Roaming BC’s majestic, remote Cariboo Chilcotin Coast

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The Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is called the land without limits, but for the people who have settled in this geographically diverse region steeped in history, it is known simply as home. Many of those who help showcase this uniquely British Columbia region are immigrants who fell in love with the land, and who today derive great pleasure from sharing it with others.

The region embraces coastline, mountains, desert, and forests, stretching from the border of Wells Gray Provincial Park in the east to the coastal community of Bella Bella in the west.

Its remoteness and majesty have attracted people to the region, but the inherent friendliness of its inhabitants have kept them there.

Patti Gerhardi, who does marketing and communications with the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association, says, “I love the opportunity to get on a horse and ride for hours and not see another person.

“For me, it’s the country life. I like when I walk down the street in Williams Lake or 100 Mile House or Cache Creek that I can nod and smile at somebody, and they’ll nod and smile back.”

Within six hours of her home, Gerhardi says she can visit a glacier, go to a desert, stop at an inland forest, or arrive at the Pacific Ocean without having traveled through a city.

“It’s an opportunity to relax,” she says, “to make sense of who you are in a natural environment. No pressures, no pollution. It’s funny: Often people come back and say, ‘I’m just at home here.’”

A British industrialist and his Thai wife; an actor from nearby Vernon, B.C.; a couple of Germans - these are among the people who have decided to call Cariboo Chilcotin Coast home, and who now make their living attracting others to the area in order to share its magnificent scenery and rich history.

Chapter 1

Barkerville's living history

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While James Douglas was always interested in history, walking into Barkerville for the first time was an experience unlike any other, he says. “What I would like to say about the Cariboo region as somebody who didn’t grow up here, is it is phenomenal."

According to Douglas, Manager of Visitor Experiences, and an actor and interpreter who works at the historic town, Barkerville is one of the most significant places in British Columbia.

Children enjoy a tube ride at historic Barkerville. Photo by Snowseekers Media.

In the mid-1800s it was the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Chicago.

Located in the northeast corner of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region, the town sprung up when an English miner, William “Billy” Barker, discovered gold in the river. And the Cariboo gold rush boom took off from there.

Williams Creek - which runs through the town - produced some $20 million worth of gold over a 30-year period. That gold helped fuel the growth of the province.

Barkerville was designated a national historic site in 1924 and made a provincial heritage property in 1958. While the town’s last resident died in 1979, Barkerville continues to be a lively place: It is now the largest living history museum in western North America.

Douglas first came to work at the town as an actor in 1998.

These days some 150 people work in the 1100 acre park, which includes the town. During the summer, visitors can wander through the town’s 130 buildings and meet the “residents,” interpretative staff who embody Barkerville’s long-gone inhabitants and dress in outfits of the period.

An aerial view of Barkerville. Photo by Barkerville Historic Town & Park.

Town life is vibrant and busy. Visitors can see blacksmiths hard at work with hammer and tongs; explore one of Canada’s oldest Chinatowns; meet the reverend at the Anglican Church and accompany him on a one-kilometre walking tour of Barkerville’s original cemetery; take a horse-drawn buggy tour of the town; and more. Visitors can even pan for gold.

Outside of town, the surrounding area offers hiking, mountain biking and, in the winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, as well as three campgrounds in addition to the available summer accommodation options.

In the winter, visitors can enjoy the newly launched Shamrock Tube Run, ice-skating rink and snowshoe, skate and kick sled rentals. A new café and gift store in the Visitors' Reception Centre offers visitors a place to warm up and enjoy a hot meal during their fun-filled day in the snow.

Douglas has spent lots of time in Vancouver and Toronto, but in the Cariboo he had an entirely different experience of just being able to be himself. “I have been more active, not just as a professional, but as a person since I have come to Barkerville.

It was coming up to the Cariboo that made me realize what it was like to be a human being.

It’s just a really cool place to be and when people come to visit us, they’re coming to a place they will ultimately want to come back to year after year.”

Interpreter and actor, James Douglas. Photo from Barkerville Historic Town and Park.

