Sigh...how things can change in a couple hours. There, in the cab of our truck, a once-clean haven for storing snacks, maps and such, sat an unexpected 100 pounds of extra baggage.
We'd been packed, ready to hit the road in our 22' trailer, all things organized, our house/garden/dog sitters on their way up to our home. The Cariboo-Chilcotin was waiting for us.
Within an hour of our sitters arriving with their small dog, we'd changed our mind about leaving Bear home. We'd only had him for eight months but, despite him eating two couches, we loved him. And knew he wouldn't be happy with the little threesome who'd arrived this evening.
So, with dog in tow, crossing our fingers that our holiday would still be relaxing, off we went.
June was a perfect time to go. Kids (everyone else’s) were still in school and the highways and forest recreation sites were empty other than a few cheap retirees like us. From Kamloops, we headed west up Highway 1 towards Williams Lake with one quick stop north of Cache Creek at the not-to-be-missed Horstings Farm for a decadently delicious chocolate caramel ‘bear paw’ and a warm, flaky apple turnover.
Williams Lake’s Tourist Information is a great first stop offering wonderful books and maps of the region, and lots of souvenirs to buy. We scooped a very handy ‘South Cariboo Area Map’ that showed all the free forest rec sites.
“Let’s head to Likely first,” I said to Aaron, examining the map. I'd made no plans (my favorite way to travel), but an old school friend of mine had moved to Likely years ago and I'd been promising to visit for awhile.
The village was tinier than I'd imagined, maybe six or so buildings along the Quesnel River. But, although small, it was lovely. A serene, green stretch of water flowed alongside the village, and the air was fresh, the sunshine warm. I breathed deep. Yes. We were on holidays. No garden to tend, no wood to cut, Just us and a a few chirping birds swooping low to the river.
Not far from there. we found my friend’s home, perched on the bank of the same river.
"Wow, this is so gorgeous," I said as I tipped up my glass of wine and looked out at the clear water flowing by us.
“Do the salmon come up along here? I asked.
“We catch them right off our patio,” Laurie replied with a big grin.
We were off by noon armed with recommendations on where to go next.
"You have to go to Ghost Lake Falls," Laurie had told me. "It's on the back road to Barkerville. Maybe a little rough, but totally doable," she assured us. "You could stay tonight at the Ladies’ Creek Rec Site on Cariboo Lake and head to the falls in the morning."
“Where the heck is it?” I muttered an hour and a half later as I peered at my map for the umpteenth time. "It should be right here.”
“Maybe it’s back where we saw that road going down on the left,” Aaron suggested. And sure enough, after we doubled back to marker 8412 or 8413 (I can't remember which) and bumped down the half-hidden rocky road, we spotted the brown Forest Rec Site sign.
"Good enough," said Aaron as we pulled into a big campsite overlooking the lake. We still had lots of day and wanted to do some exploring. Wandering past more empty campsites, we discovered we'd been too hasty. A perfect beauty of a site with its own private beach sat at the bottom of the hill. We'd missed it in our hurry to set up. Darn.
Meandering down a trail just off of that perfect campsite, Aaron, my lumberjack, checked out the dead trees he'd like to cut, and I enjoyed the wildflowers until high water forced us to turn around and head back.
"The lake's gorgeous. Let's go for a paddle before dinner," Aaron suggested.
"What'll we do with the dog? I asked. A question I'd ask many times in the next weeks.
With him leashed to the trailer, all chairs and anything else chewable, breakable placed far away from him, we pushed ourselves from the shore. Calm and rimmed with myriad shades of green, the lake was beautiful. So peaceful.
And then it wasn't. From our campsite came a melancholy AWOOOOO, OWWWW. Aaron and I looked at each other.
"Is that Bear?" I asked him, knowing the answer but hoping I was wrong.
"Yep," he replied in his calm way. "Lay down, Bear! he shouted toward our campsite. The howling stopped. We took up our paddles again.
The wailing began again. AHWOOOO. Youuuu lefffft meeee, he seemed to call. Oh Bear. Frustrated, we turned around.
At camp, our frustration turned into laughter as we found him under the trailer, his leash wrapped twice around the tire. Oh Bear.
A heavy load of mosquitos forced us out the next day and we bounced our way to Ghost Lake Falls on the same pitted gravel road. The lower falls, alongside the bridge on the main road stopped us dead.
They were spectacular, a huge volume of water tumbling violently over rocks, the full width of the bridge . The cold spray misted our faces and we turned to watch the water bash its way over rocks then disappear around a turn. Then, just past the bridge, a small sign saying 'Upper Falls' led us a kilometre and a half to the main show.
We ignored the signed trailhead. “Don’t take it,” my friend had told me earlier. “The best view is from the trail behind the campsite across the parking lot.” And oh my gosh, the view was incredible.
Blue river lined with green forever, flowing over the edge of rock and becoming a cascading wall of white froth. Thank you, Laurie!
Because we’d already been to Barkerville, we didn’t continue north but instead, turned around and headed back past Likely to Quesnel Forks Recreation Site, a historical site recommended by my friend.
The road was a bit steep but well maintained, and the campsite was lovely – clean, sunny and with a great view of the Quesnel and Cariboo rivers crashing into each other and moving as one in another direction. Very cool.
We took a long wander through the grassy streets through what once was a thriving town of miners, but now, only a few buildings are left with faded, barely readable signs in front of them telling of their use.
It’s sad to see the disrepair of the remaining buildings, windows smashed, rooms filled with leaves and spiderwebs.
Peeking through a dirty, broken window of what was the town brothel, I see Aaron creaking toward the rusty bathtub in the empty room. I could almost hear the -madam, stern with a no-nonsense voice. “You don’t get any sugar until you wash up,” she might have said, her eyes disdainful but greedy for the gold in the pockets of the dirty men in front of her.
We walk through the grassy cemetery, peering at the faded wooden grave markers, reading the inscriptions with great curiosity. "They separated the Chinese folks from the white people!" I said, shaking my head in disgust.
But then I giggle at the grave of the Chinese man who was named ‘Ah Choo.’ Really? I go back to being irked when I find a grave for the ‘Negro farmer buried there who fell from a wagon and broke his neck.’ They couldn't even be bothered to find out his name. Sad.
Highway 20 from Williams Lake to Bella Coola took us through an undulating, green valley, and just before Tatla Lake, we veered off at the sign to Tatlayoka Lake.
We wound south past green fields, trembling aspens, and farmhouses for thirty kilometres and found the Tatlayoka Lake Rec Site. Flat, treed and almost empty of people, with what looked like a great view of the lake, it seemed perfect. I led on foot looking for the perfect site, and Aaron wound through the trees with the truck and trailer. I veered around a tree and behind me...crunch... Like a trailer hitting a tree? Yep. I looked at Aaron as he frowned then put the truck in reverse, backing off the tree. He stopped and got out to look at the damage. I walked back to him, guilt flooding me. I shouldn't have veered.
"It's not bad," I assured him, looking at the small dent then at him. Not a speck of frustration shows in his face. But he's frustrated, I can see it in his stance.
"Can you get in there? "I asked him then, pointing to the site I'd been aiming for before the crunch. Without a word, he got back into the trailer and, slower now, maneuvered through the trees.
"This was worth the effort," I said as I gazed at the dark blue lake, a snow-capped peak towering into the sky directly across from us.
Aaron was silent. Clearly, he thought otherwise.
But he got over his inscrutable inner turmoil, and after absorbing the beauty of the place for a couple hours, we hoisted our bikes off the back of the camper. Time to explore. And down the road, we discovered our next night’s stay.
Although gorgeous as heck, the Rec Site didn’t have access to the lake. It also had guests with dogs who weren’t keen on having ours hang around theirs. And we didn't want to put him on a leash. It’s his holiday too, after all. I can hear what you're thinking. Yes, he's a spoiled dog. But he's family and we like him to be happy.
