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Exploring Northern BC - Part 3

From Watson Lake in the Yukon, we take the Alaska Highway across the winding Liard River to Junction 37 where we turn south on to the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, a two-lane country road that will take us through the heart of northern British Columbia.

Watson Lake – Boya Lake (85 km)

We’re aiming for Tā Ch’ilā Provincial Park (Boya Lake) and in the territory of the Kaska Dene First Nation. One and a half hours later, our RV is set up in one of the 44 campsites, facing the beautiful vista of turquoise blue Boya Lake, green trees, and behind them in the far distance, the Saint Elias Mountains.

Map of Campsite at Tā Ch’ilā Provincial Park (Boya Lake)

We see a BC Parks staffer pushing rental kayaks and canoes off the shoreline. We quickly pull our own kayaks down from the truck.

Boya Lake is a kayaking paradise with quiet inlets and tiny green islands rimmed with white sand. From a distance, the water is dark blue, but when the sun peeps out from behind a cloud, it changes to turquoise, transparent beside our kayak. The lake bottom is stark white. We paddle leisurely down one after another waterway watching eagles soar above us and trout glide by below us.

Our phone’s GPS is a godsend in the winding inlets and, despite some beaver dams that stop up some narrow passages, we, find our way out of the maze back to the main body of the lake.

We walk the park’s two trails the next day, the first, a short hike from the south bay through wetlands and an aspen forest. Helpful signs along the way identify plants and trees and the birds and wildlife that they say we could, but don’t, see. After a lovely walk at one end, we head to the other at the north end of the campsite and, again, enjoy golden groves of aspen and little turquoise blue bays.

Boya Lake - Sawmill Point (111 km)

The hillsides are blanketed in a hundred shades of golds and oranges, yellows and greens, their beauty literally making me gasp at every turn on the highway. We wind past Jade City, home of the Bunce Family and the stars of the reality TV show, Jade Fever. Their store, the Cassiar Mountain Jade Store, sits behind a row of jade boulders. BC is the world’s largest producer of nephrite jade and the region we’re travelling through contains the richest deposits in the province.

As I watch the never-ending stretch of forest-edged highway, a dog-sized hump appears ahead of us.

“Porcupine,” Aaron says casually.

“What?! Stop! I try to focus my camera on the little animal as we go by, just slightly slower, despite my orders. “I’ve never seen a porcupine,” I say plaintively, hinting that he should turn the truck and trailer around and go find it again.

He looks at me disbelievingly - this is the 100th time I've asked him to stop today. “You want me to turn this big rig around to go find a porcupine?” He doesn’t even slow down. A moment later, he looks at me again. “I can’t believe you’ve lived in BC all your life and you’ve never seen a porcupine.” He looked at me like that earlier when I said I hadn’t seen a moose yet.

He does slow to a dead stop when we see the next animal. Thanks honey.

The little red fox comes right up to my window when we park; he’s clearly been fed before from passing motorists. He perks up his pointy little ears when I speak to him. “Please feed me,” he seems to say with his big, begging eyes. I’m happy for lots of photo time, but sad that he’s been so habitualized by motorists that don’t realize their kindness will probably be the death of him – the friendly little guy will walk right up to a hunter one day, or run up to and right into a vehicle before it stops.

At Sawmill Point Recreation Site we pick a campsite that sits right on Dease Lake’s pretty shoreline. Though many sites sit cozily in the trees, this lakeside site does not. And so it’s windy. But…it’s got the best view in town - a clear view across and down the lake. At night, when the wind goes down, the water becomes quiet and as dark as ink. It’s a perfect time to fish if you know how to catch fish. We don’t.

We meet a super-friendly member of the Dease Lake band who introduces himself with a huge grin. He and his wife are picking low-bush cranberries, hoping to find enough to make jam. I’m tempted to pick a few myself, but that would be like work. I’m on holidays.

