Kwhlixhoosa’anskw means “respect” in the Nisga’a language. Words :: Abby Cooper.
Rhythmic raindrops pounded on the truck’s canopy. Wet snow avalanches growled down the slopes, and the river echoed its roar—evidence the Nass Valley’s spirit was very alive. According to the Nisga’a people, K’alii-Aksim-Lisims (the Nass River, one of BC’s richest river systems) is as much a part of them as their own flesh and blood, flowing through their land and lives.
It is said that each curve and turn of the Nass River’s slithering waterway follows the path of Txeemsim’s journey. Legend has it that Txeemsim was the grandson of K’am Ligihahlhaahl (Chief of Heavens) and was sent to help the ancestors of the land. This particular adaawak (traditional histories about the people and the Nass Valley), tells that the ancestors lived in disorder, confusion, constant fear of starvation, and in only moonlight or semi-darkness. Txeemsim, once he learned how to share his knowledge and supernatural powers, brought offerings of sunlight, tides, mountains, animals, fire, and the Nass River.
There are thousands of beautiful Nisga’a adaawak telling stories and answering questions about all that inhabit the land—from plants, to people, to the waters, and the animals. While many are set aside to only be told and passed down by the elders, stories and whispers of untapped ski opportunities was what led us to this sacred land.
BC’s Highway 113 is a ski tourer’s dream; an untouched version of Rogers Pass or the Duffey Lake Road—ripe for first ascents on unnamed peaks. We’d arrived with dreams of deep northern BC pow and one first ascent in particular, yet possibly by request of Chief of Heavens, K’am Ligihahlhaahl, we had instead been presented with buckets and buckets of rain in our tight weather window.
The precipitation and mild temperatures had chased us from the peaks of the Nass Valley but we would not give up the opportunity to feel the spirit of the land. We swapped under layers for bathing suits and ventured into the lush rainforest in search of sacred hot pools. According to Nisga’a First Nations, these spaces have incredible healing capabilities. We pushed some brush aside to reveal a warm oasis beckoning us to leave our soggy reality behind and take a dip into history.
Observing nature’s chaos from the cedar-lined tubs of the Aiyansh Hot Springs while soaking in her serenity reminded us that we were not in charge, but simply there to appreciate what is shared with us—a shift in perspective in a place known for giving just that.
Slowing down was a gift from the rain. It provided us time to connect to the land and the valley. We were no longer only fixated on the mountain peaks that were hidden in the sky. And so, with silt-covered feet and a lightness in our bodies, we made our way back to the truck.
The Nigsa’a people have always focused on preserving the wild elements of the Nass, learning to prosper from her natural beauty. Recently they’ve put steps in motion to share the region’s magic with visitors through tourism. It took over a century for a treaty to be signed between the federal and provincial governments and Nigsa’a Nation. Now unified, the governing bodies have started to develop tourism and the opening of the Aiyansh Hot Springs to the public is a sign of their efforts. We felt honoured to be among some of the first ‘tourists’ to share and enjoy such a beautiful and historic zone. And with the rainstorm showing no signs of letting up, we said farewell and continued north.
BC’s Highway 113 is a ski tourer’s dream; an untouched version of Rogers Pass or the Duffey Lake Road—ripe for first ascents on unnamed peaks.
Our next stop is Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park (Anhluut’ukwsim Laxmihl Nisga’a), where one of the youngest volcanoes in Canada lies. The volcano itself is only accessible in the summer months with a guide, but the basalt fields that sweep the valley floor are open for endless wandering.
The land offers an unwavering reminder that nothing is forever, and everything is fragile—263 years ago, the volcano’s last eruption took the lives of 2000 valley residents. At the edge of the lava bed, we were drawn to the Nass River’s turquoise colour—the hues amplified by the rocky-edged black borders. For 400 years, there has been a suspension bridge that spans the river and links Gitwinksihlkw, one of the four Nisga’a villages together. Now a landmark, the bridge was once the only gateway to cross the powerful Nass River to Gitwinksihlkw.
Each encounter with Nisga’a history made us feel more connected to the Nass’s spirit. Although gratified by the time spent here, curiosity still swirled inside us. Thirsty for more, we began researching the headwaters of the Nass River. What ominous power could fuel the river to carve a valley so deep and a culture so in tune with its strength?
We were not the first to travel this icy gem, but it was easy to feel alone, isolated, and at the mercy of the glacier’s movements and awe-inspiring force.
On the advice of some locals, we pushed north in hopes of cooler temperatures and more stable snow. The Cambria Icefield was the next destination—one of the biggest contributors to the Nass headwaters. From our new base in Stewart, B.C., we would trace one of the Nass Rivers’ points of origin and see the glaciers that fuel it.
Powder, stability and visibility greeted us as we prepared to climb, explore, and ski the icefield. The Cambria landscape felt immense and boundless. Sitting atop a mountainous throne, the glacier reaches north towards the Alaskan ocean shore where it spills down to the B.C. valley. To the south, ruptured icefalls drain into the waterway feeding the mighty Nass River. We were not the first to travel this icy gem, but it was easy to feel alone, isolated, and at the mercy of the glacier’s movements and awe-inspiring force.
Navigating the fractured curves of the Cambria Icefield on skis gave us the experience we had wanted all along. There was no conquering to be done in the Nass, only the gift of feeling her liveliness. It wasn’t the bragging rights of a first ascent, it was the chance to ski the untamable. An opportunity to feel, to marvel, to connect with and to respect the beautiful power and calm that is an adventure in the great outdoors.