WHAT IT'S LIKE IN the vast and vibrant Cariboo
White-faced cattle share million-acre spreads with moose and deer, miners scratch a living out of half-forgotten gold fields, and big-game guides offer “a grizzly or your money back.” “This country,” says a cowboy who knows, “beats the hell out of Texas”
CARIBOO IS THE NAME given to a vast and, at times, wild and lonely plateau that stretches between the western ramparts of the Rocky Mountains and the Coast Range of British Columbia, and which its inhabitants, to a man, will tell you is nothing less than God’s country.
The thought soon strikes the traveler that He must surely have made it without a plan, for it is a grandly chaotic land of dark and menacing mountains, friendly rolling hills of clay, and meadows where the white-faced cattle munch the succulent bunch grass. In places it is sufficiently moist to support thick and valuable stands of timber, in others it is so parched as to provide sustenance only for sagebrush.
Its boundaries are not to be found on any map and even those who live there will argue as to where it begins and where it ends. Roughly, it can be said to be oval-shaped and to extend from Cache Creek, near the Thompson River, in the south, to the Cottonwood River, one hundred and eighty miles to the north. From east to west, its widest expanse is perhaps one hundred and sixty miles. Slashing down its entire length is the Fraser River.
A land such as this was made for great happenings and big enterprises, and the Cariboo a century ago had a stampede for gold that only the Klondike could surpass. Today it has cattle spreads as big as any on the continent.
The largest of these spreads embraces more than two million acres of grazing land that the livestock shares with moose and deer. Another ranch is so vast a plane flies over the range to drop supplies and notes of instruction to the cowboys.
This is prime big-game country, too. where moose and deer abound, attracting hunters from as far away as Florida, Texas and New Mexico.
As well, it has become an important logging area where the sawmills with their shorter hours and higher pay are luring the cowboys and Indians off the ranches, away from workdays that last from daylight to dark and wages that amount to $125 to $150 a month, plus board. In the last decade, most of its towns have been transformed by what the local wags call “the discovery of trees.”
Its inhabitants, though no less diversified than its geography, are more easily sorted out: gold miners, big-game guides, cowboys, Indians (who, ironically, are mostly cowboys), ranchers, loggers, even a genuine English lord — as well, of course, as those of
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more prosaic background and calling.
But, no matter how they earn their bread, they are, each and every one, fiercely loyal to the Cariboo.
A typical Cariboo patriot is Slim Brecknock, a cowboy from the C-l Ranch, whom I chanced to meet one day last fall in a clearing near Riske Creek. Slim and his buddies had been in the saddle three weeks, first rounding up and now driving three hundred head of cattle into Williams Lake to be sold. He wore a buckskin shirt, work-worn chaps, a kerchief at his throat, and the brim of his cowboy hat was rolled in a way that no dude could possibly roll it.
Slim gave a finishing twist to his handrolled cigarette, lit it with an ember from the campfire, and said, “This country beats the hell out of Texas.”
Only two days before, in a tastefully appointed living room in a town called One Hundred Mile House, I had heard the same sort of talk from Michael Cecil, son of Lord Martin Cecil. Michael is twenty-seven, roughly the same age as Slim. He wore his Sunday-best tweeds and, having been schooled at Eton, he spoke less colloquially than Slim.
“One finds the Cariboo,” said Michael, “infinitely more beautiful than most anywhere else one has seen. I most definitely prefer it to England.” As an afterthought, he added, “Here one is far removed from the rat race.”
Rising within the Cariboo plateau and sprawling westward from the Fraser River until it butts up against the coast mountains, is another plateau known as the Chilcotin. It is country as beautiful as its name, an immense country, and, by British Columbia standards, open country.
It is here, amid the rolling hills that appear to have a feminine softness, that one senses the spaciousness of the Cariboo and it is exactly this quality that accounts for the Cariboo’s hold on Chilco Choate, the big-game guide.
Chilco operates a hunting camp for American sportsmen, deep within the wilderness of the Chilcotin. It is no tenderfoot’s hunting lodge; the guests bed down in sleeping bags and are routed out at daylight.
“I first saw „this country nine years ago, when I was fifteen, and I knew then I’d never live anywhere else,” Chilco told me. “I went right back home to the coast, quit school and came back for good. In this country a man’s got room to breathe and a chance to get ahead. It’s a big country. That’s what I like.”
On the extreme northeastern rim of the Cariboo is the dark, mountainous and malevolent country where the Cariboo story began. This is where the gold was found that made the Cariboo world famous and opened the whole plateau to settlement.
