Archive for December, 2013|Monthly archive page

Northern Adventures, Part II: The town at the end of the road

There is a rather lovely road that runs between Pemberton and Lillooet. This road, Highway 99, passes the deep lakes and mountain rivers of Fraser Canyon, before winding up and over the snowbound mountains to Lillooet. It is a beautiful drive through BC’s wilderness, and if you need it to, it will take you from Lillooet to Pemberton in several hours.

If you are in a hurry to get to Lillooet, this is the road you should take.

If, on the other hand, you have some time to spare, then there is another road you could take. A road much less traveled.

This road leads from the back streets of Pemberton to an unpaved mountain route, Hurley’s Pass. The pass is a steep, winding dirt road, pitted with pot holes, sheer drop-offs and stunning views. At the end of it lie Gold Bridge and Bralorne, two tiny, isolated mining settlements left over from the gold rush of the mid-eighteen hundreds. From Gold Bridge, the road becomes partially paved as it winds past Carpenter Lake, before eventually reaching Lillooet.

Bralorne is different. No roads lead away from Bralorne. Beyond Bralorne is only an old, abandoned gold mine. Over winter, Hurley’s pass is closed, and during high snowfall, even the road from Gold Bridge to Bralorne can be shut, leaving Bralorne inaccessible except by helicopter or snowmobile.

I wanted to see this remote, lonesome town on the edge of nowhere, and, as it was yet another long weekend here in Canada, we decided to explore.

We headed out of Pemberton on a beautiful, crisp fall morning. A low fog drifted amongst the autumn trees, and the Pemberton meadowlands spread out before us as we drove along the Lillooet Forest Service road, an ungraded track that wound through the valley between two mountain ranges.

Crossing over the Pemberton river, we passed a vacant roadside stall selling everything from local vegetables to used paperbacks. A sign told us that the stall was run by a thirteen year old from a nearby farm, and worked entirely on the honour system. A large spider had made one corner of the book-case its home. We left money in the jar for a can of iced tea and continued our journey.

It was a beautiful day; the sun was shining, we hadn’t gotten lost, and the day was (so far) almost-being-eaten-by-a-bear-free. Things were going well.

Of course, that changed. An hour later, we were stranded half way up Hurley’s Pass with two flat tyres, no cell phone reception, and a nagging feeling that this was how most horror films start.

Our only option was to hitchhike with one of the flat tyres to Gold Bridge to get it repaired, then hitchhike back to the jeep. This probably would not be a quick trip. We sat in the dust at the side of the road and waited for help. Eventually, it arrived in the form of a pickup truck carrying a dozen jerry cans of petrol, and – as luck would have it – a road-side repair kit.

After he’d helped us repair our tyre, I asked the driver, Mike, why he was carrying sixty litres of petrol with him. It turned out that, while Bralorne technically has a petrol station, it didn’t have any petrol. Apparently, this was not uncommon.

That was when I realised just how small these towns really were. Not only would there be nowhere to refuel there, but I wondered if there was even somewhere to repair a tyre. We had a long drive ahead of us, and the thought of being stranded again wasn’t appealing.

Fortunately there was, an old hermit named Pioneer Paul, so-called that because he had lived alone in the nearby ghost town of Pioneer for almost two decades, before moving to Gold Bridge. As Mike was also heading to Bralorne, he offered to follow us to Gold Bridge in case of another flat, and, once there, show us where to find Pioneer Paul.

Perched on the side of a mountain, Gold Bridge, with a population of forty-four, was so small it almost fit in the palm of my hand. It consisted of three streets, a welcome sign, and a hotel that seemed far too large for the town. At first glance, the hotel seemed to be well-maintained, however a closer look showed broken shutters hanging in the windows and wooden boards nailed over the glass panels in the front door. A rather forlorn “For Sale” sign hung from the side entrance.

Across the road from the hotel was Pioneer Paul’s shack, a small lean-to  surrounded by piles of tyres and a notepad tacked onto the shed wall for people to leave their tyre repair requests. Unfortunately, the shed was locked and dark, and there was no sign of Paul. We headed over to the hotel to see if they had any rooms for the night, but, while the front door was open, the hotel was empty. So far, we hadn’t seen another person since Mike had continued on his journey. It was a strange, desolate feeling.