Chapter 2

East meets West at Echo Valley Ranch

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In the early 1990s an engineer by the name of Norm Dove, along with his wife, Nan, showed up in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region. Norm had immigrated from the United Kingdom in the 1960s to Canada, where he carried on a successful career in industrial paper-making (he was inducted into the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame for the many patents he developed) and later fell in love with the Echo Valley area.

In the bucolic area north-west of Kamloops, Norm and Nan decided to build a house. But so many of the couples’ family and friends were taken with the region that soon after, the house began to evolve into a guest ranch.

Nan and Norm Dove, owners Echo Valley Ranch
Nan and Norm Dove, owners Echo Valley Ranch. Photo courtesy Echo Valley Ranch.

In 1995, the Echo Valley Ranch & Spa opened to the public, a unique venture, where East meets West, a reflection of Nan’s Thai background, which has infused the ranch. Visitors can spend as much time as they like horseback riding. And once a week they can enjoy an authentic Thai banquet when they return from their day's ride.

Echo Valley Ranch & Spa
Spa time at Echo Valley Ranch

The ranch boasts 12 rooms and five cabins as well as a royal suite located in the Baan Thai building. Kerstin Auer, the ranch’s marketing person, explains that Baan means house in Thai. “Norm had that built as a tribute to his wife and her Thai roots. He commissioned the architect of the royal Thai family to do the building.”

The ranch itself encompasses 160 acres, and millions of acres of crown land surround it. It's at the centre of four geographic regions. The Fraser Canyon, the Marble Mountains, the grasslands and the forest all converge there.

While Echo Valley offers everything from the aforementioned horseback riding to spa treatments to gold panning, the majority of people come for the peace and quiet, according to Auer. The ranch doesn’t have phone service, but does offer wi-fi, but many forego using their computers during their time there.

“People really enjoy being cut off and not having to check social media and get their emails all the time. You get there and it’s just a feeling of being at home.”

BBQ at Echo Valley Ranch

Summer BBQ at Echo Valley

The ranch is a designated Gold Green Tourism attraction. “It’s always been very important to Norm and the whole ranch team to keep the area as pristine as possible, because that’s the draw, and that’s why they wanted to be there in the first place,” Auer notes.

The resort includes water efficient plumbing, energy efficient lighting and geo-thermal systems to heat the royal suite and swimming pool. Three electric vehicle charging stations are also on site.

As well, the staff grow and raise most of the food at the ranch. “We call it the 100 metre diet as opposed to the 100 kilometre diet,” Auer says.

Auer moved to B.C. nine years ago from Germany. While researching a travel guide on Western Canada, she came across Echo Valley. After the book came out, Dove approached her and asked if she’d been interested in taking on the marketing for the ranch.

Says Auer: “Coming to the ranch everything falls off of you, the stress of the city, the digital devices, and you have a chance to relax and just be yourself.”

Kerstin Auer Echo Valley Ranch.
Kerstin Auer at Echo Valley Ranch.
Chapter 3

Traversing the Gates of Hell

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Where others see the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast’s spectacular beauty, and its many natural attractions, Riley Forman finds history. “History is the brand of the region in my opinion,” he says.

That makes sense since Forman does the marketing for the Hell’s Gate Airtram, an attraction that is steeped in history. Explorer Simon Fraser first described the narrow canyon as an “awesome gorge.”

“We had to travel where no human being should venture, for surely we have encountered the gates of hell,” the explorer wrote in 1808.

Hell's Gate crossing on the Fraser River
Hell's Gate crossing on the Fraser River.

It is there, between the high rocky walls that the Fraser River roars through to a pass only 110 feet wide. Some 200 million gallons of water a minute squeeze through the tight passage.

The Canadian National Railway followed in 1913, blasting a tunnel through for the railway. The blast triggered a rock slide, which partially blocked the Fraser River, endangering the salmon run. It took 30 years of work by a joint Canadian-United States effort to repair the damage to the point where today the salmon once more run in abundance.

Hell's Gate AirTrams
Hell's Gate Airtram's above the gorge.

In 1970 the construction of the Swiss-built Airtram opened the site to tourists, who wanted to thrill to the ride that swings out high across the gorge.

“The infrastructure of the tram, I think, is a huge part of its history,” Forman says of Hell’s Gate. At the time the Airtram was built, it was iconic, according to Forman, and attracted people from across Canada.

