Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Prince Rupert and Barkerville

Possibly readers who know the geography of British Columbia will be scratching their heads after reading the title of this blog. Prince Rupert is a few hundred miles west of Prince George while Barkerville is about 100 miles south and it is found east of Quesnel. I have combined the writing about these two places as I visited them on two short trips and neither of which merit a separate blog.

With the advent of Canada's Centennial Year, I booked a trip by train to Montreal in order to visit Expo 67. A challenge from a friend and mentor persuaded me to change plans and to enroll as a student at Union College, U.B.C. instead. There will be more about my university experiences in other blogs - now I am writing about how I spent vacation days in lieu of a train trip to Montreal.

I left my position with the Canadian Credit Men's Association at the end of April, 1967 but I could not shake the office as I was frequently called upon to answer questions and to give guidance all the while that I remained in and around Prince George.

Ever since I was a child I had heard of the fabled northwest so, when my scheduled duties at CCMA ceased, I kept a few days for myself and drove west on Highway 16 through Vanderhoof, Burns Lake and a number of other smaller communities. For me, the "Awe!" moments began at the busy town of Smithers. The land west from Prince George is a plateau but the topography undulates - until Smithers which is dominated by the magnificent Hudson Bay Mountain.

At Smithers the highway begins to follow the Skeena River watershed. Not far north of Smithers is Morricetown at the edge of the Bulkley River Gorge. This community is primarily First Nation and, while passing, I did see native fishermen who were standing on scarey looking platforms built out over the torrent. In their hands were nets (like the ones fishermen carry to assist them in landing salmon or trout - only larger). These men were waiting for spawning salmon to leap up the waterfalls so that they could snare some of them. You could not pay me enough to stand on one of those slanting platforms over white frothing water while attempting to snare a salmon!

Not far past Morricetown are Tsimshian villages which are famous for their totem poles (New Hazelton, Kispoix, Kitwanga, Kitwancool). Those names are poetry to me and, as I approached each village, I saw the magnificent totem poles each telling the story of an ancestor by means of carvings and painting. Again I was awed.

At the end of the drive for that day I arrived in the larger town of Terrace and looked for a motel. As I was booking into one the door to the manager's office opened and out came Johnny Carlson. Johnny and I attended school together from grades 2 until 12 but had not seen each other after graduation. While I had been lousy at Industrial Arts, Johnny had excelled at those. After graduation he went to work for a building contractor who had a beautiful daughter. He married her and inherited the motel!

A branch highway leaves Highway 16 at Terrace and heads south to the relatively new communities of Kitimat and Kemano. The communities were built shortly after the end of World War II in order to harness hydro power - generated from the tumbling rivers - to power an aluminum refinery. Raw bauxite ore was shipped in from Jamaica, turned into aluminum and then shipped out to the rest of the world. Kitimat is where the mill is located while the port and the power plant are a few miles further on at Kemano.

From Terrace the highway continued on down the Skeena River to Prince Rupert - a major seaport on the B.C. Coast as well as the terminus of the original Grand Trunk Railway.

Prince Rupert has one major distinction (in addition to being a ferry hub for boats from Alaska, the Haida Gwai - formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands - and Vancouver Island), that is not likely to be found in tourism brochures - it is said to be the community that receives less hours of sunshine than any other larger town in the world. A number of years ago a family from South Africa was in the news because the husband suffers from a rare allergy - to sunshine. South Africa has too many hours of sunshine in a year for the man to be comfortable so they migrated to Prince Rupert.

I am glad to say that the 24 hours or so that I spent there were dry and sunny.

I looked up another acquaintance while there - Arnie had been an articled student at the same Chartered Accountants office in New Westminster where I had articled. It was Arnie who followed me to the Fraser Valley Medical Dental Association that had been one of my 'clients'.

As I left Prince Rupert I had the car radio tuned to the CBC and I listened to the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens - the last time that Toronto won the symbol of hockey supremacy - the Stanley Cup!

Upon arriving back at Smithers I took a detour route in order to see the large Francois Lake. It was worth the detour just so that I could say that I was there!

Barkerville, being closer to Prince George, was a day outing. Throughout much of the nineteenth century explorers went everywhere opening up the magnificent continent of North America to exploration and to trade. Among those hardy souls were many prospectors. One of those was a man named Billy Barker who found a lode of gold in the hills east of the town of Quesnel.

His find was a springboard for at least two events - a Gold Rush and the construction of a road through the Coast Mountains to the Interior. His find happened less than ten years after the find that gave birth to the California Gold Rush. It continues to amaze me how news traveled in the days before modern communications. Disappointed 'miners' from California heard and rushed north to B.C. - the same that they did a decade or two later when gold was found in the Yukon. This gold rush spurred the construction of the Cariboo Highway and, especially, the Canyon Highway. Before the construction of the more modern highway through the mountains the old canyon highway was a hair raising route for the inexperienced to drive. While driving the new route one can still see parts of the old route along the edge of the canyon walls.

Also, the building of that road cost the lives of many men - especially Chinese coolies. Life was cheap back then - and especially for those who were not white Anglo-Saxons.

The Cariboo Gold Rush did not last very long. However, instant towns sprung up along the creeks. As well as miners, this bonanza attracted other characters - the best known of them being the legendary Judge Matthew Begbie who is remembered by the sobriquet "The Hanging Judge". One of the towns that sprung up at that time still exists as the community named Wells - while Barkerville is an historic park.

When I was there I was far from being all alone - there were hundreds of other tourists present as well. We got to see both Billy Barker and Matthew Begbie - the 'Hanging Judge' - reenacted.

I love history and the stories which historic places bring to life.


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