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A Pithouse Sleepover

Aboriginal guest group pithouse, British Columbia
Hat Creek Ranch aboriginal guest group pithouse.
Photo ©Alison Gardner.

On a pleasure rating of 1 to 10, camping is somewhere between 1 and 2 for me, depending on the state of the outhouse and the thinness of the sleeping mat. I never do it willingly, but sometimes I get tricked into it. This happened last summer while visiting the Historic Hat Creek Ranch, www.hatcreekranch.com, in central British Columbia’s Cariboo country.

Arriving at this property which showcases both the 150-year settler heritage and the vastly longer First Nations heritage of the region, our small group had met as nine strangers just two days earlier. We were directed across the fields to the authentic Kekuli or circular native pithouse where we would be spending the night...all together...in sleeping bags...with a settler-authentic outhouse some 100 yards out of sight along a heavily-treed trail. How had I missed this treat on the itinerary?

Ticking off the good points while daylight still made orientation possible and before my puny travel flashlight became an essential survival tool, the neighboring stream offered possibilities for tooth brushing and face splashing, the half-buried pithouse looked solid enough to withstand Hurricane Katrina, and the native band chief was booked to spend the evening with us around an appealing campfire circle. I imagined that electric light pollution would not be an issue when it came to midnight star gazing.

I learned that pithouses were traditionally designed to be assault-proof with a miniature ground level entrance for women and children and a roof-hole entrance for more agile men and boys who were expected to navigate down a slim notched pole through a roof hole. For enemies to invade the pithouse by the women’s entrance, entering one at a time and bent over double, was tantamount to suicide. And once the interior ladder pole was removed from the roof hole, this mini-bunker was virtually impregnable from above as well.

Bent right-angled squeezing through the women’s entrance, my spirits rose as soon as my eyes grew accustomed to the reduced light. The interior was decidedly more appealing than the exterior had led me to anticipate: a large, comfortable circle with a high ceiling supported by thick peeled logs and a waist-high wooden platform that skirted the circular wall. Here was a roomy architectural beauty, practically designed to be warm and group-friendly in the long cold winters of the region.

Spaced out along a curved platform that, in times past, could accommodate up to 25 family members and visitors were ten neatly-arranged bedrolls with a comfort level that hardly qualified as camping: a modern version of an air mattress the thickness and length of a bunk mattress, a hotel-size pillow, a thick bath towel, and a fresh sleeping bag. Even old bones could deal with this.

Aboriginal pithouse interior, British Columbia
The cosy pithouse interior shows promise for a surprisingly comfortable sleepover.
Photo ©Alison Gardner.

Welcoming us to his territory, Chief Mike Retasket of the Bonaparte First Nations native band joined us for dinner of buffalo burgers and grilled salmon, while darkness advanced to inky-black as only the countryside can achieve. A passionate environmental activist, this well-educated, humorous man quickly demonstrated his skill at bridging the traditional and the modern. We received frank answers to challenging questions as our fire crackled and sparked well into the night.

With decorated skin drum in hand, he sang a fraction of the 1,000 songs he has in his repertoire, many traditional, some his own compositions, all in the tribal dialect. After finishing one song, Chief Retasket sometimes stared into the fire for a full minute before starting a new song. Silence was peaceful under the stars which he said included all his relatives up there listening and watching.

Chief Mike Retasket
Elected chief of his band, Mike Retasket, is a thoughtful ambassador bridging two cultures.
Photo by Dannielle Hayes/ATBC.

By firelight, he taught us a popular gambling game using his personal set of painted, carved sticks and bones—the native equivalent of poker, going on for hours and sometimes for remarkably high stakes. Our team took two dollars off the chief’s team after an hour of play, with his frank admission that it was the first time in four years he’d been on a losing team.

Game equivalent of poker
The native equivalent of poker can go on for hours with very high stake games.
Photo ©Alison Gardner.

Now all feeling less than strangers, several people urged the chief to join our pithouse sleepover, an invitation he readily accepted. Could that tenth bedroll have been there just in case? With toes pointed toward the outer wall and all heads to the centre, most of us wondered silently who among the men and women would be the champion snorer to disturb our collective rest.

As people drifted off to sleep, a man’s voice, don’t know who, said softly but clearly, “sleep in peace.” We all did, even with a few mid-night trips for some of us carefully navigated along the outhouse trail. When we woke refreshed to early morning sunshine and a chorus of songbirds, our host had already vanished, leaving behind an aura of mystery one would expect of a chief.

Camping? Now that kind I’d do again.

Aboriginal Cultures: A Cultural Highlight of British Columbia Tourism

In many parts of the province’s 366,000 square mile territory, British Columbia hosts the greatest diversity of aboriginal peoples in North America offering the widest range of guest opportunities to learn about and connect with distinctive native cultures. With a land area close to the combined size of Texas (2nd largest state in the US) and New Mexico (5th largest), there is plenty of room to explore the province’s native tourism either independently or in small groups.

Over the past decade a great deal of forethought and money has been invested by governments, native bands, and individual aboriginal entrepreneurs in creating authentic world-class tourism programs as well as spectacular educational museums and art galleries on and off native lands. The goal is always to honor the talents and traditions of BC’s 198 First Nation/native communities and to provide training, cultural revival and sustained employment for the local people.

The Aboriginal Tourism of British Columbia (ATBC) website, www.aboriginalbc.com, showcases native-owned and -operated tourism from the Pacific Ocean east to the Rocky Mountains and from the US border in the south to the Alaska Panhandle. This impressive website also presents innovatively-designed museums and educational interpretive centers as well as art galleries that focus exclusively on contemporary native artists and artisans, often working on site, where visitors may better understand and appreciate each rich, thoughtful heritage as it realistically engages with the 21st century. To plan a trip that includes aboriginal tourism experiences, order ATBC’s free 28-page brochure.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Readership is 1.6 million. Contact her at Alison@travelwithachallenge.com.

Travel with a Challenge: The Site for Senior Travelers