top of page

Northern BC Great Wilderness Place Brand Makes Biggest Promise in a Generation

Updated: May 9

Travel Local Drives Great Northern Circle Route to Connect with a Hopeful Industry Tethered Along 3,200 kms of Road.

When you’re in the travel business, the travel bucket list only seems to get longer, and British Columbia’s North pretty much guarantees that list isn’t going to get whittled down any shorter. 

Those who made it to Victoria, BC, in March for the annual BC Tourism Industry Conference got front row seats to Destination BC’s launch of the new place brand: The Great Wilderness. 

Even for Canadians who are used to supersized geography and epic road trips that would rival anything the Lord of the Things asked of Frodo (yes, nerd alert), it’s almost impossible to fathom the expanse of BC’s North unless you’ve driven it for yourself. 

And so, we did.

Place-making is a main part of our business. Destinations and businesses always operate in rich locations of culture, environment, and people. Woven together, this community identity can lift local life up (or tear it down) and sets the table for what’s possible. The only way to feel the pulse and get a proper read is to get out on the land yourself.

My Northern master class started last year when my business and life partner, who is from the North, suggested we rent a camper van and hit the road on a 5,000km journey that would see us hop on and off the Great Northern Circle Route

We’ve just come through a family health scare, so now seemed like the right time to get this journey out of my head and onto the page.

My partner’s father had been a Hudson’s Bay Fur Trader, one of the last. Himself speaking several Indigenous languages and earning a reputation for fair trade across many different territories and trap lines. 

Growing up in Indigenous communities, Slavey, a Dene language, quickly competed with English as my partner's main tongue. They moved around a lot living in Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuc, Arctic Red River, Great Bear Lake, Fort Simpson, Fort McPherson, Fort Liard and others. The stories, the stories. Northern yarns and tales always have you leaning in as they dance with a rhythm all their own, bending between the light and the dark.

All this to say that I was in good company, and ready for whatever secret handshake or code word might be required to guarantee our safe passage.

We’d been working on a new destination management strategy for the Shuswap so with wildfire smoke thick on our heels we darted north up Highway 5 for a late night stop to stay and meet with the Indigenous owners of the newly expanding Sulphurous Lake Resort.

Known for its crystal-clear waters and great fishing, the resort owners were busy building a new guest services building, and upgrading water and power for their RV sites. Like all tourism entrepreneurs who’d sunk in their savings and future earnings, they were still reeling from the pandemic closures. 

Now, it was rising prices that needed worrying about.

Expanding my urban dictionary, they were fed up with the ‘scam-demic’ as entire supply chains tacked on hefty premiums forcing them and others to pay 30-50% more for lumber, hot water tanks and pretty much everything else they needed to open and operate.    

Humbled, we paid our bill, tried to remember where all our rented RV cords went, and then headed north up Hwy 97 through Prince George and Lheidli T’enneh Territory towards Dawson Creek hoping for the wildfire smoke to clear, and the chance to open a window. No such luck. Recycled air would fill our nostrils for hundreds of kilometers to come.

If Spectre, our Weimaraner, was writing this article, it would be about the seemingly endless number of pristine lakes dotting highway roadsides that he got to swim in on our stretch breaks. 

As tourism business developers, what caught our eye was the abandoned resorts and restaurants that flew by at regular intervals - a bad omen. 

Post-pandemic, the most pressing need as we’d discover seems to be keeping the current roster of hotels, motels, RV parks and restaurants open with at least something flowing to the bottom line. 

The North is famous for motorcycle touring with dedicated campgrounds, parking spots, and amenities for bikers who have come to experience the legendary smooth paved roads that stretch endlessly, sometimes for hours without seeing another car. Adventure bikes are hugely popular right now, but way more comfortable on long rides, touring bikes still dominate the road. 

An easy-rider himself, the owner of our Mercedes Airstream Interstate Camper Van was Western Canada’s retail rep for Harley Davidson and their logo was wrapped in size large around the tail end of our rig. This got us respectful nods from the groups of Harley riders rumbling by. I felt like a pledge about to get patched.

