Metlakatla wilderness trail: Build it and they will come
BC’s North Coast is a rugged, unspoiled landscape. Wildlife abounds—fish in the water, shellfish on the shore, birds in the air, and bears, deer, moose, wolves, and hundreds of other species on land. The ocean is constantly changing: low tides reveal incredible beaches, tide pools full of marine life, and evidence of ancient First Nations culture, while some of the world’s highest tides transform the coast into a rocky, thickly forested shoreline.
The weather is also constantly in flux: it can turn a glassy sea into white-caps in a matter of minutes. Rainbows are frequent, as are those ethereal moments when shafts of sunlight burst through dark storm clouds. And the terrestrial landscape is positively bursting with life: Its lush rainforest plants grow at an impossible rate and its wildlife constantly capitalizes on a hefty selection of good things to eat. What better place to have a trail than along this amazing coastline?
The Metlakatla Wilderness Trail has been in the works for a number of years. It went through several stages as part of its long progression from idea to trail. And now it’s finally ready.
A calculated challenge Anyone who has spent much time hiking around the North Coast knows it’s a wet landscape—there’s the sea itself and thousands of creeks, not to mention year-round torrential downpours, light mists, drizzles, and good, old-fashioned rain. Building a trail in such a saturated landscape requires plenty of planning, significant raw materials—boardwalks and bridges are ubiquitous—lots of dirty hands-on hard work and, of course, really good raingear.
Andrew Blix is a forester with years of experience working throughout northern BC, and he has a pretty good idea of how to manage large-scale projects. He co-authored the latest edition of Trails to Timberline, the seminal guidebook for the region, and is an experienced trail builder—he was heavily involved in Kitimat’s North Cove Trail, among others. He’s the kind of guy who makes his living working outdoors, but recreation-based jobs don’t come up very often. “I love doing things like this,” he says, explaining that he jumped at the chance when this project came along.
“Building the trail was just one big challenge,” he admits. “But it was a calculated challenge. We weren’t going in blind.” The lofty goal was to make the trail a destination in itself, while simultaneously adding to locals’ list of fantastic hikes close to home.
While it is called a “wilderness trail,” it’s actually staged in difficulty. The route starts in Metlakatla village, near Prince Rupert, and heads north along the coast, towards Lax Kw’alaams (Port Simpson). The first kilometre is accessible to hikers of all abilities. It’s mostly boardwalk that culminates in a picnic area on a sheltered sandy beach.
Up to about the six-kilometre mark, the trail is either gravel or boardwalk. To sculpt the trail, making it substantial enough that it’ll last for more than just a couple of years, Blix employed Jamie Beedle, a machine operator out of Terrace.
“Using the machine up on the North Coast there was really difficult,” says Blix. “It was way more challenging than myself and the machine operator thought it would be. But it turned out much better than we expected. We had one of the best operators in the region. I don’t think anyone else could have done what he did.”
Blix says building the trail was more than just getting the job done; it was about providing training for the workers. “Everything from harnessed, high-wire stuff, to cutting and brushing, to pounding a hammer.” He laughs a little grimly, recalling that not everyone who came out realized it was going to be such hard work, but says everyone learned something from the experience, if only a bit more about themselves. “The guys—the crew—were really good. It was a good experience for everybody, even the guys who didn’t stick around.”
Towers and bridges At about the one-kilometre mark, a small side-trail leads to viewing towers. These structures—two towers linked by a suspension bridge—were engineered and built by Smithers resident John Kelson. Although he has built similar tourism-based projects all over the world, putting together significant structures on the North Coast proved a formidable task.
He describes a couple of his previous projects, concluding, “But this was way harder!” Why? “Wind, tides, rain, snow—it was mainly the weather and the pace,” he explains. “I took only two days off last year between mid-April and Christmas.” But, he says, it was all worth it, despite the beating the project gave his body. “The end result is awesome,” he says. “I look at it like it’s my art. This isn’t a construction project, this is an art installation.”
Not knowing quite what to expect, I thumb through a few photos. These structures on the trail are as impressive as the North Coast landscape itself. They’re so impressive, they seem almost surreal. Kelson says of the few people he’s already run into out on the trail: “Mostly they freak out—they love it!”
Along the undeveloped coast The finished part of the trail is about 10 kilometres. Those who were involved most closely with the project hope that eventually the entire coastline between Metlakatla and Lax Kwa’laams (Port Simpson) will be connected as a multi-day wilderness trail. It stands alone, however, as a solid hike with potential for overnight wilderness camping.
“After the first group goes out there and sees how good it is, word’s going to get out,” says Dave Jones, who worked with Kelson during construction and has hiked the trail. “It’s totally different every time. The weather changes every 20 minutes. At low tide you can hop down onto the beach and check it out and then pop back onto the trail later.” Because the trail follows an undeveloped part of the coast, there are sheltered sandy beaches that make perfect picnicking spots.
“Once you’ve walked the first six kilometres,” says Blix, “you know what to expect as far as trail and beach-walking goes. But the campsite is at 7.5 kilometres, so if you want to make it a long weekend, you can keep going all the way there.”
On the trail, a hiker can expect to see wildlife of every kind—marine, terrestrial, and airborne. Kelson describes a scene while working during the herring run. “There were literally thousands of seabirds,” he says. “It’s really good ecology out there.”
Nature’s finest isn’t all the trail has to offer. The North Coast is known for thousands of years of continuous First Nations occupation, and the trail is no exception. “There are 20 identified cultural sites,” says Blix. These include shell middens, seasonal village sites and culturally modified trees, to name a few. For now, he’s labelled them S1, S2, S3 and so on, and hopes that at some point a guide will be produced for visitors to take with them along the trail.
The North Coast is a place of astonishing beauty and rich cultural heritage. It’s somewhere that can make you smile simply by turning the corner on a trail and seeing something new—something so impossibly fantastic, it doesn’t even seem real. Sometimes it’s like walking into a painting. The Metlakatla Wilderness Trail provides an opportunity for tourists, travellers, and locals alike to get out and hike through that landscape, to feel it under their feet, and to make it real.