Contemporary Pioneers: Panning for pow in Northern BC

From the pages of our tribute to winter, Below Zero˚. Get the full magazine now and more on our online shop

words :: Taylor Godber 

In 1793, Captain George Vancouver’s Royal Navy ship, HMS Discoveryconnected with Lieutenant Puget’s survey vessel, HMS ChathamDiscovery’s primary mission was to exert British sovereignty and assist with the Nootka Conventions (a series of agreements between Spain and Great Britain signed in the 1790s). The Nootka Claims Conventions would help bring peace to the conflict of overlapping ideas of ‘who found what first’ in portions of the Pacific Northwest—which was peacefully settled, and warfare was avoided. 

Vancouver and Puget journeyed up the 115-kilometre fjord that is Portland inlet—which draws part of the line between southeastern Alaska and British Columbia. They meandered down the sliver of water on an old wooden ship between green, densely-forested corridors—all the way from Pearse Island to Stewart, and then to Hyder, Alaska. It was a team built for exploration, with an intention of finding new objectives and staking claim. 

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Following their explorations: a few comers and goers, some prospectors panning around with limited success, and then a proper boom around 1910 when rumours of vast mineral wealth trickled down the line. Gold! 

Helicopter flying to pick up Heli-Skiers in Northern British Columbia
Bird in the sky, headed back to the lodge after another successful shred mission. Photo: Dave Silver/Courtesy Last Frontier Heli

Just after the first World War, early settlers flocked to Stewart. Their impressions, now collected in the District of Stewart’s archives, were positive. “To me it was a wonderful sight,” wrote one gold seeker, “coming as I did from a city to such a peaceful spot. I arrived by steamer to make my home in this small mining town of Northern British Columbia.  So small it was barely on the map, a pretty little place, very much in its wild state, surrounded by snow-capped mountains with only the Canal as an opening to the outside world and being a new vision of God’s country.  It was slowly being built up by the various people who came to try their luck, most of whom were interested in mining which was the principle asset and the little place was proud of its old timers who had come and gone predicting great summits for its future.”

Little more than one hundred years later, the mining has seen extreme ups and downs (notably during the depression), but the exploration aspect has always carried on. These days however, we come to Stewart in search of a different kind of gold—champagne pow!  

Contemporary pioneers, still full of zeal and lust for new objectives in uncharted places, carry snowboards and skis instead of pickaxes and gold pans. It’s unknown whether the old-timer mountain guide who once did avalanche work in one of the mines where Last Frontier Heli Skiing is now based was clad in a beaver pelt, but for good measure we’ll keep that visual attached. 

“It’s an escape,” says Watling. A prime opportunity to unplug the phone, plug into the wilderness, connect with like-minded adventure enthusiasts and step into the untouched majesty of the mountains—a modern-day kind of gold.”

Mike Watling, Last Frontier’s managing partner, delivers informative dialogue on their Backgrounder Series (lastfrontierheli.com). “The guide kept telling us how incredible the terrain would be for heli skiing,” he says. “So they followed the tip and did some exploration.” He adds, “we secured the area as ours.” 

Last Frontier is situated in northern BC, on the southern edge of the Alaskan panhandle. They have two remote bases—Ripley Creek in the town of Stewart and Bell 2 Lodge, one range east in the Skeena Mountains. Maintaining lodges in two different ranges means a bigger playground, and that means more shred-worthy peaks and valleys to explore between the Coast mountains and the Skeenas. Watling says, “We have some of the biggest glaciated ski terrain in Canada—the largest single heli ski area on the planet at 10,100 square kilometres.”

 

Our maiden adventure consisted of gladed tree runs in old growth forests, a backcountry picnic—and knee-deep pow in spectacular high alpine terrain with huge glaciated features that felt supernatural. The knowledge and rock-steadiness of the guides’ decision-making implies they might have the mountain’s spirit incarnated into their beings— oursing through their blood. Watling adds, “Our guides are hired because of their technical expertise, and also because they are fun to be around.” 

Sitting around the campfire at Bell 2 Lodge—completely off-grid, sipping a hot toddy, listening to the orchestra of the wolves crying and the crackling of the fire—one can’t help but feel a deeper connection to the land and an utmost respect for those who prospected these destinations back in the day. It is the Wild West out here. And while we were the ones following the leader and not leading the pack like Captain Vancouver, we can truly appreciate the rustic Canadian wilderness appeal of it all and the sense of adventure.  

“It’s an escape,” says Watling. A prime opportunity to unplug the phone, plug into the wilderness, connect with like-minded adventure enthusiasts and step into the untouched majesty of the mountains—a modern-day kind of gold. -ML