“From the Seat of My Harley”

Normally, I write about local and regional issues in the Capital Regional District.  But I am departing from my norm and choosing instead to write about our recent motorcycle trip into the Chilcotin, Cariboo and Interior reaches of British Columbia. 

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Visiting small communities and talking to local residents provided me with new insights into their economic struggles playing out in rural B.C., especially in the Chilcotin.

What struck us most was how remote and beautiful are the Chilcotin, Cariboo and Interior areas of British Columbia.  Seeing them through a car window is one thing but “feeling” them from the seat of a motorcycle is quite another.  Riding a motorcycle is a “close encounter” with the elements — temperatures, smells, sights and sounds.  Riding through countryside and over roads that you have not seen before makes the experience even more intense.  A rider must remain focused on the road stretching ahead, on every curve, on every straight stretch, watching for hazards to the right and left.  But such intensity also sharpens the senses and puts you “in touch” with the landscapes that surround you.  And so it was on this trip.

We began our adventure by catching the ferry from Nanaimo’s Departure Bay to West Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay.  It was a clear hot day, approaching 33 degrees C, as we rode out of the Horseshoe Bay terminal and onto the Sea to Sky Highway on our way to Lillooet, our first stop for the night.  The ride through Lion’s Bay, Britannia, Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton takes you past the Mt. Currie First Nations Reserve and over the Duffy Lake Road, a favourite twisty route for motorcyclists.  Despite the heat, the ride was exhilarating but by the time we rode into Lillooet hours later, we were so ready to stop and get off the motorcycles — it was 36 degrees C!  We pulled into the parking lot of a Lillooet landmark, the Reynolds Hotel, and raced up to our room for a cool shower. 

Historical Lillooet is perched on the edge of lands overlooking steep gorges and the Fraser River below.  It’s dry and hot in summer, surrounded by mountains that form a pocket that traps the heat.  We learned from the local owner of the hotel’s cafe, that Lillooet is the site of significant Aboriginal history and today, slightly over half of Lillooet’s population is St’at’imc (Lillooet Nation).  Lillooet also played a key role in the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of the mid-nineteenth century and many locals still consider Lillooet as “mile 0” of the original Cariboo Wagon Road. 

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The famous newspaperwoman “Ma Murray” made her home in Lillooet.  Japanese Canadian families are still living in Lillooet, descendants of Japanese Canadians forced to move to Lillooet and other interior communities as a result of re-location practices in World War II.  In its heyday, Lillooet was  known for mining, farming, logging, the railway, ranching and government services.  Today, its economy has been renewed by an emerging wine industry, home of the successful Fort Berens Winery.  While Lillooet may not appear to be booming now by our “urbanite” standards, it’s clear that it’s “boom and bust” history has produced a population that is both resilient and believes in its future.  A wonderful quality found in small communities is the willingness of locals to engage, provide travel advice and share their pride of community with visitors.

For a motorcyclist, leaving Lillooet can be a challenge given the first stretch of road that runs through the Pavilion area out to Cache Creek.  It’s narrow and has some winding curves that move your heart up closer to your throat.  But the view down into the Fraser River gorges below the road offers a unique riding experience as you climb out of the valley.  The interior roads of British Columbia are a motorcyclist’s delight — skill testing, well paved and punched through some of the most beautiful country you can imagine.  Our next stop for a break from the heat was the Hat Creek Ranch, on the outskirts of Cache Creek, where a variety of ice cream flavours tempt and cool the palate.  A popular tourist attraction, Hat Creek Ranch bustles with visitors. 

From there, we came to the junction and took a left turn that would take us through Clinton, Chasm, 70 Mile House, a diversion around beautiful Green Lake (emerald green in fact) and 100 Mile House, on our way to an overnight stay at Williams Lake, the gateway to Highway 20 and the Chilcotin.  Williams Lake is cowboy and ranching country and relies on logging and lumber mills to keep its economy going.  And Williams Lake is a going concern, judging by the number of logging trucks we passed traveling in and out of town.

