Exploring the grasslands with Chris Harris

By Anita Willis
Anita Willis

Photo: Art Studio 21 Photography

Chris Harris is a lucky man. As a guide on the Bowron lakes—a route he has canoed 119 times—he often paddled in sunshine while others a day or two behind endured rain and even snowstorms.

“Some of our friends call him ‘Horseshoes Harris,’” his partner Rita Giesbrecht volunteers.

A smile breaks through Harris’s thick beard; the full-time photographer doesn’t deny his good fortune, though he’s worked hard to enhance it. At 67, he lives in a picturesque straw-bale home the couple built just north of 100 Mile House. Accessed by a country road that bumps over a cattle gate, Aspen House sits on a rise, its front porch overlooking a small wetland. Just downhill is the Chris Harris Studio Gallery, where visitors can view Harris’s limited-edition photo prints and self-published pictorial books.

“You know,” Harris chuckles, glancing at me in his car’s rearview mirror, “I’d forgotten about this, but back when I played hockey, I used to put this little silver horseshoe in my cup.”

The four of us explode with laughter at this intimate admission. Harris is driving Giesbrecht, my husband, and I to a grasslands area about two hours north of 100 Mile House. It was Harris’s photography that compelled me to make this trip. After reviewing his submission for this issue’s “Fields of gold” article, I couldn’t wait to book one of Giesbrecht’s guided walks through this scenic wonderland.

“When I started, I didn’t know anything about ‘the grasslands,’” Harris admits. “It was just part of the landscape of the Cariboo-Chilcotin I’d been shooting for years. I didn’t know it was this whole special ecosystem.”

Harris credits Mike Duffy of British Columbia’s Grasslands Conservation Council with inspiring Spirit in the Grass: The Cariboo-Chilcotin’s Forgotten Landscape, due out in October. He and Duffy canoed the Bowron together in 2003 and, by journey’s end, Harris had acquired a deep appreciation for the dwindling grasslands habitat.

“If you just take a picture, a documentary picture, you don’t capture the spirit of the landscape. It doesn’t show you the emotion of the place, or of the photographer,” says Harris. “That was my challenge with the grasslands. What to show to make people care about it.”

At a sharp switchback, Harris pulls off the highway. This viewpoint is where he set up a daylong vigil to photograph the lazuli bunting for his new book. Harris peers intently into the shallow draw, which pulsates with birdsong. Then, incredibly, he spots one. He gathers us in and points to the little bird, a cinnamon-breasted male with a shimmering turquoise head.

It’s easy to see why Harris was such a popular wilderness guide. A man of gentle good humour, he observes the natural world with a keen and appreciative eye. As we drive the back roads toward Riske Creek Ranch, he is as delighted as his two urban passengers when a black bear and two cubs galumph onto the roadway.

Out on the land, Harris leads with his long easy stride. Giesbrecht matches my pace, pausing to share names and adaptive strategies of various plants: the bold yellow salsify that turns its flowered face to follow the sun; the clumps of bunchgrass with their strategic centre pocket designed to collect rainwater.

“Appreciating the grasslands,” she says, “is all about appreciating the minutia.”

Clouds darken as we approach the Chilcotin’s banks. We huddle under a lone tree during a brief rainstorm, then carry on to the cliffs. The wind buffets our bodies as we teeter along a sedimentary ridge, its banks laced with hoof trails. Harris, bringing his camera to his eye, calls out “Anita, look!” as a half dozen mountain sheep bound down the next ridge.

The sky clears and we picnic in sunshine on a cliff overlooking a picture-perfect oxbow of the Chilcotin and tiered benchlands lining the valley. Not a house in sight, and in five hours of hiking, we’ve not seen another person on this vast range.

Harris has dedicated more than three years and considerable resources to his new book. The emotional power of his photographs certainly captured me; I drove more than 500 kilometres from my Victoria home to see these rare grasslands. If luck holds for Horseshoes Harris, his images will have the same effect on you.

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Christine Ly

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