hard hat holidays

🕔Sep 07, 2005

It’s a wild holiday moment. The white liquor is flowing freely. Everyone is wearing goofy glasses and funny hats. Meanwhile, sweating, muscular men are shouting to get your attention above the raucous din. But you’re not kicking up your heels at Mardi Gras. Instead, you’re finding your own little piece of paradise at a Prince George pulp mill. You’re wearing safety glasses and a hard hat, and peering into pulpy vats of white liquor and brown stock fibre stew. Without the benefit of psychedelic drugs, you’re watching trees being turned into tissue paper—or dog food bags—before your very eyes.

Most people envision pristine rivers and panoramic mountains when they plan a holiday in northern British Columbia. But these days, more industrial landmarks are also attracting enterprising travellers, including smokestacks in Prince George, Houston, and Kitimat, an open pit mine near Fraser Lake, and hydroelectric dams in the Peace.

Tom Prince took his “Hard Hat Holiday” en route from Chicago to Alaska. He stopped in Prince George for a pulp mill tour. Along with a warm welcome and doughnuts, the mill guide handed out respirators—”in case of an air emergency.” With the respirator in his fanny pack, Prince set off through a hot, gritty plant reminiscent of both Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and a futuristic, high-tech space lab. He tromped up and down metal catwalks and marvelled at the ominously named “Digester”—a wood chip pressure cooker that’s ten stories high. By tour’s end, the American visitor was shaking his head in amazement. “The amount of energy it takes to make a paper bag!”

Every summer, more than two thousand tourists have similar industrial revelations in Prince George, as they visit the mills, tree nursery, and logging operations of Canada’s biggest lumber company. “It’s all about education,” says Canfor public affairs manager Lee Koonfer. “The more people understand our business, and what workers here are providing for their families, the more acceptance there is in the community of industry’s presence.” Travellers can also tour mills in Fort Nelson, and Houston—where the biggest “Super Mill” in the world churns out enough lumber each year to build 30,000 houses.

Forester Mark Clark takes tourists into active logging sites on summer outings southwest of Prince George. He says even grown-ups get excited watching the heavy equipment in action. “I’ve worked with all these logging contractors for years, so they welcome us when we pull in with the big tour bus,” says Clark. “We let visitors talk directly to feller bunchers, processors, and skidders—even the logging truck drivers, if we can get them to sit still long enough.”

Tourists also have the chance to get up-close-and-personal with the mountain pine beetle that’s killing most of B.C.’s pine forests. While local people may be weary of battling the beetle, many tourists haven’t even heard about the pest problem.

Clark recalls taking one summer tour group to view miles of dead, red trees from a forest overlook. “I was lamenting the fact that our forest was under attack. But one foreign tourist wondered why I was complaining. She thought it was lovely that our fall colours showed up in summer. So, it’s all about education.”

It’s also about attracting tourism dollars, says Anne Hardy, an assistant professor of Resource Recreation and Tourism at the University of Northern British Columbia. She says companies often launch industrial tours to improve their public image—or to boost sales. But, she says, industrial tourism can also become a big business. She points to one American chocolate factory that attracts two million visitors a year. “Recently there has been a worldwide surge in companies who are creating visitor attractions at their main point of production,” says Hardy.

Hardy believes industrial tourism could become increasingly important to the northern economy over the next decade, as the beetle infestation stalls work in the lumber industry. But it may take a lot of work to improve tourists’ impression of the north’s industrial bounty.

Last year, Hardy co-ordinated a survey gauging visitors’ perceptions of Prince George. “They definitely said the mills and the smells were something they didn’t find an attractive quality. At the same time, people said they wanted to see more cultural and heritage attractions. They didn’t recognize the tourism potential of the mills—but there is this great potential.”

Hardy cites the proven appeal of historic forms of industrial tourism, including the old-fashioned gold mining town of Barkerville, and the North Pacific Cannery Village Museum in Port Edward. “People are quite fascinated to understand how things are done,” says Hardy. “For me, that cannery brought canned salmon to life.”


Check with the company, the local Visitor Information Centre, or the Chamber of Commerce office for the most up-to-date tour information. You may have to make a reservation.

Many tours are restricted to children over the age of 12. Some industrial tours also have clothing, footwear, eyewear, and health restrictions.

Many tours run from the May long weekend to early September


CANFOR Mill and Forestry Tours
Tours offered in Houston, Fort Nelson, and Prince George.
Tour hotline: (250) 567-5700.
www.canfor.com. Click on “Community,” and then “Tours”

Touchwood Tours—active logging tours in Prince George area
TouchwoodTours@shaw.ca, or call (250) 964-1381.

Pacific Western Brewery, Prince George
Short daily summer tours, with free samples.
(250) 562-2424

Endako Mine near the Village of Fraser Lake.
July and August tours of the open pit molybdenum mine by appointment, when no blasting is taking place.
Contact the Vanderhoof Chamber of Commerce: (250) 567-2124

Northwest B.C.—Kitimat:

Alcan—Daily afternoon tours of Alcan’s aluminum smelter start in June.
Alcan Telephone: (250) 639-8259

Methanex—Twice weekly morning tours of the Kitimat methanol plant start in June.
Methanex. Telephone (250) 639-9292

You can also book tours through the Kitimat Chamber of Commerce
1 (800) 664-6554

Northeast B.C.—W.A.C Bennett Dam, Hudson’s Hope
Public tours of the 500-foot deep underground powerhouse resume Victoria Day, after they were cancelled last year for security concerns. New fees for tours.
Visitor centres are also open at WAC Bennett Dam and the Peace Canyon Dam.