The pride of Tatlayoko
Pioneer cowgirl Gerry Bracewell has been described as the “Annie Oakley of the Chilcotin.”
June 10th, 2015
We’ve asked Cariboo-Chilcotin journalist Sage Birchwater to comment on Gerry Bracewell’s memoir, Gerry Get Your Gun (Caitlin $24.95), released by Bracewell at age 92, after she has lived as a trailblazer and a guide in the Chilcotin Valley for over 75 years.
Sage Birchwater has known Gerry Bracewell for the better part of forty years.
The unlikely pair were neighbours when he bought his trapline in the West Branch Valley of the Homathko River in 1975. Even though they lived a day’s travel apart in the early days, with a whole mountain range separating their homes, they were close neighbours all the same. They frequented the same social gatherings: potlucks, an annual ski race, the Tatla Lake Gymkhana, weddings, funerals and occasional dances. And they ‘dined’ at Bruno’s Cafe in the Graham Inn.
Their community occupied a broad footprint from Tatla Lake to West Branch, Kleena Kleene, Tatlayoko Valley, Eagle Lake and the Upper Chilko River—landscape so foreign to most British Columbians that it might as well have been the moon. Everyone helped one another, including elders, bachelors, families with newborns, families with teens, wealthy ranchers, dirt-poor bush hippies, First Nations, loggers, trappers, stump farmers, lodge owners, professionals of all stripes and retirees. Age was no barrier, race was not an issue, social status was insignificant.
Everyone mixed seamlessly. Bracewell and Birchwater became friends, even though they couldn’t have been further apart politically. “She was right wing conservative,” he says, “and I was a bleeding heart lefty. She was building a great lodge, and I was raising goats on my trapline and having babies born at home. But these differences were minor. We had bigger things in common. Our abiding love for the Chilcotin was perhaps our biggest bond.” They also shared a passion for writing as rural correspondents for the Williams Lake Tribune. They didn’t compete. In fact, they often fed each other stories.
By Sage Birchwater
Gerry Bracewell has always courted a strong sense of destiny. When she was a 31-year-old single mom, she felt compelled to drive her pickup truck to the end of the dirt road at Anahim Lake and rent two horses to take her and her two young sons to the construction site on the Bella Coola Hill.
It was September, 1953, and two bulldozers were coming from opposite directions pushing a road through the Coast Mountains. They were on the verge of meeting, and Gerry wanted to be there to record this historic moment for all posterity with her fixed-lens windup 8 mm movie camera.
When she got there with her two sons, Marty and Barry, the fateful meeting of the Cats was still two weeks away, but Gerry was undaunted. She took some spectacular footage of the construction activity in the mountain landscape and left her camera with one of the Cat drivers, Alf Bracewell, to capture the moment when it occurred.
Gerry and Alf barely knew each other at the time, but four months later they were man and wife.
Two husbands, four children, nine grandchildren, and two great grandchildren later, Gerry has made her mark. She chuckles that those who live the longest have the final say in defining history.
For instance there are a couple of mountains Gerry has named in her home country of Tatlayoko Valley. Marmot Mountain stands by itself, prominently occupying the lowlands between Cheshi Pass and Stikelan Valley. It lies between the Potato Mountain Range and the snow-capped Coast Mountain Ranges further south.
The rancher who named this peak, Huckleberry Mountain, is long gone, so Gerry put her own brand on the marmot-inhabited hill that she built a trail to. She may have trouble convincing mapmakers to change its name, but the appellation of the other mountain she named after her late husband, Alf Bracewell, will have more permanence. Gerry registered the Alf Bracewell Range after Alf’s passing ten years ago in recognition of his achievements pioneering the Bella Coola Road through the Coast Mountains.
Gerry Bracewell was born Ethel Lovell in the northern Alberta farm country where she was raised. She came to Vancouver as a 16-year-old in 1938, getting a job as a nanny and housekeeper. One day she and another nanny her age decided to attend a dance in Vancouver’s Moose Hall. While riding in the streetcar, they hatched out a scheme not to give out their real names at the dance. Ethel said she would be Gerry, and Elsa decided on the name Jacquie. The names stuck.
Gerry spent the following summer working on a ranch at Big Creek—where she took a “selfie” of herself [see photo] at the time. She told Jacquie about all the fun she had in ranching country. When Gerry returned to the Chilcotin to work for KB Moore in Tatlayoko, Jacquie followed her lead and checked out Big Creek for herself. Gerry married KB Moore’s son, Bev, and Jacquie married local cowboy and rancher, Duane Witte.
Her mentor, KB Moore, trained her to become the first female hunting guide in the province. Since the she has had more than her share of hard core adventures—such as encounters with grizzly bears in the high alpine while leading a half-broke packhorse on a rugged trail. Or how about her January sleigh ride through a foot-and-a-half of snow, from Tatlayoko Valley to Tatla Lake, to meet the doctor who had driven 225 kilometres west from Williams Lake to deliver her breech-birth first child?
In addition to being a ranch hand and spending 50 years guiding visitors through the wilderness, Bracewell’s resumé includes helping create the area’s early school system, advocating for the school district, working and writing for the Williams Lake Tribune, running her own ranch and raising four children.
In 2004, she was inducted into the BC Cowboy Hall of Fame as a Pioneer Rancher.
Gerry Get Your Gun depicts Bracewell’s wild adventures as she perseveres and pioneers through the harsh life of ranching in the remote wilderness of B.C. Snippets of her book were being written when she had the time.
“I’m overwhelmed that the book is finally out,” she confesses. “That’s the best word I can think of at the moment. I didn’t think it would happen because I was always such a busy person. I’d do it piecemeal. I’d write what I could then I’d have to go out and milk the cow or feed the chickens, then I’d come back and write a bit more.”
Gerry Bracewell will turn 93 in July. Meanwhile she can still be found at her Alpine Wilderness Lodge in Tatlayoko Valley, her resort and guiding outfit that can be viewed www.bracewell.com