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Exploring Northern B.C. - Part 4 (Barkerville)

Burns Lake to Barkerville (410 kilometres)

Civilization has begun to creep back in as we drive from Burns Lake. Yes, there are still pretty lakes and gorgeous fall colours, but gone are the empty forest-lined highways. Lots of vehicles now, lots of development. I miss the north already.

By late afternoon, we reach Quesnel and turn east. I imagine the relief of the travellers as they turned in here back in the mid-1800s, on the last stretch of the Cariboo Waggon Trail, knowing their long journey to the gold fields was almost over.

A few kilometres in, we pull into the historic Cottonwood House, one of the most famous roadside inns back in the days of the goldrush. It's now an operational farm that still uses traditional farm tools, and typically offers travellers a peek into the past and a chance to hang out with some kid-friendly animals. But, like so many places we’ve seen on this journey, the site is closed due to COVID.

Our curiosity gets the best of our morals though and we rebelliously hop the fence. A 3-km trail leads us around the property and we sneak up to the weather-beaten wooden cabins scattered about. I peek into the dusty windows, sad I can't wander through the spartan but cozy bedrooms and quaint kitchens.

John Boyd, a 15-year old boy when he came to BC from Ireland, alone and looking for work, became successful enough to buy Cottonwood House when he was 40. He ran it with his wife and 11 children as a farm at first, but then made it into a welcome stopping point for the gold miners, offering animal feed, supplies, and a comfortable place to rest and eat.

Our sneaky visit at an end, we hop back over the locked gate and continue along the winding highway. Darkness has fallen by the time we reach a pullout named Lover’s Leap, and we decide to park rather than push on to Barkerville. Aaron and I stand on the edge of a steep bank and look down. Back in the mid-1800s, the story says, a lovelorn stagecoach driver threatened his beautiful passenger that, unless she agreed to marry him, he’d drive the coach right off this hill. She didn’t, he didn’t, and a sign now marks the spot that all this didn’t happen.

In the light of the day, we drive the pretty, winding and again, tree-lined road toward Barkerville. After a quick stop to admire the views at the gorgeous, Jack of Clubs Lake, we continue until we hit a scattering of pastel-coloured homes a few kilometres before Barkerville.

We’ve reached the historical Town of Wells. Normally a tiny town of just 200 people, Wells’ population triples in the summer with students and actors who work at Barkerville. COVID has emptied these streets as well.

The Frog on the Bog is open for business though. We browse the tiny, filled-to-the brim gift shop as we wait for talkative and friendly owner to brew me a cup of what he promises will be ‘really, really great coffee.’ It’s good and strong anyways, that’s for sure, and I buzz out the door after only a few sips.

And then we’re at Barkerville, set up in a quiet, tree-lined campsite at the Lowhee Campground, one of two provincial campsites just outside the tourist town. Putting off our tour ‘til tomorrow when sun is promised, we hang out at the campsite until the light rain stops and the sun comes out.

Our rainjackets on, just in case the rain appears again, we meander down a small trail that surrounds the site, inhaling the fresh smell of wet leaves and spruce needles and poking our noses into little nooks that I’m almost sure fairies sleep in.

Small wonderlands where vividly green mosses and bunchberry plants glisten with raindrops, red Indian paintbrush, wild strawberries, and a crazy variety of mushrooms pop from the ground.

And then it’s tomorrow. And the sun is out as promised.

And Barkerville, a place that typically holds thousands of curious tourists, is almost empty! There can’t be more than three other couples on this main street running through town. Lucky us!

We wander first through the small museum at the entrance where, through black and white pictures, we see the small town, before and after the fire that completely destroyed it, then again when it built back up.

We see the mess left where pristine creek beds used to lie and the hillsides stripped of its lush trees to construct the town. Clearly, no environmental regs in place in those days.

Outside again, I overhear a couple of locals conversing as they meet just ahead of us on the dirt street.

"Good morning Mr. Jacobsen,” says a middle-aged woman in a starched white blouse and long, hooped skirt to the man next to her, a tall, lean and mustachioed gentleman in a dark vest and long coat with tails.

“You’ve escaped the courthouse on this fine morning, I see,” the woman says, patting the bonnet atop her head to ensure no hairs have strayed from it.

“I have indeed,” responds Mr. Jacobsen, who I assume to be the town’s lawyer, smiling brightly at the woman. “And yes, a mighty fine morning, it is!“

Giggling at their old-style dialect, I follow the woman as she breaks off from the man and walks into a small building.

“Hello!” I say brightly to the woman’s back, a smile ready for when she turns around.

“Good morning and welcome…I’m Miss Smith,“ she says as she turns and removes her bonnet.

Are you the teacher?” I ask curiously, noting the chalkboard in front of about ten small desks with holes in their corners for inkwells.

