Kitsault & Alice Arm

🕔Aug 04, 2010

The branches on a large cedar tree jerked suddenly. I stopped my bike and pulled out the pepper spray. Less than 30 metres away a grizzly bear was enjoying a good back-scratching on the coarse bark. I had been following him at a respectful distance for two kilometers as I rode the lonely back-road north of Terrace in search of crumbling, century-old mining towns of this forgotten region of coastal British Columbia.

Its scratching completed, the grizzly barely glanced at me before ambling casually up the road. As I followed warily, I recalled the words of Jeff Wolrige, a property owner in the area. He warned me about riding to the once-rich Dolly Varden silver mine, 26 kilometres past the remote inlet of Alice Arm. “That road is a busy place for bears accessing the river and acres of ripe berries,” he said.

Wolrige is president of Anyox Hydro, whose company is re-building an old railway grade to gain access to an abandoned dam on Kitsault Lake, part of a new project for generating electricity. A hydro plant supplied power to the mine, which was connected to the coast by a narrow-gauge rail carved into the rugged valley. Both were abandoned by 1950.

Riding this road, I saw a recently killed black bear in the ditch and speculated that it may have run into a grizzly and was killed for being in the way. Fortunately for me, the grizzly I followed today did not seem to object to my presence.

Far away and forgotten
My goal was to explore the remains of Kitsault and Alice Arm, two forgotten mining communities 140 kilometres north of Prince Rupert. Located on either side of Alice Arm at the end of 100-kilometre-long Observatory Inlet, these towns boast very different backgrounds and I was eager to learn their unique histories.

Reaching the area turned out to be complicated. I found myself lost in a maze of logging roads past Nass Camp, where a wrong turn took me to a washout. Regaining the correct route, I had an unexpected encounter with a white Kermode bear, munching by the roadside near the Nass River. Further along, a road sign indicated a bridge wash-out, but it had been repaired just days earlier. Finally, the potholed road ended at a locked gate, blocking access to Kitsault, abandoned by AMAX in 1983 when falling molybdenum prices led to closures.

Locked up for years with only a custodian to maintain the place and enjoy the stunning views, the entire town was purchased in 2005 by medical devices entrepreneur Krishnan Suthantiran for $7 million. In spite of its remote location, Kitsault is now being revived for tourism, mining and educational purposes, a process that involves consultation with the Nisga’a nation, whose traditional territory surrounds the area.

Mounting my bike, I rode down to the welcome sign: “Chandra Krishnan—Kitsault—Heaven on Earth.” Surrounded by neatly laid out streets and landscaped housing in an unlikely wilderness setting, I suddenly felt at home—I could live here! With a tinge of nostalgia, I surveyed the single-family homes and apartments whose residents simply walked out and left one day, leaving behind manicured lawns, paved streets and parking lots, a hospital, shopping mall and recreation centre, all enveloped in an eerie silence and surrounded by dense rainforest, with an occasional bear rustling in the bushes.

Packrat mansion
With the pristine emptiness of Kitsault still echoing in my thoughts, I made my way on to Alice Arm, paddling two kilometres across the inlet in a small inflatable raft. Glancing back, I was struck by the idyllic west coast scene that inspires tourists from afar: the surrounding snow-capped peaks that contrast with lush green old-growth forest and several glacier-fed streams supporting a rich salmon habitat.

Alice Arm is perhaps the most inaccessible ghost town of northern BC, with no power lines and no road to the rest of the province. A dilapidated mansion overlooks the tidal flats. Once home to a politician, it is now inhabited by packrats. Several cabins have been renovated and summer homes were built along unpaved streets lined with tall fireweed and thimbleberry bushes. A log cabin crumbles in a field of lupines, and a collapsed hotel is disappearing into the rainforest. The schoolhouse is used for storage, with names of former pupils still inscribed by the coat-hooks. Shirley Burton, a summer resident, showed me a rusty pistol wrapped in greasy rags that she found buried in her garden, and I wondered what stories the old Colt 45 could tell.

On the main street overlooking the shoreline, beside a modern landscaped dwelling owned by Jeff Wolrige, stands the Blue Heron Gallery. I recalled seeing this gallery in Prince Rupert some years ago. I asked Wolrige how the structure came to be here. He smiled. “The gallery closed last year and I bought it. We put it on the company barge to move it here. Looks perfect at its new home, doesn’t it?”

Wolrige’s company is restoring two aging dams in order to generate clean power. Built in 1922 at remote lakes to supply power to the Anyox smelter and nearby copper/silver mines, the roads and dams were abandoned, deteriorating to the point where they posed a safety hazard. Now the company is repairing the dams while restoring important fish habitat in the waterways. Building ingeniously on the foundations laid by pioneers almost 100 years ago, the project will supply up to 50MW of power to the British Columbia grid with an underwater connection to the existing power lines at Kitsault.

Seasonal residents come to Alice Arm for a few weeks of quiet fishing and relaxation. Only one couple stays year-round: Charlie Fleenor and his wife Dana have been living for 16 years in a cabin overlooking the green tidal flats where grizzlies gather to fish for salmon. The Fleenors spend the winter trapping in the area. In summer they do maintenance work at Kitsault and enjoy the excellent fishing in the coastal waters. I visited them for a glass of homemade beer and watched as they hit golf balls into the river channels far below. Fleenor’s experience in the area was helpful to Anyox Hydro workers: he advised them on important fish habitat, helped with road maintenance and kept a watchful eye on the grizzlies.

I came to Kitsault and Alice Arm to explore abandoned mining remains, and instead found a revival in progress. Recreation, mineral exploration and hydroelectric power are bringing new life to these forgotten places. The lucky few who own land here possess a coastal location to rival the resorts of southern BC. The recent $20 million sale of the closed molybdenum mine to an American company may in time interrupt the tranquility of this paradise…but until then it remains a small piece of heaven on earth.