Telegraph Creek lies south west of Dease Lake at the end of a long road. It’s a drive my dad told me we shouldn’t miss. People call it the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, he said.

Leaving our heavy RV at our campsite, we drive 75 kilometres down a flat, gravel road, both sides bordered by yellow aspen before we hit the canyon.

But where is the stunning view my dad promised me? I see remnants of beauty - the deep canyon and broad valleys, the milky green Stikine River flowing far below. But the beauty is fire-blackened and a grey wasteland of bare tree stems. Two years ago, I discover later, a horrific wildfire burned 120,000 hectares of this once-beautiful canyon, turning it from green to a grey and rust hue, and worse yet, taking with it several people’s homes. So sad to see such devastation to what must have been a spectacularly beautiful place. We turn back before Telegraph Creek, with a promise to come again in 2060 when the area’s lush again.

Sawmill Point to Kinaskan Lake (170 km)

With a quick stop in Dease Lake to use Service BC’s wifi (there’s very little service along the highway), we continue, following the undulating Dease river through marshy meadows and wetlands and forest rarely interrupted by development. As always on this trip though northern BC, we find ourselves alone on the highway for the most part.

At the small road into Iskut, home to the Iskut First Nation, it’s hard to miss the big, handpainted signs across entrance roads. DON’T STOP…NO VISITORS, they say. Signs we’ve seen all along these northern highways. The First Nation communities have been hit super hard by COVID. These strong-community-minded people have aging parents, their own children and, often, nieces and nephews living in one home. The virus spreads quickly in these multi-generational homes.

By early afternoon, we reach Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park.

The day’s a bit chilly but bright and sunny, and we get out on to the water in quick order. It’s impossible not to catch fish here, my dad’s told me, and we’re anxious to see if he’s right this time. For a half hour, we’re skunked. But then, a kind couple pulling fish after fish into their boat, call us over. They hand me a blue apex. “A trout killer,” they tell us. And everything changes!

Right away, my rod tugs toward the water. OMG… is it a fish? Another tug. It is! “Aaron!” I call, adrenaline making me flail around. I pull the rod from between my legs and my half-eaten apple and coffee cup fall to the bottom of the kayak. I grab my paddle just before it slides off the boat.

I slowly reel in the line, looking up from my task only when a wave catches my kayak. I look around. There’s a current not a hundred metres away behind me. My heart jumps. I reel the line in faster. Ahead of me, a silver dart jumps out of the water for a split second, and my focus returns to my rod. I reel it in quickly and, suddenly, the silvery beauty is flipping and flopping in the water right beside me! I swing the fish into my lap, the only place it can go - my old kayak only has a small body-sized opening. Aaron’s beside me now in his kayak with bonker and pliers in hand and he quickly whacks the fish. It flops and I whimper. I forgot about that part ☹.

I throw him into the bow of my boat to lie slimily between my knees then glance up to see I'm getting way too close to the current. Again, adrenaline sends prickles shooting through my chest. Shoving my rod between my legs, I grab my paddle, dig into the water and pull forward hard. Paddle, paddle…panic…paddle, paddle…panic…paddle, paddle. And then, finally, calm water. I breathe deeply, let my heart slow down. A few more strokes to be safe and then I set my paddle down.

And now, I’m ready to fish again! I flip the silver thingy over on my reel and cast. Again, I settle the rod between my thighs then start paddling. My rod tugs! Another one! Holy shit.

Over the next hour, we pull up fish after fish! It's crazy exciting! Aaron almost tips his kayak over, trying to help me. I have six fish at my feet.

“Let’s head back,” Aaron says. “I’m soaked.”

“Can I have the bonker?” I ask. “I’ll fish on the way home.”

I cast out, anchor the rod between my legs and start paddling. And then, a tug! Oh man, I have another one. Crazy! I have to do this by myself – Aaron’s long gone. I reel in the fish, grab his slippery body in my hand as he swings toward me and then grab the bonker. I hit him on the top of his head and he wiggles and flips. Feeling like a murderer, I close my eyes and bonk him harder. He’s quiet now. I twist the hook out of his gaping mouth. From behind me, I hear a small splash. My mouth gapes as I watch the last bit of my rod slide off the kayak and below the lake’s surface. The lake’s so clear I can see it 20 metres below and I look at it helplessly. Oh look! The hook’s stuck in my pants! Hand over hand, I pull the line up until I can retrieve my rod. Crap, fishing in a kayak is complicated!

The next morning, as we’re tucking into our fried trout breakfast, Patrick, our neighbour in the next campsite calls out to us. “Do you guys want to come out fishing with me?” he says, pointing to the big aluminum fishing boat in front of his site. “Probably easier than in your kayaks,” he continues. Aaron and I grin at each other. “Wow, for sure! Thank you!”

Patrick is an anesthetist from Terrace about our age and has been coming to the lake for years. With lines in the water, he heads straight for the rapids.

“Throw your line in,” he suggests. “We’ll catch some fish just off the current,” he says. And as he says the word ‘current,’ my rod jumps. “You’ve got one! Patrick says, grinning. I start reeling my line in.

My eyes are shining with excitement as I wind the line in. Then, Aaron’s rod bends, and he’s suddenly beside me, reeling his line in, trying to keep his line from tangling with mine. Patrick laughs, then stops as he sees his rod whip forward. “Oh my god,” I say, laughing excitedly. He pulls his rod from the holder. Within moments, three pretty silver trout are lying in the bottom of Patrick’s boat.

The next hour brings fish, fish and more fish. Crap. Pretty addicting stuff, this fishing. I’m as hooked as the fish are.

My hands are frozen as I clean the dozen fish in the already-icy lake water. Not as fun cleaning them as catching them.

We stay one more day, not to fish, but to just paddle around the beautiful and curvy shore of Kinaskan Lake, awed by the autumn reds and golds against the brilliant blue sky.

We leave our heart at this place – one of our favourites.

Kinaskin Lake to Stewart (263 km)

The colours on the hillsides and the craggy, snow-capped peaks behind and above the hills continue to make my jaw drop.

We turn west at Meziadin Junction toward Stewart.

By mid-afternoon, we are twenty minutes out of Stewart. We look for a sign to Clements Lake Recreation Site, almost missing the tiny sign pushed back from the road. Branches slap our truck and trailer as we navigate a short dirt road and then we’re at Clements Lake, a quiet green lake whose edge is blanketed with fallen leaves.

Although a couple tiny and private sites lie amongst the trees, we set up in the clearing to get an unencumbered view of the pretty lake. Two families with as many dogs as people cavort on a raft a hundred metres out then roast wieners over a firepit at the edge of the lake as the sun goes down. And then they are gone and it’s quiet. As darkness falls, we crawl into our cozy bed. Not a sound can be heard outside other than crickets. We have the place to ourselves. Or so we think.

Something wakes me. Scratching. Not wanting to wake Aaron, I lie still in the blackness, trying to figure out where it’s coming from. More scratching, louder and prolonged this time. I nudge Aaron.

“There’s something in the trailer,” I whisper. He gets out of bed, bends down here and there…listening. He turns the light on and looks through the floor vent.

“There he is!” he says.

I climb forward to see and spot a little grey creature running past the vent slits. “Oh god,” I say, my eyes wide, my nostrils flaring in distaste. Aaron digs in a cupboard and pulls out a box of sticky mouse traps, the type husbands buy when their wives are queasy about killing things. He unscrews and pulls off the vent cover and sets one inside, and another under the couch. We both crawl back into bed. Not five minutes later, a loud and panicked scratching sound has us bolting upward. Aaron crawls out of bed again and pulls off the vent cover.

“Yep, we got him,” he says, holding the sticky pad out to examine the little mouse. Stuck he was, plastered in thick gel from the tip of one little rounded ear, down his furry back and all four paws.

