We are fortunate. We have traveled most of the southern half of our Province a number of times by motorcycle but I had never been north of Prince George.So this year, we began talking a lot about heading north by car this summer, to the Peace River country to see the area known as Site C, a strip of low-lying treed and agricultural lands along the banks of the Peace River. Slated for future flooding to accommodate a controversial dam project, we were anxious to see the roughly 75 km area before it disappeared under millions of liters of water. So mid-July found us heading through Merritt, Clinton, Golden, Jasper, Lake Louise, past the Icefields and east to Prince George (only the midway point of BC if you look on a map) and beyond to points north.
Like many Vancouver Islanders, we tend to believe that Prince George is “the North,” but it’s really just the northern tip of Caribou Country. “True North” includes such communities as Mackenzie, Chetwynd, Hudson’s Hope, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek. We had been told that the part of BC we were about to visit is “simply stunning,” especially the drive over Pine Pass to Chetwynd. We were not disappointed. As we drove into what we called “big sky” country, the deep blue canvas provided a perfect backdrop to thick forests and stands of birch and alder crowding both sides of the highway, rushing streams and rivers glistening in the sun between tall pine shadows, hills rising and falling into deep ravines and valleys, and large plateaus and flat lands laying gently across the landscape like a giant green and yellow quilt, farmed and ranched by those dedicated enough to withstand short growing seasons and winters that can reach 40 below. Winter was hard to imagine as we passed deep green fields of newly-mown hay, most of it neatly rolled up into what resembled large corks waiting for bottles.
We arrived in Chetwynd, checked into the Pomeroy Hotel and used it as our base to travel out to Site C. To get a sense of how extensive the Site C hydro-electric dam proposal is, for comparison, we first visited two existing dam sites, the Peace River Dam and the Bennett Dam. The smallest of the two, the Peace River Dam is the most picturesque. The Bennett Dam is a giant monument to human engineering and ingenuity, one of the world’s highest earthen structured dams at 660 feet. Construction began in 1961 and was completed in 1968. It’s at the Dam site where the Finlay, Parsnip and Peace Rivers converge and feed Williston Lake (or Reservoir), the third largest artificial body of water in North America, at 250 kms north to south and 150 kms east to west. On researching the Bennett Dam, we learned that creation of Williston also caused “drastic changes to the landscape and climate… as well as to the nature of aquatic life.” For example, “in 2000, high levels of mercury were found in the water, most likely caused by decaying tree and plant matter. This resulted in a warning to the public about high levels of mercury in the lake’s fish.”
Just as controversy continues to dog the Site C proposal, flooding and construction of the Bennett Dam was not without public protest. Recorded environmental impacts on the immediate area included the loss of 350,000 acres of forest lands and losses to “wildlife and plant biodiversity as well as the loss of minerals and timber rights.” Additional controversy involved the “displacement of residents located in the Trench…among them, members of Tsay Keh Dene First Nation. This displacement caused significant losses to their autonomy…creating isolation, alienation and social disorganization.” First Nations in the Site C area express fear of similar impacts should the planned flooding and construction go ahead.
During our visit to the Bennett Dam, we opted to drive across the top of the dam to the other side, to a view point. From the top of the dam, overlooking Williston Lake to the east, one sees how much more extensive the reservoir is than the dam is massive. The colour of the water that day was a tropical blue, a stark contrast to its natural northern location. The lake was eerily empty and still. Surprising was the lack of boating and fishing activity on the lake but we were told later that the risk to boating, of decaying trees that suddenly pop up to the surface as “dead heads,” is real. Driving back over the Bennett Dam and exiting the security gate and surrounding area, I was left trying to imagine what the area must have been like before 1961 and earlier. My thoughts then turned to what lived in and roamed the Trench beneath Williston Lake millions of years earlier where, during the dam’s construction, dinosaur remains were found.
We understand that flooding the Site C will again create environmental impacts. Apart from the potential loss of forests and farmland that produces hay, oats and barley among other crops, the dam is being built to provide hydro-electricity to the State of California. We also understand that in the first few years of operation, BC Hydro will incur estimated annual losses in the billions of dollars. From local residents in Chetwynd and Hudson’s Hope, we learned that the project has also divided farmers, families and nearby communities. Some want the dam and others do not but, for those who support it, it means new jobs and a boost to local economies in small northern towns. Driving past some ranches and farms, we noticed signage that expressed a “No Dam Here” sentiment, despite the work already underway on Site C.
