It was the prospect of jelly rolls, not gold, which drew us off the Trans Canada Highway into Lytton, in early September 2007. We had just passed a large billboard advertising Lytton's famous jelly rolls. I was intrigued - and hungry. "Mmm, jelly rolls," I murmured to my husband, wondering how a small community like Lytton had placed itself so firmly on the Jelly Roll map, but Bruce was already negotiating the turn.
The community of Lytton, 265 km north of Vancouver, is nestled cozily at the confluence of the mighty Fraser and Thompson Rivers. Once known as "camshin" (Kumsheen) or "meeting place" by First Nations people, it is a natural gathering spot. In 1808, Simon Fraser came this way on his quest to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Some years later, similar to many other Gold Country communities, it became a supply centre for gold-seeking adventurers and has remained an important social and cultural hub.
Lytton also has the reputation as the "hot spot" of B.C. On that day, sunshine sparkled on the twin rivers and the spectacular Fraser Canyon, with its rugged backdrop of mountains; it highlighted fall foliage and warm earthen colours. It was Friday, and Farmers' Market day. Seeing no sign of a bakery, we strolled around the open market, talking with vendors and sampling their wares. We explored the town, commenting on its unique signposts and fabulous views; we watched osprey diving and swooping as they fished for lunch.
Downtown, we climbed aboard the big orange caboose at Caboose Park, Lytton's railway museum. It was fascinating to discover how trainmen had lived and worked aboard the early steam trains after the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, and Canadian National Railway in 1913.
Still mindful of the elusive jelly rolls, we headed to the Visitor Information Centre. "Jelly rolls? Ah, you mean Lytton's famous Jelly Roll!" The kind young attendant smiled. The Jelly Roll, she explained, is the name of a local natural geological phenomenon. Pre-historic glacial movement created the huge, circular roll-like earth, silt and sand formation, 11,000 to 25,000 years ago. The Lytton specimen is rare because of its size. Usually measured in centimetres, it measures in metres and is one of the largest, if not the largest, formation of this type in the world. The original was discovered south of town; we'd missed seeing a detailed replica at Caboose Park.
Observing our interest in history, the attendant suggested we might like to visit other Gold Country community towns and enter the Gold Nugget Contest. She provided us with a Visitors' Guide and a map of the area. All we had to do was have a page of our Visitors' Guide stamped at each location visited. Eight towns were listed, but we only needed three stamps to enter the contest. Our Lytton stamp in place, we departed for our next stop.
We had planned a holiday in the Peace River District, but sad news before we left home had changed our minds; we were now headed to Edmonton for a memorial service. With a few days to spare, we thought it would be interesting to follow the footsteps of early prospectors and pioneers, explore some Gold Country towns and enter the Gold Nugget Contest. It was no Fool's Gold either, not gold dust or flakes, but a solid gold nugget worth serious coin - valued at $1,000.
We never win contests, but that didn't matter. Some of the towns listed on the brochure - Ashcroft, Cache Creek, Clinton - we had bypassed many times, promising ourselves a visit someday. Now, with no muddy rivers to pan, no pack mules to lead or hard tack to eat, we'd be modern-day adventurers, hot on the trail of history - and gold.
Back on the highway, we headed north to Spence's Bridge. Relaxing over coffee at The Packing House, a Spence's Bridge heritage building, we happened to hear the name "Smith" and "apples" mentioned in the same sentence. Immediately jumping to the wrong conclusion, we begged for explanation. Packing House staff shared the fascinating story of pioneer Jessie Ann Smith.
In 1884, newlywed Jessie made the long, arduous journey to Spence's Bridge from Scotland, bravely crossing the fearsome Fraser Canyon at Cisco, in a large basket suspended from a cable. She, her husband, a friend and the cable operator stepped into the basket; the operator released the rope and down they slid, landing in a pile of hay on the other side of the raging Fraser River.