The great Cariboo gold rush came about as a natural sequel to the Fraser stampede of 1858, as the miners kept pushing north. The first two important strikes were made in 1860, but it wasn’t until the spring of ’61 that William (Dutch Bill) Dietz and two partners crossed over Bald Mountain, the loftiest peak in the Cariboo Mountains, and came upon the creek that was to yield the greatest find of the Cariboo rush. They
called it Williams Creek, after Dutch Bill.
Over a six - mile stretch of Williams Creek that summer swarmed four thousand men, digging feverishly for gold. Some claims produced as much as thirty to forty pounds of gold in a day. Other rich streams were discovered and, by the time the fall snows came, the Cariboo had yielded, by official tally, $2,666,000 in gold.
The news spread to the outside and the Puget Sound Herald was reporting only the facts when, in October 1861, it said, “The excitement respecting the Cariboo mines is reaching fever heat . . . People will not think or talk about anything else . . . Everybody talks about going to the Cariboo.”
And so, in 1862, they came by the thousands — from California, the eastern United States, Ontario, the British Isles, Europe and even China.
One of those who came was Billy Barker, a Cornish sailor, a deserter from his ship. He sank one of the first deep shafts into the bed of Williams Creek, down fifty feet into dirt that washed out at five dollars to the pan. Billy was rich, but he died penniless. So did the most celebrated of all the gold-seekers, John (Cariboo) Cameron whose fortune has been variously set at anywhere from $100,000 to $350,000.
It was hard by Billy Barker’s shaft that the famous though flimsy and false-fronted town of Barkerville sprang up, literally on stilts that kept it swaying above muck and water overflowing from the workings of Williams Creek.
Barkerville became in its time the gold capital of the world, the largest Canadian city west of Toronto. At their peak, it and the cluster of towns that clung to its muddy skirts could claim a population of ten thousand.
It was to give the stagecoach and freight wagon access to Barkerville that, in 1862, Sir James Douglas, British Columbia’s first governor, ordered the building of the Cariboo Road, one of the boldest engineering feats North America has ever seen.
From Yale, the head of navigation on the Fraser, the road was thrust through the river’s terrible canyon, across the Cariboo, and, finally, into Barkerville. It was 385 miles long and it was built, with pick and shovel, sweat and dynamite, in less than three years at a cost of $1,250,000.
The Cariboo’s golden year was 1863, the creeks yielding almost four million dollars in gold.
Even now, hopefuls come to the goldfields, although in an almost indiscernible trickle. In the ghost town of Stanley live Deward Wells, a sixty-nine-year-old former stock - broker, and his wife, Edith, who came from Seattle nine years ago and ever since have worked prodigiously trying to find and develop a claim that will pay. “Gold?” Deward Wells said to me. “Yes, I know I’ve got some. But I don’t know yet how much. Next summer, then I’ll know. Then I’ll know.”
In 1958, the B. C. government declared Barkerville a provincial park and undertook restoration of the town. So far, $85,000 has been spent on the project and fifteen buildings have been restored, including the original barber shop of W. D.
Moses, an escaped Negro slave who helped catch a notorious murderer, peddled a guaranteed hair restorer and was one of Barkerville's more substantial citizens.
One of the men working on the restoration, Les Cook, a park ranger, has become so engrossed in his work that, he says, “I can walk down the street at night and I can see, there in the empty gaps, the old buildings, exactly as they were. And, in time, they'll be there again.”
It is doubtful if Barkerville could now muster more than seventy souls to confront the census taker, but nevertheless its citizens resent outsiders calling it a ghost town, as people inevitably do.
I visited Barkerville one wet, dismal day last October. When I entered, the street was deserted except for a stray dog, and, all in all, it was difficult to conjure up a picture of the lively town it must once have been. Even so, I was to witness a flurry of the old-time excitement. Everyone that day was talking about Russell MacDougall’s fall cleanup on Lowhce Creek.
The Lowhce mine is one of the Cariboo’s most famous, discovered in 1861 and worked continuously ever since. In its discovery year, it produced more than a thousand dollars a day for forty-three straight days. And now, apparently, Russell MacDougall was on the verge of making it pay again.
Curious to find out how well he had actually done, I called on MacDougall that evening, in his home at Wells, a nearby town. His gold scales and two pans of gold dust were sitting on a card table in the living room. He was about to find out for himself.
“It looks like four or five thousand dollars,” he told me. It was the result of six weeks’ work and there was no profit in it, but. he said, “I’m not a bit worried. It looks very good, very encouraging. We’re rigged up now for the next four or five years.”