Landing in Fort St John, my partner's already impressive knowledge of her family tree was on full display. Barely held back by her seatbelt, she explained that her Great Aunt Lena Galen was a founding settler here, where not too long ago we’re told that the local historical museum featured a play that included Galen’s contribution. She fed Alaska Highway workers, was a seamstress who worked with local Indigenous women to stitch winter clothing and boots and opened one of the first diners, an impressive achievement given the barriers facing the women of her time.

After some time with friends in Fort St John, we made our way four hours up the road to Fort Nelson for a cruiser bike tour of my business partner’s childhood neighborhoods and an overnight at the Triple G Hideaway RV Park & Campground. 

Dressed up like a Western town movie set, the stop is a favourite for large American RVs making their way along the Alaska Highway. The gift cabins are some of the nicest we’ve seen and are full of handcrafted Canadiana including a locally knit sweater I’m still kicking myself for not buying.

Power, water, internet. The holy triptych of services are what rigs of all shapes and sizes look for. Operators are constantly maintaining and upgrading these services.

Stacked side by side, the RV park quickly becomes a neighborhood with the sound of opening light beers and zero sugar vodka seltzers ringing out as the evening bug orchestra gets warmed up. When the propane campfires are lit, the evening socials begin. 

Today, more than half the sites are empty and the mood between campsites is more subdued. A telling reminder that the pandemic might be over, but the taps have been slow to turn back on.

In the years leading up to 2019, the RV park would have been near full, packed mostly with American and other international guests. 

Up the street, the Fort Hotel was open but largely empty. The restaurant was vacant except for a couple regulars stirring their coffees as they stared out the window. A local icon, the hotel itself is in great shape having recently undergone renovations. Now owned and operated by the Fort Nelson First Nation, only the original Tiki lounge, gingerly restored and maintained despite its questionable origins, was closed.

After a guided VIP cruiser bike tour of my wife and business partner’s childhood haunts, we somehow funneled ourselves onto the last leg of a local triathlon. Sheepishly cruising through the finish line in jeans and a rock t-shirt, we were greeted with laughs and generous high-fives. This was a place that could not only take a joke, but a haven where they’d let you take a literal victory lap for it.

Grateful that I got to experience these tones of home, we headed west for Liard Hot Springs. But my stomach had a nearer stop in mind, and was already grumbling, hurrying us along towards lunch at the famous Double G diner. 

A canonized stop for road weary pilgrims, the Double G is just south of Muncho Lake, twelve kilometers of jade-colored water hunched over by the Folded Mountain and its massive twisted limestone frame. 

Pulling-in next to a tow truck that looked exactly like Mater (if you have kids you’ve watched the animated movie Cars a thousand times and secretly love it), we walked through the doors to an unusually empty restaurant and the wafting smell of fresh baked bread. The only other patron was outside and he was cursing the small gods for the completely blown out tire on his travel trailer. He’d now been waiting for over six hours for a tow truck.  

The North takes its toll on tires as we’d learn ourselves a couple thousand kilometers later. Fortunately for us, we knew the power of Molson Coors in cutting service wait times.

My father-in-law is Scottish, born and bred in Thurso. As an equipment buyer for big logging and construction companies, he’s as responsible for building up the North as anyone else. Like everyone from Fort Nelson to Muncho Lake to Fort Halkett and up the way, Liard Hot Springs was a hotspot for locals. More hot tub party than spa, adults would host rowdy socials in the upper pools where it wasn’t uncommon or unheard of to find an unlucky moose boiling away and needing to be removed.

From the parking lot, the hot springs are at the end of a boardwalk that stretches a kilometer wide with rich marshlands on both sides. It’s a rare thermal eco-system that meets the cold early morning air to create a thick, almost impenetrable fog. 

