hospitals overflowing with the sick and dying were impossible for him to forget. Thus, he decided to create a landscape art project to raise awareness of the plight in Iraq. Wanting a remote location–so that people who have to put in effort and commitment to find it–he began researching a suitable location. He even called the famous Canadian author, Farley Mowat. Surprisingly, the provincial government was the most helpful suggesting the dunes near Hudson’s Hope. With support from the provincial and local government he began building in earnest.

With his nine year old son Samuel, a ball of twine, wooden stakes, a dirt bike and a D9 Cat operated by Phil Kirtzinger they laid out a design that was approximately 1000 feet across, containing 4 concentric rings with a mother (holding) child and dove motif at the center. While Deryk oversaw the operation from a high point, Phil roughed out the design by pushing and piling the sand–basically a massive sand sculpture. Deryk explained it to me this way:

“I love the ancient Nazca lines and their simplicity. I also love the mother and child image that we see so often throughout time. The central image is a simple circle of the mother’s head and the child’s head. The hand of the mother cradles the child’s head. There is also the shape of a dove. The outer circles are ripples. How we hope to effect change in our world.”

This costly project was funded out of Deryk’s pocket and took a few days to complete. Much later, he visited the site, but sadly ATV’s, dirt bikes and wind had pounded the earthwork into obscurity. However, like peace itself, this monument to the people of Iraq is not hidden: it can still be seen in Google Earth today!

The “Peace Sanctuary” by Deryk Houston. This image is from 2006.

Post Script: The “Peace Garden,” Woodwynn Farms

Houston continues to create thought-provoking and interactive landscape art. His latest piece is the “Woodwynn Farm Peace Garden,” near Victoria, BC. This stunning labyrinth is a collaborative effort of Houston, Elizabeth Wellburn (his wife) and Richard Leblanc, the farm director. Woodwynn Farm is a therapeutic community for the homeless and those struggling with mental health and addictions.

Woodwynn Farm Peace Garden (Photo Credit: D. Houston)


Personal correspondence and telephone conversation with Deryk Houston, July-August 2017.

“From Baghdad to Peace Country,” directed by Sherry LePage.  http://www.nfb.ca/film/from_baghdad_to_peace_country/.

Deryk Houston’s Art Gallery website: http://www.derykhouston.com/.

Riding into History: The Telegraph Trail

 Just an hour west of Prince George is a fantastic ridgetop roller coaster ride through gnarly Douglas fir overlooking scenic lakes and wetlands called the Telegraph Trail. Built in 1865 by the Western Union Telegraph Company, this trail was supposed to connect North America to Russia  via thousands of kms of poles, copper wire and ceramic insulators. Abandoned in 1936, this route is now an ideal multi-use outdoor adventure trail.

A Telegraph Machine (Smithsonian Magazine)


In 1865, the Western Union Telegraph Company  began building a telegraph line that would connect  North America to Russia. Called the Collin’s Overland Telegraph, this  primitive electrical communication system would run from the United States, through British Columbia and Alaska, across the Behring Strait, terminating at the mouth of the Amoor River, in Eastern Russia where it would connect to St. Petersburg  via 7000 miles of  existing line.

Sadly, this ambitious project was abandoned not long after it started because in September 1866, WUTC’s competitor completed a Transatlantic Telegraph. North America could now speed dial Europe, but not on Collin’s line. Thousands of kilometers of poles, copper wire and insulators lay dormant until 1902 when the Yukon Telegraph Company took over the line. Radio communication ended the use of telegraphs in 1936.


This trail can be accessed at the Hogsback Lake Forest Service Recreation Site, 20 km south of Vanderhoof. From Prince George follow HWY 16 West, turning west on Mapes rd., then southeast on the Blackwater rd. and lastly south on Hogsback Lake rd. Follow the gravel road east until the last campsite (with outhouse). The trailhead is just to the east of the picnic table.

Hogsback Lake Forest Service Rec Site
Telegraph Trail Marker
The Telegraph Trail

This trail runs along a steep sided ridge on the north and east side of Hogsback and McKay lakes. It is characterized by steep, short gravelly/sandy climbs and descents and flowy flat sections. There are great viewpoints looking south across the Nechako plateau towards the Telegraph Mt. range. Old Douglas fir, dead lodgepole pine and trembling aspen line the trail, clinging precariously to the steep slopes. Red stem feather moss, Kinickinic, juniper and birch leaved spirea cover the sandy forest floor.

