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Esk’et cowboy Bill Chelsea still has two feet in the stirrups and a hand on the reins

He wants to pass the torch but he’s still leading the charge with the Esk’et Rodeo and their roundup

Bill Chelsea is standing with one foot up on the fence rail, one hand on a gate, surrounded by people.

Every one of them are there to talk to him, and he engages with each one, talking horse prices with two men looking for horse stock, promising to go visit and have a cold beer with an old friend, giving directions to some more, and trading jokes with an old mountain race adversary.

It would be unlikely for a person observing Chelsea to accurately guess his age as he stands there, in his element as president of the Esk’et Rodeo Club on July 23, 2022, day one of the annual event.

At 77 years old, he hardly seems fazed by the crowd jockeying to talk to him after half a day of dusty rodeo action, where he was right in the thick of it all, running the tractor at times, directing other volunteers, helping out alongside the calf chutes.

While we talk, Chelsea responds to multiple other pressing duties: directing the person on the sprinkler and water pump; starting the tractor for his nephew, Chief Fred Robbins, to drag the arena between sets of racers; and giving monetary amounts to the bookkeepers so they can pay for rentals and services.

In between interruptions, he tells me pieces from his childhood.

The son of Anastasia Charlie and Patrick Chelsea, he was born at Gang Ranch, when his dad was working there. The third of what would be 12 children, Chelsea said he is the eldest remaining of the siblings.

Chelsea also spent seven years at the St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School.

He and three other boys made a plan to escape when he was just 13 years old. They stashed some food and some supplies in preparation for their journey, and when they went to leave, two others joined up with the escapees. Despite their better judgment, Chelsea said they shared their provisions, but the group soon split in two.

Chelsea said he advised the group to stay high, and go up on the mountain, but four of the other boys walked back towards Esk’et down low, and were quickly found and returned the same night.

A day and a half later, he and Phillip Robbins managed to make it back to Esk’et on foot, having stayed up on the mountain. They built a fire at night to stay warm and ate mostly dried berries.

“I was just trying to get my freedom,” he explained of the venture.

When they were returned, Chelsea said he accepted his punishment, which was a thick leather strap to the inside of his forearms. He refused to shed a tear.

Chelsea said he “graduated at Grade 7” and he didn’t go back to live in Esk’et, instead striking out on his own at 14 years old into “the real world.”

He picked up odd jobs and travelled around, haying, riding, picking apples and doing whatever needed doing at ranches and farms — even heading down south of the border to the United States.

“I turned 15 in a hayfield in Clinton,” recalled Chelsea of the period he referred to as his travels.

In 1960, Chelsea returned home to Esk’et and settled down, explaining how he took a job with the local sawmill when he figured out the money was much better than riding range and working on ranches.

He made $2.60 an hour which he considered “big money” at a time when a case of beer was $2.60 and a tin of snuff was $0.33.

Chelsea worked for Linde Brothers Sawmill for over 20 years.

But throughout his life, he was involved in horses — riding them, breaking them, rounding them up.

His nephew, Fred Robbins, recounted how when Robbins was breaking his own gelding, he was carefully working with the horse, and had just gotten the horse close to where he was going to try getting on him after many days.

Chelsea brought in a horse he was going to break and within one and a half days, Chelsea was running with the horse up the road disappearing up the hill, returning down the hill hours later, working the horse with the reins.

“It takes a lot of courage for somebody to do that,” said Robbins.

Chelsea said he learned the local area on horseback.

He recalled attempting to keep up to two older brothers when he was young, jumping logs and fences for fun.

Later on he put those riding skills to the rodeo circuit, trying his hand at every event but landing on competing in mountain races, which his father had done before him.

Chelsea said he raced at least a dozen years, winning six Williams Lake Stampede Mountain Races, finally retiring from the sport when he was in his sixties.

The horse he had won on, Mr. Little, “ran races like no other,” said Chelsea. Twice Chelsea fell off during the race and the horse kept running, crossing the finish line first, but without a rider.

After Mr. Little went blind in one eye, the horse was sold and Chelsea stopped racing.

While his days racing down hills are behind him, he does still ride in an event he began doing at the tender age of about 12 or 13 years old: the twice annual horse round-up at Esk’et.

Horses are taken out to winter range on Wycotte Flats, near the Fraser River, where they can forage over the winter through the snow and then brought back to the community in the spring.

The herd goes out in two groups of about 60 to 70 horses, the first group is rounded up and pushed out around the end of November or early December, the second goes out between Christmas and New Years.

Then in April, when the herd will be running out of feed, riders head back out and bring the herd back.

But more recently, there are barely enough riders to do the roundup, and though Chelsea would like to retire from leading it, he’s not sure who will take up the torch.

“Esk’et are horse people,” he explained, but he said there seem to be less and less cowboys taking up the reins.

His younger brother Anthony is helping with the roundup, and Bill hopes Anthony can begin to take the lead so the tradition can keep going.

As he finished his lament for the lost cowboys, Bill, with characteristic twinkle in his eye, strode off to deal with his next task at hand as president of the Esk’et Rodeo Club, directing volunteers and preparing for the next day’s rodeo.

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