Photo Credit: Brian Hall
Have Sticks, Will Travel: Exploring the North on skis
My breath hangs in frozen bursts and dissipates behind me. My legs and arms pump in a steady rhythm and, leaving two straight lines of track behind me, I think of myself as a steady, slow-moving locomotive. “I think I can, I think I can.”
The world outside is silent and the only thing I can hear is the sound of blood pumping through my eardrums. Winter is back and I could hardly wait to put on my skis.
As a kid, I would snug up my three-pin bindings on my hickory skis and zig-zag my way through the backyard or around an open lake. Racing my brother down the icy stretches and pulling my sister up a hill with an outstretched pole mark my family ski memories. There was no Gore-tex, spandex or much technique beyond a stiff-legged herringbone to get up the really steep hills.
“That’s it, just keep moving!” my parents encouraged as we shuffle-trudged our way across the landscape in our checked wool jackets and wrap-around scarves. Though my technique has improved since those days, the advice to keep moving is still sound.
Whether cross-country or backcountry, the hiss of skis on snow is a special kind of motivational soundtrack. So long as you hear that sound, you are making progress. Skiing is a wonderful way to stay in shape, enjoy the outdoors and explore unknown territory. It really does offer a true range of adventure, from family excursions around a flat trail with a kid in a backpack to technically challenging routes requiring ropes, avalanche knowledge and the patience to bushwhack uphill through deep snow. While every trip isn’t for everyone – take note that some areas require experience and knowledge or avalanche travel – certainly the North has something to offer for every skier’s idea of a good time.
The Bowron Lakes chain, near historic Barkerville and the small community of Wells, is well known for multi-day canoe trips. When the lakes freeze and a deep blanket of snow covers the land, they can be traversed by skis. Multi-day ski trips can be a fantastic way to explore this vast landscape.
The area also offers 15 km of groomed ski trails, many of which are regularly track set, in addition to hundreds of kilometres of marked, non-motorized trails. Some of the trails are steeped in history, including the Cariboo Wagon Road from Stanley to Barkerville, which is about 25 km. In addition to a wide variety of ski trails, Wells hosts the Wells Gourmet Ski Tour and International Mountain Film Festival, where you can sample international foods while burning off the calories as you go. Detailed maps and descriptions of each trail around Wells, including length and elevation profiles, are available at wellsbarkervilletrails.com/trails.
Quesnel’s main cross-country area is at Hallis Lake, with a trail network of about 75 km. In addition to track-set trails, some of the first dog trails in the area provide a place for four-legged ski partners to run. A warming hut, washrooms and rental shop make the trails easy for everyone to enjoy. The Cariboo Ski Club also maintains two backcountry huts, on Mount Murray and Mount Cariboo. Since the cabins can be tricky to find, it is a good idea to get a local to show you around.
Sugarbowl-Grizzly Den Provincial Park is a popular destination for Prince George ski-touring enthusiasts. With relatively easy access from Highway 16, this area provides good day excursions. Longer overnight trips into the Grizzly Den or Raven Lake cabins are also possible, though the Hungary Creek Road is not maintained in winter. Take note: there is serious avalanche terrain above treeline.
Located on Otway Road in Prince George, the Otway Ski Trails have it all: night skiing, 45 km of groomed trails, a rental shop, dog trails and a lodge. Just minutes from the city, Otway is a quick getaway to nature. In addition, the Cranbrook Hill Greenway Trail is accessible from here and consists of 25 km of trails between Otway and the University of Northern BC.
Located along the upper Fraser between Prince George and McBride, the railway settlement of Penny is the starting point for a ski tour up Red Mountain. A cabin has been maintained here since the early 1960s and, with a significant renovation in 2005, it is a cozy getaway. Access takes about five hours of skiing through interior cedar hemlock forest. The trip to Penny can be made by road or train, though you will have to be flexible and prepared because of road maintenance and train schedules not being strictly observed.
Waterlily Lake near Vanderhoof has more than 24 km of easy-grade trails for cross-country skiing. The trails pass a variety of scenery, including lakes, wetlands, open meadows, aspen and pine forest, and rocky bluffs. The recreation site offers views over the Nechako Valley toward Blue Mountain, and trails are natural and not groomed.
The Morice Mountain ski trails are all about community participation and inclusiveness. There is a wide range of terrain, from easy to challenging. In a beautiful, natural setting, skiers often see moose and even shy lynx are regularly spotted. There are two large lakes within the trail network and several viewpoints overlooking the nearby mountains. The trails are groomed regularly for both classic and skate, and the warming hut is a welcome retreat. In addition to two km of dog trails and two km of lit trails, there is an overnight cabin on the east side of Morice Mountain that is accessible through the trail network. There really are no excuses to not get out there, since the club has 50 full sets of gear available to rent, from the smallest child to the largest adult.
