Ski British Columbia's fresh frontier

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Air Canada (0871 220 1111; flies Heathrow to Vancouver with connections to Terrace and Prince Rupert. Alternatives to Vancouver include BA (0844 493 0787; and Air Transat (sold in the UK through Canadian Affair, 0843 255 9807;

Staying there

The Lodge at Skeena Landing, Terrace ( has doubles from C$167 (£111).

Skiing there

Skeena Cat Skiing (001 250 842 3333; 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; 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;

More information

Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable