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HOPE, BC, Apr 20, 2014/ Troy Media/ -If you told Debbie McKinney that business had been a little dead at Hell’s Gate Airtram lately, she’d likely laugh, agree with you and insist it was no bad thing.
McKinney, her brother Brian and the rest of team opened for the season this week, having run through the annual checklist of things that need doing to get one of the Fraser Canyon’s most spectacular tourist attractions (set in one of Canada’s most dramatic natural landscapes) up and running. Make sure the aerial tram is in perfect working order? Check. Get the gift shop and restaurant fully stocked and ready for business? Check.
Book a meeting with yet another crew of ghost hunters just dying to visit the site? Check.
Time was when the trip down the tram that carries visitors from the east bank down the sheer cliffs of the canyon across a boiling gorge where the entire Fraser River bursts through a gap in the mountains just 35 metres wide to the western shore was scary enough — safe, of course, yet thrilling. But along with the spectacular went the spectral. McKinney and her staff would hear whispering voices out of nowhere. Over the years, they saw goods secure on store shelves suddenly fall off as if propelled by some unseen force. The kettle in the Fudge Factory would turn itself on and off. It was all very spooky.
The clincher came on a quiet lunchtime one day in the restaurant. A staffer was making his lunch when suddenly, someone walked up behind him. Quite remarkable, considering he was the only person – live person – on the site.
McKinney and crew called in the British Columbia Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society (BCGHRS), a Vancouver-based team of volunteer paranormal researchers. Their investigation (which included an overnight stay) documented a wealth of ghostly activity: apparitions, voices, sudden changes in temperature, voices and strange smells among them.
The paranormal population of Hell’s Gate is apparently in the hundreds and includes ghosts like “Edward,” who haunts a section of the deck by the gold panning station and can be seen walking two dogs on a leash. “The Smoking Man” can sometimes be glimpsed in a corner of the restaurant, watching the visitors while smoking his cigar. And “The Lady Behind the Gift Shop Door” is described as being slim with dark brown hair, a healthy complexion, wearing a blue dress and sporting a white bonnet. She’s also said to be fond of apple pie.
It’s not hard to imagine Hell’s Gate as a ghostly gathering place. Its rugged typography has been claiming lives for millennia. Who knows how many Indigenous people died negotiating its treacherous terrain before Simon Fraser came through in 1808 and declared: “We had to travel where no human being should venture for surely we have encountered the gates of hell.” Layer on the excesses of the gold rushes and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and it’s not hard to see how the spot became spook central.
Now, strangely enough, all this truck and trade with the transmundane has not been bad for business. In fact, it’s made McKinney’s tourist attraction a Mecca for the mystic-minded. Even reality TV (or perhaps, surreal-ality TV) has beaten a path to her airtram. Three years ago, the producers of Ghost Hunter’s International shot a segment of their popular paranormal TV program on the site – one of only two Canadian locations featured that season.
The resulting program helped boost Hells Gates’ profile and put it on the map for ghost hunters from around the globe. And while it’s too soon to call it a tourism trend, the increase in occult tourists is, well, scary good.
“I’m not sure if I can say it is a growing tourism market segment, but there is definitely more awareness on the subject being brought forward with the different television shows now available,” says McKinney.
“Some visitors definitely do come here because of the paranormal angle – but it is a value added story for the majority of our guests.”
Hell’s Gate is now such a ghostly gold mine that on McKinney’s April “To Do” list is a meeting with the Coldspotters, yet another team of paranormal investigators. They use high-tech gizmos to detect ghosts, poltergeists and other spirits. McKinney is not sure what they want, but she does know what they’re likely to find.
But has she herself even been surprised by a spirit?
“I have personally not had an encounter with a ghost – I have had a strange encounter, but have not really chalked it up to a ghost experience.”
Born and raised in B.C., Troy Media’s Eye on BC Storyteller Don Hauka has told stories for over 30 years as a reporter, author, TV writer, documentarian and communications expert.
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