MacDougall, a relaxed, affable type, told me something about himself. He has spent thirty-eight of his fifty-eight years placer mining, “mostly working old holes.” In his best year he made sixteen thousand dollars. “Since I’ve had those scales,” he said, “I’ve weighed half a million dollars in gold on them.”
Two days later I was heading into the Chilcotin, west beyond the Fraser, where, I’d been told, I would encounter a cattle drive on the Williams Lake-Alexis Creek road.
.Three hundred head of cattle from the C-l Ranch at Alexis Creek were being driven seventy-five miles to be sold at Williams Lake. I met the drive at a place called Riskc Creek where it had been halted to water the cattle. The cowboys were ranged around a campfire, drinking coffee from huge, white-enameled mugs.
One of them, a rugged man with a handsome, weather-bronzed face, thrust out his hand and said, “I’m John Webb, the foreman of this outfit.” The outfit included six other cowboys, a cook named Chen Sing, a chuck wagon (a jeep and trailer) and, as Webb put it, “about forty thousand dollars’ worth of beef on the hoof.”
Webb introduced me around and when we reached an Indian named David Gilpin, one of the others remarked admiringly, “That’s a real Chilcotin cowboy, — him. Born here and been cowboying all his life.”
The same cowboy told me, “You’re seeing one of the last of the beef drives. Once they pave those roads, that’ll be the end.”
A few minutes later I watched as the cattle were driven over a hill and the cowboys, on the ridge of the hill, were
silhouetted against a soft blue sky, the whole picture projected on the wide, wide screen of the Chilcotin.
The Cariboo’s ranches came into being in the first place to feed the miners and then, when the gold excitement subsided, they became the region’s economic mainstay. Its herds now account for perhaps a fifth of the twelve million dollars’ worth of beef cattle British Columbia produces annually.
Its finest ranch land is in the Chilcotin where the cattle spreads are so big a visiting prairie cattleman recently remark-
ed, “This isn’t ranching; this is wild-life management.”
The biggest of them all is the Gang Ranch, virtually a lost continent of hills, valleys, meadows, tableland, mountains and timber. No less a river than the Fraser provides one of its natural fences. The ranch is marked on the maps of the province and so big is it that in the Cariboo you hear people speak of “the Gang Ranch country.”
Founded in 1883, it was purchased in 1948 by two American multi-millionaires, Bill Studdert and Floyd Skelton. Stud-
ded, incidentally, is a partner in the ownership of a Montana ranch with the world’s best-known movie cowboy, Gary Cooper.
Even Melvin Sidwell, the quiet-spoken Idahoan who manages the Gang, is not certain how large his empire is. “Some say two million acres,” he says. “Some say three million. I don’t know. Probably it’s two and a half.”
The Gang owns fifty thousand acres outright and leases grazing rights on the rest. In terms of land it controls, it is the biggest ranch in British Columbia and
perhaps even on the continent. But there are other outfits that run more cattle. Last fall there were six thousand head on the Gang: it has stocked as many as thirteen thousand.
Its most distant cow camp, in Graveyard Valley, is sixty-two miles from the home ranch. "We got some cowboys who go into that Graveyard country the first of June and they don't come out till October,” says Sidwell. "In Hungry Valley they stay even longer. What do they do out there? They just work, that’s all. I'll guarantee you it takes a man with some nerve to cowboy in this country. We get some drugstore cowboys who think they’re real cowboys until they come out to the Gang and try it.”
Though Sidwell had been in the Chilcotin less than a year when I met him, he already spoke with the matchless fervor of the true Cariboo patriot. I asked him about the Chilcotin’s bunch grass, about which one hears so much throughout the Cariboo.
“Bunch grass!” he said. “That’s about as near to grain as I ever saw. Every mouthful’s like a vitamin pill. I've been ranching all my life and I’ll tell you that’s the greatest grass I ever saw.”
There’s also valuable timber on the Gang and it is being felled and floated almost two hundred miles down the Fraser to Hope. There is big game, too. I heard, last fall, of one group of eight hunters who took thirteen deer off the Gang in six days.
The Chilco’s air patrol
Another of the Chilcotin’s huge cattle domains is the Chilco where the manager, Haley Aylcock, a former U. S. Air Force colonel, rides its million acres of range in a Cessna 180.