On Highway 35 just south of Burns Lake, the Omineca Ski Club recreation area rolls over the hills, forests and meadows of the Lakes District. With an extensive trail network, motivated skiers can log 45 km without ever repeating or backtracking their route. A lodge, wax cabin, three km of lit trails, a three-km dog loop and a biathlon range are all part of the experience. Trails are groomed for both skate and classic skiing on a regular basis. The new routes over Spud Mountain provide views and extra hill challenges to hone climbing technique. Omineca Ski Club also hosts a slush cup in the spring—leave your fat skis and snowboards behind and join them to test your balance and your grit.
Canyon Creek Cross-country Ski Area offers a combination of terrain for both cross-country and backcountry skiers. Located at the 21.5 km marker on Babine Lake Road, the area is close enough to town to make an easy day and far enough away that you may have the trails all to yourself. Though some of the trails are flat groomed, there are no set tracks. Offering natural trails that wend their way through snow-laden trees and up to magnificent views of the surrounding mountains, these trails are free and maintained by volunteers.
At Bulkley Valley Nordic Centre, 45-plus km of ski trails wind through Smithers Community Forest on either side of Hudson Bay Mountain road, just outside Smithers. Two dog trails have become a popular attraction, providing six km of pooch paradise. The Pine Creek Trail extends beyond the 2.5 km dog loop, offering five-, 7.5- and 10-km loops with few climbs. For more of a challenge, the Chris Dahlie Trails will get your heart pumping on the hills. A new road underpass connects the two sides of the recreation area, so skiers can go back and forth without worrying about traffic or taking off their skis. Amenities include a fully equipped ski lodge, waxing cabin, lighted trails and a biathlon range.
East of Smithers, high up on Tyee Mountain, the McDowell Lake Trails will get you above the clouds and into the winter sunshine. About 30 km of trails cover beginner to intermediate terrain. They cross both private and Crown land, and are maintained by property owners. Tracks are set about once a week and updates can be found on the website.
Located just west of Smithers, Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area offers cut runs, glades, a warming hut (day use only, please) and lots of comeraderie—but no lifts. The ski area is a perfect place to get some practice on climbing skins. It stops being friendly above treeline, though. While not very big, the steep windloaded NE-facing terrain produces large avalanches. There are five alpine bowls and 13 cut runs, providing a variety of terrain. Nearby, the Hankin Fire Lookout Cabin has been recently renovated for overnight stays.
Also near Smithers, Babine Mountains Provincial Park is not specific to skiing, but many of its peaks are accessible on backcountry skis. You can choose between mellow ski tour days or head out for some longer descents. Rewards include stunning views, solitude and a chance to see some winter wildlife. The Babines, too, have steep terrain that produces avalanches in some conditions. (See our article on Silverking Basin, p. 30 of this issue.)
Located halfway between Terrace and Kitimat, the Onion Lake Ski Trails are the place to go for cross-country skiing close to the coast. Snow Valley Nordics Ski Club maintains over 35 km of trails, a warming hut and washroom facilities. Five kilometres of lit track for night skiing can be turned on manually and stay on for two hours after activation. The Moose Hut, an overnight cabin, is available to members. Trails are suitable for beginner to advanced skiers and you can glide past several small lakes and fabulous valley views as you wind your way along.
For big snow and big terrain, the Terrace area has a lot to offer. The backcountry around Shames Mountain Ski Area has 26 routes that are perfect for day tripping. This is steep and serious mountain terrain that requires a solid grounding in technique and knowledge. This phenomenally easy-to-access area is also a great way to meet people, get involved with the ski community and participate in courses on safe backcountry travel. Lift tickets to access the backcountry are available for purchase on the condition of signing a waiver. Please respect the rules of the ski hill, found on the Shames website.
Larsen Ridge, located just southwest of Terrace, is another nearby getaway. Most often accessed by a quick helicopter ride, the cabin is an excellent base from which to explore the alpine and is maintained by the Mount Remo Backcountry Society.
The coast offers dramatic landscapes, glacier skiing and an unlimited number of places to explore. Todd Creek is a quick heli ride from Stewart and is surrounded by skiing opportunity. This is one example where destinations are really only limited by your imagination and willingness to make it happen. Be sure to carry avalanche and glacier gear—and know how to use it—before heading out.
Skiing is the perfect way to experience the winter landscape. Though it is lovely to be immersed, avoid being absorbed by the ice, snow and cold temperatures by being prepared. Whether it is a few hours, all day or overnight, bring the gear appropriate to the level of risk and exposure to the elements. Always understand the avalanche danger when skiing in natural areas, bring safety equipment and ensure you either have the experience to navigate terrain or buddy up and go with someone who knows the area. Current avalanche reports can be found at
Most ski areas mentioned have been developed and maintained by a vast network of tireless volunteers. One of the best ways to find that secret powder stash is to help maintain a local site. There is always trail clearing, glading, cabin upkeep and firewood to chop and help is usually appreciated.