So we moved to the community park down the road. Right on the lake, a huge empty tract of land, trails and small beaches for Bear and ourselves to explore by foot. And the cleanest outhouses you ever did see. And the price was right - a sign encouraged us to leave a donation if we enjoyed the place. We left $10. Just for those frickin' clean outhouses!
Two nights there and we were off again.
My niece and her family live in Hagensborg, a hamlet just before the larger town of Bella Coola, an oceanside town that sits literally at the end of the road with nothing but fjords and islands and the big Pacific Ocean beyond it. The middle of nowhere even from a rural girl’s perspective. I was keen to hear how Sarah was doing living so far away from family, friends and civilization, with the biggest town around six hours away.
Aaron was more concerned about 'The Hill,' an up-to-15-degree sloped road going down to Bella Coola. As we came to it, he geared down to four-low. Oh-so-slowly we crept down the steep graveled slope. Driving me crazy.
"Do we have to go so slow?" I asked him.
The road seemed perfectly safe - yes steep, but well maintained and wide. Not at all dangerous unless the stunning views of craggy mountains and deep valleys took one's eyes off the road for too long.
Apparently we did need to go so slow. For the sake of the old Dodge's engine. I grit my teeth and stayed silent.
Sarah was happy to see us (I think, haha), as were her small sons, Odin and Hayden, after a few minutes of shyness. She loved it here, she told me. As did her little family . And, really, what’s not to love. They have the world’s biggest playground with forest and ocean, and the mountains make it an outdoor adventurer’s heaven.
Leaving our trailer in their driveway, we went sightseeing. We drove the almost-unnavigable rock-gravel road thirty kilometres to the Odegaard Falls trailhead, wondering much of the time if the old Dodge would make it. She did. We stopped at the viewpoint to let her recuperate, and went by foot one kilometre to the trailhead. The forest was wet, the canopy dripping, mossy logs glistening with raindrops. Bear led us down the earth trail.
Though the day was grey and dreary, the falls took my breath away - a massive volume of water exiting some invisible place far up the mountain and crashing down, down, down to finally plunge into the creek that we stood above, its energy still enough to force a mist that soaked me.
Back toward Bella Coola, we turned in to Big Cedars Trail in Snootli Creek Regional Park. Holy crap. The hugest cedars I’ve seen, the tallest thimble berry bushes, the richest, earthiest scent. Our bear was on guard duty, and treed a mama bear with her two babies before we could get control of him. Bad dog. Good dog.
We drove into Bella Coola, already salivating thinking of the fresh seafood we’d stock up on, the feast we’d have to say thank you to Sarah and fam.
“Think Bear will go bonkers if we leave him in the truck for fifteen minutes? I asked Aaron as I spotted a small museum.
“We can roll the windows down,” Aaron answered, pulling into the shade in a small parking lot across from the museum.
“We won’t be long, baby,” I murmured into Bear’s face as I climbed from the truck.
As far as he was concerned, though, it was already too long by the time we reached the door of the museum. I shut my ears to his howls and entered the museum. Not the leisurely roam-about I’d hoped for, more a guilt-ridden sprint with a couple slow-downs to look at one or two brightly coloured paintings, and a speed read of the history of the area.
The story of the Grease Trail made me ignore the howling I could still hear through the walls of the building and I stopped to read about the 8000-year old trail that was a lifeline for the Carrier people who have lived in this valley forever, and for indigenous people in BC in general. The trail that led down the coast and into the interior was used to trade coastal goods, most significantly eulachon oil – ‘grease’ for which the trail was named – to the interior in exchange for products not available to coastal tribes.
As we exited the museum, Bear stopped mid-howl as he saw us. They didn’t leave me forever, he seemed to say as he looked at us with sad brown eyes.
Up the street, Kopas Store with its window full of shiny things, I cawed to Aaron to pull over again. Bear didn’t complain as we exited the truck, just watched us intently as we closed the door on him. Don’t be long now, he seemed to say.
