Exploring BC’s Great Northern Frontier

Pink Sunset over Boya Lake(Note: the blog that follows originally appeared in The Victoria Naturalist – 2020 – 09,10 Vol 77 No. 02)

 

On July 7th, my wife, Dianne, and I set out on an epic journey—one that has been on my bucket list for many years.

Over a two-week period, we drove from Victoria to Prince George, up the Alaska Highway to Watson Lake in the Yukon and then back down the Stewart-Cassiar Highway before returning to Prince George. Along the way, we made several side trips: into the UNESCO Geopark surrounding Tumbler Ridge; through the Peace River Valley and the construction of Site C; passed by the Bear Glacier before visiting the little hamlet of Stewart; an exploration of the Nisg a’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park and the ‘Ksan Historical Village in Old Hazelton; and finally a walk through the Ancient Rainforest near McBride. Total distance traveled during this part of our journey amounted to nearly 4000 kms.

Ancient Forest Cedar and Devils Club

For the most part, we camped in provincial parks; however, many days of moderate to heavy rain drove us to occasionally take shelter in hotels. Northerners commented on how unusually wet the spring and summer were. Tired of the rain, we headed east to Tete Jeune and then south in search of sun and warmth eventually ending up at Juniper Beach Provincial Park near Cache Creek where the temperature soared above 36C. Here we lolled about for a couple of days before heading back to Victoria.

Camp at Boya Lake

Nearly all the roads travelled were paved and in very good condition, except for a long stretch of gravel between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. The dust in the air was so thick it became impossible to see vehicles in front or behind. I slowed to a crawl and put the emergency flashers on.

Dusty Section of Alaska Hwy

The distances between service stations are huge. Not surprisingly, a golden rule when traveling in the north is “Never pass a gas pump. Keep the fuel tank topped up!”

Once the oil and gas fields between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson are left behind, a traveller enters a vast sparsely populated region that covers 1/3 of the province. It is a nearly intact pre-contact wilderness teeming with wildlife. We were thrilled to see 31 Black Bear, 3 grizzlies, 6 Moose, 10 Stone Mountain Sheep, 40–50 Wood Bison, 1 wolf, 1 Lynx and 1 fox along the roadsides.

Black bear

Having said this, I was surprised, and saddened, to only see two songbirds during the entire trip: a Myrtle Warbler and a Yellow Warbler. At Boya Lake Provincial Park, I met a couple who were biologists with the Yukon government. One remarked grimly that the decline in songbirds throughout the region has been dramatic. Fewer and fewer are seen or heard. On a positive note, we were delighted to be serenaded to sleep by the haunting call of the loon most nights.

Pair of Loons on Boya Lake

The one form of wildlife we could’ve happily done without were the mosquitoes! In a few places, they were thick. Liard River Provincial Park was definitely the worst. We had been warned about them by the Park Facility Operator whom we met at Muncho Lake. But we had come prepared! Bug-spray with DEET kept them at bay while we put up our tents. After hunting down and swatting those that had slipped in with us, both the dining and sleeping tents were left spattered and stained with our blood (any suggestions on how to safely remove them?). We had also brought bug jackets but never had to use them as the spray and screened tents kept the pests at bay.

Boya Lake Provincial Park was a major highlight for us. In fact, THE highlight for my wife. What an astounding lake! The colour and clarity of the water are absolutely beyond a doubt breath-taking. It rivals Peyto, Moraine or Emerald Lake in Banff and Yoho National Parks. Truly.

Boya Lake

The lake’s hues of blue, green and grayish white are created by the presence of finely ground rock called marl coating the bottom. Sunlight reflected off this material up through the water column produces the hues.

The presence of marl can be explained by the action of glaciers 20,000 years ago. But why no other lake in the region that we saw (and we saw a lot of lakes, as well as trees and muskeg) can match it. Not even close. So why this lake? A mystery for now.

Another highlight was Kinuseo Falls which would tower over Niagara Falls by 20 m. Over its precipitous drop, cascades more than 40,000 litres per second of water.

Kinuseo Falls Monkman Provincial Park

Be aware though. The drive into the falls is over a gravel road peppered with deep potholes and nasty washboards. Google Maps says the gravel road is 50 kms long and will take on average 53 mins. I found with our 2007 Honda Odyssey that I needed to drive no faster than the posted limit of 40 kms. In fact, many times even slower. As a result, it took us almost double Google’s estimate. Oh, and there was a lot of dust kicked up by passing vehicles, mostly big pick-up trucks going at least 10kms over the limit.

But the experience of the falls is so worth the effort of getting to them. In terms of its beauty and power, Kinuseo Falls is comparable to Helmcken Falls in Wells Gray Provincial Park and Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park, even though it is decidedly much smaller in scale.

Kinuseo Falls

In addition to the protection of Monkman Provincial Park, Kinuseo Falls have also been included within the UNESCO Global Geopark surrounding Tumbler Ridge. This unique park encompasses a vast expanse of nearly 8500 km2 (both

Banff and Yoho National Parks would easily fit inside its borders) with interesting sites scattered throughout. We hadn’t known this before going to the park. We had thought previously that we could easily explore several sites within a day but when we saw the distances between them, we realized we would only likely be able to explore three. As it turned out, we just got to one: Kinuseo Falls.

Gwillin Lake & Wind Turbines

The community of Tumbler Ridge sprang up during a coal rush in the 1980s. At the time, demand for this fossil fuel was high. Large mining companies poured massive sums of money into building infrastructure and hiring workers. But those halcyon days are fading into the past as the demand for coal continues to decline. Since 2015 there have been no coal mines operating near the community. Forced to find other sources of revenue, Tumbler Ridge has turned to eco-tourism (such as the UNESCO Global Geopark) and renewable energy. As you near Tumbler Ridge and come around a corner, you’re suddenly confronted by dozens of wind turbines.

Speaking of a renewable energy that comes with a terrible and heart-breaking loss, we drove down a section of the Peace River Valley which included passing through the construction of the Site C power dam. What a tragedy to see such a beautiful landscape desecrated and eventually drowned.

Site C construction

I’ll wrap up by noting that we encountered many COVID-19 closures. The most significant was the Liard Hotsprings. The provincial park campground across for them is usually fully booked through the peak season. We found it nearly empty. And every indigenous community had barriers and/or check-points to prohibit visitors. Having heard so much about the Liard Hotsprings and the Nisga’a Museum, it was disappointing not to be able to experience them.

Will I ever repeat this epic journey? I’m pretty sure I won’t. The distances are huge between sites of interest. Kilometre after kilometre is the same thing: lots of trees, muskegs and lakes. But don’t get me wrong. I’m very grateful to have had this experience. I’ve come away with a treasure trove of images, memories and stories. I’ve gained a whole new understanding and appreciation of just how big BC is, especially its northern region. It was uplifting to see just how much of it remains in a wild state.

Di and I somewhere along the Stewart-Cassiar Hwy

If you’ve never done the Great Northern Loop, I enthusiastically encourage you to add it to your travel bucket list. So much so, feel free to contact me if you’d like more information and ideas on what to see, where to stay, etc.

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