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Fraser River

All that glitters is not gold, but the Gold Rush Trail is a gem

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posted December 5, 2018
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I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first trip to Canada. I didn’t know anyone, I’d never been outside the United States, and we would be traveling about 500 miles from Vancouver to Williams Lake on this Fam trip (my first of those, too). All I knew is I wanted to see a moose.

Beverly Evans, trade travel representative with the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association, was there to greet me at the Vancouver airport when I arrived. There was little time to waste, so I loaded up in the company Suburban and we hit the trail. The Gold Rush Trail.

Our first stop was Fort Langley National Historic Site, where I met my roommates/breakfast, lunch and dinnermates/fellow trailblazers for the week: Alonso Gordoa with Eisa Travel in Mexico City; Tyler Cave with Tyler Cave Productions on Vancouver Island; Melanie Bingham with Indigenous Tourism BC; Jonny Bierman, the CCCTA’s social media guru; and Kristi Denby, CCCTA’s Gold Rush Trail manager.

Our guides, Andrew and Hazel, led us through the fort and a wooded area where Hazel, an elder in the local indigenous culture, explained the significance of cedar trees and other plants and their many structural and medicinal uses.

Ghost Lake Falls
NTA's Kendall Fletcher at Ghost Lake Falls

Fort Langley was the site of the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post, and one of the oldest Western-made buildings in British Columbia still stands at this site. Andrew and Hazel are extremely knowledgeable and informative, and I could see their passion for keeping culture and history alive as we toured this site.

I also enjoyed hearing how Kristi made a replica of the fort made entirely out of Play-Doh when she was 7 years old, and she was just now seeing the actual fort.

I ended my first day in Canada with an iced maple latte at Lelem Café. It was appropriate … and delicious.

That night, we stayed at the Sasquatch Inn in Harrison Mills. The inn was quaint and rustic (though recently renovated), and I mostly noticed that the food was good—the restaurant is known for its pizza and burgers—and the beds were comfy.

The next day, as we drove the winding roads, we got into just the beginning of some of British Columbia’s beautiful mountains. The mountains. My goodness. I come from rolling Kentucky hills, so this new landscape had my forehead pressed up against the vehicle’s window (you’re welcome, Beverly).

Yale Historic Site
Yale Historic Site

The mountains sloped and soared, displaying all kinds of terrain through Fraser Canyon. Pine trees gathered on the roadsides, up the mountains, down near the river, for miles and miles. When we came upon huge rocks with the rushing water below, I asked Beverly to stop the car so I could get out and take pictures. As happy as she was to do it, I soon realized stopping on the side of the highway wasn’t the best idea. As logging trucks whipped past me, I jumped the concrete median rather quickly and smacked my knee, and I didn’t know how hard until later that night. It was worth it, though, for that view.

It’d been somewhat hot, but the weather was perfect at noon that day, warm with a nice breeze. We strolled and took pictures on Alexandra Bridge (which has a see-through bottom, by the way). It’s near the original Cariboo Wagon Road bridge over the Fraser River, and it’s a neat site for a picnic. We saw Yale Historic Site and rode Hell’s Gate Airtram over the most treacherous section of the Fraser River.

“We had to pass where no human being should venture, for surely we have encountered the gates of hell!” said Simon Fraser about the area during his 1808 exploration.

Thankfully, I was in a gondola.

Hell’s Gate Airtram has a fun ice cream and fudge place and a restaurant with a tasty veggie burger (I’m sure they have good regular burgers, too). Some pretty arbors, lots of little chairs and tables, shade trees and incredible views of the river made it a great place to rest before heading to Tuckkwiowhum Heritage Village.

Hell's Gate Airtram
Hell's Gate Airtram

“This trail is very different and unique, and visitors want to know about it,” Beverly told me on the ride up. “They’ve seen Banff and Jasper. They’re looking for something else.”

These stops are in smaller, more unheard-of towns, and the further north we went, the more remote they became. The trail is great for bus tours, she said, with stops every couple of hours, plenty of lovely scenery and chances to see an abundance of wildlife.

