by Gerry Clare (1997)
As we set out for Prince George, giving ourselves five hours for a leisurely journey through the mountains, it’s hard to appreciate the problems the first European explorers had in crossing the Rockies through the Pine Pass. So, as the miles of smooth pavement and easy grades slip by outside your car window, consider this …
It’s certain that the pass was used in pre-European times before it was “discovered” in 1877 by Joseph Hunter, but its exact route from Fort McLeod to the Peace was not common knowledge and there didn’t seem to be any well-defined trails leading to it. Both Charles Horetzky and William Butler advised the CPR to check the unexplored Pine River Pass and, in 1875, Selwyn tried twice — unsuccessfully — from the Fort McLeod side and again by ascending the Pine River from near Fort St John.
In the summer of 1877, Joseph Hunter was sent by the CPR to finally locate the elusive pass. Following directions from an elderly Indian woman at Fort McLeod, Hunter and his crew headed up the Misinchinka River on July 18, fighting their way through dense underbrush until they ran into what seemed to be an impassable rock wall. Hunter climbed as high as he could — about 5,000 feet — but could still see no break in the mountains ahead. A small tributary of the Misinchinka was followed to its source in a wet meadow. Deeply discouraged, Hunter was sitting in his tent pondering the future of the expedition when he heard the call of loons, a sure indication that there was a lake somewhere nearby, ahead of them.
Leaving most of the survey party in camp, Hunter and two men pushed rapidly on until they found the lake — Azouzetta — where a pair of loons greeted them suspiciously. Passing quickly around the lake to its north end, Hunter found a small stream flowing away to the north-west and a view of a great valley ahead.
Hunter returned for his crew and they set out confidently, finally crossing the pass on August 11 and reaching East Pine on the 28th. The Pine Valley was a nearly impenetrable tangle of underbrush and fallen timber so Hunter and his men stayed in the riverbed where possible, crossing and recrossing it 137 times before they were able to abandon it at the end of August for the more open country above the river. They made their last camp just east of the Kiskatinaw River and returned over the Pine Pass to Fort McLeod, arriving there on September 27.
There was no highway at all through the Rockies by way of the Pine Pass until 1952 when the Hart Highway was opened. It was a primitive and rough road — much of it rebuilt since then — but it finally gave the Peace River country access to the rest of British Columbia without having to go through Alberta.