Step Into the Past: Exploring the historic sites of northern BC
Northern BC has a few distinctive characteristics that stand out to visitors when they come to the region. The first is usually the big landscapes we have up here. There’s a lot of untouched wilderness in the northern half of the province and it seems that everywhere you look there’s some astonishing natural feature to gawp at—a waterfall, precipitous mountain peaks, lush old-growth forest, jagged coastline, a luminescent glacier-fed lake.
These postcard-picture scenes are the types of places that make you shake your head and wonder why the whole world doesn’t know about them. But then, as you snap a photo of some incredible vista to show your friends back home, you gleefully get the feeling you’re the first to see it. The thing is: you’re not.
Northern BC isn’t just home to spectacular landscapes, it’s also packed full of history, from thousands of years of First Nations occupation and continuous use of the natural environment to hundreds of years of vibrant Euro-Canadian culture. Up here, we’re lucky enough to have a fantastic blend of ancient and not-so-ancient heritage sites throughout the region. Plus, each site is generally located in the middle of a massive, largely unpopulated, and usually gorgeous landscape. Whether local or visitor, few things add depth to your travels like learning about who was here before, why they were here, and what they did.
Check out these official historic sites for opportunities to experience northern BC’s phenomenal natural landscapes while at the same time engaging with the region’s cultural past.
Gwaii Haanas The archipelago of Haida Gwaii is known around the world for both its coastal scenery and its vibrant First Nations culture, old and new. The islands are home to the famous national park reserve, Gwaii Haanas. Apart from being a scenic place of astonishing biodiversity, the park includes several officially recognized national historic sites, and a couple more are just outside its borders. These are internationally renowned destinations, incredible snapshots of Haida history and culture in an equally incredible natural landscape.
SGang Gwaay (Anthony Island) is one of the best-known and most-visited sites. The village of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay (Ninstints) is even noted as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason. It’s often described as a spiritual place, one that has a deep effect on every visitor, no matter where they’re from or what they know of SGang Gwaay’s history. Between its standing and fallen poles, remnants of longhouses, and the historic significance of why it’s an abandoned site—European-introduced diseases including smallpox caused its surviving inhabitants to leave the village—SGang Gwaay is one of those places that people from around the world have on their list of things do to before they die. And it’s a place they’ll never forget.
Nearby are the two similar abandoned village sites, T’aanuu Llnagaay and K’uuna Llnagaay (also known as Skedans). Each of these places is a powerful reminder of the vibrant Haida culture that has existed continuously on the islands for thousands of years. Gwaii Haanas is a national park reserve, cooperatively managed by the Haida Nation and Parks Canada. To go there, you need to pay park fees and arrange transportation to and from the park, often on a guided tour. The only way to get there is by sea or sky—there are no roads in. Check out Parks Canada’s Gwaii Haanas website for more information: http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/gwaiihaanas/index.aspx or call 1-877-559-8818.
Metlakatla Pass Close to Prince Rupert, little-known Metlakatla Pass is an ocean corridor that runs past the village of Metlakatla, between the BC mainland and a number of small islands. It’s recognized as a place of historic significance because the corridor is packed with archaeological sites including petroglyphs, pictograms, old village sites, culturally modified trees, and other examples of a long, continuous history of Tsimshian First Nations occupation. Probably the most-visited archaeological site in the pass is “The Man Who Fell From Heaven,” carved into a small shelf of rock between Prince Rupert and Metlakatla.
This is also an absolutely spectacular landscape and an abundance of sea life combined with relatively calm waters makes Metlakatla Pass a great paddling destination.
Triple Island Lighthouse Nothing defines the rugged North Coast like the chaotic, unpredictable nature of its waters. The lighthouses that were incongruously built on tiny rocks in the middle of tempestuous seas are historic reminders that Canada’s coastal culture has not only been around for a long time, it’s also weathered some pretty extreme storms over the years—and continues to do so today.
Triple Island Lighthouse was designated a National Historic Site because its very existence is a testament to historic bravery. Building a lighthouse on that little rock was, according to the Canadian Register of Historic Places, “one of the most hazardous tasks in Canadian maritime history.” Built in 1919-20, the lighthouse was intended to serve as a beacon for marine traffic heading to Alaska and to nearby Prince Rupert. Nearly a hundred years on, it’s still doing its job.
North Pacific Cannery The fishing industry is an integral part of BC’s cultural history and few places capture that as neatly as the North Pacific Cannery. The picturesque site near Port Edward (not far from Prince Rupert) preserves multiple chapters of west-coast fishing history, including early fishing techniques—hardy souls braving the elements in little rowboats and sailboats—the influence of Chinese and Japanese immigrants on the canning and fishing industry, and pre- and post-mechanization of the canning process itself.
