Gold & Bears in Them Thar Hills

British Columbia's Cariboo Wagon Road yields a wealth of wilderness

Spectacular views like this are what you could expect from Canada.
Spectacular views like this are what you could expect from Canada.Mike Calabro

A black bear rears up on his hind legs, looming above photographer Mike Calabro’s rolling Victory Cross Country. A paw larger than Mike’s head swipes the air, and for a second, I think mike might become a permanent fixture in the highway’s bend, but the bear reaches for a towering branch loaded with berries, and Mike makes the turn—unaware that he and the beast were momentarily bosom buddies.

I exhale with relief and whiz by Mr. Bear, too. I’m undecided yet if I’m grateful for the protection of my pickup truck, or jealous of Mike’s up-close-and-personal experience with the biota.

Calabro is en route on a solo ride from Seattle to Alaska. On assignment in the Cariboo Region of British Columbia’s interior, I had swooped in to babysit, lest Mike were to somehow cause our nation’s peaceful relations with Canada to suddenly turn sour.

Mike proposes a route to the restored ghost town of Barkerville, east of Quesnel, on Highway 26, and I have to admit, a whine comes out of me. “They’re all the same,” I tell him. “We’ll see a fake shootout, you’ll ham it up with the saloon girls, and I’ll pig out on ice cream. Been there, done that.” But Mike puts his boot down and throws a tantrum, so I roll my eyes and cave. “Okay, but I’m not dressing up in a period-piece costume for an old-timey photo!” I shout.

Step back in time when you see the old architecture along the Cariboo Wagon Road.
Step back in time when you see the old architecture along the Cariboo Wagon Road.Mike Calabro

Within the first mile of Highway 26, it’s apparent I’d underestimated Mike’s road-dar, as I like to call it: his uncanny ability to sniff out a good side trip. The first bear we see lounges in the sun on a bed of tall grass, as if he’d already resigned himself to being turned into a rug. This wildlife viewing opportunity takes me by surprise. I don’t know what it is about this road, but the bears are pretty voyeuristic, just lollygagging in the tall grass at the edge of the wood. I count five in a 20-minute span.

Fauna aside, the route itself is pretty wild. Highway 26 follows the old Cariboo Wagon Road, originally built with pick and axe. In modern-day form, it’s nicely paved, but the direction of the road swerves like a drunken cowboy through the foothills of the Cariboo Mountains.

Mike's Victory
Mike's VictoryMike Calabro

Mike disappears around corner after corner, and as I follow, I covet the sensation of actually laying into the turns. Roads like this one make motorcycle riding poetic. Sure, on an interstate straightaway you feel the vibrations too, but out here, hugging the forest walls and S-turning up canyon cliffs, you actually feel the geography with your body. And, man, that vision before you—if you don’t feel that in your soul, there’s something wrong.

Prospectors traveled through towns like Quesnel to try to strike it rich.
Prospectors traveled through towns like Quesnel to try to strike it rich.Mike Calabro

The words of Gold Rush-er Wm. Mark, who traversed the area in 1862, describe it best: “It was a mountainous sight, underneath us, around us, on every side, east, west, ’tis folly to attempt it, this view alone, I thought was worth all the troubles and hardships we had passed through...”

Mike rides ahead, taking in the whole experience with all five of his senses... hopefully choking on the spruce-filled air! Okay, so I’m jealous. The Victory handles remarkably well, even on a mottled-up one-lane section coned off for road construction. Plus, it packs even better. I’m amazed at the camp gear Mike’s stowed in the country’s numerous compartments, adding to the overall autonomy of his adventure.

The Cottonwood House once served prospectors during the later 1800s.
The Cottonwood House once served prospectors during the later 1800s.Mike Calabro

On a whim, we pull into Cottonwood House, a restored roadhouse. With warm bunk-houses and hot food, Cottonwood once served as respite for prospectors travelling the grueling route from Quesnel to Barkerville (or vice versa). The grounds bustle with picnickers and other day-trippers, taking tours of old buildings-turned-museums, stocking up on rock candy and fudge at the interpretation center and enjoying the fiddlers playing on the porch. In the general store, we fuel up on corn chowder, fresh biscuits and hot coffee, while also ingesting a bit of history.

More than 10,000 people traveled the Cariboo Wagon Road in the 1860s after Englishman Billy Barker found gold on Williams Creek. Amazingly, at one time, Barkerville was the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco.

That’s a fact I have a hard time wrapping my head around when we finally cruise into wells, a town just minutes from Barkerville. this little gem’s year-round population is about 240, and it looks like it’s in dire need of some TLC. On the other hand, I find myself imagining calling it home. White-capped mountains serve as stark backdrop to the vivid purple, orange, pink and turquoise houses. Paint peels on many of them—a reminder of the unforgiving climate—but the color hints at the vibrant art community that blooms here thanks to the droves of tourists that pass through. Private and public galleries, numerous coffeehouses, and a museum draw folks in. Plus, the Annual School of the Arts hosts the town’s major festivals, making it a hot spot for live entertainment. With a dose of culture, a little nightlife and the added benefit of the nearby Bowron Lakes Provincial Park, Wells proves a nice little hideaway. Alas, Mike jolts me out of my fantasy and herds me onward to the restored boomtown.

This quaint town attracts tourists that crave the history and art of a different era.
This quaint town attracts tourists that crave the history and art of a different era.Mike Calabro

Walking amongst folk dressed in 19th century garb, Mike takes on superhero status. Eyes lock onto his head-to-toe riding gear. “Uhm, I think he just came in on a motorcycle,” a woman whispers to her husband. Wow, that must’ve been a great ride,” he says. Overhearing the conversation, Mike grins, and then makes me take his picture with a can-can dancer. How typical. Barkerville has it all, including its own Chinatown. Those who can’t get enough of it can camp at Barkerville Provincial Park. But the aforementioned Bowron Lakes area is the place to go if you’re into water sports; it’s renowned for incredible canoeing. You can rent canoes and carts from area lodges or just enjoy the region’s serene hiking. Eventually, we get back on the road, with Mike again taking the lead. The Victory glistens as it winds alongside Williams Creek. I can tell by the people gawking from cars on the road that this bike provides more than a bit of eye-candy. I’m hypnotized, too; that is, until I spy the glinting eyes of a moose sipping liberally from a swamp, and a black bear just a few yards away...

Cruise the tree-lined streets where you will most likely stumble upon a black bear or moose.
Cruise the tree-lined streets where you will most likely stumble upon a black bear or moose.Mike Calabro