Protector of the Park
by Kim Cameron“Wells Gray is the last real thing that you can easily access in the bottom half of Canada.”
That’s what Merlin Blackwell believes and he should know – he’s the second generation in his family to oversee Park Services for Wells Gray Provincial Park. He, and his crew of 18 protect the Park, troubleshooting an area the size of Prince Edward Island, making each day “at the office” its own unique adventure.
“I refer to it as herding chaos,” says Blackwell who in just one day often visits all five of the parks that make up Wells Gray. “It’s like solving the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle.”
Clearing deadfall from trails, sampling lake and river water and keeping the plumbing functional may not seem like an adventure to many, but when you are working in a remote wilderness setting, a temperate, in-land rainforest, the size of Wells Gray, it most certainly is.
“It’s the best office in the world,” declares Blackwell. “You get to see things on a daily basis, have these connections with nature that most people only get once or twice a year when they come to a place like Wells Gray. I am constantly taking pictures of magical things you don’t experience anywhere else, or, when I lived in the city, I didn’t ever experience.”
Most visitors to Wells Gray spend the majority of their time exploring the Corridor area – hiking , viewing waterfalls , rafting the rivers and fishing the lakes, but Blackwell, who regularly covers all 5,250 square kilometres (3,262 square miles) of the Park, has an especially soft spot for Murtle Lake, the largest canoe-only lake in North America, where you’re unlikely to encounter others in your travels.
“Some places in the park you can walk all day and not come across anyone else,” notes Blackwell. “There’s enough space here. You may pass one other canoe paddling to your campsite, but you’re not going to find 20 or 30 people on Murtle Lake at any one time. I go into places where somebody has probably never stepped, or hasn’t walked in 30 or 50 years, places that are pretty much undisturbed.”
Keeping trails clear of any deadfall falls to Blackwell and his crew, providing them with up-close-and-personal moments with wildlife that only happen once in a lifetime. One encounter with a dozen wolf pups found Blackwell howling with the pack.
“I didn’t have a camera – you never do in these moments,” remembers Blackwell. “So I slide out of the truck and I start barking at them and they barked back a little bit, and started coming back. I (then) started howling at them and all of these wolf puppies are milling around on the side of the road howling their heads off back at me in these cute little dog voices. It went on for a minute or two until another car came up and they scooted off the road.”
Magical encounters haven’t been limited to wolf pups. Blackwell has also run into bears and cougars while deep in the rainforest.
“There have been a couple times when I’m cutting trails where I’ve basically stepped on cougars and bears because your senses and their senses are dulled by what’s going on around you – the noise of the river or wind. You accidentally get close to these animals in the rainforest that is Wells Gray – it scares both of you most of the time.”
A wilderness preserve the size of Wells Gray doesn’t change much over time and the changes Blackwell has witnessed in the last 25 years are, for the most part, positive ones.
“When we started there weren’t bear proof garbage cans. People generally don’t try to feed the animals anymore, they don’t litter anymore,” says Blackwell, noting, “Not only do they not do it themselves, but if they see somebody else doing it they have no problem telling people to clean up their act and that’s a real change over the last 25 years.”
Another change over the last 25 years is our increased reliance on technology. For most, life before laptops is a distant memory, but Blackwell points out when you come to Wells Gray, where there is limited cell service, getting and staying disconnected brings you closer to nature.
“Your cell phone doesn’t work most of the time (in Wells Gray),” he says. “So I can go to work and get away from it all, which is very different in this day and age. When you have that silence and no other distractions, you really notice a good lightening storm. There are these personal encounters with the weather I’ve experienced (that make) you realize you’re pretty small.”
When asked when his most favourite time to visit Wells Gray is, Blackwell responds with a resounding “September!” Families have returned for school making the already uncrowded Park even less so, mosquitoes are done, fishing is better and visitors to area beaches will find plenty of room to spread their beach blankets.
The magic of Wells Gray reveals itself over time and Blackwell understands, perhaps better than most, why the Park is so exceptional.
“Having something left that’s really authentic, that’s really raw – you don’t find a lot of those places left in the world.” His advice? No matter when you’re coming to Wells Gray, plan on staying longer than a day.
“If we get people in the Park for one day, quite often it becomes three days – they don’t move on, they figure ‘Wells Gray is a place where we can actually stop and relax and just sit in a lawn chair at the edge of a waterfall and take it in,’ as opposed to having to accomplish all these things on their itinerary.”
Raw, undeveloped, yet easy to access – and with Blackwell’s help Wells Gray will remain so for future generations.
Merlin Blackwell is the owner of Blackwell Parks Ltd., and the second generation in his family to act as the protector of Wells Gray Provincial Park. Blackwell is also the proprietor of Murtle Canoes, a canoe-rental outfitter on Murtle Lake.
Kim Cameron is a freelance writer who shares stories of the people, places and unique experiences found throughout British Columbia.