Ski British Columbia's fresh frontier
Head north for unspoilt wilderness, snow-covered forests of grizzly bears and some of the most remote skiing you're likely to find
Of the many signs this was a less than ordinary trip, the bloodiest arrived one morning on a snow-covered logging road. I was in a pick-up truck, gripping the door handle as its driver, Danny Johnson, a laconic excavating engineer in aviators and a trapper's hat, roared through the forest. Miles from anywhere, we passed a roadside scene to bother my breakfast: two men butchering a moose. "Poachers, probably," Danny said. They didn't look up. We followed an oncoming trail of blood in the snow that lead to a crimson splatter where the beast was shot. "Guess they tried dragging it out," Danny added. "Got stuck."
I had come to northern British Columbia to ski. But I also wanted to explore a corner of Canada that reveals peculiar delights. Further south, along the islands and inlets of the Pacific coast, you'll find sparkle and prices to match at mountain resorts such as Whistler. Head north and you'll find characters like Danny. You'll find native communities still shaping a land increasingly contested by those in search of gas and oil. And then there are the sort of unspoilt natural resources I came for: wilderness, snow and scenery to make your eyes pop.
I arrived last month in Prince Rupert, a one-hour flight from Vancouver by propeller plane, and just 30 miles south of the Alaskan border. The tiny island city is the wettest place in Canada; the clouds part so infrequently that sufferers of sun allergies have been known to settle there. Yet, after decades of economic gloom, a recovering population is finding the "city of rainbows" hard to leave. A growing number of visitors find it hard to resist.
My Canadian cousin, Anna, moved to Rupert two years ago to work as an environmental consultant for a First Nation, or native, community. Since then, she has bombarded my brother Patrick and me with excited tales of her exploits. ("I can see whales breaching from my desk! It just won't stop snowing! You have to come!")
And so we found ourselves on the bloody logging road. Danny was driving through the forest near the small town of Hazelton, four hours inland of Rupert. His buddy, Jevon Zyp, a skier and road builder, runs Skeena Cat Skiing with his garrulous mother, Lynn, based at Suskwa Lodge, which Jevon built himself. Like heli-skiing, big business in this part of the world, cat skiing offers motorised access to great mountains. The parallels stop there. Heli-skiers in Canada usually come from Europe, tend to stay the week and expect luxury. Skeena's customers are often local day trippers. Luxury is a second helping of ribs.
The refreshing, no-nonsense approach is evident on the mountain too, where the cat, essentially a tank with room for 12 in the back, takes us up for a good 10 descents. The vast terrain lies at the crash site of oncoming coastal and inland storms. The result: a lot of snow. It weighs down perfectly spaced firs that funnel skiers in such a way that it's difficult to get lost. And so we just go, laying fresh lines through the forest before returning to the lodge for a beer. You cover more ground with a helicopter, but I challenge you to have as much fun.
I had spent the previous day resting my legs in Rupert. A position above the city at Totem Park reveals clues about the port's past and a view of what it's become. The poles are symbols of the region's thriving Tsimshian First Nations. They account for half of Rupert's population of 12,000 and, like native communities across Canada, have had fraught relations with interlopers. They came first from Europe and America in search of animal skins, before realising the greater value in timber as well as salmon and halibut in the great Skeena River, which meets the Pacific just south of Rupert. The old North Pacific Cannery at Port Edward is now a highly rated summer museum.
Charles Melville Hays, an American railwayman, had the biggest influence on the port's history. He identified it as the perfect north-western terminus of Canada's famous cross-country routes. (You can go by rail east to Toronto, with a change of train at Jasper, if you can spare three days.) He incorporated the city in 1910 using the name of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, King Charles II's cousin and first governor of the Hudson's Bay Company.
Two years later, Hays went down with Titanic but his legacy is evident in the logging and container ships anchored below the totem poles.
An impressive museum at Cow Bay, down by the harbour, charts Rupert's history, starting with exhibits of beautiful bent-cedar boxes and fearsome carved masks. But the city's latest chapter is still being written. After a dismal couple of decades following the decline of the logging and fishing industries, Rupert has hit a new boom thanks to the region's even richer reserves of gas and oil. Exploration, extraction and proposed pipelines are creating huge challenges for first nations and those guarding the land, but new prosperity is also helping to boost employment, as well as tourism.
