From the summit plateau of Hankin Mountain you can see a lot: west to the Coast Mountains, east to the Rockies, south to the spectacularly sheer walls and glaciers of Hudson Bay Mountain. During a 30-minute bootpack up the east ridge we've also seen three snowboarders drop three very different — but equally tempting — lines in the main north-facing bowl. Now it's our turn. Brian chooses the largest and closest chute, a shallow, natural halfpipe that sweeps away beneath his tips; I opt for the next one over, requiring a small cornice-drop to enter. After watching Brian make happy pow turns to the bottom some 300 vertical metres below, I drop in. Despite preternatural late-March warmth (we'd skinned up freeze-thaw chickenheads to the staging cabin at treeline in t-shirts) the snow up here is unscathed and powdery. Combined with a sustained 35-degree pitch and a mere five-minute walk back to the start of the ridge it makes for something, well... kind of perfect. For residents of Smithers, B.C., who can drive to the base area of the Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation Area in under 30 minutes, perfect is, well... kind of normal.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that 10 sporting goods stores serving 5,500 souls makes Smithers a different sort of place. And you wouldn't be alone. Unlike many northern whistle stops, folks choose Smithers and the Bulkley Valley more for lifestyle reasons (of which there are many) than somewhere to land a resource-based job (of which there are few), a basis for the town's strong community-mindedness, burgeoning outdoor scene, and ability to support a forward-thinking initiative like Hankin-Evelyn, which comprises low-elevation snowshoeing and cross-country loops, beginner, intermediate and expert downhill runs, as well as significant high-alpine terrain — all available free of charge.
The story begins in 2008 when local Brian Hall secured funding to develop a dedicated area for non-motorized backcountry usage. A longtime skier who'd done avalanche control at Lake Louise back in the 1970s, Hall later worked in consulting, resource industries, real estate, and created the Valhalla Pure chain of outdoor retailers before turning to running the Stork Inn in Smithers with his wife Kim. Adept at problem solving, Hall sought a way to move past the perennial conflict between self-propelled and motorized recreators in B.C.'s busy backcountry. With seed money from the feds earmarked for unemployed forestry workers, and partnering with everyone from friends to backcountry user groups to the province, Hall had fellers cut seven runs on Hankin and a couple more at nearby Evelyn Mountain/Elliot Peak. Though originally slated to be a yurt, a cabin with a woodstove was constructed atop the cut trails at treeline, a respite from which to attack the alpine. From the start, volunteers were the lifeblood; local business and individuals support the project with winter road plowing, improvements and ongoing maintenance.