Smithers, British Columbia travel guide: Best 4 river adventures
A 90-minute flight over 1100km north of Vancouver, Smithers is in the lower reaches of the mountain country of northern BC. Around the town, the backdrop of towering Hudson Bay Mountain and the snow-capped vistas of the Babine and Telkwa mountain ranges adds the visual drama. Even in summer, there’s a hearty amount of snow atop the peaks.
With its Ukrainian restaurant in the airport terminal, the 10-barrel brewhouse serving beers at Smithers Brewing Company, and fine lodgings in Prestige Hudson Bay Lodge, not to mention the 6000 “Smithereen” locals, Smithers has small town charm to spare. But the name of the game here is adventure to the north, and the best way to go exploring is to follow the snaking routes of four rivers.
RIVER NO.1: THE BULKLEY
Running along the eastern edge of Smithers is the Bulkley River, originally known as Wet’sinkwha (blue and green river in the language of the region’s Wet’suwet’en people). It really is a vibrant blue and green, and along its banks is where to fish for steelhead, Chinook salmon and coho salmon.
The Bulkley is a fast-moving force – just like every river in this region – a by-product of the constant rain and melting snow high in the mountains. The far easier option on this river trail is to follow Yellowhead Highway, which runs parallel.
Ahout an hour and 75km further up the road, the highway crosses the Bulkley over Hagwilget Canyon Bridge, a suspension span 80m above the river. The crossing also signals the entry to the town of Hazelton, as well as the junction where the Bulkley meets the Skeena River.
In Hazelton, the main stop is the Ksan Historical Village. There are more indigenous communities in British Columbia than anywhere else in Canada – around 203 of them – and we are in Gitxsan territory, home of the people who’ve maintained communities along Skeena River for centuries.
The Ksan village replicates life in traditional times, complete with totem poles and houses with ornate facades. The main lesson of this stop is that totem poles were not religious or decorative creations but rather told a story about the people and events within the community.
This community had a tradition of the “Shame Feast”: a party of singing, dancing and storytelling to mark when a member needed to atone for something bad, and would result in that person being thoroughly shamed, before being forgiven.
RIVER NO.2: THE SKEENA
After Hazelton, the trail turns to the Skeena River, the second-longest river in British Columbia. South of town, we take to the water for a wild ride aboard a jet boat with Northern BC Jet Tours.
On this river, so forceful are the rapids, they have names like the Whirligig and Devil’s Elbow, and we hang on tight on a bumpy ride. Aside from the stunning river-deep and mountain-high views, this is when to keep an eye out for brown and black bears along the river’s edge. In between bouncing along the water’s surface, bears are indeed seen coming down to drink and look for fish.
The smell of smoked salmon is potent as we head down the river and into Kitseguecla Nation land.
As the boat pulls to the shore, a group of Kitseguecla elders arrive to sing a welcome to country. It’s a beautiful entree to their town, where the scent can be tracked to the smokehouses in the gardens of many homes. While the Kitseguecla are welcoming, visits need to be arranged in advance as part of the jet boat trip.
Back on the river, the jet boat continues to zip along, under the rail bridge with a train carrying endless carriages of freight, and past the towering Seven Sisters Peaks.
RIVER NO.3: THE KISPIOX
The river trail takes a turn into the mountains on Kispiox Valley Rd, which runs alongside the Kispiox River. Even in a four-wheel drive, the bumpy theme set by the river continues on the 45km ride through dense forest. What’s waiting at the other end is worth it – Bear Claw Lodge, luxury all the way on the river’s edge.
The sprawling timber chalet offers an off-grid experience in this gloriously uninhabited part of BC. The main living space is set around a hearthstone fireplace, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at yet another mountain range. Sustainability is the go here, with what’s served up in the dining room all from local producers. That means there’s a focus on produce from the gardens, as well as beef and fish, especially salmon.
As tempting as it is to laze in front of the fire spying clouds play hide and seek with nearby mountaintops, the outdoors is too good to waste. Heading out for a morning walk, lodge manager Kaleigh insists I take her dog, Willy. When I ask why, she responds, “He’ll keep the bears away while you walk.” Point taken.
The Kispiox dictates the action, kayaking. Despite being summer, I slither into a wet suit as the water is icy for the adrenalin-charged trip down the river, around the rocks and over the rapids, with the occasional stops to snorkel to look at the salmon. Returning to Bear Claw, soaking in the hot tub gets the body temperature back to normal.
RIVER NO.4: THE NASS
It’s back on the road along Highway 16 then on to Nisga’a Highway to follow the fourth river of this trail, the Nass, to Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park. This is the site of Canada’s most recent volcanic eruption and lava flow, back in 1700.
The lava dammed a section of Nass River, creating the Drowned Forest with a dramatic landscape of waterfalls, pools, lakes, lava tubes and caves.
Downstream, Kitsumkalum Lake offers more brilliant views, but also small beaches for a bracing dip. After exploring the four rivers and covering almost 500km by road, it’s a perfect way to bid farewell to this part of the country before heading into our final stop.
The Skeena River doubles back on itself and flows through Terrace, the largest town in northwestern BC. It’s clear here the impact of the environs has had on its culinary culture. Before heading to the airport for the return to Vancouver, we have a fast ale at the Sherwood Mountain brewery, which serves a Lava Bed Red Ale as well as a Skeena Sunshine Saison. Then at Blue Fin Sushi Bar, a Volcano Roll is the prize on the menu, and is so massive it creates a sense of awe. Much like just about everything in this part of Canada.