With no other options, we decided to push on to Bralorne and hope for somewhere to stay. If we struck out there, we’d have to continue on to Lillooet over only partially graded roads, in the dark, with no spare tyre. That sounded like it could go all sorts of wrong.

We drove slowly down the main street of Bralorne, passing the Mines Pub with its empty petrol pumps, and the Mines Museum, before reaching the end of the road, where the not-surprisingly-named Mines Motel stood. A “No Vacancy” sign hung from a post outside.

It was dark and late, and I was hungry. We would have to continue to Lillooet, but first I needed dinner. Even though the pub had been out of petrol, it was at least open and serving dinner. It was the first place we’d seen open since leaving Pemberton that morning.

There, luck was again on our side. The pub also ran the motel, and they did have a room available – they just hadn’t bothered to change the sign over summer. The bartender eventually rounded up several keys to the room that he “thought might work”, and suggested we head back if none of them fit the lock.

None of them did. Luckily, the door was already open, and the right key was on the table next to the bed. Relieved, we unpacked the car and headed back to the pub for dinner.

Inside, the pub functioned as the heart of the community. With no cell phone coverage in the town, this was where people came to catch up on news, pass on messages to others, or simply kill time on a cold autumn evening, miles away from anywhere else. At one point, several local dogs wandered in, one a mixed breed, the other part coyote. They immediately took up residence at our feet and watched us eat with an intensity normally reserved for surgeons or air traffic controllers.

One of those at the pub was the affectionately (and accurately) named “Captain Mayhem”. At one point, for reasons only known to himself (and given his state of inebriation, possibly not even him), he gestured vaguely in my direction and roared “But first! Another drink for her!” Captain Mayhem then went on to dismantle a bell that was hanging above the bar, until the bartender, Jack, with the resigned air of a parent of a small child, insisted he put it back. I watched as Cap painstakingly reassembled the bell with a focus that the pooches at my feet would envy.

Eventually, Cap staggered off his bar-stool to head home. A few seconds later I heard a car engine start up.

“Um. Where’s Captain Mayhem off to?” I asked the Jack.

“Home, in Gold Bridge”

The road between Bralorne and Gold Bridge is a narrow, winding road with several hair-pin bends. Captain Mayhem had been so drunk he could barely stand.

“Don’t worry, he makes the drive every night. He’ll be okay.” Jack added “Besides, he doesn’t take too well to someone trying to take his car keys off him. You ever tried feeding a wolverine?” he asked rhetorically. I’m guessing he didn’t mean Hugh Jackman.

Of course, it wasn’t like Cap was going to be pulled over by the police at a random breath-testing station – the nearest police were two hours away in Lillooet.

Over the evening, we found out more of the town’s story. There used to be several mines in the area, but over time, they all closed down until only the Bralorne mine was left running. Then, in 1971, a combination of low gold prices, rising operational costs and health concerns* spelled the Barlorne mine’s death knoll. It was one of the first, and then the last, of the gold mines in British Columbia. With no mining, the town was abandoned and for three decades, Bralorne was a ghost town. Then, in 2002 the rising price of gold saw the mine reopen. People returned and the town came slowly back to life. Bralorne is also becoming something of a winter destination for snow enthusiasts, those keen to make the two hour drive from Lillooet for fresh snow and empty runs. This, along with nearby construction of a hydroelectric plant means that Bralorne is – by Bralorne’s standards – bustling right now.

But it was still a small, sleepy place. We finished our drinks and walked the short distance back to our lodgings. Nestled high in the BC mountains, the night air was wonderfully crisp. Around us, cars were left unlocked and snowmobiles sat unguarded. There was a timeless quality to Bralorne. Sure, there were more snowmobiles and trucks than horses, and power poles lined the sky, but otherwise it felt much as though time has passed the town by.

I knew that one day the twenty-first century would come to Bralorne, but I doubted it would be any time soon.


The back road to Bralorne

*Apparently using cyanide to separate the gold from the quartz was bad for folks. Who knew?

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