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Cross Canada Adventures


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Robber Barons

Tucked beneath the impressive cliffs of Stemwinder Mountain to the west and Nickel Plate Mountain to the east, lies the charming little village of Hedley, British Columbia. The natives once called this place "Sna-za-ist" – the Striped Rock Place – on account of the coloured and striped cliffs on both sides of the canyon.

After the discovery of gold in 1897, Hedley became one of the great names in Canadian gold mining history. Named after Robert R. Hedley, manager of the Hall Smelter in Nelson, who had grubstaked many of the early prospectors, Hedley grew quickly. By 1900, it boasted a population of over 1,000 with five hotels and a large stamp mill.

The V.V. & E. railroad arrived in Hedley in 1909 to help haul the gold away at the incredible rate of more than 50,000 ounces per year. In 1936, the Mascot Mine started operation, increasing the total production to more than 1.5 million ounces of gold and in excess of 4 million pounds of copper. By that time, Hedley boasted all of the major conveniences of a small city, including a nine-hole golf course.

Between 1956 and 1957, there were several disastrous fires in the community and this, coupled with dwindling ore production from the mines, led to Hedley's steady decline. Nowadays, Hedley is a quiet community with an approximate population of 350.

The gold, which would be worth more than $2 billion at today’s prices, is long gone, and the wealth it created ended up somewhere else, as evidenced by the modest little town and the mining ruins that we could see. The little museum appears to struggle to find enough money to keep its story of the town alive. From the stairs of the museum you can see the remains of the mills that processed the ore, but they are closed to visitors for safety reasons. It’s a bit of a melancholy scene, all in all.

I am including a glossary of mining terms that may help the reader better understand Hedley’s history:

AMALGAMATION A process by which gold and silver are extracted from an ore by dissolving them in mercury.

CONCENTRATE A product containing the valuable metal and from which most of the waste material in the ore has been removed.

GRUBSTAKE: Finances or supplies of food, etc., furnished to a prospector on the promise of some share in any discoveries he might make.

MILL: (a) A plant in which ore is treated for the recovery of valuable metals; (b) A machine consisting of a revolving drum for the fine grinding of ores as a preparation for treatment.

SALOON: A building in which miners and their gold are separated by flushing with alcohol.

PYRITE: A hard, heavy, shiny, yellow mineral, being a sulphide of iron. It is sometimes called “fools gold.”

CITIZENS: The original owners of the minerals that are removed by mining, sometimes called “fools” (see Politicians below).

POLITICIANS: Persons financed by mining companies on the promise of making laws favouring the easy extraction of minerals. Politicians promise prosperity to the citizens, who then give their mining rights to the Robber Barons.

ROBBER BARON: A businessman or banker who uses questionable practices to become powerful or wealthy (see Politicians).

ZERO: The number of times the promised prosperity of mining comes to the citizens from whom it was extracted (see Hedley).

After our morning visit to the museum, we left a donation, climbed aboard the Marmot van, and, like the Robber Barons of the past, left Hedley to its fate. We continued south on Highway 3 and stopped for a coffee break and to stretch our legs at Stemwinder Provincial Park on the banks of the Similkameen.

In the beginning...

I remember when I decided to go to the east coast. It was because of a hat. I made my decision during a great weekend spent on the west coast of Vancouver Island (the “Island”) at Long Beach near Tofino. In those days, it was much harder to get there. The road through the central mountains from Port Alberni was rough gravel and excitingly winding, including a particularly nasty batch of steep switchbacks.



I had been out there with two buddies earlier that year escaping a boring day at school at the tail end of winter. My friend had one of those old fastback Volvos that he dearly loved to drive. I had grown up on farm trucks and big old sedans, so was unused to John’s road rally car and road rally driving. A couple of times I was more than a little anxious as we raced out to Long Beach, but as soon as I realized I was in good hands, I settled in to enjoy the ride.

The road we had been travelling on was rough, and narrow, and snaked through thick, dark mountain forest for a long enough time for it to begin to feel tiresome and tedious. It was the first time I had been over that particular road and really didn’t know what to expect. I was quite unprepared when suddenly we came out of the shadows and found ourselves on a cleared hillside. The bright world had opened in front of us. It was fantastic. The miles of beach and the Pacific Ocean stretched out in front like an awakening. I was absolutely astounded. It is a scene I’ll keep forever.



 We were so impressed by our visit to the place that a few weeks later, we organized an exodus from school to camp out on the beach. There were piles of driftwood all along sand at the edge of the forest. It was no large task to make a kind of lean-to settlement. We had plenty of polyethylene sheeting and a few tarps, and we staked our claim amongst the other hippies. With plenty of substances to abuse and basic foods like chili and bread, we were ready to party away the weekend.

You could drive on the beach in those days. We found that sitting on a stout canvas tarpaulin pulled behind a VW van made a great ride across the sand. Unfortunately, when driving on the beach, there was a real risk of losing your vehicle if you found a soft spot and the tide came in. I remember two vehicles that had gone to their rest in that sand. The discovery of the first came as a surprise when I heard a strange kabunk noise as my buddy Gord and I walked on the beach.

I said to Gord, “Sand doesn’t go kabunk!