Jessie was a teacher and her husband John, an orchardist. Together, they raised a family of seven children, in an often harsh and unforgiving land. Courageous and resilient after her husband's death in a mining accident, Widow Smith and her children worked the family orchards, producing international award-winning Grimes Golden apples; King Edward VII of England's favourite.
Our next stop was Ashcroft, a town steeped in Gold Rush history. From the stagecoach era on, Ashcroft has played a significant part in the transportation and service industry. Accommodations, harness and wheel repair shops, blacksmiths, livery stables and freight warehouses sprang up with an influx of people, after the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s. It became Mile 0 on the road to the goldfields, and a major freight depot for all supplies heading north.
Located in a curve of the Thompson River, surrounded by a northern desert of cactus and sagebrush-covered hills, Ashcroft enjoys an almost perfect summer climate, with little rain and long hours of sunshine. Unlike many small communities that grew and then declined with the gold rush, Ashcroft not only survived, it flourished. The area developed as a rich agricultural vegetable, fruit and flower-growing region, when it was discovered that, if watered, the parched desert soil would grow almost anything.
Visiting the old Fire Hall, we learned of the shocking destruction caused by numerous Ashcroft fires. The worst was in 1916 when, after fire broke out in the Ashcroft Hotel, the entire downtown business centre was reduced to ashes within half an hour.
At the museum, feeling like we had stepped back in time, we immersed ourselves in gold rush lore. We learned about early pioneers who had settled in the area; First Nations and Chinese history; mining, agriculture and railway. We remembered our contest stamp before departing for our next stop - Logan Lake - where we discovered copper rather than gold.
It was late afternoon and light rain was falling when we arrived at the Visitor Centre. Surprise, surprise, we found it situated inside a huge 1958 Bucyrus Erie mining shovel, complete with 13-cubic-metre bucket. Beside it was parked a humongous 235-ton haulage truck, so big Bruce was dwarfed when standing beside it. Highland Valley Copper, who had donated the mammoth trucks, is one of the largest ferrous open copper mines in North America and has been in operation for more than 40 years. The town of Logan Lake was an "instant town," built in 1971 to accommodate mining in the region. Surrounded by peaceful lakes, streams and vast forests, it continues as a viable, thriving community.
We visited Clinton, the most northern of the Gold Rush towns, on our way home from Edmonton. Arriving late morning, we enjoyed lunch at the Clinton Hotel, and then browsed around town soaking up the fall sunshine, finally making our way to the museum.
Camels! In B.C.? We stared in disbelief at Mike Brundage, long time resident of Clinton and our museum guide. Mike laughed. "Yup" he said, "23 of them." Apparently, in 1861, Frank Laumeister and some investors decided camels would be the answer for pack animals up the Cariboo Highway. In the desert, camels can carry heavy loads and travel for days without food or water. Why not here? The camels were bought with quick dispatch from the U.S. Army for $6,000, which was a large sum of money in those days. It was a disastrous idea. One camel died along the way, and another escaped, but worse, the camel's feet were not suited to walk the rocky roads of the B.C. Interior. The beasts were cantankerous, kicking horses, mules, oxen and even men, and gave off a terrible odour, spooking the horses. They were finally set free in various parts of B.C. After roaming the country for 40 years, the last of them died in 1905.
Mike Brundage had many such tales about life in Gold Rush country; fascinating stories passed down from generation to generation; tales of pioneers and packers, of disasters and discoveries, murder and mayhem, and the amazing courage, tenacity and determination of early pioneers. So many, in fact, that he has written them into a book.
Unfortunately, we listened to too many of Mike's tales and missed the Cache Creek Info Centre by a hair. It had just closed. However, we had four Gold Rush Community stamps, more than we needed to enter the contest. We mailed the form from home and promptly forgot about it.
Three days before Christmas, we received a phone call. We had won the contest! The gold nugget was ours. We were truly delighted, but more precious than the gold is our memories of Gold Country, and learning priceless nuggets of B.C.'s history.
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