“Poor thing,” I say, sad for the little thing’s predicament even though ecstatically happy we got him.

Aaron dons pants and a jacket then heads out, trap in hand. “Don’t kill him!” I beg, just as he’s closing the door. A moment later he’s back, minus the mouse.

“Is he alive?” I ask.

“Yep. He’s missing a lot of hair though," he says, with a twinge of regret. “And he’s pretty sticky. I don’t know if he’ll make it.” He puts the trap back into the vent before coming back to bed. Ten minutes later, another loud scuffling.

“We’ve got another one,” Aaron says, climbing out of bed. Five more times we get up. And in the forest, seven patchy mice, trying to run and keep the forest from sticking to them. Poor things.

The next morning, we head into Stewart, an area the Nass Indians hunted and fished for thousands of years. The people would catch oolichan, a small fish from the smelt family, also called ‘candlefish’ due to it being so oily that if you thread a wick through a dried specimen, you can use it like a candle. The Nass would render the oolichan down to an oil and take it via what’s now commonly known as a ‘grease trail’ into the Interior to trade.

The town is spectacular, nestled at the mouth of the Portland Canal with tall, glaciated mountains towering above it.

A wooden walkway at the edge of town winds through a massive wetland filled with nurse logs and the small ecosystems they nurture.

We walk down the quiet paved streets of Stewart past the town's brightly coloured, pioneer-style buildings, pubs and stores, and discover the Stewart Museum. COVID has ended haphazard visiting in most museums, and we must reserve a time to tour through it. But, like the other museums we’ve been to this trip, we get a wonderful private visit with no one around.

It’s chock-a-block with historical pictures and paraphernalia. Though only 400 people live in Stewart today, we find out that 10,000 lived here in the early 1900s, all hankering after a little bit of the gold that some cheating entrepreneurs promised was in the hills. We leaf through the pages of a book dedicated to the 27 miners killed by an avalanche in 1964 as they were working on a 17-kilometre-long tunnel to get the Granduc Copper Mine’s ore out of the mountain.

We amble through the big, well-treed public campsite at the edge of town then return to our free recreation site.

The rest of the afternoon is spent paddling Clements lake. Who knew even more lake lay just behind the trees out of sight of our trailer?

We paddle through lily pads and small floating logs on which tiny, magical ecosystems thrived, and scrunch up our nose when the stench from decomposing salmon hit us.

Though a bit smelly and sad to see, we’re thrilled to see the wildlife the salmon have brought – huge eagles, their strong, hooked beaks curving golden from their white heads, and little otters, popping their furry heads up through the lily pads. The breeze dies and the sun wanes as we paddle, and the lake turns dark and inky, not a ripple marring its quiet surface. Such a pretty place. Despite the mice.

Stewart to Kitimat (366 kilometres)

Twenty-two kilometres from Clements Lake on our way out of town is the American Trail, a peaceful and shady walk through old-growth forest.

The hike seems longer than the 3.5 kilometres promised and the small view site at its culmination is pretty but less than stellar. However, it’s an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours and work off the wine and treats that we’re constantly shoving in our mouths.

Just north of the trail, we stop at the stunning Bear Glacier carves a wide path through the mountains and melts slowly into the small green-grey lake alongside the highway.

It’s a perfect place for lunch. I head into our little rolling kitchen (I LOVE RV’ing!) while Aaron pulls our lawn chairs out.

We make a quick stop at the gorgeous, and I mean gorgeous, Meziadin Provincial Park Campground just to check it out for the next time we’re up this way. We’re almost sad to leave the lovely, quiet bay with a small island at its centre, and the very busy but super-well-maintained and grassed campsite along the lake’s edge.

