Story by Michelle Hopkins
KISPIOX RIVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — I stare at my computer keyboard. I can start by talking about all of my exploits, a little bit about the natural beauty and maybe about something new and exciting. What I don’t count on was how much this rugged raw land and its people would pull me in. It’s simply impossible not to write about northern British Columbia and its residents without saying how spectacular it all is.
Nestled between the mountains of the Skeena River and the Kitwanga Valley, the Kispiox Valley cradles five rivers, swamps and a chain of crystal clear lakes. For centuries, its chilly waters have provided a perfect home for the world’s largest strain of wild steelhead trout and salmon. Its mountainous backdrop is surrounded by a mossy forest playground for grizzly and black bears.
The first evening after a day of rafting and exploring my surroundings, I sat quietly on the deck of my room at the Bear Claw Lodge. I listen to the sound of the Kispiox River as it flows past me. The river doesn’t rest, never sleeps as it tumbles over rocks. I imagine what it must have been like for the pioneer men and women who came here in the late 1800s, braving the elements to homestead in the harsh, sometimes unforgiving landscape.
Little was I aware, I would soon hear tales of some of those who led the way.
My odyssey to the northern interior began when I caught a flight from Vancouver to Smithers, a town of 5,400 residents that serves as railway stop and outpost for nature excursions. From there it was a 90-minute drive through stunning vistas and dusty back roads.
We stopped for lunch in Old Hazelton at the Boat’s Soup and Juice Bar located in a riverboat replica on the banks of the Skeena River. This small-town eatery offers up a selection of organic juices (I tried the carrot ginger … delicious), as well as salads, sandwiches and home-baked cookies.
The quaint town is set amid the backdrop of the Roche de Boule mountain range. Also dubbed the Seven Sisters, the mountains are magnificent. We lunched outside and watched other visitors marvel at the scenery.
After our meal, we traversed the old Hagwilget Bridge that crosses the canyon and leads travellers to the Kispiox River.
We stopped at the Ksan Historical Village and Museum located near the ancient village of Gitanmaax, where the Bulkley and Skeena rivers flow into each other. For centuries, this has been an important fishing site and transportation hub. The attraction is a replica of the ancient village where the Gitxsan people lived in and around the canyons and junctions on the Skeena River. You can take a guided tour and learn all about their sacred ceremonies and daily lives.
Following the fascinating exploration of First Nations culture, we ventured on to Bear Claw Lodge, In the afternoon, we arrived just in time to unpack before we met our hosts in the dining room.
Meet Bear Claw Lodge’s Hospitable Hosts
For three nights, over wine and locally inspired cuisine, I listened to Joy and Gene Allen recount inspiring and colourful tales about the brave men and women of the north. It was clear that these raconteurs delight in telling their guests about this land they love so much. If you’re lucky enough to dine with the couple, ask to hear about the story of Lillian Alling, a 25-year-old Russian who immigrated to New York and by all accounts made it to northwestern Canada on foot. The legend goes that in 1926 Alling set out to New York but became homesick for Russia and planned her return. A year later, with no money, she ventured off on foot with the aim to hike across the continent, to Alaska and then make her way somehow over the Arctic and back to her homeland. Among Alling’s last known whereabouts was the wilderness of BC. Alling is a legend in these parts because it seems after she left the Great North, she vanished. Many books and articles have been written about her.
Hiking in Northern BC
On my first morning at Bear Claw Lodge, I met up early with Danielle Bradford, a 21-year-old who doubles as guide and waitress. There are endless trails for hikers to choose from. Danielle and I hit the dirt road and followed the Kispiox River as it weaved by forest, mountains and ranchland. We passed an old trappers’ cabin, dubbed Beartail, and Danielle told me it’s where I will stop for lunch during my horseback ride later in the day.
When I was a teenager, I was fearless astride a horse. But after a nasty fall in my 20s, I avoided saddling up for many years. As time passed, however, I cured myself of my fear of horses. Moose made me think twice.
He is a big and stubborn steed and often wouldn’t heed to my demands — OK, I admit I’m a softy when I’m holding the reins. My lame attempts at steering him away from the bramble bushes and the branches of the powerful spruce and the thirsty cedars were greeted with a full stop. No matter, riding through rivers and unspoiled forested territory, with a picnic lunch in the Beartail, was a wonderful adventure not to be missed. Somehow, over the four-hour-ride Moose and I bonded.
Snorkelling with Wild Salmon
I’ve snorkelled in Hawaii, Nicaragua and Mexico and always marvelled at the sheer variety of colourful native fish I would get to see up close. When I found out I could snorkel with the salmon … well, that takes snorkeling to a whole different level.
From July to October, these BC rivers team with salmon, some weigh as much as 60 pounds. So, we ventured out for some underwater gazing. Jim Allen, the guide/owner of Kispiox Fishing Company, anchored the boat and assured me I would acclimatize quickly. I went in very gingerly … the water was freezing! However, the speed in which the salmon moved and the rainbow-like colour of their scales as they hit the sunlight was reason enough to jump into the frigid waters. (P.S. I suggest you wear a wetsuit.)
The Cuisine Delights at Bear Claw Lodge
At the helm at the Bear Claw is the Allens’ 26-year-old daughter, Kaleigh Allen. The fourth-generation British Columbian spent seven years travelling and attending medical school before realizing Kispiox was the only place she wanted to live.
Besides being an active conservationist, keen on preserving the pristine wilderness in the Skeena Watershed, Kaleigh is an innovative chef. Whether it is her homemade spiced pumpkin ravioli or the Prince Rupert seared halibut, she stays true to the fresh-is-best, less-is-more philosophy. Her passion for local, sustainable dishes pave the way for our culinary experience that go way beyond sitting down for a nice meal.
MORE ABOUT THE KISPIOX VALLEY AND BEAR CLAW LODGE
Flights: From the Lower Mainland of BC, it takes a little over one hour by plane to reach Smithers. From there, you will be picked up at the airport by the lodge’s shuttle for a 90-minute drive. There is also a private airstrip at Bear Claw Lodge.
Accommodations: This eco-friendly 15,000-square-foot cedar lodge features authentic totem poles and art work from famed aboriginal artists, including Roy Henry Vickers. It has eight guest rooms all with handcrafted beds and furniture … no television! (You won’t miss one, trust me). Bear Claw Lodge is an all-season resort offering heli-skiing, salmon and steelhead fishing, conservation camps, horseback tours/riding, rafting and rafting expeditions, as well as luxury and relaxation at the lodge.
Rates: The regular nightly rate is $450 per person for single occupancy or $350 per person for double occupancy. The cost includes round-trip airport transfers, accommodations, meals, lodge amenities and morning coffee service. Guests have a choice of a variety of activities that they can book for an additional charge. For example, a fall steelhead fishing package costs a total of $6,595 per person (based on double occupancy and including the airport transfers, meals, accommodations and other benefits of the regular nightly rate). Visit the Activities page of the resort’s website for details.
Reservations: For more information or to make a reservation, email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 1-877-KISPIOX (toll free) or 1-604-629-9578.
Note: Cell phones do not work up here. The lodge telephone is a satellite phone, so it can take awhile before anyone responds.