Special thanks to Publisher of The North Island Eagle, Kathy O’Reilly. Originally printed Friday, August 2, 2019 in The North Island Eagle.
It’s the mid 1860s in the Northern Caribou region of what is now British Columbia. Gold mining is all the pioneering rage. Stories of quick riches reach far overseas and south of the US border. The British Empire begins to firmly establish its grip on the Wild West. Ancient forests still stand along the rugged Coast. River steamers and paddle wheelers carry passengers and cargo from Vancouver into the interior of BC along inside passages and freshwater channels, in a scene that is the Canadian equivalent of Tom Sawyer and the Mississippi. Water travel ends at a small gravel road which leads to the bustling frontier town of Lillooet, BC. One of the largest towns west of Chicago at the time right after San Francisco and aptly named mile “0.” There, a rocky path is carved through the mountains, reaching far into the interior of BC and forming what would be affectionately referred to as the Gold Rush Trail (historically known as the Caribou Road). Towns like 70 Mile House and 100 Mile House were quite appropriately named by the achievement of miles you had travelled – should you be fortunate enough to survive the treacherous journey! Even farther away stood the real goal, the mining grounds of the BC interior. Hunting, trapping, and trade were common place and essential to survival. An order for supplies would take months to be filled by the packers (a group of hardened transportation specialists). And it is precisely here that our little tale takes a turn.
Imagine standing on the dusty roads of Alexandria (a small frontier township which is now a national historical site South of Barkerville and North of Lillooet). The sun is glaring, temperatures push 40 degrees Celsius. Your eyes sting from the sweat rolling down between your forehead and the well-worn hat that provides not quite enough relief from the sun’s rays. You’re dirty, tired, and your body aches from years of hard labour. You had placed an order for much needed supplies some two months prior when the last train (i.e., mules, oxen, and horses – not an actual “train”) left town. Your timing was about right, but there were always delays. During the month-long trip (each way), fully loaded animals would fall from the steep roads along the canyons and plunge to their deaths in the raging Fraser River. Robberies were common place. And sometimes people just up and died from sheer exhaustion. In short, about two months in, it was a standard practice to go check the entrance to town and see if the train was on its way in, but the expectations weren’t quite overnight delivery of un-damaged Fed-Ex parcels! And then it happens. You think you’re dreaming. You rub the stinging sweat from your eyes only to discover that you’re not insane. There is, in fact, a camel carrying your stuff!
So, it turns out that a camel can carry some 1,000 pounds of supplies and travel 40 to 50 miles a day (roughly a 200% increase from the less than 15 miles a day traveled by oxen, horses, and mules along the trail). Better yet, the camel doesn’t need to drink for days on the steep canyon roads which are dusty, dry, and sometimes affected by drought. With customers paying a dollar a pound for transportation costs, most budding entrepreneurs would see the importation of camels as a pioneering money-making opportunity! Everyone was going to get rich! Right? Nope…
You see, this is where history kinda repeats itself and bites our well-meaning, not so educated, transportation specialists right in the proverbial pioneering butt. A camel’s hooves are quite wide and also split for stability in soft desert sands – not really suited for uneven rocky terrain with slippery stone surfaces. They slip and fall under the tremendous weight they carry (most military historians know this). As a result, they also are scared and anxious in confined and narrow coastal canyon roads. The final outcome? A camel stampede along the most dangerous stretch of winding mountain road in North America. But most of all, they STINK! In fact, they stink so bad, oxen, horses, and mules can’t stand the weird smell, making the train team jumpy and unmanageable.
Camels have been used since the days of Cyrus the Great (the First Persian Empire, circa 547 BC) as a form of cavalry for military advantage against horses. The camel’s relationship with human endeavors spans centuries and dates back to the era of Xerxes, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and even the Romans. Napoleon used camels in Egypt and Syria, and almost every colonial army including the British, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and various African and Arab nations have used the camel for frontier policing and military patrol duties (albeit not alongside horses, mules, or oxen). While BC’s Gold Rush Trail was experiencing trials and tribulations of camel exploitation, the British Empire was engaged in military warfare in Egypt with camels as early as 1898 (i.e., the Battle of Omdurman a few decades after our story here) and even as late as World War 1. Camels are still used today in military parades overseas. What do any of these interior escapades and military history have to do with Vancouver Island you ask? As usual, Victoria debacles of course.