Next on our schedule is the Meziadin Fish Ladder. Thanks to a map picked up from a super-friendly staffer at the Meziadin Junction store, we turn off the highway just before a huge, newly built bridge. Though others have parked and walked in, we’re lazy and drive past them all, almost right up to Lak-an-Zoq ad the the local Nisga’a and Gitanyow people call it.

We watch a couple of men from those communities scoop huge sockeye salmon with dipnets from the rushing river as the fish swim upstream along the river shore. The salmon are scooped into a small enclosure at the river’s edge then stabbed with a long spike. “To keep their meat sweet,” one of the fishermen tells me.

Those fish that escape the men’s nets continue upstream to the fish ladder, a 670-foot long structure that allows the salmon to navigate both lower to upper Victoria Falls to their spawning grounds above.

Two hundred kilometres from Stewart lies Kitwanga and the Gitwangak Battle Hill National Historic Site.

As I look at the small grassy hill from the long stairs going down to a trail at its base, its small size surprises me. It has a big history! I gaze out and imagine the hill in the mid-1700s, when its flat top was covered with people who’d fled to it from their nearby village site, escaping the Gitwangak or another tribe who were attacking them. I see, in my mind’s eye, the warriors as they roll heavy, spike-covered logs to the edge of the hill and push them over, not waiting to see how many attackers they crush before running back for another log, or a heavy boulder. Chief Nekt stands with them, tall and regal, spears bouncing off the tough grizzly hide he wears to protect him.

Following the short trail around and up the hill, I stand looking over the surroundings. No wonder not one war was lost from this hill. The warriors only needed to position themselves around half the hill’s peak to ward off its attackers; the other half leads down into a deep gulley and river, much too far to hit a human on top of the hill, even one who’s bigger than life in his grizzly gear.

On our way again, I see glimpses of the Seven Sisters Peaks between the misty clouds that take up much of the sky this morning.

The Gitxsan, the first people in this area call these peaks by their numbers. From west to east, they are Tlooki (One), Weeskinisht (the highest peak and named Top of Mountain instead of ‘Two’), Tagai (Three), Tingi (Four), Kitshin (Five), Kletoosho (Six), and Tuatoosho (Seven).

We reach Terrace in the mid-afternoon and drive through its small centre. Amidst the boring, industrial one-story buildings lining the streets, sits a gorgeous old house, stark white with dormers and a welcoming porch that surrounds two sides of the house. It is the George Little House, the home that the ‘founder of Terrace’ built for his family back in 1914. I walk up the old wooden stairs to the house’s main floor and ‘tourist store,’ and, immediately, my credit card screams. Every square inch of the place is covered with beautiful and unique items that local artists have created. Everything and nothing appeal to this beauty-loving but cheap road-tripper.

We continue to Kitimat, less than an hour away and today’s destination.

I’m immediately surprised by the smooth meshing of nature and huge industry. Small, colourful flowerbeds welcome visitors as they reach the top of the wide highway into town, and beyond Kitimat’s big urban and industrial footprint far below to our left, two blue ocean arms meander to its shore nestled between a range of mountains, each peak a different shade of blue.

Near the river and floodplain, and down a quiet, forested pathway, we find the Giant Spruce Park, home of a 500-year-old Sitka Spruce whose diameter is a jaw-dropping 11-metres (38-feet).

All around this gigantic mama of trees lie others, slightly smaller, but no less impressive. My grandpa was one of the first loggers here in the early 1900s, a young, strapping Norwegian fellow who had come to BC to find work. I wonder what he thought when he looked at these giants. Did he think about the incredible living specimen he was cutting down, or did he just wonder how the hell he was gonna fall this beast?

A quick trip out toward the massive Rio Tinto aluminum plant to see the lovely Moore Creek Falls and then we head out to Minette Bay, five minutes south of the city where we’re told a new recreation area is being developed. Its huge, empty parking lot looks out over the bay - a perfect place to park for the night!

Morning has us dragging our kayaks through the shallows and into the shallow, clear bay.