Forman grew up in the canyon and worked at the attraction since he was a young man. Despite his longevity at Hell’s Gate, he’s skeptical about the site’s other big attraction: Its ghosts.

Looking at the Fraser River from the Hell's Gate Bridge
Peering down at the Fraser River from the Hell's Gate suspension bridge.

But apparently Hell’s Gate harbours more than a few lost souls.

In the restaurant, a mysterious smoking man often draws complaints from patrons, who don’t realize the individual puffing on cigars is a spectre.

Spookier still are the ghost dogs. Forman claims he witnessed a tourist’s dog actually fight with the
invisible dogs, writhing and snarling in the air on his own until, bested, the dog yelped and ran away to curl up in a ball with its tall laid between its legs. The dog stayed put for 45 minutes, violently trembling.

Altogether, paranormal groups - whom the owner previously invited to investigate the attraction - say they found seven or eight different hauntings.

Fudge at Hell's Gate
Fudge counter at Hell's Gate Airtram.

Not even ghosts can keep people away from the other thing the attraction is known for: It’s world-famous fudge. Forman says in 2007 the fudge factory at the Hell’s Gate Airtram broke the world record for fudge flavours, offering up 232 flavours.

“They still have the recipes and they still make funky flavours,” he says.

Chapter 4

The Shangri-La of mountain biking

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The beauty of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast also lured Thomas Schoen, another German immigrant, to the region. One of the first paragliders in the world, Schoen arrived in B.C. in his early 20s, attracted by the province’s outdoor activities.

“I thought, what a fantastic place. There’s canoeing, biking, skiing, hiking, that sort of thing.”

Today, Schoen is one of the main drivers behind the burgeoning mountain bike scene that has transformed the Williams Lake Area into a world-renowned cycling destination. The International Mountain Bike Association calls the area the “Shangri-La of mountain biking.”

Cruising over a bridge. Photo from Caribou Mountain Bike Consortium

As chair of the Cariboo Mountain Bike Consortium, Schoen helps regional communities with administrative support and marketing. The consortium raises hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding and then reinvests the money into trail building, signage, and more.

The area surrounding Williams Lake boasts close to 1,000 kilometres of trails. Dozens of professional mountain bike movies have been filmed in the area, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up a mountain bike magazine without seeing images from the region.

What makes it such a good place for the sport? In Schoen’s opinion, it’s the community. He notes the location of Williams Lake is ideal. The town itself is in a bowl surrounded by mountains and situated on a lake.

And the trails begin right at the edge of town, meaning cyclists can jump on their bikes and begin riding without having to drive or shuttle to the start.

Thomas Schoen working on a mountain bike jump.
Thomas Schoen working on a mountain bike jump.

The trails themselves are diverse. They range from black diamond steeps that will summon up every bit of skill a rider possesses, to mellow, flowy trails designed for beginners. “There’s something for everybody,” Schoen says. “As a local, it would take you at least two riding seasons to hit every single trail in the area here.”

But ultimately it’s the welcoming spirit of the people that also helps propel the region to a top spot as a mountain bike destination. “It’s a very friendly mountain bike community,” Schoen says. “If you roll into town with your mountain bike, it won’t take more then five minutes and you make friends.”

According to Schoen, show up with your bike, and people will stop you, ask you where you’re from, and give you tips on where to ride. “We’ve got the businesses on board, so if you walk into any local coffee shop or the local grocery store, it doesn’t matter how dirty or wet you are. You came from a wet ride, but people know you’re here to mountain bike.”

Catching some big air in the Caribou. Photo from Caribou Mountain Bike Consortium

Williams Lake is also one of the first communities to partner with the local First Nations community and establish a trail building school. The trail network was expanded out to the local community, and now riders stay at the campsite as well. It’s also led to band members purchasing their own bikes.

Schoen travels the province now to other First Nations communities to talk about the trail building model he developed in Williams Lake and to train other communities in the skill. “We also like to think of it as an amazing tool for reconciliation,” he says.

“The First Nations were always dependent on trails. They were the first trail builders on the continent, so there are so many parallels between us as active trail users and the First Nations communities being trail builders and trail users for tens of thousands of years.”

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