Most places we went to had signs that read something like, “A bear lives here. Watch what you’re doing.” Alonso REALLY wanted to see a bear. Unfortunately, we didn’t see one. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t see us.

We heard a native song from Ernie, an indigenous elder, upon our arrival at Tuckkwiowhum, which translates to “the very best berry-picking spot in the nation.” Our guide, Byron, said the elders of the Boston Bar First Nation designed the re-created village and operate it.

They rent out teepees for visitors and welcome lots of student and special interest groups. We toured the grounds, learned about the culturally modified trees and tried Indian ice cream made from soapberries, which is (surprise!) neither cold nor sweet.

Tuckkwiowhum Heritage Village was a site of skirmishes between First Nations people and Americans, who had to come to an accord between fishing the river and mining it for gold. There were some neat buildings on the grounds to learn about, including summer and winter lodges, drying shacks and smokehouses.

We made our way up the road to Lytton, which is mostly desert! (I’m exclaiming because I had no idea there was any desert land up there). The ground was covered in sagebrush. We visited Klowa, an adorable café with beautiful art for sale, had coffee and tea and made woven bracelets from cedar.

We also visited the Lytton Chinese History Museum, which opened just last year. The owner, Lorna Frandrich, explained the significant contributions of the Chinese in the area and their vital part in Gold Rush Trail history. Lorna has the largest collection of historical Chinese artifacts in Canada.

“I just want (people) to come in and learn something,” she said.

Rafting at Kumsheen
Rafting at Kumsheen Rafting Resort (Photo by Tyler Cave)

And as it turns out, she also runs Kumsheen Rafting Resort, our last stop for the night. And one of the coolest stops on the trail.

The resort is tucked against a rugged backdrop of towering mountains, with reddish rocks dotted with trees and constantly moving trains wrapping around them. I was just in awe. It features a striking multi-level pool and hot tub, giant chess board, volleyball and basketball courts, unique accommodations and a restaurant with great food and floor-to-ceiling windows. I also saw where part of the original wagon road dipped down the hill near the campsites.

I slept in a teepee that night. I was unsure about it at first. It sounded cool in theory, and my dad called and told me it was an opportunity to reconnect with my own heritage. All I could think about is where I could plug in my phone.

But after lying in that soft bed, looking up at the stars, hearing only the comforting hum of the train on the mountain and breathing cool, fresh air, my tune changed. It was an amazing experience.

The next day, we went whitewater rafting on the Thompson River. I’d never rafted, and I was nervous. Thankfully, we had an incredible guide, Elliot, whose sense of humor and knowledge of each rapid’s personality was soothing.

Yes, personalities. The resort’s owner, Bernie (Lorna’s husband), named each one, and we power rafted through the likes of the Terminator, the Washing Machine, the Jaws of Death, and my personal favorite, the Mother-in-Law. These are the third largest rapids in North America.

“I’ve been rafting in North America, and quite a bit around Europe, and there’s nothing like the Thompson,” Elliot said.

Bald eagles swooped down into the canyon as we rolled down the river. We saw osprey and bighorn sheep, but no moose yet.

Spout Lake canoeing
Canoeing at Spout Lake 

When it was finished, I felt so alive. Perhaps it was because I kept seeing my life flash before my eyes when heading into a rapid taller than the raft, or when my hand slipped off the rope and I fell forward in the boat, but it was so much fun.

During our travels that day, we entered the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region.

"We are a land that has no limits,” Beverly said. “Whatever you want to do, we can do. You are not restricted to one little area with a lot of people. It’s just wide open. We have all kinds of fishing, hiking, mountain biking, sailing, wildlife viewing, and in the winter you can go snowshoeing and cross-country skiing; we have great snowmobiling trails. We are big on culture and history. We have more indigenous populations in BC than the rest of Canada combined. There’s so much to do, and you’re never disappointed.”

Have I mentioned there’s beautiful scenery?

