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The Cariboo Camels

February 16, 2015

As proof, if you needed it, that British Columbia was just as “Wild West” as the American frontier, I present one of the greatest failed experiments of all time: the Cariboo pack camels.


Lady, the last Cariboo camel

The Wikipedia article tells the story pretty well, but if you don’t feel like clicking the link, the gist of it is: A guy gets his hands on a bunch of camels used in Arizona and California and sets up shop in Victoria. He sells them to a man from Lillooet, who wants to run a pack train from there to Alexandria, which isn’t all that far from the Barkerville gold fields. And then things got crazy. I’m going to excerpt from the Wikipedia article because 1) I’m lazy and 2) it’s easier to be funny that way.

their soft feet were easily torn up by the harsh terrain of the Cariboo Road and boots of canvas had to be made for them

So, camels with booties because of jagged rocks and gravel, and then …

Stage horses were terrified at the very sight of camels and even the best trained of them would bolt upon encountering the camels on the road. Furthermore, the camels’ varied diet even included pants, shirts, hats and bars of soap.

… stage coach stampedes on roads that were barely wide enough for the stage to begin with, and angry miners with fewer supplies that planned …

One report mentioned Matthew Baillie Begbie‘s experience with the camel train and how his mount dashed off into the wilderness with the helpless judge clinging to the saddle.

… and then the Hanging Judge gets ticked off, and (unrelatedly) the experiment ends in failure. The camels winter in Quesnel Forks, which is a better climate than Barkerville (it’s not in the mountains) but still included Camel’s First Snowfall and probably also Camel’s First Frostbite. They get back to Lillooet in late spring, after which there were …

more threats of legal action from outraged and exasperated stage drivers,

The camels get split up, some going to forever homes, some wandering off into the bush, and one …

was mistaken for a grizzly bear and shot by [a] miner, John Morris, who would forever be known as “Grizzly” Morris. The camel didn’t go to waste but ended up on the menu at a hotel near Beaver Lake as a dinner special called “Grizzly’s Bear”. 

Because really, when you’re handed comic gold like that, you’re going to milk it for all it’s worth.

The camels enjoyed cryptid status in central BC at least into the 1930s. I don’t remember where I first heard about them, whether it was during my gold rush phase or in an overheard conversation since I grew up a few hours south of  Barkerville, but they’ve stuck with me and always make me smile.

If you’re into foot-stomping Celtic rock, you can listen to a song about the camels here.

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