Tuesday, August 9, 2011

History Lessons


under the overhang on the Birkenhead river
There are some places in our province that just exude history....where you can almost feel the past enveloping you and hear the voices of those who walked before you. Lillooet Lake is one of those places.

This past week my daughter and I had the pleasure of joining our friends at their cabin on Lillooet Lake. Joan & Werner built their cabin almost 30 years ago and so they already have a rich knowledge of the area's history but they are always willing to go exploring again, especially when they have an amateur historian along! (that would be me!) And, as it happens, there are new things to find & discover, even for them.


Mountain Goats?
We started our history lessons that first evening by boating down to the north end of Lillooet Lake and into the Birkenhead River. Joan had recently read in a magazine of a kayaker who had spotted some pictographs on the cliffs along the river so we had our mission. It took about an hour to get to the mouth of the river. I think that maybe Joan had a few frayed nerves wondering if the river was deep enough for the boat but it was all good. As we quietly floated down the river one could not miss the tangible change in the air around us. "This is spooky." Joan said and I knew we were in the right place. There they were... up on the cliff right above us... the bright red drawings that we now recognize so well. We landed the boat (not as easy as it sounds!) and bush-wacked our way to where, long ago, someone decided that for whatever reason this story needed to be told. There are only two paintings there but both are in great shape. One of an animal under a arc and the other... two mountain goats climbing a hill. The paint is still so bright and the images so clear, it could have been painted yesterday.

The next day we geo-cached around the Pemberton area. The walk around One Mile Lake was especially lovely and we really appreciated the 7 cache series that had been hidden there by fisher007. Each hide was inventive and unique, the hints were fun and the whole series takes you around this pretty little lake where you end up right back where you started. We also appreciated the caches hidden by Tourism Pemberton. Well done! Hopefully more towns in British Columbia will follow your lead!

Our next history lesson took us down Lillooet River Road which was, for the most part, built over the old Douglas Road. We especially wanted to see the Church of the Holy Cross (in Skookumchuck) and see what we could learn about the Mile Houses built along this road.

The Douglas Road or Harrison Trail was conceived by Governor Douglas to accommodate the steady rush of men heading to the Cariboo Gold Fields. Paddlewheelers & steamers on the lakes made parts of the journey relatively easy - it was in between the lakes, the portages, that was the trouble - so the Douglas Road was born. Of course it didn't take too long for enterprising men to realize that travelling over this rugged, mosquito infested land would create some very weary travellers and before too long "Mile Houses" (hotels) were springing up along the way.


Old graveyard beside the Road
 Today, as we pass the occasional house or car, it's hard to imagine that over 30,000 men used this route in just a few short years. By 1861 it was all but abandoned for the Cariboo Wagon Road and now we have to use our imaginations to picture this as a busy road. The Mile Houses are all gone - there's the occassional apple tree here and there - but at one time they were full of hungry and tired men looking for a meal and a place to sleep.

One place that does still exist is "20 Mile House" or "Hot Spring House" - the home of Skookumchuck Hot Springs. Though none of the original buildings are standing today it is not hard to see why this would be a most welcome place to stop along the journey - the chance to have a hot bath. One book we read quoted the aid of Judge Matthew Begbie as saying "This is the first time I've been clean since I left San Francisco!" Yuck.

After leaving the hotsprings we continued south to the village of Skatin (formerly Skookumchuck). This is the location of the Church of the Holy Cross. I don't know what I was expecting when we drove up to Skatin. This place is remote... there isn't a town for miles & miles, so I think I was expecting a little country church. This is so not a little country church! Inspired by prayer cards they had been given by visiting priests in the late 1800s, the residents of Skookumchuck, who had no architectural training and no power tools, designed a wooden gothic-style 'cathedral.' European cathedrals are made of stone but the builders of Holy Cross used the resources that were available to them. Huge cedars were milled for the foundation and placed on stones taken from the Lillooet River. Inside, the altar and stain glass windows are gorgeous and all handmade. Unfortunately time & the elements of the west coast have taken their toll and the church is in bad need of restoration. We left a donation in the drop box inside the church but I wish I could have done more. This spot really touched my heart. Maybe it's because it was such an unexpected & wonderful surprise - a huge church in the middle of the forest - or maybe it's because I work as an church administrator and I know how hard it is to keep a church building maintained. If you'd like to read more about the Church of the Holy Cross (or even make a donation) you can visit their website.  


The interior & exterior of the Church of the Holy Cross. Amazing!
If you're ever in the Pemberton area I highly recommend a road trip down the Lillooet River Road. We explored & geocached, visited a beautiful old cemetery, saw a black bear, visited a hotspring, took in all the breathtaking scenery and stepped inside a 100 year old church. As far as I'm concerned that's about as good as it gets!

Once again our time at the cabin has ended all too quickly. We had such a good time with our awesome friends and we appreciate their hospitality. We're already looking forward to next year and, hopefully, a bunch of brand new history lessons to learn!