By Kelly Sinoski
Diane Cleveland’s lifetime love affair with the Cariboo came by chance in 1946.
Instead of going to Watch Lake that summer, her family took a holiday to Eagan Lake Resort, run by the Cleveland family. It was here she learned to ride horses and she would run around with the younger boys Glen and Eric looking for cattle. Her father built a cabin at the lake and after a few years, it was the eldest Cleveland – Robert – who would take her hand in 1952.
Cleveland was 19 when the couple married and moved to Robbie’s two-room cabin on the Bonaparte River, where it turns down to Sharpe Lake. The ranch didn’t have electricity or a telephone. They got their water from the river. She’d have to go to Clinton to do the grocery shopping at Robertson’s General Store.
Their two eldest children walked to Sharpe Lake School, joining 22 other students for lessons. Fred Harrison built the school to service the mill workers, taking the windows out of the Eagan Lake school.
“There was a mill down there and that’s what kept the school going,” she says.
When the mill owner closed up shop and moved to 70 Mile in 1964, the school was also shuttered, which meant Cleveland had to drive the kids to Bridge Lake School.
They also lost access to the movie nights Harrison would put on at the school.
But another opportunity arose: the mill owner also had a store, selling mostly canned goods, and Cleveland thought it would be a good idea to take it over. She still has Harrison’s old weigh scale, which is 100 years old now.
“We built a little building and we had canned stuff. We also sold ice,” she says. “Robbie used to cut the ice out of the river there and we used to put it in another building. We kept the ice in sawdust and people used to come and buy the ice from us in the summertime.”
Eventually, the couple sold the ranch house and bought a property on Eagan Lake Road. They sold that house in 1977, buying the Meadow Lake fishing camp on top of Little Fort Hill. They ran it for 14 years.
“That was one of the best things,” Cleveland, 88, says. “I still hear from people from there. It was great. They were all from Washington and California.”
The community was close-knit in those days. They would dress up in “wild” costumes for the annual snowball tournament, Cleveland says. Everyone would get together for dances at the local community halls at Roe Lake, Watch Lake and even 70 Mile.
At that time, there were no cattle guards, only gates. One day, Cleveland decided to play a prank, and liven things up a bit.
“I remember coming home from a dance. We had five people following us and I went and put some cow manure on it,” she says. “I must have had a beer or two then. I remember that.”
Hydro electricity arrived in Eagan Lake in 1974, with phone service five years. Before then, you had to meet people face-to-dace.
“We had to talk to people,” says Lori Bishop Stusrud and her husband Dave dropped by to see Cleveland last month.
The camaraderie of those early years lives on in such pop-in visits, or phone calls from the oldtimers now at the coast. Stusrud and Cleveland have the easy banter of old friends, of people who have known each other for decades despite the age gap between them.
“Bridge Lake Store has changed hands again,” Cleveland says, before she told Stusrud that the gymkhanas had started up again. “It was a zoo. It just turned out wonderful.”
She recalls how they all used to go down to the lake for a picnic afterward and her daughter jumping on her horse bareback for a swim.
“We all did,” Stusrud says. “They even used to call it the Cat’s Ass.”
Stusrud says it was an amazing place to grow up in the area when there were few houses on the lakes and they all knew everybody.
“It’s not like you lived next door when you were here,” she says. “You were miles apart but you were still neighbours. And everybody did everything together.”