We visited Hat Creek Historic Site, one of the stagecoach stops on the Gold Rush Trail. Visitors can camp, picnic and stay in safari tents. I learned a lot about everyday life for the First Nations People in the area, and we toured an original roadhouse on the trail.

On the road, we stopped at beautiful Green Lake to stretch our legs and take some photos. The water was tranquil and I loved taking in views of little islands of lofty pine trees.

“The Gold Rush Trail helped shape what British Columbia is today,” Beverly said. “If it wasn’t for the miners in California (who came here), we wouldn’t have what we have today. When you think about pioneers walking up and looking for gems, it’s amazing. You see the trees going up the hill, and think about it getting cold, and wonder how they did it. How bad was the fever for gold? Those men were hardy, but the women were even more hardy. It took months and years to get there, but they didn’t quit.”

We settled into Ten-ee-ah Lodge in Lac La Hache, thus beginning the remainder of our trip with little to no cell service or Wi-Fi. I was missing my 2-year-old at home, and that’s the only reason I wanted to stay connected. The owners turn the Wi-Fi off at meal times so people can gather to eat in the main lodge and interact with one another. It’s a fantastic idea.

Our group stayed together in one big cabin for two nights. The cabins were spread out in a large wooded area near a lake, and the setting was so peaceful and perfect. We all sat by a crackling fire in the living room, talked, drank wine and tea, and played several hilarious rounds of Heads Up.

I also got to hear their connections to the trail.

Barkerville
Barkerville Historic Town & Park

“The Gold Rush Trail is the people along the way,” Melanie said. “It’s an iconic piece of BC history, and people come here to experience and get so much more than they expect because of the people along the trail.”

“I just moved to the area and I already feel welcome here. There’s a sense of community,” Kristi said.

The next day, we went canoeing on Spout Lake, which was just the relaxation I needed. The water was so clear, the still surface was covered with lily pads, and countless pine trees surrounded the water’s banks. I thought for sure my moose would be there, but I still didn’t see one.

We later went horseback riding, which, as a Kentucky girl, was totally up my alley. I rode a black speckled horse named Max, and the lodge owners’ daughter, Nadia, led us on a trail through the woods. She was such a kind person with a lovely smile, and you could tell how much she loved her horses and that she knew them well.

I had some delicious and unique dishes while at the lodge: veggie lasagna, ratatouille with spätzle (the owners are Swiss, and much of the food was prepared in European fashion), black forest cake and the best oatmeal I’ve ever tasted. I had to appreciate the 1990s country tunes that played overhead during our meals.

We next saw Quesnelle Forks Historic Site, and it offered great views of the Likely and Quesnel rivers coming together! It was a ghost town with well-restored buildings that were once teeming with people seeking gold. The attraction had some beautiful campsites and a museum full of Gold Rush Trail history.

On the way to Wells, a town on the Gold Rush Circle Route, we stopped at Ghost Lake Falls. I was, again, awestruck by the beauty, the rushing white falls beneath the wooden bridge, the rocks, the trees and the river views for miles. We stayed here a while and felt the cool air (like really cool. It was below 60 degrees while it was in the 90s back in Kentucky).

The Wells Hotel was so cute. And so was the entire town. All the buildings were painted bright colors and sat against a tree-lined, mountainous backdrop. The little restaurant inside the hotel had lots of eccentric décor, like strands of industrial lights and coffee-sack window treatments. The Vietnamese noodle tofu bowl was awesome.

There’s a film festival every year in Wells, and we went to the nearby vintage Sunset Theatre and saw “Never Steady, Never Still,” an independent film about a woman battling Parkinson’s disease. It was beautifully done—and incredibly sad.

Group walk to court house at Barkerville
Walking to the courthouse at Barkerville.

The next day, we explored the Barkerville Historic Town & Park, my favorite historic site on the trip. It was cold, rainy and muddy, but I enjoyed Barkerville so much that I didn’t mind. And you can ask my work neighbor, Pat Henderson, about my disdain for wet weather, especially if I’m out in it.

