Most British Columbians live huddled along the 49th parallel. They jet to Hawaii or Mexico for holidays and are often unaware of the many wonders the northern part of the province has to offer.
From ancient lava beds to First Nations villages with small fish pegged on clotheslines to dry; to daring spear fishermen, who can be viewed from the highway, risking their lives on rocky overhangs, Northern British Columbia waits to be experienced.
The Big Circle Route, which takes travellers north from Vancouver through Prince George to Prince Rupert and then westward on the ferry across to Vancouver Island and south down the Island to the ferry and home should be on everyone's to-do list.
After driving east through the fertile Fraser Valley and cattle country in the Cariboo, we fill the tank in Cache Creek so we don't have to stop until we reach Quesnel. From Quesnel to Prince George is only 125km, but is a bit daunting when we see the road undulating for kilometres ahead. With over 600km behind us, we stay overnight in Quesnel before heading for Prince George.
Often referred to as the Capital of the North, Prince George is the home of the University of Northern British Columbia.
A lively multi-racial town of 80,000 people, it was incorporated in l915 and is located at the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako Rivers.
The car gears down to climb a very long hill when we leave Prince George and head north. We look ahead to an exciting day following the Buckley and Skeena Rivers. If we're lucky, we may see black bear cubs cavorting beside the road or timid fawns and their doe-eyed mums watching nervously as we drive by.
From here to the coast is where we want to linger longer. We pass through Vanderhoof, Fraser Lake and Burns Lake, small communities each with its own charm. Every small town along the Yellowhead 16 Highway lays claim to one or more activities, which makes them stand out from the rest - a winter carnival or an annual farmer's market in the summer.
Next, Topley and Houston appear on the horizon, towns known for ranching and logging. The population of both towns was increased 100-fold by American immigrants during the l960s, and now many of them own huge tracts of land in the area.
After taking a walk-about in Topley, we continue north and arrive in Smithers, a town that began life in l915 as regional headquarters for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, now the CNR. The town is headquarters to many government agencies and regional businesses. Located about half way between Prince George and Prince Rupert, it hosts many cultural events and big-ticket music festivals.
After having a bite to eat in Smithers, we make a turn to the west to see fascinating places where the interest of most southerners mounts. The scenery in every direction is a photographer's delight as we drive toward Moricetown, a First Nations village, oddly bisected by the highway. On our right - almost close enough to touch - we see an Aboriginal spear fisherman balancing on a rocky ledge over the Bulkley River waiting to impale an unsuspecting salmon. Our hearts are in our mouths in case he misjudges his footing and plunges into the swirling white water below, but he and his ancestors have been honed in the art of spear fishing for many generations. He catches a 10-15-pound (4.5-6.8 kg) salmon while we watch.
Shaking our heads in amazement, we continue on to the three Hazeltons: South Hazelton, New Hazelton and just plain Hazelton. And right here is a sight to behold! We must drive across the one-way bridge over a canyon at Hagwilget (with the rushing river 262-feet (80 m) straight down at low water) to reach Hazelton and the reconstructed historic First Nation village of 'Ksan.
The narrow bridge was originally created by the native inhabitants by lashing cedar vines together and the story goes that the men made their women cross the bridge first to see if it was safe enough for them to cross.
The bridge has undergone many transitions over its long life. One interesting and true story is that before the trans-Atlantic cable was successfully laid in l866, an enterprising man by the name of Perry McDonough Collins, funded by the U.S. government, attempted to lay a cable called the Collins Overland Telegraph Route. His plan was to hang the wire on poles right from San Francisco, north through B.C. and Alaska and over the Bering Strait to Russia and thence onwards to Europe. His crews had reached the area around where the Hazeltons are now located. When Collins got word that the trans-Atlantic Cable had been successfully laid, it immediately rendered his huge endeavour obsolete. Totally discouraged, he abandoned many coils of copper wire, which the local First Nations people put to good use strengthening their original vine bridge. It was many years before the government of the day upgraded the hanging structure and now, with the latest improvements finished in 2003, the bridge is completely sound. But looking down as we cross, we are still relieved to safely reach the other side.
