Travel Story A hidden gem in Canada's awe-inspiring wilderness

Photo of Mark Thornton

With its rich history and magnificent setting, British Columbia's Tyax Wilderness Resort and Spa is one of a kind.

Anyone who has been camping in the remote outback knows the great delight of rolling out of a sleeping bag at dawn, pulling back the tent flap and being amazed and delighted by the view.

So it’s perhaps even more delicious when you can roll out of a luxurious bed, pull back the curtains and, right there, outside your window is an awe-inspiring wilderness. 

Such is the design of the accommodation at Canada’s Tyax Wilderness Resort and Spa that each room has a view and there is nothing to suggest there are any others nearby to spoil the experience.

The view is of gin-clear Tyaughton Lake mirroring spruce forest dotted with crimson and gold aspen and cottonwoods, all dominated by a snow-covered mountain range topped by Mt Truax, which is still unclimbed according to the locals.

It’s enough to take your breath away.

The resort in British Columbia’s South Chilcotin Mountains, built entirely from local spruce trees and river stones, has enchanted visitors since it first opened for business in 1986. But guests from all around the world appear to have kept it a secret among themselves for not many people know about it, even in the famed ski resort of Whistler just four hours drive away. 

That’s partly because it’s difficult to find among a series of rough dirt roads meandering through the ranges north of Whistler with some perilous sections that are subjected to occasional rockfalls.

In the winter ski season it is mostly accessed by helicopters; indeed it is a heliski resort, though in summer the region is ideal for hiking, fishing, horse trekking, mountain biking, boating and white water kayaking.

In summer Tyax operates a de Havilland Beaver float plane so you can fly in and out of Tyaughton Lake to literally hundreds of other lakes, thereby offering even more exclusive backcountry adventures.

The region was first explored by goldminers in the mid-1800s, though for millennia it has been periodically inhabited by the nomadic Chilcotin, after whom the mountains are named, and Lillooet First Nation peoples, who refer to it as Skumakun, or Land of Plenty. 

The prospectors explored the region looking for “placer” or alluvial gold along the riverbeds flowing into the mighty Fraser River, where they had set up a mining camp named after the Lillooet. The town of Lillooet is now an important regional centre with most of its 2300 people indigenous.

Travelling from there up the Bridge River valley towards where Tyax Lodge now stands the prospectors found more gold but this was quickly exploited and soon most left the area to the locals.

For the next 100 years the area was sparsely settled by new Canadians until a hydroelectric power plant was built on the Bridge River to form the 50km- long Carpenter Lake. Still, just 4km to the north, in its own little valley with Tyaughton Lake, the wilderness slumbered and remained untouched until an outdoorsman named Gus Abel found it in the late 1970s.

Abel was looking for a more exclusive alternative to the by-then burgeoning resort of Whistler but one with similar attractions: a lake, surrounding mountains, dry hot summers — so it had to be in the rain shadow of the Coast Mountains — but with plenty of powder snow in winter. 

He found Tyaughton Lake with an old hunting camp named Tyax Lodge decaying on its north shore. Tyax and Tyaughton are both derived from the Chilcotin language and both mean jumping fish. It’s a good name, for the trout in the lake do indeed jump clear of the water. 

Abel bought 111ha of land around the lake but couldn’t find an investor to help develop it until a Swiss entrepreneur named Urs Villiger, scouting for just such a venture, signed up.

Construction of the resort’s lodge began in May 1986 with huge logging trucks delivering whole spruce trees to be peeled of their bark and put in place like giant Lego pieces. It took just seven months and seven days for a crew of 12 men to build it and, by Christmas Eve, the lodge was open for business. 

It is the largest freestanding log lodge (3160sqm) in Western Canada but is small for a resort and nestles sympathetically in its valley like it has always been there. Like many Canadian buildings the construction prominently features logs and is at landscape scale.

In the vast dining area, lounge and common rooms you are embraced by warm-coloured wood evoking a strong awareness of the forest outside.

The lodge is not expensive but is pretty exclusive with just 29 guestrooms, all with spectacular views, and a spa with three treatment rooms, infra-red sauna, dry sauna, eucalyptus steam room, outdoor hot tub and yoga studio. 

A little way along the lake is a camp ground for those on a tighter budget or who prefer holidays under canvas. 

There are racks of mountain bikes waiting for hardy cyclists and there is a pontoon on the lake with Canadian canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, all with life jackets and all free for guests to use. Such was the spectacle from our room that no sooner had we unpacked, my wife, daughter and granddaughter were out paddling in one canoe on the mirror-like lake while I took out another to hunt the jumping trout.

There were many fish rising gently to flies but I couldn’t see what they were taking, so I tied on the smallest fly in my tackle box; an almost invisible mosquito pattern on a size 16 barb-less hook.

It was very frustrating. There were fish, fish everywhere and not a one to catch. I did persuade two to rise to my fly but they didn’t take it. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful evening on the water.

Old trails forged by prospectors generations ago crisscross the hills and mountains surrounding the resort and provide ideal walking and mountain-bike tracks. You don’t have to walk more than a few hundred metres along one to know you’re in wild country. 

You are always aware you’re in wolf, grizzly and black bear habitat and some hikers carry bear spray, just in case, though these animals tend to avoid people in the same way we avoid them. But bears are plentiful and seen frequently, as are big horn sheep, mountain goats, grouse, deer, bald eagles and turkey buzzards. 

Occasionally visitors will be lucky enough to see a moose or a rare cougar, the latter usually only in the twilight of morning or evening. 

Closer to the resort you can expect to see delightful red squirrels and chipmunks. The resort sites nesting boxes in many of the trees surrounding the lodge to encourage these little mammals and birds.

Historically the Chilcotin Mountains were the hunting territory of the chief of the Lillooet tribes, a tough no-nonsense and astute man known by his own people and the new Canadians as Chief Hunter Jack. By the time prospectors began arriving his people had made an uneasy truce with the neighbouring Chilcotin people, after a long and bloody war in the early 1800s.

The truce allowed Jack to exercise his entrepreneurial skills. As the number of prospectors grew he started a fresh fish business to supply them with food. He also set up a ferry over the Bridge River from which he could monitor the comings and goings of everyone in “his” domain.

Early settlers heard word from the Lillooet that Chief Hunter Jack had found a rich source of alluvial gold not far from where the Tyax lodge now stands, supposedly at the headwaters of Tyaughton Creek. 

Legend has it there was so much gold that Jack would hand out nuggets to friends and guests alike at ceremonial feasts.

Jack later died in mysterious circumstances. Official records describe him having a “boating accident” on Seton Lake, a couple of valleys away from Tyaughton Lake.

The Lillooet, St’at’imc and other peoples in the region believe Jack was murdered by persons unknown after he refused to reveal the location of his goldmine. His secret died with him and intriguingly his mine remains lost today. 

Now, that rumour alone would be enough to entice me back to the Lake of Jumping Fish.

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