A flowey flat section with fine sand
A super steep loose gravel ascent
McKay Lake

McKay lake has a great campsite that could easily fit several tents.

Image Courtesy of UNBC Archives

The Telegraph Route

Construction of the British Columbia section of the  telegraph, from  New Westminster to Quesnel, began in 1863. Two years later, a thirty-man survey team lead by  Major Frank L. Pope began surveying the Quesnel to Tatla Lake section travelling by foot, mule and canoe. The construction team, lead by Edward Conway, followed Pope’s crew brushing out the trail, selecting suitable trees for poles and hanging insulators and wire. Telegraph stations were constructed along the 365 mile line including one at Bobtail Lake, Blackwater Crossing and Bulkley House (Tatla Lake).

Pope estimated distances, measured elevations and angles along the entire route, producing elaborate reports and maps that were sent to Colonel Charles P. Bulkley, the Chief Engineer. He also recorded details about First Nations, animals and plants as well as geographic features. Pope recommended that the line be built alongside lakeshores when possible. He reasoned that these areas were more accessible, the trees more windfirm and the line easier to construct.

F.L. Pope’s 1866 report describing the Lake Babine area (UNBC Archives 1682_no4_03)
The Blackwater Crossing Telegraph Station (J.C. White, 1866)
A ceramic insulator c. 1866 or 1902

While many of the telegraph poles have fallen over and rotted, you can still find some artifacts such as this white ceramic insulator. Keep your eyes up, you may see a veteran Douglas fir with some copper wire still clinging to it.

The remains of a small forest fire overlooking a pasture
A flowy flat section with fine sand.
An interesting cattle guard
A small creek crossing just north of the Telegraph Trail.

If you looking for some two-wheeled or legged adventure then check out the Telegraph Trail at Hogsback Lake. Pack a lunch, plenty of water and be prepared for some short, tough climbs: the ridge top views are worth the effort!

If your a beginner mountain biker then check out these must-know tips from one of Canada’s top outdoor adventure bloggers, Leigh McAdam Mountain Bike Tips for Beginners.

“In wildness is the preservation of the World”

(H.D. Thoreau)

7 Favorite Forests and Trees

Trees and forests are iconic. From the Haida First Nation’s “Golden Spruce,” to the Druid’s “Sacred Oak” to 19th century Vancouver’s “Carey Fir,” trees have played a significant role in the material and cultural lives of people for millennia. As a former forestry consultant and all-around forest dweller, trees have played a significant role in my life standing as witness’s to my past, present and future. Think of a what a 300 year Douglas fir has seen, let alone a 1000 year old western red cedar? Enjoy some of my favorite trees. Perhaps you know where they are? These awesome organisms need no explanation.

If you would like to know how you can experience these trees yourself,  send me an email.

9 Bizarre, Creepy and Odd Things

When I explore BC’s backcountry, backroads and trails I typically encounter stunning forest-clad mountains, rivers, lakes and wildlife. Every now and then, however, I encounter the bizarre, unexplained, odd and even creepy. Check out these nine images and let me know what you think?

I found this demented frog doll on the Greenway trail one Spring. Can you imagine giving this to a child?

These guys thought driving to Goat Island on the Fraser river was a good idea.

I’m not sure what this is about, but apparently there are no moose down this road, west of Vivian Lake.

How did this abandoned van near McPhee road get flipped?

This roofless and doorless cabin is near UNBC.

This strange pipe is 20 km down the Bowron Forest Service Road. I wonder if there is a bunker down there?

An even bigger pipe near McPhee creek. This would make a great shelter!

What’s for dinner?

Smokey keeping the temperature low near Tatlayoko Lake, BC.


Grizzly Bear (Red) Mnt. Weekend

Well known for its Grizzly bears and caribou, Grizzly Bear  or Red Mnt. towers over the historic community of Penny, a couple hours east of Prince George. To the west, of this peak is a fully stocked public cabin primarily used by backcountry skiers. The 12 km ride into this cabin is ideal for the self-sufficient adventure mountain biker who is willing to gravel grind up some tough trails. This cabin provides great access into the McGregor Mnts. alpine tundra and views of extensive subalpine parkland.

First opened in 1916, the Penny post office serviced the community that developed alongside the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Today, mail is delivered to the 10 or so people that live in this community via the CN Railway Company.
The route (ignore my detour to the west of the main trail).

This ATV width trail begins just few hundred meters north of the post office and winds through a rolling bench for several kms then descends into Red Mnt. Creek. This area is the northern tip of BC’s Temperate Inland Rainforest and is dominated by large, old western red cedars. Riding through these towering cedars is like riding through the columns in a  medieval cathedral.

This cabin was closed for the season.

Time to load up on the carbs.

Like the trail itself, the railing of the Red Mnt. Creek bridge appears to go on forever.

Eventually the trail leaves the rolling toe slope and switchbacks steeply upslope for several kms. There are some good  viewpoints of the Fraser River and the McGregor Mnts. to the south.Where’s the trail?

Be prepared to push your bike uphill from the 10.5 km marker to the cabin at 12 km. This section is the steepest part of the ride and my legs simply couldn’t do it, but maybe yours could.
At 3200 feet elevation, you  get great views of the subalpine parkland to the north.
At 5000 feet you begin to descend into a depression where the cabin is located.

After 6 hours and 19 minutes I finally arrived at the cabin!

So why did I haul my camp stove and pot uphill for 6 hours? This cabin is fully stocked with everything you need to spend the night (except your food and clothes).

A killer view from the dillapitated outhouse. Please note that there was no toilet paper!

The trail through towering cedars, views,  access to subalpine parkland and the “all inclusive” cabin makes this grueling 12 km ride worthwhile. While I didn’t see any grizzly bear, I did see a white wolf on the ride down: perhaps a good sign for my next adventure? For more information about this trail and the public cabin check out:

Prince George Backcountry Recreation Society

For a detailed trail guide you can purchase Rob Bryce’s book “Hiking North Central BC,” available at a bookstore near you:

Order Here

Goat-River Gong Show & McBride Mnt. Madness

McBride Mnt., located approximately 2.5 hrs east of Prince George, is a tough climb but has some interesting alpine areas to explore as well as fantastic views of the Rocky Mnts. and Robson Valley. On the drive we decided to drop in at the Goat River historic trail for a bit of a warm up.

Dave and I geared up on a cool and cloudy Saturday afternoon

The Goat River Trail was first used by First Nations as a route between the Upper Fraser River and the Bowron Lakes area. CPR surveyors and miners kept this trail open during the mid to late-1800s. We accessed the trail at the parking lot adjacent to the outlet of the Milk River. However, it became clear that this trail was not MTB friendly.

The junction of the Milk and Goat River

Quartz CreekDave crushin it through dense thimbleberry, alder and cow parsnip

The trail was characterized by muddy, brush-covered single-track with large smooth slippery boulders and skinny’s over marshy, mucky sections. Dave bailed and later told me that he had bruised ribs from a soccer game:/ We pushed our bikes most of the time. After a couple of kms we decided to take a quick picture at the Goat River and head back. Note to self: this is a hiking trail only! Off to McBride Mnt.

While one could ride the full 12 km road to the start of the alpine, we decided to park at the 6 km cabin where we would spend the night.

The road up McBride Mnt. is hard packed sand and gravel, with many sections of loose gravels and stones with exposed angular bed rock. It is also steep, running minimum 7% and some times up to 15% slope.

Typical steep switch back

The views improve as you ascend the mountain

It was raining in the Robson Valley as we road out of the subalpine

At 12 km, we began a tough 2 km push into the alpine. The summit of McBride Mnt. was in the clouds.

Looking west at an alpine ridge

Made it to the rebuilt fire lookout

The weather began to turn as we reached the fire lookout. The temperature dropped to about 5 degrees C  and the wind picked up. We decided to head back to the cabin. It snowed in the alpine later that weekend. Needless to say the 8 km downhill ride was fast and bumpy-my hands were aching by the time we reached the cabin.

This is one of the best, easily accessed campsites that I have every been to. Check out the views…

Looking south into the Rockies

Sweet and spicy peanut sauce on rice noodles with pepperoni. A bikepacking standard for me.

Getting out of the rain

While Dave and I were setting up camp, two guys rolled in on road bikes. Meet John and Brad: two Californians who came to BC to ride all of its toughest mountain peaks (25 I think). They are part of a cycling community called Pjammcycling. They had no idea that the road up McBride Mnt. was unpaved-but they road it anyways. We had a chat, shared some dinner  and wished them well. These guys are hard core!

McBride Mnt. is a tough ride, but provides awesome access to the alpine and great camping. For more info check out:

McBride Peak Info


Willow River Bikepack

The Willow River Canyon area, just east of Prince George, is a fantastic bikepacking destination, perfect for a weekend adventure. Join us as we ride the Tabor Mt. trails east to the canyon and then down into the Willow River.

The Tabor Mt. Recreation Area is 25 km’s east of Prince George and is bounded by Hwy. 16 to the north, Buckhorn Rd. to the south and the Willow River, to the east. You can access this well maintained trail network at Tabor Mt. Ski Hill. Kyrke and I began our trip at the ski hill access, where we geared up and road up onto the West Touring trail. This trail runs along the toe-slope of Tabor Mt. to the X-Country ski area parking lot. This ATV width trail is characterized by rolling terrain with short uphill sections: perfect for a fatbike with 40 lbs of gear.

Kyrke getting his gear organized.

A typical section of trail.

This area receives lots of  rainwater  runoff and seepage from numerous upslope springs, therefore, it is lush and jungle like. Cow parsnip, black twinberry, raspberry, Goat’s beard and some Devil’s club (watch out) crowd the trail–making the ride an intense visual and olfactory experience. These sections are my favorite.

A meadow with Cow parsnip and Ox-eyed daisy’s.

The West Touring trail runs for 2 km until the x-country ski area parking lot. We continued east along the Hickory Wing Trail then followed the East Touring Trail, over Bowes Creek, then upslope along the Martin Trail.

 Bowes Creek bridge.

The Martin Trail and Willow River Canyon Trail junction.

At this point we had to backtrack because the Willow River Canyon Trail was covered with blown-down timber. We took a side access trail (Martin Trail connector) that ran north to Hwy. 16. We then followed Hwy. 16 east until England Creek Forest Service Road. A couple hundred meters down this road is the England Creek bridge. A single-track trail on the north side of the bridge runs east to the Willow River. At the junction of England Creek and the Willow is a great campsite that gives you access to the shore.

 Looking south down the Willow River Canyon from the England Creek campsite.

A small waterfall on the England.

From here simply rode back to the Hwy. and then east for a few km’s until the Willow North Forest Service road. This road will take you to several access points along the Willow.

This large camping area provides hundred of meters of riverfront access and is suitable for tents and hammocks. There is plenty of dead fall, so firewood is available. One way to reduce weight while bikepacking is to not carry a stove. I cook all my meals over a fire.

Collecting firewood by bike.

There is nothing better than chiliin out with a cold beer in BC’s wilderness!


Sunset over the Willow.

 We rode the full 48 km’s back to Prince George. This is a relatively easy ride and the westbound shoulder is wide enough that one feels safe. One interesting stop along the way is the Tabor Mt. Wildlife Viewing platform. This area is on the north side of the road, adjacent the Martin Trail connector. Accessed by a 200 meter single-track trail that runs through a young stand of aspen, spruce and fir, this viewing platform provides some nice visual corridors of Tabor Mt.


Looking southwest towards Tabor Mt.

Tabor Mt. and the Willow River Canyon are a great accessible adventure biking area, that are close to town. They are ideal if you just getting into bikepacking or want a  a relatively easy weekend trip. Please note that there are grizzly and black bears in this area as well as cougar and wolves. My best advice would be to make lots of noise and carry bear spray. Also, let people know where you will be going and carry a SPOT GPS device. For more info on this area check out:

Tabor Mt. Recreation Society

Check out some of the other fantastic rivers in this area at my FlightNetwork blog post The 3 Best Rivers in Northern BC to See