Before we continue north, we linger awhile at the Hazeltons and 'Ksan. The whole village of 'Ksan is a replica of an authentic early First Nations village complete with long house, totem poles and carvers perfecting their art. We watch while a totem pole takes shape and even try our hand with an adze. We spend quite a bit of time here absorbing the Native culture and marvel at the survival of peoples like the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en who, for an estimated 7,000 years, thrived here in the winter snows with their two mainstays of cedar and salmon.
We have coffee on the main street in Hazelton with views of the magnificent Mount Roche de Boule and an old timer bends our ears with wild stories about the past.
He tells us the story of “back when” Ladies of the Night took up residence in South Hazelton so they could service the men building the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.
If one looks hard along the tracks on the opposite side of river from the highway, glass insulators marked “GTP” can still be found.
Hazelton, where the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers clash, and try to maintain dominance, was the terminus for the riverboats plying the Skeena with supplies for railway crews, Collins Overland Telegraph workers and miners, plus a few settlers. By l914, when the railway began operating, the land opened up and the riverboat's heyday was over. Stories are told of competitive riverboat captains who tried to beat each other to Hazelton once the Skeena ice broke. It became such a race that, at one point, gunfire was heard from the riverbanks.
Reluctantly, we leave the Hazeltons and get back on the road. We head for the First Nations village of Kitwanga, where we can take a truly less travelled road to Cranberry Junction and north to the Alaska Highway, but not on this trip.
Down the road at Cedarvale, we stop to take many photos of the Seven Sister Mountains. Early people were sure that the Sisters “whispered” at certain times of the year speaking to climbers and berry pickers.
Terrace, originally known as the Pole Capital of the World, brags access to a revitalized land via a road now known as The Nisga'a Highway. Formerly the Nass Logging Road, it eventually joins - at Cranberry Junction - the road running north from Kitwanga.
But more importantly for us is the drive up this highway in the new Nisga'a territory to the historic village of New Aiyansh. The road traverses the Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park, an area dotted with grotesquely shaped trees and shrubs. The lava is residue from a volcano, which erupted 250 years ago and killed hundreds of people who desperately tried to flee its path. The first provincial park jointly managed by First Nations and B.C. Parks, the Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park isn't a long drive out of our way (only 60 miles (97 km) north of Terrace), and it is adjacent to the village of New Aiyansh, which the Nisga'a people call home. It is here where we saw tiny oolichan fish pinned by their tails to dry on clotheslines. Once you arrive at the village and, if you plan to stay awhile, it is proper etiquette to locate and speak to the Chief to request permission to look around.
Before starting our journey home, we drive 36 miles [58 km] south to visit the aluminum town of Kitimat. And half way between, stop at the Lakelse Hot Springs for a swim.
We head to the coastal town of Prince Rupert with its native craft stores and fascinating museum, which are a collector's delight. But keep umbrellas close at hand because Prince Rupert also boasts a record 10 feet (300 cm) of precipitation per year. It tops the list as the wettest city in the entire country. And as much as we want to stay awhile to sing in the rain, we rush to the B.C. Ferry terminal, where we have made reservations for the overnight ferry trip to Port Hardy on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
To our delight, dolphins dance in front, behind, and on both sides of our ferry. After a magnificent journey along the Inside Passage and our arrival in Port Hardy, we mosey down the Island Highway and stop at Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park, where giant Douglas fir and western red cedar stand as age old sentinels. We have time for a short side trip to Campbell River (the town of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope fishing fame). Others may choose the west coast of the Island in areas such as Long Beach, Tofino and Ucluelet, where activities like surfing, bear spotting and whale-watching are available. When we are ready, we make our way to a ferry terminal at Nanaimo and head for home.
There, we did it! We saw our own northern backyard and can travel without guilt to Hawaii or Mexico. Plus, we have the bonus of having a store of memories and photographs to share with other southerners who have yet to take their Big Circle trip of a lifetime.
MAY 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND