One would think visiting the Cariboo during the largest forest fire disaster to ever hit the province would be a big mistake. Yet, in the midst of burnout, both my own and the regions, the beauty of the Cariboo-Chilcotin landscape and the kindness of its residents made the experience one to remember.
I came into the Cariboo region via Prince George, after driving nearly 4000km from Whitehorse through the Yukon and a large portion of Alaska. A year prior I’d decided I wanted to hike the Berg Lake Trail at Mount Robson and, after hearing how beautiful the Cariboo was from a guy who grew up there, it seemed a natural place to visit.
My plan was to drive from Prince George to Quesnel, south to Williams Lake, across Highway 24 (The Fishing Highway) to Wells Gray Provincial Park, up to Mount Robson for my hike and back to Prince George. Much of this covered the Gold Rush Trail, where gold seekers ventured hoping to hit it big.
I’d planned it to be the perfect end to an epic 3 week trip, but I didn’t account for forest fires.
2017 was a devastating year for the region. Between April and November, more than 1300 fires burned over 1.2 million hectares of forest, displacing thousands of residents and costing the province 564 million dollars. It was officially the worst wildfire season in the history of British Columbia. Perfect time to visit, right?! 😉
I watched the fire reports and DriveBC‘s road closure maps for weeks. Many of the parks were closed which was a bummer, but highways were opening where I needed them to be. I almost decided to fly home early, but the lure of the mountains and conversations about the Cariboo tugged at me.
Flying into Prince George, I got to talking to the guy beside me about my travel plans. There are a lot of places one can go in Northern BC and he seemed a little perplexed at the thought that my first stop was going to be Quesnel. What was I missing?
As I made my way south from Prince George, I started to understand the mindset this man must have been in. He didn’t realize he was talking to a country girl who grew up in a rural farming community; similar to what you experience as you drive south.
To be quite honest, entering the Cariboo felt a little like coming home. Farmland, hay bales, pick up trucks, ATV’s. Find a country radio station on the dial and I fit right in. This was exactly the kind of place I needed.
The massive gold pan, pick and shovel at Quesnel’s city limits, pretty much confirmed stories I’d heard about its strong connection to the Cariboo Gold Rush.
You can’t really visit here without recognizing that they take great pride in their heritage.
Murals adorn building facades and references to famed prospector, Billy Barker, abound. For a city of about 15,000 people, it’s certainly charming, and the area has lots to offer.
Quesnel sits at the confluence of the Quesnel and Fraser Rivers. I took a walk along the Riverfront Trail, which was lovely and calming. I could watch the river running for hours. It’s a sight to see and reminded me of big rivers I’d experienced in the Yukon and Alaska.
The city is surrounded by over 30 historic sites. It is home to the largest wood truss walking bridge in the world, the award-winning Barkerville Brewing Company and its backyard boasts some of the best fishing and wilderness adventure spots in Canada.
A quick drive outside of town you’ll find Barkerville Historic Town and entrance to the world-renowned Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit. If you like hockey, there’s quite a few former hockey greats living here too. My stay was going to be short, so I wanted to visit all of the above. Of course, my first stop had to be for a beer and I figured that’s where the hockey greats would likely be!
I first heard of Barkerville Brewing Company after watching an episode of Timber Kings while at my parents. They were renovating the bar and bringing in a beautiful wooden harvest table. I told myself that if I did make it to the area, I’d make sure I visited. Luckily for me, it was one of the few places open while I stayed in Quesnel. I’d arrived on the holiday weekend and things were pretty quiet around town.
I envisioned a much larger brewery but, as they say, good things come in small packages.
Ashley, the retail manager, gave me a warm welcome and set me up with a flight of their beers right away. This is definitely a favourite pastime when I’m travelling and Barkerville beer is pretty awesome. I wished I could have sent some home!
Shortly after I arrived, a regular patron, Karl, came in and we hit it off. It was really nice to have some company and he was game to chit-chat about Quesnel, our mutual passion for wine and his beloved Saskatoon berry wine. Karl was a wealth of knowledge and joy to spend time with. Truth be told, some of my favourite Cariboo memories are from sitting at the bar.
Karl and I shared a mutual appreciation for Barkerville Brewing Co.’s licorice stout. I’m a big fan out stout and this one was unlike anything I’ve ever had. Sadly, they had just discontinued it, but not before he and I were able to share a pint together.
I enjoyed my time at the Brewery so much that I ended up spending the better part of the afternoon there. Before I left I picked up some mementos and made sure to pay the bill to treat Karl for his company.
It came as no surprise to me when I returned from work a couple of months later to find a package from Karl with a special gift. Saskatoon berry wine, straight from the Cariboo! That’s the Cariboo kindness I knew!
