Back-roads to adventure

🕔Jul 24, 2007

Looking for adventure? Forget the highway and get out on the back-roads!
In Northwest BC only a handful of major thoroughfares cross the region, but turn off onto a bumpy overgrown track and an astounding backcountry world opens up.
Most of the meandering, pot-hole-punctuated gravel roads were built by the Forest Service or private companies over the last half century as BC opened up the hinterlands for resource use. The roads may lead to clear-cut areas, or mines, but along the way travelers can encounter pristine lakes, mountain trails, roaming wildlife and, don’t forget, careening trucks carrying 50-tonne loads of logs.
With more and more people looking for eco-adventures in BC’s backcountry, are the province’s back-roads ready for the onslaught?

First the good news

Travellers have access to secluded spots of untold beauty on northern BC’s back roads. And best of all, says Kathy Copeland—who along with her husband Craig wrote the seminal guide Camp Free in BC—once you get out on the gravel roads there won’t be many others there and you can stay for free.
The Copelands, who live in Canmore, Alberta, consider back-roads to be the antidote to civilization. They first realized what an incredible resource BC offers to adventurers while hiking trails in the Nahatlatch River area of the Fraser Canyon. After turning off the TransCanada they passed burbling creeks, jewel-like ponds and crossed the jade green Nahatlach River. It was like a dream.
Since then, the couple has traveled backroads all across the province, camping by rushing rivers, glimpsing owls, moose and otters in their natural surroundings, and gazing on mountainous vistas.
They admit some of these winding roads can be confusing and adventurers may have to decipher logging lingo to figure out the difference between a mainline and a spur, but that’s why the couple has written kilometer-by-kilometre directions to some of their favourite free camping spaces. They describe spots like Red Sand Lake near Terrace, with its beautiful beaches and campsites nestled along Lakelse River among towering cedar trees.
Most of the campgrounds mentioned in the Copelands’ book are what used to be known as Forest Recreation sites. Around 1998, the BC Government slashed funding for recreation and later tried to off-load responsibility for, or close down, most of the Forest Recreation sites and trails in the province. But the public balked, and now many of the sites have been taken over by the Ministry of Tourism, Sport and the Arts.

But are logging roads safe for tourists?

MaryAnne Arcand of TruckSafe BC, a project of the BC Forest Safety Council, worries about inexperienced drivers on resource roads, especially during tourist season.
“People travel without extra clothes, fuel or candles in very remote locations,” says Arcand. She’s heard of situations where travellers have had three flat tires in a 20-kilometre stretch. Many don’t realize there is no way to call for help—and cell phones don’t work in most remote areas.
Research shows that 84 percent of collisions with logging trucks involve private vehicles. In 2006, five forestry truckers were killed in northern BC. A recent inquest into Joesph Leroux’s death on a logging road near Mackenzie in March 2006 made it clear that questions around who is responsible for road maintenance and safety played a part in the crash.
The growing accounts of safety issues on resource roads has even prompted the recently-appointed Forest Safety Ombudsman, former Skeena MLA Roger Harris, to focus on roads in a report he is currently researching.
In urban areas one in 625 car crashes results in fatalities, whereas in rural areas, the risk increases to one in 25. According to Arcand, this is because of lack of access to emergency services. “It could be hours before someone comes along,” she says.

Take a tour

Paul Wildeman of McBride knows all about rescuing people off logging roads. He rescues a lot of people in oil and gas exploration, but sometimes he’s called out in his own backyard. Once his wife was out jogging on the back-roads near their home and met a couple from France who had walked 42 kilometres from the point where their car had died. He helped rescue their car and let the rattled couple stay at his home for a few days.
He says not telling anyone where you are going can be the first mistake.
But Wildeman also has another solution for those who want to get out and explore. He runs a tour company called WildeCAT, and can customize tours for groups from 4 to 16 anywhere in BC or Alberta.
He says most Europeans and even North Americans never go off the beaten track, so they miss much of the splendor BC has to offer. It’s not just for the spectacular views: Wildeman loves finding evidence of old sawmills, beehive burners and settlements in the bush. “It’s like going back into a different era,” he says.

A few great spots to discover:

Paddle: Swan Lakes in the Kispiox Forest District or Nanika-Kidprice loop in the Morice Forest District.
Hike: Raven Lake to Grizzly Den Cabin circuit on the Hungary Creek Forest Service Road east of Prince George.
Climb: Owen Hat: Great rock features, including bolted and top-roped climbing routes. Access via Morice River Road south of Houston.

Tips for the road

• Even on the most remote roads, you should drive like there is somebody coming at you around each corner, says Wildeman. And always pull off to the side when faced with oncoming industrial traffic.
• Four wheel or not to four wheel? The Copelands say two wheel drives and even RVs can make it to many backwoods campsites. Take note of how much clearance you have, don’t approach ruts straight on, check how deep mudholes are and use your common sense.
• Don’t haul a trailer, especially on steep-graded, active logging roads. The BC Government provides this advice on a brochure called Forest Roads: Guide for Safe Travel.
• Drive at a safe speed that reflects road conditions (good advice for any road).
• Contact local Forest Service offices and logging companies for road condition advice.
• Forest Safety Ombudsman Roger Harris is writing a report on Resource Road safety. Call his office with any comments or concerns at 1 877 577 7766.