The BC government subsidized and operated campground was full with an overflow across the street where several RVs and camper vans were idling, waiting for a spot to free up. Ourselves, we stayed just up the way at the Liard Hot Springs Lodge & RV Park, another Fort Nelson band property. As a business it had to charge market rates which is presumably why it wasn’t full, despite the busy government overflow lot only a stone's throw down the road.  

Faced with staffing issues, the main lodge rooms weren’t being sold but instead, used for staff accommodations. Under new management, the band has been busy making significant upgrades like a new UV water purification system. 

Power is always an issue for remote resorts and communities who most often have to rely on diesel powered generators to supply electricity to rooms and RV slots. Something most would like to get away from, if the right solution presented itself.  It’s not a small problem and it's one that more than 200 remote communities struggle with. The federal government has a goal of eliminating diesel-powered electricity generation in remote communities by 2030, admirable but unrealistic say experts. According to CBC news, many feel progress is slow and the infrastructure deficit too large. 

Ready to push off, we had an early breakfast at the resort and started chatting with a semi-truck driver from Quebec who now called BC home. We told him where we were headed and he confirmed that we’d definitely run into Bison. 

As if on cue, the restaurant got cold and fluorescent bulbs flickered as he leaned into me to share the serious tale of a Bison herd huddled together on the road in the dead of winter, completely covered in snow, looking like a snowdrift to the speeding 18-wheeler speeding toward and far past the point of stopping. 

Fumbling for my keys and needing therapy, we inched up the Alaska Highway stopping dead in front of several herds of Bison on the road, not sure what to do until a semi-trailer passed us and inched them off the road. Hardly noticed, we winded through the herd, making our apologies for the winter massacre as we went.

Like others who travel the North this direction, the road took us for a brief dip up into Watson Lake, Yukon, and then southward along the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. Nearly 1000 kms,  cell service or internet is virtually non-existent on the Stewart-Cassiar, which makes the stretch perfect for audiobooks. We’d often download a new one while gassing up. 

Beyond the various business titles, we’d taken advantage of jacking into some reliable Wifi to download Trevor Noah’s hilarious and heartfelt audiobook memoir from his childhood, his coming of age as a local grifter, and early comedy career in his native South Africa. As you’d expect from any storyteller suffering through the Apartheid era, the book also shines light into dark corners, and what we find there will have you rethinking the rankings of the world’s top genocidal maniacs.

After an overnight at Dease Lake Campground and a quick stop into the Tahltan Central Government office, we continued south towards our most inspired dining stop, perhaps of the whole trip.

This is Iskut. A member nation of the Tahltan, Iskut is located in the Stikine Country of northwestern British Columbia just south of Dease Lake, where the band-run Kluachon Cafe served up some of the best burgers we’ve had anywhere. 

Tourism is an interest for many Indigenous communities across the country, provided their territory can tap a visitor artery. We caught up with the Iskut team after the trip to learn about their RV and campground plans, which would give the north-south highway corridor a much needed capacity boost and yield big dividends to the local community. 

There’s only a handful of small lodges and resorts along the highway with Bell 2 Lodge, a couple hours down the road from Iskut, being one of the nicest front-country wilderness resorts in Canada. 

A heli-ski lodge in winter, the lodge attracts well-heeled clientele from around the world thanks to Last Frontier Heliskiing whose playground offers the largest single heliski area on the planet. We were doing some work with HeliCat Canada, the sector’s trade association, so we pulled in to have one of the few Italian espressos we’d tasted on the route and talk to the staff.  

Decision-time. Keep truckin’ to the highway’s end, or veer-off down the road to experience what would be one of the best travel decisions of our lives.

If you zoom in on Google Maps, there’s a sliver of a highway that breaks off Highway 37. The drive is unlike any we’ve ever experienced. Imagine the most awe inspiring mountain pass flanked tightly by monolithic ancient blue ice glaciers and running jade coloured rivers. Now imagine it all squeezed together so close that you could reach out and touch it all from the car window. 

This is the drive into Stewart, BC. 