The Chilco is owned by John Wade, a tall, dark and dynamic American whose chief business interest is a magazine distributing agency with headquarters in Honolulu. Wade and his attractive blond wife, Ruth, spend four or five months a year at the Chilco, commuting by plane between the ranch, Honolulu and a home they keep in Los Angeles. "We usually try to get into New York in the spring to catch the new shows,” she remarks.
Since he acquired the Chilco in 1947, Wade has bought five more Chilcotin outfits and the Chilco itself he has turned into a picture ranch. Its fifteen red-roofed buildings are painted a spotless white and the home ranch is surrounded by a white rail fence instead of the usual rustic barrier of poles supported by tripods. The main airstrip stretches in front of the eleven-room ranch house and there are ten others scattered over the range.
"The plane saves us days of riding.” Wade says. "During roundup, for instance, we can spot stray cattle from the air and then drop a note to the cowboys telling them exactly where to find them.”
There are three sawmills on the Chilco. Lumber is, in fact, now the greatest source of the Cariboo's wealth. It has been since World War II. when overcutting on the coast compelled the logging industry to invade the interior and harvest its jack pine, white spruce and inland Douglas fir. Now interior production is almost two thirds that of the coast. The Cariboo woods are peppered with hundreds of sawmills and logging camps and the winding backroads are crawling with monstrously huge logging trucks.
The impact of the logging boom on the towns of the Cariboo has been tremendous. For thirty years, until 1952, Quesnel. the region's principal settlement, had only one claim to fame: it was the northern terminus of the Pacific Great
Eastern Railway, ridiculed as "the railway from Nowhere to Nowhere.” Quesnel was indeed Nowhere.
Since 1946, Quesnel has grown from a village of 1,150 to a town of five thousand. and in the decade 1946-56, the value of its manufactured goods, mostly lumber products, soared from $707,()()() to $15.800,000 a year. Meanwhile, the PGE has become a proper railroad, running from North Vancouver into the Peace River country.
But nowhere has a more spectacular change been wrought by lumber than at One Hundred Mile House, so named when it was a stopping place on the old Cariboo Road. For years Hundred Mile was chiefly noted because of its remarkable blue-blooded cowboy. Lord Martin Cecil. In the Thirties, his father, the Marquis of Exeter, bought a sixteenthousand-acre ranch there and sent Lord Cecil out to run it.
"My father used to cowboy all the time.” said his son, Michael, who spoke to me in his father’s absence. "He also managed another ranch, owned by Lord Efgerton of Tattön. which has since been sold to an American. In all. my father ran fifty thousand acres.”
Ten years ago there were no more than fifteen people living at Hundred Mile. Now there are upwards of six hundred and it is the focal point for a population of several thousand. Everything in town, except a well-preserved stagecoach that sits by the highway, is new and neon-lit. The Exeter Arms is a first-class hotel with wall-to-wall carpets, colored plumbing fixtures and a cocktail bar.
“The whole town is built on what was our best wheat field,” said Michael. "We build the streets, put in the water mains and lease the lots. The control of the town is in our hands. If someone wants to build a barber shop, he asks us, 'May I?' It is a unique situation.”
In the fall of the year, a strange beast charges down the Cariboo highway. It has long tail fins, a mouth of chrome, and the antlers of a deer or moose. It is a sure sign the hunting season is on.
All hunters, returning not only from the Cariboo but from as far north as the Yukon and Alaskan borders, are required to stop and report their game at a government checking station in Cache Creek, at the southern tip of the Cariboo.
In 1958. fifteen thousand hunters reported killing twenty-three hundred deer, twenty-eight hundred moose, and twentyeight thousand waterfowl and grouse, as well as a sprinkling of mountain sheep and goat, black and grizzly bear, and caribou. (Although the caribou gave its name — or. more precisely, a misspelling of its name — to the region, it is quite scarce in the Cariboo.)
One Cariboo guide has introduced a measure of certainty into the uncertain sport of hunting by advertising: Guaranteed hunts. The hunter only pays for what he shoots. A hunter may stalk bull moose for seven days and pay $500 if he shoots one. nothing if he doesn’t. A fourteen-day it’s-in-the-bag foray after grizzly is priced at a cool thousand dollars. “Lord, how I hate a bad shot,” this guide declares.
Although the grizzly is downright scarce in the Cariboo, Judge Henry Castillou. of the Cariboo County Court, will, if he gets your ear, tell how he once shot three of them in one day on the same spot.
That then, is the Cariboo — a land where they still scour the creeks for gold, where real honest-to-God cowboys still ride the range, trees have been discovered. and big game can be hunted on a money-back guarantee. ★