27th – 31st July – We are back amongst the mountains, forested hillsides, blue lakes and tumbling rivers, steep sided canyons and fields full of wild flowers as we head north towards Prince George. No wonder car number plates here begin with the words…….’Beautiful British Columbia.’
For thousands of years, the Cariboo, Chilcotin Coast region of British Columbia, has been home to several different tribal groups…..known as the FIrst Nations. We enter the Cariboo region, where prospectors, adventurers and historians have followed the original Cariboo Wagon Road on the Gold Rush Trail. Named after the once, abundant woodland Caribou, Cariboo country consists of three sections, the South, Central and North, all linked by the Cariboo Highway 97 that stretches from Lillooet and Cache Creek in the south to Hixon and Stoner in the north, the Cariboo Mountains bordering this area in the east, with the Fraser River to the west. We stop to look at this river soon after Lillooet as it winds its way through the rugged Fraser Canyon, just a small section of this mighty river as it makes its way to the sea. Desert country here, etched by the winds and scorched by the sun, it is said to be a land of rattlesnakes and prairie dogs, where eagles soar amongst the mountains in search of prey.
Once the gold rush began in the1860s, enticing gold seekers from all corners of the world, mining towns and road houses sprang up almost overnight from Lillooet northward.
About every 21km along this historic 644km route, a roadhouse was built, so that travellers could journey the entire length by stagecoach in four days, provided they could afford the one way ticket! Most of the roadhouses are long gone but Hat Creek Ranch in the southern Cariboo is one of the few remaining roadhouses that still survive today. The surrounding dry, desert grasslands and sagebrush hills are turning golden as we decide to take a site at their small campground. Horses roll in the dust behind us and a bald eagle is sitting on a branch of a dead tree. Walking trails take us up into the hills and to explore the ranch, which has an interesting Interpretive Section on how the Shuswap settlers lived.
Although the Gold Rush ended many years ago, as we travel this route today, the people that we meet, appear proud to call this region their home and we feel they still have that pioneering spirit.
Hat Creek Ranch.
The Central Cariboo begins just after Lac La Hache and continues north to Williams Lake, located at the crossroads of Highways 97 and 20 and named after Chief William, a Secwepemc Indian Chief. From here we decide to take a back country road to Horsefly where the first gold discovery of the Cariboo Gold Rush was made in the Horsefly River in 1859. Amazingly the gold nuggets were clearly visible, having been exposed by sockeye salmon during their gravel churning spawning! This dirt road takes us through a land of rivers and lakes, fed from the Cariboo Mountains and some wild and beautiful countryside amongst pine forests and meadows. A young, black bear is taken by surprise as we round a bend and quickly lopes off into the forest. It’s hard to imagine this landscape under 3-5 feet of snow in the winter months, with temperatures dropping to -20 degrees and maybe more! We camp at Horsefly Lake Provincial Park where we are able to barbecue our steaks and enjoy with a glass of Canadian Chardonnay……what better way to end a day!
Our back road continues through the small settlement of Likely, named after the prospector John Likely and located close to Quesnel Lake. We spend another night camping on the edge of the very beautiful and deep blue Cariboo Lake and wish we had a canoe with us. The distant Cariboo Mountains rise rugged from the pine forests.
Our dirt road changes to tarmac just before reaching Barkerville in the North Cariboo. This has now become one of Canada’s National Historic sites following Billy Barker’s discovery of gold in William’s Creek in 1862, which triggered a stampede of thousands of prospectors to the area. They converged on the aptly named Barkerville, which quickly became a typical gold rush boom town with businesses of every description to provide supplies and entertainment for the miners who arrived in droves.
Today, Barkerville is a unique streetscape of over 125 heritage buildings, where many of the period room displays give the feeling that the occupants of long ago, have just up and left, leaving all their possessions intact. We find it a fascinating place, made more interesting by talking with the men and women dressed as historical characters who arrive to continue a days work here, bringing a bygone era back to life and sharing the joys and the hardships of life on the frontier. One thing is for sure, they must have been very brave and hardy to have survived the winters here.
From Barkerville we head west to Quesnel and then north to Prince George, largest city in northern British Columbia. From here we turn west again on Highway 16, also known as ‘The Highway of Tears’ after a number of people have disappeared on this stretch of road over past years. We meet up once again with our friend Renee and her two little dogs, Yorkie and Freda at a municipal campground in Vanderhoof…..great to see them all again!
We have heard that salmon are arriving to spawn in the rivers in Hyder, Alaska and so the bears will be arriving there too for their meals. This will be our next destination, a really good chance hopefully to see some more grizzlies and black bears plus a visit to the Salmon Glacier that should provide some stunning scenery.