Located at the head of one of planet earth’s largest Fjords, glaciers and bear viewing are top attractions. We’d recently facilitated a strategic retreat for Indigenous Tourism BC at Klahoose owned Klahoose Wilderness Resort who’d generously treated us to some world class grizzly bear viewing, and so we opted for a heli-tour of Cambria Icefields and Salmon Glacier with Yellowhead Helicopters.

Back on solid ground, we rode our cruiser bikes through the center of town. History everywhere. Visitors, not so much. 

Things were slow this summer. As we took in the scenery, we couldn’t help but notice the number of closed shops and near empty streets. Tourism’s global grounding had hit Stewart hard, and unlike busy corridors in the south, it seems the domestic market hadn’t fully jumped in to help or buffer the losses that were surely adding up. 

With only a few nights left and more miles to go, we said goodbye to the Bear River RV Park, our rainforest oasis, and after a short drive-by to say hello to the Stewart tourism folks, we got back in the saddle for the last leg of our journey.

And so, at the end of the Cassiar Highway, we found ourselves veering right this time, betting large that we might be able to stop in and meet one particular Indigenous leader that I was starstruck by.

A couple years ago I found myself at an oil and gas conference for no other reason other than to hear the keynote speaker Haisla Elected Chief Councilor Crystal Smith share her nation’s journey. A deeply empathic leader, Smith had been on the speakers circuit passionately sharing the urgent need for hope in her community, and the promise that new energy projects will bring, especially to youth of her Kitamaat Village. 

As much as big energy projects and revenue sharing can directly help households, it comes with strings, inviting a whole new set of problems into a community. Knowing first hand through our work that Indigenous tourism provides important counterbalance not only for a nation’s economic portfolio but also as an activating platform serving the cultural goals of youth, knowledge keepers and elders, we were eager to learn more about other Haisla plans.

After our stop at the band office, we headed back up the road, nodding our heads respectfully to the left as we passed the turnoff for Cassiar North, but always keeping East, winding through the Bulkley Valley.

Riding high into the home stretch, we forgot for a minute where we were until we passed an Indigenous man walking on the side of the road, brushing the air with what looked like an eagle’s wing.

This was the infamous Highway of Tears. The Indigenous man walking was speaking prayers for the more than 40 people, mostly Indigenous and mostly women or girls, who went missing and/or were murdered along this route going back as early as 1969. 

It’s part of a national crisis that has brought Indigenous communities, especially women, out in force and solidarity to raise awareness and put an end to the unanswered violence. 

Families have long walked the highway from Prince Rupert to Prince George to raise awareness, including national advocacy leader Brenda Wilson, who lost a daughter there. In 2012, Cree journalist and leader Sheila North Wilson coined the hashtag #MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) to bring attention to the issue. Red Dress Day was inspired in 2010 by Jamie Black, a Métis artist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Black hung hundreds of empty red dresses in public places to represent missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and to bring awareness to the issue

Local action and national reports have recommended sweeping changes ranging from justice system reform to better local transit to cell phone service. Consistent and adequate funding for programs remains another. 

We continued down the road to visit one of the 23 Indigenous communities along the highway of tears. 

Several years ago we’d worked with the Witset First Nation on their cultural tour business plan, so we were keen to stop in and see how things were progressing after their tours had launched in 2018. 

At the Widzin Kwah Canyon House Museum we learned the tours had just started running again with one focused on the museum’s unique collections, and another, the Widzin Kwah Canyon Tour interpretive walk where fortunate guests could watch the Witsuwit’en people catch and smoke fish, and learn the medicinal uses for the flora and fauna in the area. 

Municipalities, towns, villages across the north, some we’ve travelled through, many others we haven’t mentioned, aren’t necessarily fixated on tourism as an alternative or main industry. Their reasons are sound.

When resource industries are fired up and hiring, there’s no substitute for the higher wages, steady employment and concentrated economic impact. 

