BARKERVILLE, B.C. — You spot the tiny flecks in the pan and you begin to understand why tens of thousands fought through all manner of pain, death and privation to get to it and why, today, they still seek it.
Gold fever gripped the world a century and a half ago and it never really left, prospector/guide/restaurateur Dave Jorgenson indicates as he surveys a site while holding a $6,000 nugget he once unearthed, one he refuses to cash in. This is near Wells, eight kilometres from Barkerville in central B.C. Those flecks of gold mesmerize.
“From host town to ghost town,” he describes Wells, a once-bustling centre after gold was discovered and went from a 0 to 4,500 population when the Cariboo Gold Quartz mine was opened in 1932. Still, they pan for gold here and around Barkerville, now a national historic site named after Billy Barker who kicked off the gold rush in 1862 when he and his pals hit the mother lode in Williams Creek to ignite a 20-year multi-billion dollar industrial revolution and the arrival treasure-seeking hordes.
The payoff to Billy and friends? In today’s dollars at today’s gold prices, more than $2.5 billion.
But back to Jorgenson’s pan and what is called placer mining. Gold is 10 times heavier than anything else in the pan, so it settles as you gently slosh a shovelful of sand around and tilt the pan. There, at the bottom are the flecks, termed “colour” by the prospectors. If you spot as many at 50, keep at it, you’re onto something. If it’s consistently less, move on.
For former Byron resident Jorgenson, it’s a thrill to find gold but it’s more than that.
“It’s like fishing; the activity is the joy,” the owner of the popular Bear’s Paw restaurant says. “Placer mining is romantic, which is why it keeps attracting people.”
Some can make it pay. Darrel Nippard over at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa teaches fly-casting among other duties there and pans for gold occasionally. He figures he could make $2,000 a month if he really went at it dawn to dusk but enjoys his ranch duties more.
For tourists, there’s a lot of enjoyment discovering a part of Canada they might know little about. If you want a peek back 150 years, it’s right here in historic Barkerville.
More than 140 historic buildings line the streets, most in their original locations. Folks in period clothing, stage coach rides, mining demonstrations, restaurants and live theatre are right in the heart of the Gold Rush. There are plenty of B&B’s. You can literally touch history from one end of town to the other.
You can’t touch it but over at Echo Valley, you can feel it. It’s something owner Norm Dove mentions, along with Nippard and several guests. There is something special, something spiritual, about the gorgeously appointed pine log buildings and the enormous mesa-like grounds they stand on.
“There’s something magical about it,” says San Francisco guest Harold Lustig. “I can’t describe it.”
Neither can Michael Blackstock, a First Nations artist who does tree carvings around the property he calls Faces In The Forest. He feels it relates to water, which explains why his art adorns Douglas firs near water sources.
“The water has a spirit,” he says.
Whatever it is, maybe it has helped keep Echo Valley safe. During our stay there, a forest fire raged up the mountainside. It helped that two helicopters, each dipping 200-gallon buckets into one of the resort’s ponds, dumped them all day to quell the blaze.
Most hotel owners would be loaded with angst over such things. Dove, who made his millions through paper production patents, remained utterly calm, even though two guests left early because of the nearby fire. All staff seems to have that same serenity no matter what.
There’s a manager, Alan Pineo, but after that the multitude of duties common to a large horse/cattle ranch of 26 employees levels out.
“There’s no chain of command,” Dove says. “It’s level. Everyone here feels this place is theirs, too, and it is.”
If you decide to vacation this way, consider a jet boat ride up the Fraser River. You’ll see ancient abandoned prospector’s cabins occasionally among the sheer walls and some intriguing rock carving petroglyphs thousands of years old.
Perhaps Jet Boat Adventures owner Doug Green, a native river person, hit the nail on the head when he discussed B.C.’s riches.
“The gold nowadays comes in two forms — gold and tourism,” he said.
For thousands of years, the treasure for natives has been in the river. It’s the salmon.
At the Bridge River Fishing Grounds near Lillooet, Sandra Terry of the St’at’imc people demonstrates how to cut salmon for wind-drying while men from the band net leaping salmon in the background. The chewy dried salmon is a neat snack.
Nearby, there’s another kind of digging. An extensive archeological site contains over 80 pit houses, the traditional winter homes of the St’at’imc people.
If you go
Echo Valley Ranch and Spa: www.evranch.com
You can fly Central Mountain Air from Vancouver to Williams Lake, rent a car and explore the region and drive to Barkerville or fly Vancouver to Quesnel and drive one hour to Barkerville.