“It’s a really neat combination of layers of history set in a remote, pristine backdrop,” says Steve Milum, the cannery’s operations manager. “There are so many stories and memories of family history that happened out here.”
North Pacific operated continuously from its opening in 1889 until the 1980s, and the site is one of the oldest west-coast canneries still around. It’s full of artifacts from the various chapters of its history, each one a fascinating remnant of an industry that once employed thousands of local and immigrant workers.
Maintained by the Port Edward Historic Society, the cannery site offers self-guided or guided tours, a café, a hostel, and hosts both community and private events. Head to northpacificcannery.ca to learn more.
Gitwangak Battle Hill There’s a small, steep-sided grassy hump just north of where the Yellowhead and the Stewart-Cassiar highways meet at Kitwanga. It offers a view of distant mountains and the Kitwanga River. A stone’s throw from nearby Kitwanga village, the hill is an obvious place to set up a defensive stronghold and something about it immediately cries out, “history was made here!” From its flat top, there’s a great view in all directions—no one can sneak up on you when you’re up there.
In the 1700s, there were five longhouses at the top of the hill. To guard these, the whole hill was fortified against attackers, surrounded by strong walls. The famous warrior chief, ’Nekt, was responsible for its construction. ’Nekt controlled significant trade routes throughout the region and was known for conducting fierce raids on neighbouring territories and villages, hence the need for a strong defensive site. According to Parks Canada’s website, “’Nekt and his warriors hoisted huge spiked logs up the palisade walls and fastened them with cedar ropes. When the war horn signalled an enemy attack, the logs were rolled down to crush the invaders.”
Battle Hill is a preserved archaeological site open to the public. Several interpretive panels provide visitors with the means to take a self-guided tour. It’s a glimpse into a fierce chapter of BC’s history and a great spot for a picnic. In Kitwanga village, there are a number of amazing totem poles, some of which were moved from the Battle Hill site to the village so they could be better preserved.
Fort St. James The Canadian fur trade is studied in schools across the country. From the Hudson Bay Company’s ever-expanding empire to the North West Company’s daring explorations, the story of the fur trade is distinctly Canadian. BC’s fur-trade history took place much later than the rest of the country because it took time for explorers to make it across the Rockies. Fort St. James was one of the first Euro-Canadian settlements on the west side of that mountainous barrier.
The National Historic Site is a Hudson Bay Company fort. Set on the shores of Stuart Lake, it’s a scenic and peaceful place. And unlike many of its fellow HBC forts, it has always been a peaceful place. It has no fortified walls and no history of bloodshed.
Instead, it’s home to a long history of trade, travel, exploration, and the inevitable blend of First Nations and Euro-Canadian culture that accompanies the fur trade from coast to coast. The site is administered by Parks Canada, and to capture the essence of its history for visitors, the staff use interpretive costumes and storytelling. Check out http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/bc/stjames/index.aspx for more info.
Huble Homestead Just north of Prince George is Giscome Portage Regional Park. The park commemorates and protects a portage route travelled in the 1800s as part of the Cariboo Gold Rush. The route is rich in the personal histories of pioneers and prospectors who travelled north to seek their fortunes. Some found what they were looking for; others didn’t. Before Euro-Canadians and Americans came, the route was a well-travelled Lheidli T’enneh First Nation trade route. Giscome Park is also home to Huble Homestead historic site. Preserved on its original location (it was nearly moved to Prince George at one point), the homestead includes an original 1912 log building, built in the dovetail style popular in Ontario at the time, as well as a general store, a blacksmith shop, and a variety of other buildings. To find out how to get there and to learn more about the site’s history, head to hublehomestead.ca.
Barkerville Arguably BC’s best-known historic destination, Barkerville is not only a National Historic Site, it’s also one of the most innovative interpretive attractions around. Every summer, the old Gold Rush townsite comes alive as its seasonal staff dons period costumes and engages with visitors in authentic interactions based on well-crafted historical characters. It’s one of those places that is equal parts kitsch and charming.
Barkerville has made its name by marketing the full-immersion experience and the Barkerville Heritage Trust, a non-profit that manages the site, has kept the town’s historic integrity intact while providing an entertaining experience for visitors.
Barkerville is a snapshot of BC’s Gold Rush that you can walk through. The town retains 100 of its original buildings—lovingly restored—and has added a further 30 “replicas” to support the illusion of stepping into the past. “It always felt like the past was right around the corner,” says former Barkerville employee, John Threlfall. “Like you could step back in time by simply forgetting what year you were actually in.” Check out barkerville.ca for more info.