Up the Cariboo Highway

Posted by Howard on Oct 12, 2010 - 2 comments

Leaving Hat Creek we turned onto Hwy 97, the Cariboo Highway, looking forward to making up some time with its 110 km speed limit, but the whole highway was dug up right from there to Prince George. I’d been wondering where all the government’s stimulus money was going, because there sure wasn’t much sign of it on the coast. I guess the dry-belters had their projects more shovel-ready than the wet-coasters, or else they had more acceptable voting habits, because the blacktop was going down round the clock. We stopped at 100 Mile House for an A&W lunch, attracted not so much by the menu as by the nearness of the handicapped parking slot to the main entrance.

After sitting for long periods Munga would get frozen in position and I had to lift him bodily out of the seat and hold him up for awhile while he got his bearings. Then he would begin inching slowly toward the men's, his face strained with urgency, always a tense race against time. I had to link arms crossing any open areas, though he didn't like to be helped and always preferred to grab a wall where there was one. He always resisted the idea of getting out the wheelchir, although he couldn't help but appreciate how much easier it made things. Edith was more independent and managed on her own as long as she had her trusty cane to lean on. Casting her gaze over the jumble of strip malls and fast-food joints spread before us, she observed, “this has to be the least attractive place in the whole country.” It was hard to argue with, although she hadn’t seen Quesnel yet. I could see the big mill where my uncle Herb used to be bookkeeper still spewing away on the hillside, and admired the staunchly blue-collar character of our fellow Papa burger patrons. You need to pay a visit to a place like this once in awhile to understand what BC is really about.

The Cariboo plateau unreeled before us the rest of the day, alternating expanses of pastureland with stands of dead lodgepole pine. Last time I went through, the forest was just starting to break out in patches of bright red—the first stage of the massive mountain pine beetle infestation that has affected 80 to 90% of the interior pine forest over the past decade, which at least added a splash of colour to the landscape. Now the forest was in the final stage of its death, which was just black. It creates a strange mixture of impressions. On the one hand you have the mills in places like 100 Mile and Quesnel and Prince George working overtime to salvage the dead trees before they rot, and there is a hyperactive quality to the region with its booming activity and ubiquitous roadbuilding.

On the other hand you have this blasted landscape of dead forest stretching out on all sides as far as the eye can see, which everyone who lives there knows has placed a death watch on their prosperity. In a few years the beetle-killed trees will no longer be worth cutting, and the entire interior of BC will have been deprived of its principal livelihood. It will be a half century before the forest can be regrown to merchantable age, if it can be regrown at all in the changed climatic conditions that now exist, which is highly doubtful.

Nobody knows how these robust resource towns will support their populations. Go back to ranching? Develop eco-tourism? Find oil and gas? Alas, nothing can replace the jobs that are being lost in the collapse of the interior forest industry. Who will drive down these freshly-widened highways in a few years' time? Who will pay the taxes on these gleaming community centres and colleges? It is the elephant in the room wherever central interior people gather these days. The people at Daniel and Laura’s wedding, many of whom had been in the forest industry for several generations, seemed resigned. The Stephens family, who have profited from foresty's final spasm, are trying to diversify into other areas, like powerline maintenance. But there is not room for many workers there. It is hard to avoid the conclusion the entire region faces a painful economic and social decline. Still, to an outsider, it is such a vast and inspiring land with its fine rolling expanses full of crystalline lakes and majestic rivers, it is hard not to have faith in it.