It was a wonderful store full of treasures for locals and tourists both. Fishing tackle, raingear, books on the region, postcards showing grizzlies swiping at huge glistening salmon struggling to jump up a rushing waterfall, majestic bald eagles grasping salmon almost as large as them in their great, gripping claws, and stunning indigenous art. As I paid for some beautiful and cozy slippers made by the Haida tribe, I asked the girl at the till where we could buy seafood.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There aren’t any shops. But maybe try the docks?”
What? There’s not a seafood shop here beside the ocean? That’s just crazy.
We went to the docks.
“Nope,” said a tough blonde woman in overalls and rubber boots said as we stopped her on the pier. “I can’t even find prawns myself,” she said. “Everything has to go to Vancouver to get inspected before it’s sold, so there’s not much here. “Tomorrow is the end of the harvest though,” she added when she saw my disappointment. “The boats’ll be coming in first thing in the morning to unload. You might be able to buy some salmon from someone then,” she suggested.
Dejectedly, Aaron and I walked off the wharf. “That’s nuts,” I said to him, completely confused. It didn’t make sense at all.
“Now what? We promised to bring supper,” I said sadly.
“There was a pizza place back in town,” said Aaron. “Kids like pizza,” he added.
We leisurely drove through the small town, our jaws dropping to see the neglect in the First Nation side of town, such a stark change from the well-kept homes we'd driven past earlier. Like everywhere in BC, colonialism and white privilege had overtaken what once was a strong, proud community, leaving the apathy and hopelessness that seemed to permeate this section of town. Very sad. A gaggle of Carrier woman selling goodies by the side of the road seemed quite cheerful though. We bought a freshly made lemon meringue pie and a couple delicious, flaky butter tarts from them.
And though I was still disappointed that we were eating pizza instead of prawns, crab, and clams, Freddy’s Pizza was a hit. The kids dug into the pizza with great enthusiasm.
The next morning, waving through our windows at Odin and Hayden running through the trees and the garden of bunchberry flowers behind the truck, we drove off.
With a quick stop at the slightly hidden $5 self-serve sani-dump (an hour out of Bella Coola and two minutes past Great Bear Chalet and BEFORE the Atnarko Campsite), we began the steep climb up ‘The Hill.’ This time, I got the great view and Aaron was able to keep his eyes on the road. The much preferred direction in my opinion.
One of our favourite stops was three and a half hours out of Bella Coola. Just after Tatla Lake, we turned down Eagle Lake Road toward, well…Eagle Lake. And five kilometres later, into West Eagle Lake Forest Rec site.
A little bumpy to navigate the unmaintained, boulder-lined, clay ‘road’ that would get us half a kilometre to the lake but once we got there, what a gem! Clear turquoise water over a white marl lakebed, the Coastal mountains towering in the distance, a resting place on the shrubby sand for our camper a few steps from it, and acres of land for us and our Bear to explore.
Three days we stayed there. A small island just off the shore had us in our kayaks ten minutes after parking.
I tried to pull Bear into my kayak with me, remembering how he’d howled when we left him to go for a short paddle at Ladies Creek Rec Site, but his four legs refused to get in at the same time. In two seconds flat, we tipped over and began sinking in the quicksandy mud that was the lake bottom (the ONLY bad thing about the place).
“Sorry bud. You’ll have to stay here,” I said to him, as the mud finally let go with a great sucking sound and I was able to climb back into my kayak. Paddling away, I heard him splash into the water, sinking at first in the mud, then, to Aaron and my delight, our baby was swimming!
Two days later, our trip was at an end. We hated to leave the place. Something we've said over and over as we've discovered the treasures within our own beautiful British Colombia! Really, who needs to go anywhere else? In the winter, yes, but any other time, BC is really the best place on earth in my opinion.
Will I bring Bear on our camping holidays again? An unequivocal YES. Our boy bring us miles of smiles and loads of laughs with his antics and I'd miss him scampering beside us on mountain trails . I'll just bring my paddle board instead of my kayak next time.
Our stops...starred on the map below. Red dotted area is the Cariboo-Chilcotin region.