Putting controversy aside, in every community where we stopped, people were friendly, welcoming and proud of being Northerners. They are resilient and cohesive, with a strong sense of community. Everybody knows everybody else, small cafes are local gathering places for most residents living in and around town sites and, while Northerners are recognized as fiercely independent and resourceful, they are always ready to help their neighbours. We were often asked where we were from and there was genuine appreciation when they learned we were from Vancouver Island. It seems that not many “southerners” take the time to make the trek north to visit this part of the Province so tourist advice from locals was frequent, just to make sure that we didn’t miss anything. Reminders of “Don’t forget to see…” “Make sure you take the highway to…” “You have to see the…” “Be sure not to miss…” came willingly.
Highways are well maintained and while there is a sense of freedom and open space, there is also a sense of loneliness and isolation, with little traffic except for pick-up, transport and logging trucks. Houses and small ranches are few and far between, with one’s nearest neighbour likely an hour or more away by car. But there is a raw beauty to BC’s northern wilderness that yields such treasures as vast forests and other natural resources, wolves, deer, elk, caribou, moose and bear. The days are longer in the summer and if you are very lucky, at dusk or at nightfall, you just might catch a glimpse of shooting stars or northern lights.
On the minus side, if you are driving in early morning or early evening, you are warned to be vigilant and watch for large wildlife crossing or standing on the highway. We were told that, too often, the headlights of a car or truck mesmerize animals so that they stand in the middle of the road and don’t move. Forewarned is forearmed. For years, I had heard about moose crossing highways and roads and how potentially dangerous they are for vehicles and drivers, although I had never encountered one myself. On the morning we left Chetwynd, headed home, about five kms. south of town, suddenly out of the shadows below the road, bounded a huge, beautiful moose cow and her calf, right onto the road in front of us. I hit the brakes and when the front tires squealed, the calf ran back down below the road into the trees, deciding not to follow its mother across the highway. Good decision! While I knew I could stop the car safely in time to miss the cow, I might have been unable to miss the calf. What a highlight, but what a nerve-wracking surprise to see these two and, yes, they are BIG.
It may sound appealing to live in a small northern community, but there are challenges and hardships we southerners rarely face, if ever — deep winter snows and cold temperatures that can stop a vehicle in its tracks, employment that comes and goes with seasons and economic cycles, family members commuting hundreds of kilometers or many hours to and from work, school closures that mean more commuting or a move south for families with school-age kids, loss from the community of young people who have to leave to find a job, further education or better opportunities. To live, work and settle in Northern BC takes grit and commitment, and for many of the people we met during our trip, they plan to stay and wouldn’t live anywhere else. We met one young man, a forester in his mid-20’s and his little dog Milo, both from Mackenzie. He told us that although born, raised and educated in Vancouver, he loves the isolation of working in Mackenzie at the mill and carving out a life in the North.
It seems that for Northerners, one is or soon becomes a lover of the outdoors. Fishing and hunting are common and most recreation involves activity on lakes and rivers and in ice and snow. Quads, (halfway between a motorcycle and a snowmobile) are used to explore off road in the summer months and, in the winter, the snowmobile provides access to other popular recreational spots. The ubiquitous pick-up truck is the main vehicle for daily transportation because it withstands and navigates a sometimes unforgiving and rugged terrain.
There are indications that some northern communities are struggling economically. We were told that the downturn in the oil and gas industry has had negative impacts on small communities, reflected by the number of “For Sale” signs that dot the landscape. The evidence where people have abandoned their dreams is reflected in empty homes and properties. Farmland that once produced flourishing crops stands idle and overgrown, with vehicles and farm machinery parked and rusting under trees. There is a desolate sadness at the sight of empty homes and outbuildings, with boards on windows, abandoned because the owners couldn’t make a go of it. When talking to one local resident, he put it bluntly, “Yes, they went south. Too hard to maintain everything and keep it going up here. Limited job opportunities and little income equal no future.”
But despite hardships and challenges, the breathtaking BC North provides a meaningful and unique example of how natural and industrial environments co-exist and, for the people who live and work there, instills in them a strong desire to keep going and to look to one another for support and camaraderie. As we left the area and drove south, we agreed that Northern BC is worth much more than a single visit and before the trip ended, we were already planning our return.