On Saturday evening, I went time-travelling. Not through Dungeons and Dragons or the Society for Creative Anachronism, although I’ve done both in my time. Nor did I get a temporal lift, which, despite its name, is not a form of chronic hitchhiking, but a form of cosmetic surgery for those who want to revisit their starry-eyed youth. Instead, this jaunt was up the Fraser River by paddlewheeler to the annual Candlelight Tour of Fort Langley, where historical re-enactors create an illusion of time-travelling to 1858 and the night before the declaration of the Crown Colony of British Columbia through series of vignettes around the fort.
In keeping with the illusion, we took the paddlewheeler The Native upriver from New Westminster. In the days that we were travelling to, paddlewheelers were the main form of transport through the largely roadless interior. These paddlewheelers were not the grandly appointed queens of the Mississippi, but smaller, shallower-draft vessels built for work, with few cabins and a mixture of passengers and livestock as often as not. Originally built as a yacht and just refurbished, The Native is more luxurious than the boats it is modelled on, with amenities that include a kitchen and washroom and comfortable seating for maybe fifty passengers.
Tens of thousands pass over the Fraser River everyday. Thousands more drive along each bank. However, if they haven’t been on the river, they probably don’t know how much of a working river it is. The Fraser is not one of those picturesque rivers surrounded by cobblestoned walks and dockside patios where you can sit under an umbrella and watch recreational boaters zoom by. Recreational boaters do use the Fraser, but they are outnumbered by the tugs and the barges pulling containers. Many channels and shores are floating banks for the forest companies, and the shore is crammed with heavy industry. The canneries that lined its shores for much of the last century are long gone, but in the rotting pylons and shorings that litter the shore, you could still read their history.
Hearing that history, and watching the industry gradually recede as we passed upriver, I could almost believe that we were moving back through time, safely ensonced in a cabin where we could eat and drink the afternoon away while looking for herons and eagles out the window.
Arriving at Fort Langley, we found the gateway to the dock locked, so the paddlewheeler reversed itself for a hundred yards and tied up at the rowing club dock – a flimsy ramshackled built on two logs that was probably much closer to the spirit of 1858 than our original mooring.
In previous years, the tour started at sunset. The conceit was that visitors could go back in time to watch, but could not interact with the inhabitants of 1858 in any way. Both the dark and the conceit added greatly to the atmosphere, but this year both were gone. Daylight saving time came earlier this year, and, to compensate, the tour was more interactive, with the re-enactors talking to the guests and even dragging them into a barn dance led by a half dozen fiddlers.
Yet even these handicaps could not destroy the gentle fantasy of the evening. Travelling in groups of fifteen with a couple of guides, visitors were met at the entrance to the fort by members of the Royal Engineers, the regiment sent out to construct an infrastructure in the new colony. In 1858, they were the only group capable of keeping order as the Barkerville Gold Rush brought a flood of miners and hangers-on – mostly Americans, who were darkly regarded as the forerunners of an attempt by the United States to take over the territory.
Assured that we were neither unregistered gold miners nor Americans, the Royal Engineers let us in. Inside the fort, we passed from building to building, witnessing such vignettes as a cooper’s apprentice arguing with his mother about travelling to the gold fields, and a blacksmith teaching an apprentice to make nails. We heard a boat-builder who doubled as the fort’s schoolmaster talking about tomorrow’s proclamation of the new colony, and, at The Big House, the Chief Factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company – formerly the chief official in the region – announce his resignation and express his appreciation of our work as his underlings. In a warehouse, we heard pre-adolescent girls of the period talking about the men they admired and their prospects for husbands, while nearby in a parlor, whose out-of-tune piano had been carried upriver by canoe, mothers talked about the lack of cultural prospects at the fort. In the center of the fort, newly arrived voyageurs gossiped and grumbled, while, outside the fort, good time girls from San Francisco and a disreputable miner in a slouched hat talked about their plans.
The tour took an hour and a half, but all too soon we were back in the world of flash cameras and cell phones (both had been banned on the tour). We descended the rickety – and railess – gangway to the yacht club dock, and boarded the paddle-wheeler for desert, more wine, and the trip back to New Westminster.
Despite the lights on either side of the river, the return trip was dark. The stark ugliness of the industrial sites was made mysterious, and around us the river swirled like black oil. Inside the main cabin, pop hits of the last forty years were playing, and a few people were dancing.
Most of us were content to watch and talk, but one couple in their sixties danced to almost every tune. They would have been young in the 1960s when the earliest of the tunes first came out, and every now and then you could see from a smile or a dance move how they must have looked forty years ago when they first danced to them. I suppose, in their way, they were time-travelling, too.