How in the world did we end up in Barkerville?
I was heading from Smithers to Vancouver and needed a place to spend the night to break up an otherwise 14-hour drive. Having never been to B.C.’s famed gold rush town – Barkerville – I figured it would elevate the task from arduous drive to touristic road trip. Lucky for me, my gal pal Alex had recently moved north. With Dawson Creek just a cool six hour drive to Barkerville, she hastily accepted my invitation.
What is Barkerville, anyway?
“Barkerville is a preserved and dynamic gold-rush town in the British Columbia interior. Each summer, its rich history during the Cariboo Gold Rush and subsequent gold mining in the area is demonstrated for visitors from all over the world.” – TheCanadianEncyclopedia.ca
Prior to arriving, we knew little of Billy Barker’s boom town. All we knew was that we’re apt to geek out over B.C. history – like that time we hit up the Royal BC Museum exhibit, Gold Rush! – so this seemed right up our alley. And surely, a gold rush ghost town must have a saloon? We like saloons.
Recognizing Barkerville’s cultural importance, the town was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1924. Present day Barkerville is nothing short of a time capsule; a living museum. It’s two unpaved streets, littered with more than 125 heritage buildings. Some are furnished with antique furniture and others stand as exhibits complete with artifacts. Amid these restored structures are some functioning shops, restaurants and accommodations. Barkerville employees are dressed in period-appropriate fashion to boot.
Where is Barkerville?
Barkerville is snuggled into central British Columbia’s Cariboo Mountains, some 85 kilometres east of Quesnel. It’s a visit usually made by those day-tripping from Prince George, or visited by those travelling north-south through B.C. along Highway 97. The district of Wells lies 8 kilometres before Barkerville and both are located in close proximity to Bowron Lakes Provincial Park.
What is there to do in Barkerville?
I tweeted that I was going to Barkerville and I received an interesting reply. Someone said, “Really? Is there anything for young people to do there? I was under the impression it was a place to visit with kids.”
Um, no…Alex and I planned to suss out Barkerville’s salacious past, replete with saloons, brothels, and moonshine. We wanted to tempt fate by summoning the ghost of Billy Barker in the town’s lonely cemetery. Plus, history isn’t just for children; it’s not just something to learn once and file away. We wanted to live and breathe (and drink) Barkerville history.
To answer the question, beyond the exhibits, mainstream activities include gold panning, guided tours, having old-time pictures taken, dining at Lung Duck Tong, taking in a performance at Theatre Royal, the Waterwheel Show, riding through town in a stagecoach, and boutique shopping.
There is only ONE way to ‘do’ Barkerville:
And that’s to spend the night in Barkerville.
Lodging in the area comes in three forms: camping, inns/hotels in nearby Wells, and in Barkerville. The options for staying on-site are limited to three small inns: The King House, The Kelley House, and St. George Hotel. Based on availability, we stayed at the latter.
Why is this the ONLY way to ‘do’ Barkerville you ask? Because staying in Barkerville feels like a night at the museum. After dusk falls and the tourists depart, all of Barkerville is left solely to the 30 or so hotel guests.
Alex and I met in Prince George and convoyed onward to Barkerville. Being the thirsty girls we are, we made a detour into Quesnel and paid a visit to Barkerville Brewing. We’d start our pursuit of Billy Barker in one of their mustached pint glasses.
We may not have found old Bill, but I did find a Wandering Camel IPA to satisfy my hoppy habit. The camel reference, in case you were wondering, is a nod to the time in B.C. history when camels were used as pack animals. Word has it the camels scared the hell out of the horses that pulled stagecoaches along the Old Cariboo Road.
Once refreshed, we backtracked to the Barkerville exit and started the 85-kilometre stretch of winding road that led us into the Cariboo Mountains. The weather shifted from mid-summer to mountain conditions: crisp and cool. We passed through Wells and then parked in the lot at Barkerville’s front entrance. It felt strange to be wheeling our 21st century suitcases past historic shacks and day-tripping tourists, not to mention up Barkerville’s unpaved and rutted main road.
We easily found the St. George Hotel, a restored saloon and brothel located in the middle of Barkerville. The perfect setting for a cheeky girls getaway.
We were warmly greeted by our hostess, Miss Saya. She wore round spectacles, a skirt buffeted by a petticoat, and had her hair pulled back in a low bun. Her fashion and old-world demeanor hailed from a bygone era. For a moment we struggled to summon words. How serious was the cosplay? How committed was she to her role?
“Hi, we have a reservation?” I said, not exactly sure why I had posed it as a question rather than a statement.
“Welcome ladies.” Miss Saya purred as she produced a smartphone and confirmed our reservation. She then asked if we might consider switching our double room for two twins as there was another couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. Alex and I had a chuckle, realizing she had mistaken us for a couple too. Nope, just two adult nerds who want to get old timer pictures taken and drink some bourbon in the saloon. “Oh, you’d better hurry girls. The saloon closes at 6.”