We set out early on a Monday morning (day three) and left Williams Lake, the farthest I had ever been into B.C.  Highway 20 to Nimpo Lake, where we would spend the night, is as remote and beautiful a route as I have ever ridden.  The countryside is a mix of Jack pine forests, broad sweeping ranch land and flowing rivers.  Highway signs warn motorists of open range, deer, wild horses and moose along a highway that is well paved but populated by logging trucks and few cars. 

There was a strong wind blowing across the highway that day, forcing me to grip the handle bars a little tighter and lean into the road a little steeper.  We had been told that about halfway between Williams Lake and Nimpo Lake was a gourmet’s delight, a ranch and restaurant literally in the middle of “nowhere,” just outside Redstone, where the only gas station along the route sits high above the road with a steep gravel entry and exit (a challenge to navigate for a heavy bike like a Harley Davidson). 

Difficult to pronounce but unforgettable for its natural setting, food and animal husbandry practices, KiNiKiNiK is the fruition of a Swiss couple’s dream when they settled near Redstone in 1979.  The restaurant and outbuildings are exquisitely built of logs and finished wood, and all restaurant fare is part of a certified organic “Pasture to Plate” movement that boasts “a fully vertically integrated agricultural operation…that has to adopt Pasture to Plate standards which exclude the use of chemical and/or pharmaceutical products.”  

This is a ranch of about about 4,000 acres on the fringes of Redstone, with more acreage at Kleena Kleene.  Cattle and chickens are raised organically and harvested at the ranch’s abattoir.  The word “harvest” has replaced the word “slaughter” and the harvest is done in a compassionate environment.

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One cow, known as the Priest, remains with the soon-to-be harvested cattle to calm them.  Throughout the building, classical music plays 24 hours a day to further relax the animals and when harvesting begins, the cattle are first stunned to reduce their anxiety.  Organic chicken harvesting is also done compassionately. 

The entire ranch operation uses solar power to supplement electricity, composts its animal bedding and waste and reclaims waste water on site. This is a unique example of ranching practices that respect animals and the environment, and must be a model in the Chilcotin.  Their meat is also shipped to an outlet in Vancouver.

In talking with Jasmin, owner and operator of KiNiKiNiK ranch and restaurant, she shared with us her concerns for the Chilcotin because of the marked decline of tourism in the area.  “When BC Ferries stopped the Bella Coola ferry a few years ago, the impact on our small communities was bad.”  She talked of people forced to sell their properties, of little employment to attract and keep young people in the area and of some who have simply walked away from their homes and small businesses, all because of few tourists and visitors.  What she describes we saw for ourselves, as we passed by what seemed like a lot of “for sale” signs or, for those that did not sell, homes and businesses that appeared deserted or boarded up, as if someone had given up on their dream. 

Larger communities in the Chilcotin, such as Alexis Creek, Anahim Lake and Hanceville are First Nations communities while others such as Towdystan, Nimpo Lake and Tatla Lake are home to small ranches and some back country resorts.  But despite the challenges, we sensed that many people are determined to hang on, demonstrating strength and resilience, recurring themes that connect families and communities to the rich cultural and agricultural histories reflected in the Chilcotin settlements we visited.

At Nimpo Lake, we found a perfect place to stay, the Dean Resort located on the shores of the lake.  For the first time in years, we heard the call of the Loon, one of the most haunting and beautiful bird calls we know.  Nimpo Lake, while a tiny community, has a large general store, a bakery that’s for sale and a restaurant.  The general store sells clothing, hardware, groceries, fishing tackle and other outdoor gear and, of course, is a local liquor outlet.  While I always love browsing a hardware store, I found the Nimpo Lake general store harder to leave — the merchandise was diverse and unique.  As we rode back to Williams Lake, we vowed to return to the Chilcotin and spend more time exploring this magnificent part of our province.  