If there is one thing that sticks out about my time in Quesnel, besides the huge tires on all the trucks in the grocery store parking lot (ha!), it’s the people.
I can’t count the number of residents who said hello to me on my walks through town, or at Granville’s while grabbing a coffee. It’s the kind of thing that makes a person want to return; which I plan to do next summer.
The second place I’d heard a lot about was Barkerville Historic Town. I’d seen pictures and it looked so beautifully restored I wanted to check it out.
Barkerville owes its name to William “Billy” Barker, a famed prospector who hit gold in August of 1862 near where the town sits. Officially declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1926, it is now home to over 125 buildings, museums, displays, shops and restaurants that make up Barkerville.
As soon as you walk out of the admission doors, you do feel a bit like you’re stepping back in time. The old church is wonderfully restored, horse-drawn stage coaches pass by carrying tourists and actors dressed in costume perform live scenes right in front of you.
The inside of the buildings hold old memorabilia and antiques. You can pan for gold or buy objects at the blacksmith shop, send a letter home from the post office, or have your picture taken in vintage costumes. If you’re a bit adventurous, you can even stay overnight at a hotel or bed and breakfast in the middle of the town.
With a little imagination it’s easy to picture it brimming with miners and workers of the time. Notably the largest living-history museum in North America, Barkerville is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.
From Barkerville, I wanted to check out Bowron Lakes Provincial Park, famous for its legendary canoe circuit.
The drive there was a fun twisty-turny adventure through the interior, trees hugging the roads on either side. I loved the lushness of this area, though it was strange to think that swaths of the region were facing massive destruction.
I was a bit disappointed upon arrival, as I expected something more like my home park, Algonquin. I did come to respect that experiencing the beauty of Bowron Lake requires a bit more effort. It feels like you have to earn it so, I intend to return to complete the full canoe circuit in summer of 2019.
Having completed the few things on my bucket list, I decided to hit the road a bit earlier than planned. The winds must have picked up over night, as I awoke to hazy, smoke-filled skies. It made for a beautiful moody sunrise as I headed south on Highway 97 away from Quesnel.
Areas between Quesnel and Williams Lake reminded me of my home region in the Kawarthas of Ontario. The Cariboo-Chilcotin area had such a diverse range of landscapes, and I hadn’t even explored the far west coast. Such a joy to drive through it.
I hadn’t researched the landscape, so every bend in the road seemed to offer some kind of new picture-worthy moment or scenic vista. I’d love to take a drive through here again when I have more time.
The more south I went the thicker the smoke appeared. I never felt in danger, but it was evident that Williams Lake was on the precipice of the danger zone.
In the weeks prior, this city did face evacuation orders. It was the only place I actually witnessed fire ravaged trees at the roadside.
On the outskirts of town, I had the pleasure of seeing 5 deer running out of that charred forest and across the road. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad for them. It was clear their homes had been destroyed and they were seeking refuge. Highway 97 was not ideal.
Lac-La-Hache, about 45 minutes south of Williams Lake, was probably my favourite spot along Highway 97. I wish my Dad was with me through this stretch.
The land flattened out and it turned into some stunning farming landscapes. At times, I felt as though I could actually be driving through southern Italy. So incredibly pretty.
It was after this stretch that the smoke got really bad; to the point that I closed off my car’s external air vent to re-circulate air inside. You could start to taste it in the air. I’m sure residents here are used to that, but I certainly wasn’t.
In order to get to Mount Robson, I needed access to BC’s Highway 24 to cut east across the region. Luckily, authorities had opened this stretch the week prior, though I couldn’t go any further south of the junction where it met Highway 97. Needless to say, I was pretty relieved to be able to head east without any disruptions.
Highway 24 is also known as, “The Fishing Highway”. I was interested to learn it follows the same route once used by fur traders, then supported the transport of over 100,000 gold seekers and now it is an important road for logging, ranching and tourism.
The highway provides access to over 100 fresh water lakes and it’s a beautiful stretch to drive through. The road itself is higher than I expected, so you’re not driving alongside many of the lakes, but there are some lovely view points along the way.
The drive across Highway 24 takes about an hour and a half, after which you come to another famous park called Wells Gray, just outside of Clearwater. Known as Canada’s “Waterfall Park”, it is home to over 39 waterfalls and counting – including this one…
That’s probably a good place for me to leave this post, but I can’t wait to get back to the Cariboo next summer. I feel like I only scratched the surface and so much I wasn’t able to do because the land was limited by forest fires.
I hope to complete the canoe circuit and get in some hikes. I’d love to sit again at Barkerville Brewing Company’s bar and catch up with Ashley and Karl. Visit the nearby rivers and break out my fly rod. Maybe even meet a hockey great! 🙂
Wild and Found