British Columbia, in all its forms

Panorama of Salmon Glacier; Hyder, Alaska. Photo taken by Andrew Mackay
Panorama of Salmon Glacier; Hyder, Alaska.
Photo taken by Andrew Mackay

Western British Columbia is some of the roughest country in North America. Any traveler has to drive east into the main road system, as there is no road down the coast to Vancouver. That means little internet, no cell service, and towns that challenge an urban or suburban dweller’s idea of scale.

Whirlpool Canyon, British Columbia. two rock formations have been tilted over time. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Whirlpool Canyon, British Columbia. two rock formations have been tilted over time.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

Stewart, B.C., for instance, is the sister town of Hyder, Alaska. The latter is the only SE Alaskan town you can reach by road, and has a population of about 85. Stewart is immense in comparison, at just under 500.

Despite that, the almost-wilderness of the west is much preferred to the oil and gas boomtowns in Alberta and northeastern B.C. While both sport many small towns, the coast has been settled longer. Stewart is in mining country, and is surrounded by historic buildings. A place like Fort Nelson or Grade Prairie has no history, they were built yesterday. Anything cultural is superior in these settled towns, as businesses and traditions have had generations to germinate and thrive. Notably the food. Oil country is a mix of fast food, bar food, and the occasional high-minded restaurant that seems unsure of its clientele or purpose. Stewart has the superb Bitter Creek Cafe, which would gel with upper-tier San Francisco eateries in terms of decor and quality. Before that, the Bell 2 Lodge on the way south from Watson Lake, Yukon has an incredible restaurant that understood the beauty of a butternut squash puree not nuked by heavy cream. If my hometown had one excellent restaurant for every 500 people, I would be ecstatic.

Boya Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Boya Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

One trip, two provinces, two Canadian territories, and two U.S. states. Today I saw my first traffic light in six days, and 980 miles. What you learn about any rural community is that it’s not about size, but trajectory. Some energy boomtowns are growing so fast that you will routinely see 18-wheelers hauling entire prefabricated houses. Often the largest settlement is the worker’s camp just off the highway, rather than any established towns. Others are in sharp decline, on their way to ghost town status. There were people, once, but they have died or moved on to better and brighter opportunities.

Most, however, lie on the chain that ties ascendency to decay. They exist. In time, many mining communities like Anyox fell apart, their economies stalled and the sky came crashing down. Rule of thumb dictates that given time, what towns do survive will eventually become historic. Places like Stewart get a sort of interest added each year. Just like mass-produced crap from the 50s gain value in part because much of what was originally made was thrown away, th

West of Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Andrew Mackay
West of Muncho Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

Like many long road trips, the path reveals contrasts. Look west, and it’s the unaccessible coastal range of B.C., look east and there is a massive set of power lines been constructed across the province to assist with energy extraction. Look south, it’s the vibrant and diverse city of Vancouver and its metropolitan area. Look north, and witness a series of First Nation communities that still deal with a great deal of inequity and isolation.

The northwest of the U.S. and Canada are a great experience, and there is some value in driving a circle route, rather than cutting across the provinces between Jasper and Vancouver. Beauty can often come from a view at a remote turnout. It doesn’t always show up in a guidebook.

Edit: Per the comment posted, I will reformulate what I said about Nelson and Prairie. Part of history is the present moment. What both communities have right now is sprawl and a whole town geared towards business executives, with tourists as a distant afterthought. This is unfortunate, as one is the main city before the Alaska Highway, and another is on the Highway itself. In terms of poorly-planned sprawl and hostility to pedestrians, it reminds me much of interior California, or the main freeways going through the American South.

Perhaps these communities will regain a sense of heritage that isn’t drowned in giant rigs and clearcutting. One would hope they are not consumed by the oil boom, and their scenery and appeal is not irrevocably harmed. Though Grande Prairie is quite a bit older than Stewart, no part of it would give you that idea. It’s one thing to have no history and be a sprawltastic community, it’s another to have history but be indistinguishable from one that does not.

3 thoughts on “British Columbia, in all its forms

  1. I would like to say, as much as I agree with your opinions within this post. Grande Prairie has been around for over 100 years settled by both the Cree and Iroquois Nations. These areas were very inaccessible not many years ago. Many towns such as Grande Prairie did grow to quick when they had the chance and many do not know how to preserve their history for tourists but it is there and it really is quite rich.

    Interesting fact of Fort Nelson. It is home to many generations of draft runners. But I am assuming you drove went through Fort St John and would love to hear your opinion as it seems everyone thinks the same thing,

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    1. I’ve restated my opinions. Prairie and Nelson do have history, but it is overwhelmed by the ugly, loud, crude nature of its current status. Grande Prairie was one of the most unpleasant towns to drive through, walk through, and interact with. It reminds me of all the worst aspects of the sprawl-heavy American South. It is not geared towards tourists, and that much was quite clear.

      Fort St. John was driven through, in between Grande Prairie (one night) and Fort Nelson (two). It blurred in with all the other communities on the artery from Hinton up to Nelson. Like the drive from Atlanta to central Alabama, only with somewhat nicer weather.

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      1. Yes unfortunately Grande Prairie is not one of those cities I recommend some one to visit. I usually drive around it myself and I grew up in the whole Peace Region. It was a much nicer place before the boom.

        That is the nicest thing I have ever heard someone say about Fort St John. usually it stands out in a bad way (and all the settlers of Fort St john have the same opinion)

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