A braided story of First Nations, fur trading, the Gold Rush and ranching weaves the history of the Cariboo to life. The story of the South Cariboo is written in the numbers signposted along Highway 97’s original roadhouse towns. About every 21km/13mi along this historic 644km/400mi route, a roadhouse was located. Travellers could journey its entire length by stagecoach in four days, providing they could afford $130 for a one way ticket. Today, Hat Creek Ranch is one of the Cariboo’s largest surviving roadhouses, just 11km/7mi north of Cache Creek amid rolling, sagebrush hills at the junction of Highways 97 and 99. This B.C. Heritage Site marks the crossroads where all major threads of the South Cariboo’s compelling history – fur trading, ranching, First Nations culture and gold – intersect. Most of the roadhouses are long gone, while a few have evolved into villages and towns where modern-day travellers can still trace the region’s gold rush past through a landscape that appears airlifted out of an old western.
Prospectors and merchants ventured to the Central Cariboo in 1859 after the news of a big gold strike on the Horsefly River, 65km/40mi east of Williams Lake. The following year, William Pinchbeck, a tough police constable from Victoria, arrived to keep law and order; juggling jobs as lawyer, judge, and jailer while building a homestead and rest house with restaurant, saloon, general store and race-horse track. Race days attracted hundreds of spectators, including one memorable contest in 1861 when the stakes were a whopping $100,000. Pinchbeck was a busy man, his roadhouse, already famous for its White Wheat Whiskey (from his own distillery at 25 cents a shot), suffered no lack of business and he came to own almost the entire Williams Lake River Valley. Pinchbeck’s grassy gravesite above his former ranch is one of the most famous in the Cariboo, overlooking the Williams Lake Stampede Grounds.
The Cariboo Gold Rush of the 1860s came to an end about a decade after its start, and its prospectors fled. With paddle-wheelers plying the Fraser River and interior lakes, and a major railway to come, the region’s newly settled farmers and ranchers stayed on. Soon a new wave of modern-day adventurers followed, seeking their own golden dreams in the North Cariboo, a region as rich in untapped wilderness as it once was in gold.
To the northeast of Quesnel, the Blackwater River is the eastern entry point of the Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail (Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail). Extending 420km/261mi westward to the Pacific, this historic trail was once the Nuxalk (nu-halk) and Carrier First Nations’ primary trade route. Here in 1793, famed explorer Alexander Mackenzie traced its unmapped terrain to become the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean by land.
Unlike the Cariboo, the Chilcotin was never invaded by swarms of gold crazed prospectors, so developed much differently. It’s a world of few roads, little industry and pockets of people, the majority being First Nation. It has an impressive diversity of wildlife, including Canada’s largest population of bighorn sheep, rare white pelicans, trumpeter swans, bears, lynx, wolves, mountain caribou and hundreds of wild horses. This makes it the perfect place for anyone wanting to explore the pristine Canada of their imagination.
Nothing reflects the spirit of the region more than the completion of Highway 20, at one time known as the Freedom Road, because its completion freed up access to the central coast. Until 1953, the road ended at Anahim Lake, 137km/85mi short of Bella Coola on the coast because the provincial government refused to extend it – claiming the mountainous terrain was too difficult. So, local volunteers working from opposite ends with two bulldozers and supplies purchased on credit finished the job. This determination and independent spirit remains in the fabric and character of the Chilcotin and Coastal residents today. The rustic road was not really considered a highway when first completed, but it was enough to convince the government to take over maintenance and improvements in 1955.
Those who settled this isolated region had to be tough – like Nellie Hance, who, in 1887, became the first white woman to travel into the Chilcotin by journeying 485km/301mi riding side saddle on horseback to reach her husband Tom’s trading post near Lee’s Corner (also known as Hanceville).
Others were not only tough but, perhaps, a little crazy. Rancher Norman Lee, after whom Lee’s Corner was named, set out from his spread in May 1898 with 200 head of cattle on a 2,500km/1,553mi trek to the Klondike goldfields. None of his cattle survived the journey, but Lee did, arriving in Vancouver five months later with a roll of blankets, a dog and one dollar. Borrowing enough money for the train to Ashcroft and a horse to ride home, Lee was soon ranching again and by 1902 was well on the way back to prosperity. His descendants are still ranching in the Chilcotin today.
As white settlers arrived, most of the First Nation Chilcotin chiefs were friendly and cooperative, particularly when treated with equality and respect. Many of the First Nations worked with settlers as ranch hands, cowboys, packers and guides. Others started their own freight companies using teams and wagons, or homesteaded ranches while their wives sewed and sold moccasins and gloves made from tanned deer and caribou hides, and robes made from marmot fur.
The Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, became famous for his expeditions in and across the South Pacific. But, well before this fame, he explored British Columbia’s central coast extensively, researching the lifestyles and origins of the indigenous people who live here. As a result of his investigation, he was later able to theorize about similarities among the British Columbian First Nations people and those who lived on far-removed Pacific islands. That gave rise to his theories – and later explorations – about indigenous peoples around the Pacific having related roots. Even though his theories were never accepted by anthropologists, Heyerdahl’s life’s work began in the inlets, islands, and mainland of this craggy coastline and directly led to his legendary explorations.
Of course, Heyerdahl wasn’t the first non-native person to explore these shores. In 1793, an intrepid 29-year old Scotsman named Alexander Mackenzie – accompanied by seven French Canadian voyageurs and two First Nations porters – paddled into the Dean Channel near present-day Bella Coola. That event completed the first crossing of North America to the Pacific. Before returning east, the explorer scrawled an inscription on a rock using a reddish mixture of bear grease and vermilion: ‘Alex Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, 22nd July, 1793.’ That rock still bears his words, permanently inscribed by surveyors who followed.
The highway through the Bella Coola Valley parallels the ancient trading route, or ‘grease trail’, taken by Alexander Mackenzie on his way to the sea in 1793. Long before Mackenzie’s arrival, the Nuxalk (nu-halk) people thrived here alongside the salmon-filled rivers. The valley was part of a trade corridor between coastal and interior native groups, where furs and leather were exchanged for salmon and eulachon (oo-lick-an) oil. The oil was obtained from the rendered fat of the small herring-like fish that was valued for its calories and vitamin content. It was then transported along the ‘grease’ trails.
The landscape northwest of Bella Coola is some of the most isolated in the province. Across a 3,000,000hec/7,413,160ac area that lies within the Great Bear Rainforest remains the largest tract of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world. Several ancient First Nations cultural sites can be found here, as well as a striking array of wildlife, including the Kermode (or Spirit Bear), a rare, white-coated variation of the black bear that is sacred to B.C.’s First Nation people.
Explorers from Russia, Britain, France, and Spain also came to this region in the last quarter of the 18th century, motivated by the chance of trade, although Spain was here to protect its then territorial waters. Getting here by ship is much easier now than in either Mackenzie or Heyerdahl’s time. Ports of call may include Bella Bella, McLoughlin Bay, Shearwater, Klemtu, Ocean Falls, and the Hakai Pass.