The Uncollected Prose of Pauline Johnson

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The Cariboo Trail

The “Trail” is known well to politicians, miners, prospectors, ranchers, lumbermen, speculators, and a few merchants, but it is undiscovered to the tourist and holiday-maker, and in consequence affords the most princely vacation in all Canada, the prince of Summer playgrounds.

It was late in “the fifties” that Cariboo gold first beckoned with its yellow finger to “Dutch Billy,” the pioneer prospector, who followed its Jack-o'-lantern dance through a hundred leagues of mountain, canyon, and table land, until it lured him to the opulent ledges of the far north, and he staked his claim where the town of Barkerville now thrives, two hundred and eighty miles north-east of the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Then followed the “Rush.” Old-timers still tell of the mad chase for treasure, of the thousands upon thousands of fortune-seekers crazed with greed that poured Klondyke-wise into the mountain fastnesses, some to starve, some to fatten, all to strive, contend, work, dig, and gain either wealth or experience. And still in this year of 1906, the golden nuggets glisten in the miners' riffles, and the stage that carries His Majesty's mails to “the Front,” carries also bi-weekly the armed guard, lynx-eyed, cat-eared, seated beside the bags of bullion, his firm fingers well closed over the handle of a very real “gun” that he hesitates not to use instanter, for he is guard of the honor of the British Columbia Express Company, within whose keeping is the transportation of all the wealth of the Cariboo country.

One cannot now traverse the entire old-time trail from the Pacific to its northern reaches, for from the mouth of the Fraser River inland to the town of Lytton the old pack trail has fallen into disuse. The cayuse has given place to the C.P.R., but the tourist may yet see, as he gazes across the turbulent Fraser, a filmy, cobwebby line hanging half-high of the mountains. It is the ghost of the discarded trail that in the early days was the highway from the interior to the sea.

But north of the towns of Lytton and Ashcroft the railroad is meaningless. The Government of British Columbia disburses forty thousand dollars annually to keep the trail in repair, and it is without doubt the best rural thoroughfare in the Dominion. It is almost incredible that these two hundred and eighty miles of roadway should be kept in a condition that would charm the most exacting motorist, but such are the facts. Add to this the attraction that the journey is broken every twenty miles by the neatest little cedar log inns, or ranch houses, where comfortable apartments, fresh bed linen, excellent meals, and good stabling may be obtained for a ridiculously reasonable figure.

We left the train at Ashcroft. The sun was beating down from a sky of brass. The thermometer stood at 104 degrees in the shade. At all points of the compass the arid sand hills of the “Dry Belt” lifted their thirsty summits, and for five months no drop of rain had fallen.

We decided that we could not get up country quickly enough. By previous arrangement that most excellent organization, the British Columbia Express Company, was ready for us. Stages are all very well, and the Cariboo stage is particularly enticing, swung as it is on the typically Western leathern “springs,” and manned by a Buffalo Billish-looking person who carries a long black-snake whip and tools his four or six galloping horses down the mountain passes at a rate that makes one's hair stand on end, but he is an autocrat, the custodian of King Edward's mails, and he careers through to Barkerville in the twinkling of an eye. If you wish to be your own master, it is better to give the stage a wide berth, and secure one of the light, two-seated, canopy-topped surreys, some good roadsters, and a driver from the “B.X.” They will all be yours for twenty days, and if fortune favors you perhaps your driver may be “Cariboo Billy,” the best whip and “most decent, all round good fellow in the gold country.”

The “Cariboo” would be indeed isolated without the medium of the British Columbia Express Company, known in local road, ranching, and miners' parlance as “The B.X.” The company secured its charter in 1863 by one Barnard, and was originally known as “Barnard's Express,” and since that year has been the king operator and main artery to “the front.” The company employs thirty-five men and one hundred and fifty horses. It owns the stage, and carries the mails, which service costs the Government at Ottawa twenty-five thousand dollars a year to maintain. It handles hundreds of tons of freight, which has to be transferred from the railway at Ashcroft to the far reaches of the north by means of enormous wagons hauled by six or eight draught horses, that cover the distance in about seventeen days. In the freighting business there is a competitive organization, the Cariboo Forwarding Company, that sends in great caravans of merchandise, both companies agreeing on their rates to shippers, of five and a half cents per pound for carriage.

Here the horse is king; there are no rival means of transportation, consequently immense hay ranches are everywhere to be seen, and the price of feed is exorbitant. Hay even in cutting time is never less than twenty dollars a ton, and towards November it doubles or trebles in value, and the rancher who can “hold over” his hay makes a small fortune in a single season. Alfalfa is grown in some districts, and yields four crops a year, but it is little encouraged, the freighters asserting that a horse alfalfa-fed has no staying qualities.