Six? It was 5:40. Crap. This trip might prove a little more prohibition than gold rush era.
Sitting in the near-empty saloon, we lamented that Barkerville’s salacious past had been buried with Billy Barker. We’d have to make the fun ourselves. We weren’t worried yet though. After all, Alex and I have no issue stirring up fun just the two of us. And besides, we had a bottle of bourbon and two growlers of Barkerville Brewing IPA. We don’t need to find the party, we were the party.
We finished our beer and strolled up to Lung Duck Tong Restaurant for a quick bite before the evening show at Theatre Royal…except that it was stuffed with diners. By my estimate, some 70% of Barkerville’s visitors had to be currently seated in Lung Duck Tong. Things weren’t exactly going our way.
We inhaled some take-out and then slipped into the Theatre Royal to take in a performance of Cariboo Gold Radio Hour. For 90 spirited minutes of good clean comedy, a troop of six performers transported us back to 1940s Wells. After that we made our way back to the St. George Hotel for tea time in the parlour hosted by Miss Saya.
Arriving a bit late, we pulled up two chairs and joined the 14 or so other guests. A room full of strangers seated in a circle made for a semi-awkward social experience. To start, Alex and I were the youngest guests by far and we were pretty reluctant to go quietly into the night. We were intent on salvaging a night out. “Miss Saya, is there a taxi we can take to Wells? We read that The Wells Hotel has B.C.’s largest privately owned single malt scotch collection” I inquired.
“Oh no dear, none of the sort I’m afraid” she replied, pouring tea into my cup.
There it was; in one fell swoop, any plan we may have had for a social night out was crushed. Wells was an 8-kilometre walk…each way, and I certainly wasn’t about to drive after drinking.
After a short while Alex and I excused ourselves from the group, which felt a bit like leaving the dinner table as a kid. Walking to the car, I slapped mosquitoes from my arm; there was no way we’d be visiting the graveyard after dark to summon Billy Barker. Sigh.
We drove into to Wells, sharing the road at one point with a moose and her calf.
To our surprise, a few things were actually still open. We ducked into The Bear’s Paw Cafe to order some dinner, which was met with a warning the kitchen had ran out of most of the menu’s ingredients. Samosas, pita and tzatziki it was. At least we had that bourbon waiting for us in the room.
Our impression of Wells was a warm one. The timber-frame buildings were charming, having been painted in happy colours. The residents were friendly and chatty. Each year Wells swells with art lovers for Artswells Festival, and according to Susan Safyan, Wells was once a hippie enclave in its own right during the 60s and 70s.
We finished our bites and made our way back to Barkerville, spotting the same moose and her calf patrolling the road.
Alex and I crept up the hotel’s creaking staircase, whipped up two old fashioneds and tip-toed to the front porch. We were surprised to find we weren’t alone. Kathy and John, the couple we had switched rooms with were toasting to their anniversary. The four of us shared the type of rambling yet candid conversation that only happens when you’re travelling.
“So, before we turn in for the night, you have to tell me one thing. I just got married in January so I’d love for you to impart upon me, what it takes to reach a 30th anniversary” I probed. Kathy broke another square off the chocolate bar she was working her way through, and mulled the question over. John on the other hand, was quick to volunteer a response.
“You know…” he started. “We’ve had some challenges. When we met I was a farmer. We did that for a lot of years. We raised a family, a son with a challenging handicap, and then later I made a major career change. It was hard. Marriage is hard. And when it gets really hard, you just have to tell yourself, tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow will be better. It has to be better. And if turns out to be harder than you thought, you just have to believe the next day will be better.”
It was a message of perseverance that could only be delivered to a pair of Millennials by a man who so obviously lived the mantra. With that, we turned in for the night.
Sunday morning we had just a few hours to putter around Barkerville before Alex and I had to part ways. Rain spat from the sky, feeding pools of water on the now muddy road.
Our unwavering priority was having an old-time photo taken. The only question was, what persona did we want to emulate? In the spirit of The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, I was keen to posture as a bad ass female trapper.
What do you think, do we look the part?
After that we made sure to get a coffee from C. Strouss and Company (they inscribe your name on a tin cup), and peruse some of the shops. I picked out a souvenir, a raccoon tail key chain, the perfect accessory for my urban Vancouver life.
By early afternoon it was time to leave. We had failed to summon the ghost of Billy Barker and we had certainly failed to channel any of Barkerville’s salacious past. What’s more, we really didn’t have enough time to properly learn about Barkerville’s history. But you know what? I would’t call our trip a failure at all.
Have you been to Barkerville? Did you find it as PG as we did? Let me know – comment below!