Miss Florence Wilson was our guide, and the reason this place was so authentic is the re-enactors: They. never. break. character.

She was wonderful and captivating in her character and knowledge. She showed us the town newspaper, hotels, a brewery, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and at the very end, a part of the town where the Chinese lived. The streetscape has more than 125 buildings, each with a shop, a museum or some replica of the town’s rich history.

"They’re equipped to deal with big busloads and lots of people. They don’t rush you, and they answer all your questions. They take you back to the day when it was just them. They stay in character so well, and it really makes that difference,” Beverly said of Barkerville. She added that the organization is working  to make it family-friendly and affordable, and it’s all wheelchair accessible.

We met James Douglas with Barkerville Historic Town & Park, who knows the town’s history and the Gold Rush Trail very well. He led us down a mile-long trail to the town’s courthouse, and, as it turns out, he’s a film producer. We got a sneak peek of his film, “The Doctor’s Case,” before it was shown at the town’s film festival (and it was SO good).

On our way out of Wells, there she was. A moose and her baby crossed the road in front of us!

A truck came around the curve and scared them off, but they ran down the hill and stopped right next to us just off the road. I could see her peering through the trees at us, her baby close behind. It was amazing. I was fumbling with my camera, of course, but I still able to get a good view of her. What lovely (and big) creatures!

Xatsull Heritage Village
Mike Retasket at Xatśūll Heritage Village

We made a stop at the Barkerville Brewery for some samplers and stayed at NTA-member Sandman Hotel & Suites Quesnel that night with a late dinner at the Shark Club inside the hotel.

Beverly said Gold Rush Trail packages are flexible, as you can fly into Vancouver and travel north on the trail, or fly into Prince George or Quesnel and travel it the opposite way.

“It just depends on the activities you want. No matter which way you go, you’re going to get this kind of scenery,” she said.

On our last day together, we visited Xatśūll Heritage Village, near where Melanie is from. Her family lives on the reservation at Soda Creek, and we met her aunt, Cheryl, who discussed the impacts of the Gold Rush Trail on the area and the lives of the local residents.

“The Gold Rush Trail, for me, it’s home,” Melanie said.

We saw original petroglyphs, learned the uses of the white soda on the rocks and of medicinal plants, saw fishing areas in the Fraser River, and enjoyed a traditional dance from a Mike Retasket, a member of the Bonaparte band on Soda Creek. Groups can take walking tours, see a fishing demonstration and stay the night in a teepee at the site.

Mike also performed a smudge demonstration, which creates smoke and is believed to put a layer of protection over our bodies. I needed that peace of mind before getting on my little Pacific Coastal Airlines plane to Vancouver later that day.

British Columbia group shot
My roommates/breakfast, lunch and dinnermates/fellow trailblazers for the week, from left: Jonny Bierman, the CCCTA’s social media guru; Beverly Evans with CCCTA; Alonso Gordoa with Eisa Travel in Mexico City; Tyler Cave with Tyler Cave Productions; Kristi Denby, CCCTA’s Gold Rush Trail manager; and Melanie Bingham with Indigenous Tourism BC.

So as I said goodbye to new friends, I thought fondly over the last week of listening to their stories of world travel, hearing about their families or past jobs, and knowing how they like their eggs cooked. I’m learning in my second year at NTA that travel isn’t just about seeing incredible new places. It’s also about meeting new people, getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing new things with them, even when you live a couple thousand miles away.

My last day consisted of getting on a train at the Vancouver airport and getting off at the wrong stop. I wandered around a bit before a couple of nice guys told me to get back on the train and pointed out which stop would take me to the River Rock Casino Resort. By the time I got there, I was pretty shaken and spent the evening relaxing in my beautiful hotel room.

I watched the sun set over the harbor, the big city in the distance, and simultaneously thought of how excited I was to see my son and husband the next day ... and how much I’d miss British Columbia’s truly unique beauty and people.

To contact the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association, reach out to beverly@landwithoutlimits.com or go to landwithoutlimits.com.

Photos by Kendall Fletcher unless noted otherwise.