Northern delights: Exploring B.C.'s Kispiox Valley

Before arriving in Northern B.C. I thought I'd write about all of my exploits, a little bit about the natural beauty and maybe about something new and exciting. What I didn't count on was how much this rugged raw land and its people would pull me in. It's simply impossible not to write about the region and its residents without saying how spectacular it is.

Regardless of what you expect, the Kispiox Valley will draw you in. Nestled between the mountains of the Skeena River and the Kitwanga Valley, the Kispiox Valley cradles swamps, five rivers and a chain of crystal clear lakes. For centuries, its chilly waters have provided a perfect home for the world's largest strain of wild steelhead and salmon. Its mountainous backdrop is surrounded by a mossy forest playground for grizzly and black bears. (Although one day, while river rafting we caught sight of three rambunctious black bear cubs, there is no need to worry; no close bear encounters have been recorded in years).

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The first evening after a day of rafting and exploring my surroundings, I sat quietly on the deck of my room at the Bear Claw Lodge. I listened to the sound of the Kispiox River as it flowed past me. The river doesn't rest, never sleeps as it tumbles over rocks. I imagined what it must have been like for the pioneer men and women who came here in the late 1800s as they braved the elements to homestead in the harsh, sometimes unforgiving landscape.

I would soon hear tales of some of those who led the way.

My odyssey to the northern interior began when I caught a flight to Smithers. From there it was a 90-minute drive through stunning vistas and dusty back roads.

We stop for lunch in Old Hazelton at the Boat's Soup and Juice Bar located in a riverboat replica on the banks of the Skeena River. This small town eatery offers up a selection of organic juices (I tried the delicious carrot ginger), as well as salads, sandwiches and home-baked cookies.

This quaint town is set amongst the backdrop of the Roche de Boule mountain range. Also dubbed the Seven Sisters, the mountains are magnificent. We lunched outside and watched other visitors marvel at the scenery.

Along the way to our destination, we crossed the old Hagwilget Bridge that crosses the canyon on our way to the Kispiox River.

Before we headed too far, we explored the region. We stopped at the Ksan Historical Village and Museum located near the ancient village of Gitanmaax, where the Bulkley and Skeena rivers flow into each other. For centuries, this was an important fishing site and transportation hub. This is a replica of the ancient village that for centuries, and even longer, the Gitxsan people lived in and around the canyons and junctions on the Skeena River. You can take a guided tour and learn all about their sacred ceremonies and everyday lives.

In the later afternoon, we arrived just in time to unpack before we meet our hosts in the dining room.

Bear Claw Lodge' hosts: For three nights, over wine and locally inspired cuisine, I listened to Joy and Gene Allen recount inspiring and colourful tales about the brave men and women of the north. It's clear that these raconteurs delight in telling their guests about this land they love so much. If you're lucky enough to dine with the couple, ask to hear the story of Lillian Alling, a 25-yearold mysterious Russian immigrant. In 1926, she set out to New York but got homesick. A year later, with no money, she set out on foot to hike across the continent, ending up in the wilderness of B.C. Alling is a legend in these parts because it seems after she left the Great North, she seemed to vanish. Many books and articles have been written about her.

I'm enchanted by the passion in which its residents regale guests with tales of folklore.

Hiking: This first morning, bright and early I met up with Danielle Bradford, a 21-year-old who doubles as guide and waitress, for a hike. There are endless trails to choose from. Bradford and I hit the dirt road and followed the Kispiox River as it wound through forest, mountains and ranchland. We pass an old trappers' cabin, dubbed Beartail, and she told me it's where I will stop for lunch during my horseback ride later in the day.

Horseback Riding: When I was a teenager, I was fearless astride a horse. But after a nasty fall in my 20s, you couldn't get me back on a horse if my life depended on it. Over the years, I've cured myself of my fear of horses.

However, I didn't count on Moose. Moose is big and stubborn and often wouldn't heed to my demands - OK, I have to admit I'm a softy here - my lame attempts at steering him away from the bramble bushes and the branches of the powerful spruce and the thirsty cedars, were greeted with a full stop. No matter, riding through rivers and unspoiled forested territory, with a picnic lunch in the Beartail, was a wonderful adventure not to be missed. Somehow, over the fourhour ride Moose and I bonded.

Snorkelling with the Salmon: I've snorkeled in Hawaii, Nicaragua and Mexico and always marveled at the sheer variety of colourful native fish I would get to see up close. When I heard that I could snorkel with the salmon ... well, that takes snorkeling to a whole different level!

From July to October, these rivers are teaming with salmon, some weighing as much as 60 pounds. So, we venture out. Soon, our guide/owner of Kispiox Fishing Company Jim Allen anchors and assures me I'll acclimatize pretty quickly. I go in very gingerly ... the water is freezing. However, the speed in which the salmon move and the rainbow-like colour of their scales as they hit the sunlight, make it reason enough to jump into the frigid waters. P.S. I suggest you wear a wetsuit.

The Cuisine: At the helm is the Allens' 26-year-old daughter Kaleigh Allen. The fourth generation Kispiox native spent seven years traveling and attending medical school before realizing the only place she wanted to live was in the Kispiox.

Besides being an active conservationist, keen on preserving the pristine wilderness in the Skeena Watershed, Kaleigh is an innovative chef. Whether it was her homemade spiced pumpkin ravioli or the Prince Rupert-seared halibut, Allen stays true to the fresh-is-best, lessis-more philosophy. Her passion for local, sustainable dishes paved the way for our culinary experience that went way beyond sitting down for a nice meal.

More about the Kispiox Region and Bear Claw Lodge: Flights: From the Lower Mainland, it's a little more than an hour flight to Smithers and then you'll be picked up at the airport by the lodge's shuttle for a 90-minute drive. There is also a private airstrip at Bear Claw Lodge.

Bear Claw Lodge: Website kispioxriver.com This eco-friendly, 15,000 square foot cedar lodge features authentic totem poles and art work from famed Aboriginal artists including Roy Henry Vickers. It has eight guest rooms all with handcrafted beds and furniture. No television but you won't miss one, trust me.

Bear Claw Lodge is an all-season resort offering heli-skiing, salmon and steelhead fishing, conservation camps, horseback tours/riding, rafting and rafting expeditions, as well as luxury and relaxation at the lodge.

For more information or to make a reservation, there's a reservation request form online or contact them at info@kispioxriver.com If the matter is urgent, call direct at the lodge: 1-604-629-9578 or its mobile 1-250-842-8829.

Note: Cell phones do not work up here. The lodge telephone is a satellite phone, so it can take awhile before anyone responds.

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