I walked back and forth a couple of times to get an exact location and fifteen minutes digging with our hands revealed the top of what we reckoned was a VW bug. No wonder the west coast is called the Graveyard of the Pacific, although I think that name was more for ships than little cars. The second vehicle’s end was more dramatic and amusing.

As I said before, in those days you could drive on the beach. It was all kinds of fun. There were lots and lots of young people on the beach driving lots and lots of cars, so it should not come as a big surprise to learn that some of them were drinking beer while they drove. A lot of beer. Enough beer to make a nuisance of themselves and to encourage the local constabulary to bring their police car onto the beach and put an end to the drunk driving.

Now, most of those young people’s cars were not expensive. In fact, it was a wonder that some of them even managed to make the drive to the west coast. The one that the police were particularly interested in had no muffler because that bit was probably somewhere on the nasty gravel road from Port Alberni. That car also boasted lots of rust, a missing tail light, dents and scratches, and rough body repairs, resulting in a net value that was probably less than the beer it carried. Quite an audience gathered to watch as the police herded those hooligans to our end of the beach where large rocks blocked any further progress. When the occupants of the car saw that there was no escape those gangsters turned their car in the direction of China. Shouting, “You’ll never take this car alive, Coppers!” they drove it straight into the sea until the water was halfway up the doors. They climbed out of the windows and sat on the roof laughing and finishing the last of their beers.

After we enjoyed the car chase and the antics of the gangsters, things quieted down so my friends and I hiked out onto the rocks to seek further amusement. To our delight we discovered a keyhole-shaped niche in the rocks that had a sandy bottom and a fairly long channel to the sea that allowed waves to rush in and fill the round part of the keyhole with knee deep frothing water. Almost immediately the water would retreat, exposing the flat, sandy bottom. In no time we were taking death-defying, or at least wet-defying, leaps down onto the sand and scrabbling back out before the next wave would fill the basin again. To make it more of a challenge, someone had the bright idea of jumping down and writing their name in the sand before they were swamped by the incoming cold seawater.

On my turn, I had jumped down and written my name, but on the way out I dropped my hat into a puddle at the side of the keyhole floor. I loved that hat and had no intention of sending it to China.

A hat is a special bit of apparel which can serve various purposes; you can show respect by tipping or removing your hat; a hat can protect your head from the sun and rain; a hat can also be a fashion statement. You can even “keep something under your hat”. Some hats are worn by members of a certain profession. Mine qualified for all of the above. It was one of those striped caps favoured by railroad engineers and I cherished it.

I had little time before the next wave came in and frothed away with my hat, so down I leapt again, grabbed my wet hat, and scrambled up chased all the way by the Pacific Ocean. Luckily my friend John lent a hand to haul me up. He said it was lucky that my hat hadn’t gone out to sea, maybe on its way to Japan. While I stood there with a little of the Pacific Ocean dripping down onto my face and neck I was imagining the possible travels of my hat. That’s when I came up with the idea that since I had dipped my hat in the Pacific that perhaps I should dip it into the Atlantic as well. In retrospect, it wasn’t much of a reason to travel across the country, but it seemed a good idea at the time.

Cross Canada Adventures - Stealth Camping

Before we left home, I had been doing a little work on the Marmot van because I wasn’t happy with the interior layout. I wanted to install some kind of air conditioning. In 1981, when the van was built, dashboard-controlled air conditioning had not been installed. I priced out some options and an aftermarket installation was going to be more than half of the price we paid for the van. Even if I had gathered up a system from an auto wrecker and installed what I could, I still would have been obliged to have a licensed technician complete the installation and that amount of money and effort was not what I wanted.

The solution turned out to be a home air conditioner, an inverter, and some batteries. It was not really cheap, but the price was at least reasonable to me and the install was pretty straightforward. But before I took on the job, I did a little research on van conversions. That’s when I came across an article about stealth vans. Evidently these are vans that people in cities live in. The owners just move about finding unobtrusive places to park each night. With a stealth van, you don’t pay rent. Cool idea!

So having been paying $30 or more a night for camping spots that weren’t really even up and running, I suggested we “stealth it” and use the money to buy a meal. We agreed on the plan and it seemed a good one.

Here is our stealth van


Actually, the plan was quickly modified to read: sleep in a box store parking lot. It turned out that some box stores had hatched the scheme of allowing RVs to park overnight. It actually works in the favour of the store because, instead of making a campfire, visiting with the other campers, or walking to see the river or lake or whatever, the hapless traveller sitting in the RV in the parking lot eventually succumbs to the lure of the hardware department and spends at least as much as a campsite would have cost.

So walking out of the store with our purchases, we were not particularly pleased to see that the parking lot was pretty much empty except for a couple frantic shoppers who ran in and ran out with a carton of cigarettes or a jug of milk and a couple of shady characters sitting in an old pimped-out Oldsmobile. It appeared they had a number of acquaintances who stopped in for a quick chat and perhaps were loaning our guys some money or perhaps were buying homemade jewellery. It eventually occurred to us that their transactions might have been of the unlawful kind. Seems a lot of money was changing hands and they were doing a pretty brisk trade. We decided it was not the place to be in the middle of the night. Okay. Plan B.

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