We left Williams Lake bound for Wells and Barkerville, again my first trip to these two communities.  Booked into the Wells Hotel, we arrived in the afternoon, having again ridden through some breathtaking country.  The road signs warning of mountain caribou and moose on the road kept my stress level higher than normal so I was glad to reach our destination and pull up and park in front of the hotel.  While the hotel is a period piece, it’s rooms are charming and it houses a cafe and pub — great food and the pub boasts the largest selection of Scotch whiskey in B.C., music to my husband’s ears.  Having covered a lot of ground in 4 days, we decided to stay in Wells for two nights, a good decision that would provide some R&R and give us a chance to spend a full day in Barkerville, a significant Canadian Heritage site.

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Wells is a charming place nestled between beautiful mountains and forests, in a narrow valley.  The town has a permanent population of about 200, can get up to 18 feet of snow in winter, hosts an annual arts festival, advertises great cross-country skiing and provides summer accommodation to actors and students working in nearby Barkerville, boosting the population to about 400.  Split in half by the highway to Barkerville, there is an upper and lower Wells built of a majority of colourful, well kept wooden houses with metal roofs, small shops and restaurants, a Legion, a theatre, an art gallery and other wooden buildings that are part of Wells’ historical street scapes.  One woman told me that when she and her sister both lived in Wells (one sister lived in upper Wells and one in lower Wells), what she loved most about the community was that she, as the “upper” sister, could stand on her porch and wave down across the highway to her “lower” sister standing on her own porch.

We discovered the Bear Paw Restaurant in lower Wells, well known for excellent food and for its 8-person guest house that can be rented anytime during the year and located directly across the street from the Bear Paw.  The house has been tastefully updated on two floors and sits adjacent to the main cross-country ski trail head across the road.  Everything is within walking distance in Wells and in summer, motorcycling, hiking, camping and RV-ing seem popular activities in and around the area.

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Famous Barkerville is but a stone’s throw from Wells and an easy 10-minute ride.  We arrived mid-morning to an almost empty parking lot so we had our pick of spaces.  Once inside the town site, we were greeted by ground squirrels that look similar to prairie dogs or gophers.  They scurry from place to place, stopping to get up on their hind legs and scan for enemies.  They live under and around buildings in holes dug all over the site and add a certain “rodent charm” to Barkerville’s sights and sounds.  Like other members of the squirrel family, “they are simply rats with good PR” we joked.  There are also signs warning of real animal threats, such as black bears and grizzlies.  The week before, one of the staff told us that an injured grizzly sat in the parking lot for some time, forcing an evacuation indoors of tourists.  The young bear eventually wandered off into nearby woods but not before giving people a scare.

Barkerville particularly interested me as a first-time visitor and as a member of Oak Bay’s Heritage Commission.  Appreciating the past is a window to the future and Barkerville is a great example of heritage conservation and the importance of preserving local and regional history. Barkerville is well maintained and still had permanent residents well into the 1950’s before heritage designation.  Many of its buildings now house points of interest including cafes, small art and gift shops, a coffee bar and one of two churches that still holds regular services.  If you love history, artifacts and a replication of things “as they were,” Barkerville is a must see.  There are daily events, actors who stroll the street and interact with visitors and great opportunities to explore the site, including the cemetery.  But be warned, there are signs at the town’s edge depicting bears in the area.

Leaving Barkerville and Wells was the beginning of our ride home, heading west back to Quesnel and then south to Williams Lake.  From Williams Lake, we re-traced our steps to 100 Mile House and on to Clinton and Cache Creek.  At Spence’s Bridge (where we had a great lunch next door to the Baits Motel), we took another left turn towards Merritt.  At Merritt we took the road to Princeton where we stayed the night and the next day, via the Hope-Princeton Highway through Manning Park and Hope, we rode hard to catch a ferry to Swartz Bay.  As we said when we arrived home, it’s always exciting to see other parts of the world but it’s wonderful to come home too.

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Hoping that you have enjoyed a brief glimpse of B.C.  through the eyes of a motorcyclist.  Apart from having to ride over some rough gravel and through some heavy rain, this was a remarkable eight days riding through a remarkable province, our very own British Columbia.