There are whale-watching tours and, along the Skeena, lodges offer world-beating fly-fishing trips. Summer cruise ships now come into Rupert, offloading visitors for trips east along Highway 16, a stunning drive which offers the chance to see wolves, grizzly bears and bald eagles. I went as far as Terrace, only 90 minutes out of town and best known for the strange white kermode bears that inhabit the mountains.
Terrace is also home to a newly thriving ski resort like no other I've visited. Shames Mountain was days away from ruin when locals who loved it bought shares to keep it alive. Now run as a rare co-operative in a ski world dominated by corporations, it's beginning to thrive once more thanks to a reception that's friendly even by Canadian standards and skiing as good as you'll find anywhere.
I joined a group of locals led by Brad Zeerip, a giant of the Terrace ski scene and owner of one of the best-known fishing lodges. We reached the top via the slow chair and an old T-bar, the only lifts at Shames, then didn't see them for the rest of the day. The best snow and terrain here lie in the backcountry. To reach bowls, faces and glades where every turn is earned, we used synthetic animal skins glued to the bottom of our skis, and lightweight Dynafit bindings designed to release the heel. Lunch was served from our packs as we stood between runs. But not for Brad, whose enthusiasm and roll-ups appeared to be enough to sustain him. We managed to descend about 8,000 vertical feet under our own steam, a feat as satisfying as it was shattering. My reward back at the bar, where staff, skiers and their dogs end the day: a Sneaky Pete, a dangerously drinkable house milkshake laced with rye and Kahlua.
I stayed at the Lodge at Skeena Landing, a newly done-up Terrace hotel with an incongruous Hawaiian-themed restaurant. Over coconut shrimps, I met Seth Downs, local businessman and chair of the tourism board. He invited his friend and fellow businessman, Bruno Belanger, a Québecois émigré with an unlikely dual fondness for Harley-Davidsons and shamanic healing.
Belanger recalled skiing at Shames as a younger man, when he'd keep a bottle of Bacardi in the snow at the bottom of the old lift to recharge between runs. He doesn't ski now but made a show of buying the first share in the Shames co-op at auction. He and Downs were full of talk of Terrace's growth and the region's potential for tourism. It's perhaps most beautiful in summer. Belanger recommended a drive up the Nass Valley, home to lava beds and waterfalls and the Nisga'a First Nation, and trips south to the parks and hot springs near Kitimat.
As if northern British Columbia weren't offering enough true Canadian wilderness, I wanted to get closer still to the mountains before the 4,000-mile journey back to London. Matt Lucas and Josh McDonald, two local teachers and backcountry obsessives, told me about a cabin up a creek that you won't find on any website. With food and gear in our packs for three days, we put skins on our skis for a three-hour climb. Our first task at the cabin: to hike down to the creek itself, digging through the snowpack to reach water for cooking and drinking. The second: to become familiar with the shorter walk to the outhouse, a loo with a view almost worth lingering for.
After a dinner of crab cakes and moose stew (the meat was legally hunted, to be clear), a storm shook the cabin all night, making up for our lost sleep with almost half a metre of new snow. It kept blowing and falling as we climbed after daybreak, so we sought shelter in the trees, climbing as the snow deepened around us. Then we pulled off our skins and descended for the last time through the forest. Two hours of hard climbing had given us a 10-minute run. This would appear to many skiers to be a poor deal, but I hadn't come to a place as remote and unusual as northern BC for an easy ride. I had come to be welcomed, surprised and enlightened. I returned home feeling amply rewarded.
Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com) flies Heathrow to Vancouver with connections to Terrace and Prince Rupert. Alternatives to Vancouver include BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Air Transat (sold in the UK through Canadian Affair, 0843 255 9807; canadianaffair.com).
The Lodge at Skeena Landing, Terrace (thelodgeatskeenalanding.com) has doubles from C$167 (£111).
Skeena Cat Skiing (001 250 842 3333; skeenacatskiing.ca) has ski-only days from C$450pp (£300) and overnight packages at Suskwa Lodge with meals and transfers from C$650pp (£433). Shames Mountain co-op (001 250 635 3773; mymountaincoop.ca) opens Fri to Sun in winter. Daily ski passes cost C$45 (£30); rental from C$24 (£16). The writer's skis were lent by Dynafit (0800 0323 505; anatom.co.uk).
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