It starts with this newspaper advertisement in the Times Colonist on March 1st, 1862 titled The Camels are Coming! The advertisement offered camels for sale out of San Francisco. The use of Bactrian camels (a two humped camel deriving from Bactria, an ancient city in central Asia) was likely inspired by then recent US military and commercial camel successes in US railway construction. True to form, BC businessmen responded by purchasing 23 of the lot for $300 a head – quite a sum for the day. And then it gets weird. As if to shadow how the future would unfold in disaster, the camels arrive in Victoria on a steamer about a month later (April, 1862), one baby camel is born on arrival in Victoria and another momma camel escapes into the wilds of Vancouver Island with her new baby (born who knows where or when, presumably at sea) only to be captured some time later running around Cadboro Bay. By the end of May, 1862 the camels are transported by barge across the Georgia Straight and up the water channels to Lillooet to begin work. Feew! Right? Nope…
Aside from the general calamity of shredding their hooves on the stone trails, eating every stich of miner’s clothing left hanging to dry, kicking everyone and every other pack animal in sight, and falling to their death in one reported case, there was also this situation with a BC judge. Not just any judge, but BC’s first Chief Justice, Mathew Begbie. Sitting atop his horse while travelling in the interior, there was a brief encounter with a camel pack train which left Justice Begbie clinging to his saddle as his mount dashed off into the forests uncontrollably. He would later account that he despised camels for the rest of his life. Needless to say, although many camel trains did eventually make it through the Gold Rush Trail, delivering their wears along the way, the chaos on the road and continued loss of supplies apparently resulted in multiple threats of lawsuits and damage claims. Eventually, camels would be banned from the trail with the entire train being removed almost exactly one year later in May, 1863.
The majority of the camels were simply turned loose in the BC forest to survive on their own. Shortly after their “release”, a miner (John Morris) hunting near Quesnel Forks shot what he thought to be a grizzly bear – it was a camel. Reportedly, the camel meat was sold to feed miners at a local hotel near Beaver Lake. He was later referred to as “grizzly” Morris. For decades, stories of wild camels in BC would form local legends with the last recorded surviving camel “The Lady” dying on a farm in 1896. The last sighting of a wild BC camel took place in 1905 with mixed reports of possible camel sightings through both World Wars. Today, a bronze statue of a camel stands in North Vancouver as a reminder of the hoofed Eastern desert ungulates that once roamed BC. A bridge in Lillooet has been named the Bridge of 23 Camels in their honour.
The moral of this story? Well, it’s a weird way to introduce this summer’s grizzly bear series that I’m hoping to write but there is an important lesson here. Despite some minor humor in the history of the BC camel, the story highlights the human relationship with wildlife. This relationship is often focused, in some way, on economic exploitation. Whether that exploitation is importing camels to carry our crap around dangerous roads, or trophy hunting grizzly bears for over a century and a half, our human nature is to emotionally and financially capitalize on the suffering of others. We justify and attempt to rationalize our reasons in many ways under the guise of conservation, public safety, population control, management, economic necessity, carrying capacities and a host of other phrases and terms. However, one thing seems to ring clear at the bottom of it all, the only thing that is for certain is we humans get it wrong more often than we get it right. Our attempts to assume the puppet mastering role of all things nature is usually the only real contributing factor to wildlife decline, ecological damage, and flat out deadly mistakes (such as camel killing because somebody clearly didn’t know what a grizzly bear looks like or at the very least was most certainly not sure of their target before pulling the trigger).
Finally, dear reader, before you call in a complaint about a grizzly bear this year, make sure it’s not a camel – there’s a very small possibility it could be (people could also clean up their fruit trees and put away their garbage, just sayin – but check for camelyness silhouettes first). A Bactrian camel has two humps, a grizzly bear just one!
Bryce Casavant is a former BC Conservation Officer and Doctoral Candidate at Royal Roads University. He recently received fellowship with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for his work In Search of a Wild Peace. He writes for the Eagle from his home on Vancouver Island.