BC Hwy 16: Prince Rupert | North Pacific Cannery | Ksan Heritage Village | Fort St. James

We reconnected with Highway 16 on the mainland, leaving the Haida behind to meet their neighbours and trading partners the Tsimshian, Gitxsan and Carrier peoples and to explore the beginnings of modern BC. The city of Prince Rupert was a huge surprise. From the activity of fishing boats in the harbour and the towering derricks of the container port (seen from the ferry), I had the idea this was purely a working town. I thought the only interesting tourist feature would be Cow Bay, where herds of day tripping Alaska cruise passengers crowd the cafes and shops on port day. But driving around, we found streets of attractive houses and downtown, the knockout art deco city hall decorated in unique aboriginal motifs.

Near the harbour, the Museum of Northern BC is constructed in the style of the traditional longhouse. It displays treasures of the Tsimshian along with exhibits that explain Prince Rupert’s connection with the Titanic and how the city came into being as the terminus for a railway that would eventually become the Canadian National.

Another aspect of coastal history is preserved just down the highway in Port Edward at the North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site. Established in 1889, it operated for almost a century and is the oldest remaining fish cannery on the West Coast of North America. I was intrigued by the social history of the annual cannery lifestyle, where Chinese, Japanese and First Nations workers each played very separate roles under Euro-Canadian management.

On the drive east, more roadside signs declared environmental and political opinions and reminded us of the tragic events associated with the “highway of tears.” We moved into Gitxsan territory and the Ksan Village at the Hazeltons. Here a guide escorted us through Eagle, Wolf, Fireweed and Frog longhouses (named for the Gitxsan clans) where the tang of wood smoke touched the air as sound and light shows revealed the structure and lifestyle of the people.

The other highlight of the Hazeltons is the Visitor Centre, where kitschy figures represent different aspects of the local economy and JF serves twice-fried ambrosia from his chip truck.

Travelling on through history, Highway 16 often parallels ancient transportation routes that took on huge significance during the fur trade era. A short side-trip brought us to the Fort St. James National Historic Site. Founded in 1806 by Simon Fraser for the Northwest Company, it was the second permanent post west of the Rockies. It played an important role in Fraser’s preparations for the 1808 expedition to explore the river he hoped was the Columbia, but that now bears his name.

The Northwest and Hudson Bay companies merged in 1821 and from then until it ceased operations in 1952, Fort St. James was a pivotal Hudson Bay fur trading post. The site is restored to represent the year 1896 with interpreters setting the scene. I got so involved in conversation with Violet Prince, who greeted me in her native Carrier language at the Men’s House, and her daughter in law Lindsay Sam in the Trade Store, that I missed the chicken races – but I did get a fresh-baked ginger snap in the Officers’ House. And I learned something that several university courses on the fur trade had failed to impress on me. For at least half of the post’s long history, dried salmon supplied by the Carrier was the staple diet. Without them, the fur traders would quite simply have starved.

I also heard a couple of versions of how the legendary Chief Kw’eh spared the life of James Douglas, the man would otherwise not have become first governor of the newly formed colony of British Columbia in 1858.

My big disappointment at Fort St. James was learning too late that we could have stayed overnight in the Officer’s House B&B. Next time for sure.

First published in Okanagan Life magazine, March 2013. Download PDF.