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Footsteps of Ghost – Barkerville Gold Rush (BC)

What’s left of the old Cariboo Gold Rush Trail isn’t hard to find before reaching Barkerville. All you have to is turn your motorcycle in the general direction of the most fabulous scenery the province of British Columbia has to offer. Poignant signs point the way. And if that fails, simply stop and listen to the ghostly shouts of men in the throes of gold fever, and the groan of their horses still in the traces as they forge on toward whatever fate holds in store.

The 1300 V-four of my maroon 2006 Yamaha RSV grunts a little as I crank on the throttle climbing to the top of Jackass Mountain in the Fraser Canyon area of BC’s interior. I’m on my way to the goldfields of yesterday, following the prospector’s path: the Cariboo Waggon Trail (yes, that’s the correct historical spelling). With me is with my riding buddy of 25 years, Bob Beck on his 1500 Gold Wing. Think of ‘Al the Pal’ in the movie Always, that’s Bob.

gold rush sign fraser canyon
Long ago, these electrifying words echoed down the Fraser River valley to Vancouver and around the world: “There’s GOLD in the Cariboo!”
This clarion call sent a rush of would-be prospectors, shysters and shovel salesmen on what is now known as the Cariboo Trail, which starts in Lillooet BC, and ends roughly in Barkerville, a distance of about 474 kilometres.

We’re headed for Barkerville, the restored epicentre of the British Columbia gold rush, named after Billy Barker, from Cambridgeshire, England, who struck the richest and most famous gold claim in 1861. This living, working, museum of a town is located on the north side of the Cariboo plateau about 80 km east of Quesnel, and 747 km northeast of Vancouver. Getting there is half the fun because the roads and scenery are fabulous. I want to sit on the balcony of Barkerville’s historic St George Hotel after the park closes, the tourists leave and watch the ghosts of horses, wagons and miners float down the dusty street.
It may be worth more than $1,400 an ounce now, but gold was only $23 back then, yet millions of dollars worth were yanked out of the dirt and shipped to the coast and beyond. Barkerville became the focus of this frenzy and the Cariboo trail became the funnel for the tidal surge of hopefuls. It was once the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Chicago.
In our era, there are essentially two ways to get to Lillooet and the start of the Cariboo Trail from the Vancouver area: Hwy 99 via the marvelous Duffey Lake Road or up the Fraser Canyon via the Trans Canada, either of which is a fantastic ride. Both routes are like a wet piece of spaghetti thrown on a map and offer spectacular roads through unsurpassed mountain scenery. One word of caution, if you decide on the Duffey Lake route fill your tank at Pemberton. There is absolutely NOTHING except switchbacks, alpine meadows, awesome mountain vistas, the wind in the trees and twisting, undulating blacktop till you roll into Lillooet.

I CHOSE TO RIDE HWY ONE EAST TO HOPE, AND NORTH UP THE spectacular Fraser Canyon, past romantic and fanciful names like Yale, Spuzzum, Boston Bar, China Bar, Spence’s Bridge, Alexandra, Hell’s Gate or Cache Creek. All along your ride, you look up at the towering sides of the canyon and wonder at the crazy twists and turns of the sedimentary layers which attest to the stupendous geologic forces at work over millions of years. There is an abandoned steel suspension bridge at Alexandra which is worth a look. It’s like a mini Golden Gate Bridge just out there over the mighty Fraser River connecting nothing to nowhere.
The ride up the canyon is more relaxed … like Route 66. Abandoned diners and motels stand as decaying monuments to the frenzied past of the canyon highway when it used to be the main route for truck traffic to the interior. Heavy truck traffic equals spectacular accidents. I recall my days with BC Ambulance and the canyon crews, recounting late night call-outs for a rolled semi in a ditch or halfway down a mountainside, then trying to start an IV on an unconscious driver while knee deep in diesel and a penlight in your teeth as the only light source.

You split off Hwy. One at Lytton, and head northwest on Hwy. 12, through the rolling interior prairie and past working cattle ranches with genuine cowhands. If you’ve never ridden over a cattle guard in the middle of a winding two-lane highway, I guarantee it will shake you out of your long-ride lethargy faster than sticking your finger in a wall socket. This stretch of road also has a white knuckle section which regularly avalanches away down an 800 foot drop to the menacing Fraser River. Until recently, there were no guard rails. There’s a spot on a similar stretch nearby where you can roll boulders like a 60-degree gravel bowling alley, down to the canyon floor and try to hit the wrecked yellow pickup of some poor sap that had the 800-ft. ride of his life.

As I blast along the contours of the valley floor, covering 80 to 100 km n an hour, I can’t even begin to conceive how much of a daily grind it was for the gold rush miners of the 1860s. They were lucky to cover five km a day punctuated with sweat, swearing, crappy weather and exhaustion. I’ll cover the distance from Hope to Lillooet in a few hours on my big touring bikea distance which took maybe a week or better back then on horseback or mule.

One thing you won’t find in this part of BC is a chain of anything, no McD’s or Starbucks, this is the last bastion of independent, colourful and eclectic family businesses like The Old Towne Inne in Boston Bar where you can sit outside in a rickety chair and listen to Janice Joplin plead for a Mercedes Benz.
The southern start of the trail in Lillooet is marked by a cairn just down the main street from one of Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie’s old courthouses (now the Lillooet town hall) and the famous “Hanging Tree” where one of the 27 recipients of Begbie’s gold town justice swung in the breeze. The street itself was designed to be wide enough so a stagecoach (or a Ducati) could make a U-turn.

barkerville main street

I FOLLOW WINDING HWY 99 NORTH OUT OF TOWN ON AN early summer day, passing the little ranching community of Pavilion and into Marble Canyon, with its towering walls and turquoise lakes, to the T-junction with Hwy. 97 just south of Clinton. Heading north to Clinton, I watched the pavement blur by six inches below my boots …aware of every tar strip, every dead critter, and nuance of temperature change, wind direction and eau de skunk mort. Cottonwood trees were sending their little fluff ball seeds floating like flak past my helmet, a few lodging themselves securely in the corner of my Raybans.
Stopping at the Cariboo Lodge in Clinton, I discover that this location was an important way point in the transport of goods, by Cataline’s freight wagons, to the goldfields. This was confirmed by old photographs lining the interior hallways.

Heading farther north on 97, the rolling grassland gave way to denser stands of pine forest and moose meadow. Settlements with names like 70 Mile House and 100 Mile House were regular stops and signified the distance from the start of the trail. Still farther north, names like McCleese Lake and Williams Lake reflected the new lay of the land and the existence of more ranches, cattle and cowpokes. Williams Lake is home to a huge annual rodeo.

Finally, we arrived in Quesnel, our stop for the evening, if we were to have a full day in Barkerville. We meet a great group of guys from Washington state and Illinois who are doing the Alaska Highway to Hyder. Mark Larsen, Doug Cox and Ed Dutton, had all gone to high school and Vietnam together while 72-year-old Uncle Bill Dutton accompanied them on his Harley decker. Bill loves cigars, so I treat him to his first Cuban. Sitting outside on plastic chairs (the owner made us take the upholstered ones back inside), stories flew fast: the usual biker banter.

Rain was in the air when we left the next morning for Hwy. 26 and the easy 80 km ride east to Wells and Barkerville. New pavement on this stretch was an unexpected pleasure as we pulled into the 1930s-era Wells Hotel to get out of the downpour. Wells was the product of the area’s second gold rush of the 1930s when President Roosevelt raised the price of gold to $34 an ounce to stop the run on banks. Jack of Clubs Lake, named after William “Jack of Clubs” Giles of Missouri, reflects the character of the era. He probably played cards, you think?

The Barkerville Experience

FINALLY, WE ROLLED INTO THE BARKERVILLE PARKING LOT AND unloaded our bags for the freight wagon ride to the historic and original St. George Hotel run by a charming and accommodating Saya Woods, who also plays the part of postmistress during the day. She is one of a cast of players who bring the town to life by representing the people of the time complete with period costumes and language. Constantly staying in character, they are amazed by our mere arrival on “horses of iron” which could travel great distances at unheard of speed.

I sought out and found the famous Judge Begbie in deep conversation with other characters lawyer Peter O’Reilly and the intense Mrs. Hodgekinson debating universal suffrage. Judge Begbie denied ever having hung anyone from a tree and insisted that “one should be properly hung from gallows.”

There are several shows put on by the players during the day. The Waterwheel Show was especially recommended by Saya and didn’t disappoint.
‘Miss Irene Playfair’ was animatedly assisted by ‘Mr. Teach’ in demonstrating the working waterwheel gold sluice which actually produced four good sized nuggets in order to get “financial backing” from members of the audience.

The Barkerville St. George Hotel is a B&B hotel, so part of the beauty was sitting around with other travelers. As if on cue during Saya’s recollection of traveling on Route 66, someone mentioned Winslow, Arizona. It was then that the parlour full of guests including a Lufthansa pilot, a British engineer, a Swiss couple, Saya, Bob and I broke into a spontaneous chorus of the Eagles’ “Take it Easy” which sort of trailed off when we couldn’t remember the rest of the lyrics.

My original aim was to sit on the balcony after the abandoned town got dark and watch the ghosts walk by and Saya augmented that by placing me in room #2, haunted by a jilted “Hurdy Gurdy” girl. After a full day of listening to horses plodding along pulling the stage and freight wagons, the stage voices of the period actors on the street like carny barkers, the silence was deafening to this city boy. No ghosts, no ‘Hurdy Gurdy’ but lots of dark and plenty of time to reflect on the authentic ambience of this resurrected gold rush town.

Barkerville is British Columbia’s answer to Silverton, Colorado, Virginia City, Nevada or Skagway, Alaska. It was a fitting end to a spectacular ride which included the great people you meet on the road. The best part is that I get to do it all over again on the way home.

– Bill Gedye (October 2011)


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