How to enjoy Kinuseo Falls

Charles Helmviewpoint

There is no doubt about it. Kinuseo Falls remains the single most popular natural tourist attraction in the Tumbler Ridge area and within the Tumbler Ridge UNESCO Global Geopark. While the quality of the access road still leaves much to be desired, many residents and visitors remain undeterred, and make the one hour road journey. Others choose to view the falls by jet boat or helicopter.

For the past decade or so the only options open to visitors who drive to the falls were the disabled-accessible 200 metre trail to the viewing platform at the top of the falls (Lower Viewpoint) and the steeper 200 metre trail to the Upper Viewpoint, from which the falls could be viewed from the side. A very steep route to the pool at the base of the falls was enjoyed by some, but BC Parks does not maintain or endorse this route due to its steepness and instability.

This changed in the summer of 2015, when the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society (WNMS), through its volunteer partnership agreement with BC Parks, received permission to reopen and redevelop the “Portage Route”. This trail, which leads for a kilometre down to the Murray River below the falls, had been developed by BC Parks staff around 1990, but had subsequently been closed off. It also has a spur to a most spectacular viewpoint, with a view immortalized by the famous photo taken by R.E. Leake in 1938. (Leake was the official photographer for the Monkman Pass Highway project.)

I enjoyed the privilege of clearing that route in June of 2015 with WNMS volunteers Brandon Braam and Thomas Clark. We celebrated at the end of the day by removing the “TRAIL CLOSED” sign at the start of the trail. But the amazing thing was the number of people who followed us as we were clearing the route. No fewer than 28 hikers from seven different parties came behind us, thanked us, and enjoyed the splendid view. When we returned a couple of months later, the Portage Route had become a well-trodden trail. The message was clear: many people don’t just want to drive an hour, park, and walk a short distance to an artificial platform to enjoy the falls. Instead, they want a deeper connection, to be had by getting onto this Portage Route and seeing the falls in their full splendour from downstream.

Over the winter a few of us Googled “Leake” + “Kinuseo Falls”. Sure enough, some images popped up from the Archives of the Grande Prairie Museum. Soon the friendly staff there provided us with copies of photos by Leake that we had never known existed. It transpired that in addition to reaching his main viewsite, Leake had not only gone down to river level to photograph the falls, but he had explored further downstream to other viewpoints, despite his gammy leg following a wartime injury.

In the spring of 2016 volunteers improved the steeper parts of the Portage Route. A few weeks later these improved sections were so well worn in, it seemed they had been there for years. Then we were ready to explore downstream, in the footsteps of R.E. Leake. We found his viewpoints, reaching a natural elevated area with spectacular rock formations and an astonishingly fine view upstream of Kinuseo Falls.

Each of the Kinuseo Falls viewpoints is different, but this “Downstream Viewpoint” has some unique effects, with the rock formations in the foreground, the winding river leading the eye to the falls in the distance, and the magnificence of Castle Mountain on the horizon towering directly above the falls. In common with just a few other waterfalls worldwide, such as Yellowstone Falls, Kinuseo Falls may sometimes appear at its very finest from a distance, not up close.

After this initial recce with my son Daniel, and after getting approval from BC Parks to proceed, I had the honour of developing the 300 metre route extension to this great viewpoint with WNMS volunteers Anthony Moreau and Antonio Suncion, by stitching existing game trails together. Anthony arranged an impromptu movie on his phone for the Geopark blog. Within two weeks it had received almost 40,000 likes, evidence if any were needed on the power of social media.

Our application to BC Parks for funding for 2016-17 now includes further enhancements to this route: safety signs, directional and distance signage, interpretive Geopark signage, and material costs.

As word of this spreads, more visitors can be expected. Because they will be at the falls for longer, it becomes less feasible for them to do Kinuseo Falls as a day trip off the Alaska Highway or from elsewhere in the region, and more likely that they will spend the night either in Monkman Provincial Park or in Tumbler Ridge, with obvious local economic benefits.

Through this process, how best to enjoy our most popular natural destination has changed for fitter visitors and residents. Kinuseo Falls is becoming, once again, the wilderness attraction that it once was. WNMS volunteers have helped design, build and maintain over 100 kms of hiking trails in the Geopark, but it is likely that these 1200 metres of reopened and extended route will be the most profoundly influential. Huge thanks are due to Kevin Wagner and his BC Parks staff for their support and encouragement.