History and natural beauty combine in British Columbia

Photo of Mark Thornton

Be dazzled by the natural beauty of Lillooet in British Columbia.

The town of Lillooet in British Columbia is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in North America. The Lil’wat First Nation people, after whom it is named, chose the site because it sits between three important salmon rivers, the Fraser River, Cayoosh Creek and Bridge River, which are home to more salmon than anywhere else in the world.

No one knows exactly how many thousand years ago the Lil’wat arrived but they claim the land has been theirs since “time immemorial”. Anthropologists suggest they migrated from East Asia across a land bridge that is now the Bering Strait about 13,000 years ago.

The site is spectacular. It’s at an intersection of deep gorges in the lee of the Coast Mountains. If you approach it by car from Vancouver 250km to the south, you drive through Cayoosh Creek Canyon and are dwarfed in the last kilometre by the looming cliffs.

In bad weather, rockfalls and landslides are common. On one occasion in heavy rain my daughter was driving us south to Pemberton from Lillooet when we rounded a bend to find half the road blocked. Even as she slowed to negotiate the rocks I watched horrified from my passenger window as more rocks and mud came hurtling down the cliff.

Driving north through narrow Cayoosh Creek Canyon the country opens up like a portal into the Fraser River Canyon, through which the Fraser River flows deep and wide. Lillooet is only 250m above sea level, accentuating the surrounding peaks’ grandeur. 

The town’s position inland of the Coastal Range puts it in a rain shadow and Lillooet receives only 330mm of rain annually. But thanks to all the river water for irrigation it has a long growing season and its market gardens and orchards produce more than enough for the 2300 locals, most of whom are indigenous.

Lillooet is well organised, clean and prosperous. Its Lightfoot Gas Station and Bakery on Route 99 south is run by an indigenous collective and does a roaring 18-hours-a-day business Dina’s Place Restaurant on Main Street is also worth a visit, as is the Fort Berens Winery founded by a Dutch couple across the river.

An amazing variety of wildlife inhabits the Fraser River. More than 300 species of migratory and resident birds rely on it, including big sand hill cranes that fly south in autumn in flocks of up to 10,000.

The river rises in the Rocky Mountains and by the time it drains into the Strait of Georgia at Vancouver it’s 3km wide. It is best known for its salmon and each spring some 10 million of them return to their home waters to spawn. Sadly, as I found when I fished it, the Fraser River’s salmon population has been slowly dwindling for years due to warming waters, pollution, overfishing and farmed-fish parasites.

Aside from its salmon, the river boasts another 29 native fish species, including the giant white sturgeon, almost as famous as the salmon because of its huge size. The current record for the Fraser is a monster half a tonne in weight and 4m long, though the fish can to reach 6.1m and weigh 816kg.

It was not just the big numbers of salmon, nor the confluence of the three rivers, that historically brought the Lil’wat to the town site. Just above the Fraser’s confluence with the Bridge River, a geological anomaly in the form of a rock shelf creates an obstacle to migrating salmon, causing them to gather in big numbers and making them easier to catch.

Considering how long the Lil’wat have lived there, it’s not surprising there are many archaeological and heritage sites, including the 3000-year-old Keatley Creek site. This was for its time a large village of 1000 people who lived in semi- subterranean wooden pit houses.

The Lil’wat’s culture and self-belief meant they weathered the arrival of thousands of prospectors during a series of gold rushes that began in 1858.

Miners still search for gold but for many years were unaware the area held one of the world’s biggest deposits of nephrite jade. Three-quarters of the world’s supply of jade is mined in the area and while you can buy polished samples in town, you can easily pick up pebbles in the surrounding mountains.

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