It’s a gorgeous, sunny day and we spend a few hours paddling the bay’s periphery, exploring some huge wrecks on the shoreline, fishing boats stranded and left to disintegrate and provide a home to gulls and mice.

Our paddle over, we drag our kayaks on to the mucky flats. The tide’s gone out while we’ve been gone. I take a step and my sandal sinks beneath the mud. Tentatively, I take another step and work my back foot out of the mud. It releases suddenly with a mighty sucking sound. Step by mucky step, we reach the parking lot. Lesson learned – check the tide tables when you’re going paddling.

Kitimat to Smithers (260 kilometres)

We head back up through Terrace and head east on to Highway 16. I call a dear and long-ago family friend who lives in Smithers. After a much-appreciated grilled cheese sandwich and a whole bunch of laughs with that 80-year-old firebrand whose dry humour I, sadly, never appreciated as a young kid, we wind our way up a long, steep and paved road to the free Twin Falls Recreation Site just above town. Tall trees keep the sun away from the six campsites in the small clearing but, for one night, this free and just-out-of-the-city-but-fully-forested site is lovely. We climb the short trail to the viewpoint below Twin Falls which, sadly, appear to be turning into One Fall as climate change devours the glacier above.

Wanting to see a little more of Smithers, we drag our bikes down and do a last bike ride around town. For two hours, our bike tires crunch through fallen leaves along 13-kilometre-long Perimeter Trail, a lovely, flat, and sometimes paved, but more often leaf-strewn and tree-lined trail that shows us the prettier parts of Smithers and a section of the undulating Bulkley River. Every town should have a Perimeter Trail.

Then we head to Tyhee Lake Provincial Park just outside of Telkwa. The campground is closed because of COVID-19 but the large recreation area alongside the large, blue lake is a perfect place to hang out for the afternoon.

It’s Aaron’s 59th birthday and we have steaks and booze ready to go. Within a half-hour, we have thick steaks and foil-wrapped potatoes on the grill and cocktails in hand. Delicious, icy, and way-too-potent cocktails made with the Brazilian moonshine we brought back from Argentina in March.

As the sun goes down behind the hills in the distance, and the sky turns from pink to grey, we wobble back to our trailer. After a couple games of crib to sober up, we begin the 5-minute drive up from the campsite to the cemetery at the top of the hill. We’ll sleep with the departed tonight.

As we leave the site, I look longingly up one of the paths leading into the RV and tent sites, and spot a rebel camper, his fat body suggesting he’s not gone short on meals recently. He hears our truck and raises his head. Clearly disinterested, he lowers his furry head back to the ground, and then, after a last glance at us, the big black bear ambles off into the trees.

Smithers to Takysie Lake (190 kilometres)

At Burns Lake, I suggest a quick stop for coffee. We join a socially-distanced lineup waiting to be let into the Bakkerei - a tiny coffee shop. It’s a sunny morning and everyone smiles good morning at us as we walk up. We’re behind two middle-aged and leather-clad couples, their motorbikes parked nearby, and a group of four young, sweater- and jean-clad locals. Two by two, folks go in empty handed and leave with bags of goodies and coffees in hand, and then it’s our turn. And oh my gosh, it was worth the wait. After what seemed like an hour of agonizing indecision, I ordered one of their massive cinnamon buns. Licking my fingers after the first gooey bite, I was already regretting the fact that we were splitting it.

We take a small ferry from Burns Lake across Francois Lake to Southbank, then through the tiny, rural, one schoolhouse community of Grassy Plains.

Takysie Lake is a bit muddy but still pretty despite the burned stems over much of the surrounding hills and we enjoy our one night at our lakeside campsite.

After one night, we return to the Bakkerei at Burns Lake (yes…again) and after grabbing two cinnamon buns to go, head east toward Prince George.

We are on our last leg, excited to reach the place we’ve planned our whole trip around – Barkerville.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this blog, check out Parts 1 & 2:

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