“No,” she says, laughing heartily. “I’m a hurdy-gurdy girl,” she says with no sign of embarrassment. I’m taken aback by her statement; she looks much more conservatively dressed than I thought a dancing girl would look.

“We’re a treasured sector of this town’s society,” the smiling woman tells me. “I’ve been here since I was 16. Most of us girls were very young when we were brought to Barkerville. And, oh, it was a terrible time for us. I was so scared, all by myself with all these strangers. But it was what my father had to do. We were very poor. The man who came to our home, promised my father that our debts would be paid if I would accompany the men back to Barkerville. They needed women, you see. The men were sick of waltzing with each other at the town dances.” She sighs dramatically before going on. “What daddy didn’t know, though, was that I would have to pay that family debt off by dancing and entertaining the men of Barkerville. What with the cost of my ship passage and the dresses I was ‘given,’ and my meals and bed, I’m basically indebted to work here forever to pay it back,” she says, with sadness, fully immersed in her role.

We chat a little longer and then say goodbye, exiting the one-roomed schoolhouse and continuing down the street.

A wooden boardwalk fronts the buildings, and we climb them, appreciating their value to the gentlemen and ladies in 1860 whose shoes would have been ruined by the muddy streets if not for those raised sidewalks.

Most buildings are closed because of COVID but, through the dusty, pocked glass in the weather-beaten window frames, we see walls papered in gaudy designs that make me both giggle and cringe.

At the end of town, where the town becomes a little rougher looking, we meet Flo, a young Chinese woman who is keen to tell us ‘her’ story. “I came here with my family in 1901,” she tells us. “It was quite awful,” she continues. “I left a place where the weather was always warm and I wore beautiful, silk dresses, and fanned myself with expensive, ivory fans, to this freezing cold town in the middle of nowhere with no running water! She sighs. “We were treated terribly, kept away from the ‘whites’ and given land that always flooded and horribly hard to grow anything in.”

Brightening a little then, still embracing her role, she then tells us how her family and the other Chinese successfully perservered through that bleak time, building successful businesses - laundries and grocers - that the white population relied on.

In another building, we meet Mr. Ben Zhou. Handsome, with fine features and kind, brown eyes, Mr. Zhou sits in the poorly-lit, musty one-roomed Chinese school and talks proudly about ‘his’ efforts to teach the children in his school their alphabet. “Just a few letters I teach them,” he explains. “Just 3000 of them,” he says to my

amazement, explaining that there are another 47,000 that they don’t learn! Holy! Tough to be a Chinese pre-schooler!

We discover that Mr. Zhou is, in his real life, a concert musician who plays multiple instruments all around the world. He shows us one of them, a simple but beautiful one-string thing (a violin?) and smiles and brings it to his shoulder when we ask him to play. He plays two beautiful songs for lucky us.

An old, grizzled miner greets us by the old sluice in the last street before the creek. He brings us over to a map and shows us the various creeks where gold’s been found over the years. “This one here’s where ol’ Billy found the big ‘un back in 1862 – 60 ounces!” he says, pointing to a blue line on the map.

‘Billy’ must be the famous ‘Billy Barker’ I’m assuming. The guy Barkerville is named after. The guy who, despite pulling out a shitload of gold from the area, died without a dollar to his name, his jaw riddled with cancer from, they say, the cigarettes he smoked non-stop to relieve the stress of having so much gold. Give me that kind of stress, I think. I’ll take it.

Leaving Mr. Miner, we walk up a street, and find Mike Retasket, a member of the Soda Creek band in the Cariboo. He's thrilled to be able to tell the story of how First Nations contributed to the gold rush and to be able to support aboriginal tourism. He tells us about Barkerville's new and exciting virtual 'Field Trip,' an online program that allows educators and students to interact with figures from Barkerville's fascinating history.

Mike shares a couple of stories with us. “We Indians helped the white men find gold back in the day,” he tells us. He tells us of the day an Indian man and his son out hunting saw a white man ‘cleaning dirt’ by the stream. They approached the man to find out why he’d be doing such a crazy thing. The stranger pulled a small nugget from his pocket, miming to the two Indians that he was panning the creek for it. From his pocket, the little boy pulled a huge gold nugget. It was a toy the boy played with regularly, one he could thrown against a rock to dent it then hammer it back into shape again – lots of fun. Certainly nothing he thought was valuable.

A bad decision in hindsight, but an unselfish move at the time, the father and son showed the man where he could find more gold. And we all know where that generous offer got First Nations.

At the back of the town, a wooden staircase leads upward, and we climb them up to a great view of the town and an old cemetery where faded gravestones tell of the often violent demise of some of Barkerville’s past residents.

Then, with our hands full of plump wild blue huckleberries, picked from heavily laden bushes in the open forest surrounding the cemetary, we take our leave of the historic gold town,

If you enjoyed this story, and are curious about other parts of Northern B.C., check out these earlier blogs:

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