Whether we’re talking fishing, forestry, mining, oil and gas or agriculture, these industries deliver $15B in GDP to BC’s economy. Tourism’s no slouch either with its $7B GDP stacking well above any of these sectors on their own. But we get the point.

There’s a bit of a double standard here that the North would appreciate mentioning. 

If we’re going to ask our Northern neighbors to risk making rent and affording groceries in order to focus on sustainable industries with a longer and steadier ROI, Canadians everywhere had better find a way to reduce their own dependence on fossil fuels to achieve the needed 8-10 percent reduction in emissions per year that scientists are telling us is critical to saving the planet. 

Right now, our collective efforts are falling short, adding-up to an unimpressive 1-2 percent annual reduction in fossil fuel emissions.

We can talk about decarbonizing all we want. But until renewable energy can cover a greater share of the actual tab, until open-source technologies give people everywhere (not just cities) the opportunity to live cheaply and sustainably, and until the weightless economy floats into town offering high-paying digital and service jobs, local economic development plans in the North will continue to focus on their bread and butter. Tourism will only be part of the spread.

One thing that tourism is really good at is helping to shield towns against the economic booms and busts that wobble communities like that bad flu you seem to get every five years. When the local mill, plant or mine is the only or main employer, towns are vulnerable up and down the value chain. Northern planners know this.

They also know that local solutions work best, and Houston, BC, is walking the talk. 

Nestled in the Bulkley-Nechako, the area reminds me of cottage country in Ontario where I grew up. The area has a list of reasons to get outside as long as your arm. Camped out with friends, we enjoyed a fireside cookout and guitar jam under a perfectly clear night sky before waking up early to swing a club at the local golf course. The people couldn’t be friendlier. My golf game….well, who’s counting anyway.

Hungry but finding ourselves across the street from the farmer’s market that was overflowing with locally grown and crafted goods, we popped instead into the Palisades Cafe, which served up a mean lunch - good fuel for our walk around town. 

But it was a small sticker in their shop window that really caught my eye. 

It turns out the local Chamber of Commerce has a merchant dollar program that sells certificates which can be spent like cash at participating businesses. Designed to keep local dollars in local pockets, the program is a runaway success, hitting the $1 million sales mark in December, 2023. 

According to Love Northern BC., for every $100 spent locally, up to $75 stays in the community, compared to just $13 when spent at a big box or chain store.

Complementary currencies like this are powerful reminders of how innovative, self-financing enterprises can grow local jobs and prosperity. As my favourite rogue economist Michael Shuman likes to put it: “we need to reinvent economic development as if small business mattered.” 

Houston is certainly leading the way.

After nearly 3,200 kms on the road, I’d long given up trying to get Spectre to lay down in the back, and so with his chest wedged against the dash, always stealing the air conditioning just like he hogs the bed, we braced for the cannonball run back home. 

I get it now.

As some talented writer for Destination BC artfully states: “The Great Wilderness is a land of extraordinary scale, where magnificent natural wonders and diverse wildlife share the land with its original and ongoing stewards, the Indigenous peoples. It’s an invitation to wilderness adventurers who seeks something greater than themselves.” 

The Great Wilderness place brand itself is an announcement of national importance. Done right, the North could become the most successful (and sustainable) fly-drive tours in the world for international visitors, and a right of passage for young and retired Canadians. 

Our whistle-stop tour of the North took 14 days. Building up the Great Wilderness place brand properly will take generations. Giving it the proper heft will take an unwavering commitment to long term funding, streamlined decision-making and supporting interests that may not benefit tourism directly or immediately. Heavy destination infrastructure and business investments will need to be budgeted for and made, year-after-year, regardless of the political headwinds we face or what the road ahead throws at us.

We’ll need to keep our eyes on the road and hands upon the wheel.

But right now, our biggest challenge is RV rental late fees. Home, here we come. No sleep till Brooklyn.

Coming Soon:

The Travel Local Audiobook Club Summer 2024 

157 views0 comments


bottom of page