When we were asked to make the trek up HWY 37 from Terrace to Stewart there were no opposing thoughts. Having spent a memorable week up north last fall exploring the more coastal Prince Rupert region, we were confident this route would be competitive.
While British Columbia as a whole is often typecast as the land of the fresh and the wild, there is inarguably something special about the north. Northern regions tend to be less inhabited by ‘us’. Hiking a trail in the north reminds you that you’re a visitor, and makes you question whether you should wipe your feet before entering. It is a place where nature is abundant and we are just the afterthought. An intentionally groomed trail is won over constantly by old growth pushing in, it encroaches on you, instead of you it.
This experience is enough for a city dweller to feel humbled and grateful that these places are still reachable, and as a result, a type of stewardship is attained. Travelling there, you get a strong sense of this ownership from those who live in the heart of it all. People who choose to live up there do so for various reasons, yet a love for the land seems universal and genuine.
We were first welcomed in Hazelton with a candid hospitality that felt strangely close to family. This character was apparent in our hosts who fed us from the land and led us through the thick of it by ATV. Like much of the north, Hazelton played a role in the gold rush of the mid-late 1800’s and acted as a cross point for railways, in turn leaving countless historic remnants in their original places, most of it now overgrown. We rode roughly 40 km through the dense bush surrounding Hazelton running along the cliffsides of the Bulkley River and crawled up the steep service road to Two-Mile lookout, where it became clear how wedged in against the valley the early settlements really were.
Heading northeast towards the Skeena River leads you into the Kispiox Valley, an area that is home to the people of the Gitxsan Nation and has been for millennia. We ventured to the foot of the valley where Kispiox Village still stands, to take in the refined artistry of the totem poles edging the community. There was a stillness to the morning as we stood on the grounds inside damp air. Air with that heaviness has a capability to slow everything down in a much welcomed way.
After catching our breath in the valley, we made our way west again to connect with HWY 37 for the anticipated stretch from Kitwanga to Stewart. The ‘37’, also known as the Stewart-Cassiar highway, connects BC’s Kitimat region to the coastal north at the Meziadin Junction and onwards to Alaska, steering you straight through some of each nation’s most prominent glacial territory. The trip from Kitwanga to Stewart was smooth yet eventful with interruptions caused only by black bear sightings and a pitstop at the Meziadin Fish Ladder. In sync with salmon spawning cycles, late summer is our favourite time of year to go north. No matter how many times you witness it, seeing these invaluable species fight the current to complete their life’s work is obviously remarkable.
Leaving the main road for the 37A – the Glacier highway, it became clear that Stewart was in a new climatic region as the fireweed had receded, the mountains were suddenly textured with coastal vegetation, and the air became potent of salt. Veering left as the sun sank made for ideal atmosphere past the Bear Glacier. This leg of the drive was one we could have spent more time on.
Historically as one of Canada’s most isolated but significant towns for industry, Stewart was solely accessible by water and air until the mid-70’s due to its unique location. It lies at the end of the lengthy Portland Canal and brushes up against both north coastal and Alaska Boundary mountain ranges, allowing us to cover multinational ground during our short trip. Having the ability to dart between Canada and the U.S within minutes to throw chance at grizzly sightings, or to be at the Salmon Glacier for first light was a bizarre but appreciated feeling.
Known for its “bears and glaciers”, the region lived up to its stereotype while also shedding light on its more subtle charming qualities. Being so remote and flooded with Klondike spirit it was only natural to be up and out before the sun on the road or water, with our eyes wide and bellies ready for a fresh tidal catch. Having a chance to navigate the townsite by foot and then overhead by helicopter was the perfect juxtaposed ending to experiencing the north from dual perspectives, not to mention the privileged view of glacial ice from just meters above. Seeing ice like that up close is something that is not easily forgotten especially in changing times.
The descent from Stewart gave the option to extend our trip by slipping west again into the Nass Valley before returning south to Terrace. We accessed the Nass off the main highway on the current forest service road dubbed the Cranberry Connector. While slower going than its paved counterpart, it was equally enjoyable to travel as it added elements of an entirely different persona with geology at its forefront. The instigator of the side-trip was admittedly the Nigsa’a Lava Beds which pulled us in until almost dark, though the villages and immaculate self-governed nature reserves of the Nigsa’a Nation en route to Terrace felt as noteworthy.
As with every opportunity to venture north, we left with a familiar gratitude and inspiration that has become the trademark aftermath of spending time there – until next time.
Places visited: ATV Tour above Bulkley River, Hazelton BC + Totem Poles at Kispiox Village + Wildlife viewing along HWY 37 Stewart-Cassiar Scenic Route + Meziadin Fish Ladder + Bear Glacier Provincial Park + Auto tour to Salmon Glacier + Tidal Salmon fishing on Portland Canal + Heli flight over glacial district, Stewart BC + Exploration of Stewart heritage townsite + Nass Valley to Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park.