In leaving Ashcroft, it is usually in a maze of dust and sunshine, the blistering heat following one out of the valley, cooling a trifle as one sweeps across the Bonaparte Hills, from which place hails Chief Basil, one of the Indian chiefs who visited London. The trail winds about the edge of the yellow cliffs, hanging like a golden ribbon above the yawning canyons; the silence, the vastness, the coloring sink into the senses like a benediction, while the breath of the sun-drawn sage bushes comes in heavy fragrance at every turn. It is an echo of the tropics that has wandered away from the south to curl itself and its singing in the kindred heights and depths of the Bonaparte Hills. As the journey lengthens the timber line is reached, the arid slopes disappear, and the cool forests of jack pine and Douglas fir arise on either side, to give way occasionally to thousands of acres of ranch lands or to hospitable road houses, all patronized by the “B.X.” both for table and stable. Relays of horses are supplied with amazing despatch, and a “short order” meal of great excellence can be had at unheard of hours. All these road houses “raise” their own meat and vegetables, and the latter grow to unusual size, but retain a crispness and tenderness not to be met with elsewhere in the Dominion.

One hundred and seventy-five miles out, the trail touches the Fraser River at Soda Creek, where the renowned sockeye salmon may be had, served by a no less renowned Chinese chef, “Wy” by name, acknowledged to be the best cook in British Columbia. Fifty miles further up stream lies the beautiful little Hudson's Bay post and village of Quesnel, which the trail sweeps down to from the heights, and the river margins on its rollicking way to the south. Just before entering the “Post,” the trail passes the Terra Cotta Rocks, a strange formation caused by a deposit of lignite that in some way became ignited about twenty years ago. It smouldered for about twelve years, and when eventually extinguished it left the surrounding clay cliffs burnt into excellent terra cotta. The colors are gorgeous, and can be seen for miles.

At Quesnel the only telegraph line that enters Dawson City in the Yukon swerves from haunts of civilization, and outstretches its too frail wires into the wilderness, to traverse an absolutely unsettled area of close upon a thousand miles. Along this route are telegraph stations exactly forty miles apart. They consist of mere shacks, where two men live their monkish lives. One is an expert operator, the other a line repairer. They receive the news of the entire world daily, but rarely see other faces than their own. In event of a faulty wire caused by breakage, by storm or forest fires, the damage can be located within forty miles. The two repairers start, at the same hour, each travelling towards the other. They are provided with a repairing outfit and sufficient kit. In winter the trip must be made on snow shoes and frequently these unknown heroes are called upon to suffer hardships that can only be overcome by the most courageous.

Beyond Quesnel game becomes more plentiful. Timber wolves prowl the entire region, and jack rabbits, red deer, grouse, and caribou are plentiful. The scenery grows more rugged, the sluggish prettiness of placid ranches and wooded valleys gives place to frowning canyons and dense forests; the trail lifts, falls, and winds its way into Barkerville, then spreads like the fingers of a giant hand that touch with their tips the outlying mining settlements of Horse-fly, Last Chance, and Jack-of-Clubs.

Barkerville stands in a cup of the mountains, and stands on stilts. Erstwhile mountain torrents warned the builders to mount their houses on elevations above the street level, and the whole town has the appearance of someone raising their eyebrows. The population reaches about three hundred, many, particularly amongst the younger generation, having never seen a railway train, a steamboat, or an electric light, but their eyes are daily accustomed to the sight of bags of yellow, golden nuggets; their manners are polished and courteous, and their attire fashionable. Barkerville gold has given fortunes to many, and a fair living to many more. It is now assumed to be a “has been” town, but it still thrives and blooms, laughs, gambols, and dances in its remote world nearly four hundred miles from anywhere. The latest hydraulic mining machinery is used within earshot and eyeshot of the main street, and although the output is comparatively limited, it is sufficient to find its way in enviable quantities into the Bank of British North America at Ashcroft.

On the return journey, lovers of adventure and the picturesque generally leave the main trail at Clinton, sixty miles north of the railway, and strike due west, taking in the beautiful town of Lillooet, to reach which the summits must be crossed by “looping” up a mountain side to the height of seven thousand feet, from which point the trail can be seen coiled in six crescents, in depths from which one has climbed hour upon hour. Then comes a similar drop on the farther side. The wonderfully sure-footed horses of the “B.X.” seem to gather their hoofs together at the crest of the mountain, take the bits in their teeth, and—plunge. “Cariboo Billy” grasps the reigns a little more firmly, jerks his cowboy hat close above his eyes, clutches his black-snake whip, “lays it on” to the leaders, and things break loose. Every inch of the descent the horses gallop madly; bluff, steep, and crag shoot by on one side, on the other a canyon out-stretches, its margin not ten inches from the carriage wheels; down, down, at a headlong, break-neck pace, until the trail unravels behind you, floating upwards like a chiffon scarf with its undulating end lost in the clouds.

Then one more long, twisting ledge of roadway, that suspends itself above the Fraser River, where the waters crowd themselves into a narrow-throated channel, boiling and bickering amongst their immovable boulders, and carrying in their hurried course tons of precious gold dust, to be dredged for further down stream, by the powerful steam dredge, or to be washed out ashore by thrifty Chinamen. When Lillooet the Lovely creeps into sight, its streets an odd mixture of several nationalisms, the dominating shade being the warm, tawny copper color of Chief Basil's people. One always sighs as they leave Lillooet, such beauty as its environment may never again enter into one's vision, and for many moons afterwards the ear still listens to the haunting call of the cascade showering itself down the mountain side and singing through the last half mile that shuts away the loveliest spot in Canada.