Bruce and Patty Kiloh watched in horror as the accident played out roughly 30 feet in front of them.
The Langley couple were part of the Xeni Gwet’in Youth Wagon Trip through B.C.’s Cariboo, that was marred by an accident on June 27 when one of the horse-drawn wagons went over a ravine, sending four women to hospital and claiming the life of one horse.
The 35 riders and wagons had stopped for a rest at the 25 kilometre mark southwest of the Farwell Canyon Bridge before making the long descent into the canyon.
Suddenly one of the horses in the lead wagon spooked, said Dinah Lulua who was on the wagon but managed to jump off before it plunged down.
It ran to the right side of the road and then veered across to the other side, taking the other horse and wagon with its two drivers and six passengers down a steep embankment on the left side through trees, crashing about 50 feet below.
“We were going down the Farwell Canyon, very steep with huge drop-offs and cliffs, and we saw the accident unfold before our eyes,” Patty related. “The wagon was in front of us, and we were on our horses.”
“Something happened with that one team. We could see the horse acting up,” Patty said. “We could see it undulating and bucking and kicking.”
One of the horses darted to the right, towards an uphill bank, and then suddenly both horses veered left and shot off the edge of a cliff “like reindeer,” Patty said.
As the wagon flipped, Bruce said a ‘big gasp’ could be heard from the entire group.
“And then it was a mad scramble,” Bruce said.
Bruce said all the strong leaders in the group handed off their horses to others so they could run down the embankment to help the injured in any way they could.
Patty and Bruce helped the children, some of whom were as young as six.
“We made the decision of, ‘Let’s get the kids off the mountain,’” Patty said. “We really didn’t think the children should be there to see the people air ‘ambulanced’ and to see people come out on stretchers. We really didn’t know what the condition of any of them were. Those were the priorities. Get everyone off the hill, basically.”
Three elders and one young woman were flown to the hospital.
The ride continued. During a debriefing, Jimmy Lulua, a former youth worker at Xeni Gwet’in who started the wagon trip as a way to connect children with horses and the land, vowed that the accident would not end the trip.
“He started it nine years ago as a way to get aboriginal youth connected to horses,” Patty explained. “He was the one who put it straight. He said, ‘We will go on. This is a freak accident.’ He just gave a real empowering speech to everyone.”
Two days after the accident, the chief’s mother, who was injured in the accident, got out of the hospital in Williams Lake and onto the wagon “as a powerful statement,” Patty said.
Patty is related to one of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation members. Her cousin’s son married a First Nations woman from the Nemaia Valley.
“We were over visiting the cousin at Christmas time; that’s when they brought up the fact that they’d really like their 15-year-old son (Chakotay) to go on it (the trip),” Patty related. “But they weren’t able to chaperone him and they needed chaperones. So we were Chakotay’s chaperones.”
Chakotay turned 16 the day of the accident.
Reflecting on the trip as a whole, Patty said the First Nations people were very welcoming.
“Chief Roger William was a very, very good leader,” Bruce added. “The band has full support for this ride. It was pretty incredible, their whole organization and how they grasp it. They think it’s something very cultural.”
Every morning, before the ride left, the chief sings a prayer to the participants.
“He rode the whole way,” Bruce said.
Bruce taught First Nations education at Terry Fox Secondary in Port Coquitlam, so he is very in touch with the Canadian First Nations culture. For Patty, the trip was a true learning experience.
“I learned about the band and how it works; I learned about the people and how spiritual they are,” Patty said. “There’s a mix of Christianity and First Nations spirituality, that blends together. They had a memorial service and it was a blend of bagpipes and native drums, and all kinds of traditions from both cultures.”
From June 21 to July 1, the couple rode 200 kilometres on their horses. They trained for the trip by riding horses up to five hours a day along the horse trails at Campbell Valley Regional Park, near their home in south Langley.
– Files from Monica Lamb-Yorski, Williams Lake Tribune