Nestled in the picturesque Bulkley Valley, Smithers is a town of 6,000 people with a surprising number of amenities for such a small population.
Chic clothing stores, stylish cafes and a disproportionately high number of outdoor stores sprinkle the few downtown blocks blessed with the backdrop of Hudson Bay Mountain to the west and the Babine Mountain Range to the east.
While Hudson Bay Mountain provides an enjoyable resort experience for visiting skiers and snowboarders, the nearby Hankin-Evelyn Recreation Area is what sets skiing in Smithers apart. Geared for non-motorized, self-propelled ski touring, Hankin-Evelyn has been created as a backcountry getaway complete with cut runs, signage and hut amenities. Imagine a free-access ski resort with no chair lifts, no staff and most importantly, no crowds.
It all started in 2008 when long-time Smithers local Brian Hall began to look for an area to ski that was free of resort development and snowmobiles.
"I wanted to find an area that historically didn't have any other use," said Hall, the visionary behind Hankin-Evelyn.
"I also wanted it to be to be fairly close to town. As I looked around (the valley) this seemed like one of the areas that had potential."
After a comprehensive environmental assessment and securing funding from the B.C. government, Hall was able to contract unemployed forestry workers to cut nine narrow ski runs on Hankin Mountain. A warming hut, complete with wood burning stove and outhouse, was built at the top of these runs for skiers to take refuge in poor weather. All of this was possible because Hall and other Hankin-Evelyn proponents devoted countless volunteer hours to the project.
"We've raised and spent over a million dollars in funding and labour on the project," said Hall.
"That includes over 1,000 hours per year in volunteer hours."
And the attention to detail shows. The turn off for Hankin Mountain is roughly 25 kilometres west of Smithers on Highway 16 after which drivers take a 20-minute drive along Kitseguecla Lake Road. A local ranching family is contracted by Hall to plough this road after snow falls, maintaining access for all types of vehicles throughout the winter, though winter tires, chains and tow ropes are recommended. Next to the parking lot an entrance gate directs all foot traffic through a permanent beacon checker, a red "X" flashes to a green "O" as you pass through the gate, reassuring you that your transceiver is working correctly. After 10 minutes of skinning up the lower slopes of Hankin Mountain there are several signs pointing to various runs. Signage like this is rare in the backcountry and together with an accurate trail map, makes the area accessible to anyone on skis, splitboards or snowshoes.
At the top of the treeline — roughly 90 minutes touring from the parking lot – a cosy, warming shelter offers andescape from the weather. The hut is for day use only, however, allowing people to sleep there would burn through the costly firewood too quickly, and the human waste could stretch the capacity of the composting toilet. On the backside of Hankin a renovated two-storey hut is available for overnight use, though it is not as close to the developed ski runs. Construction and maintenance of these structures, as well as all the trails, were entirely funded by donations to the Bulkley Backcountry Ski Society and Recreation Sites and Trails BC.
Above the warming shelter the alpine bowls of Hankin Mountain stretch in every direction. The goal-oriented ski tourers spend most of their time here lapping chutes, couloirs and open face slopes and can retreat back to the hut if weather suddenly changes for the worse. The trail map and signs make it clear that avalanche equipment and training is required to travel into the alpine, anything below the hut is in sheltered treed terrain where avalanche danger is manageable even through heavy snowstorms.
Hankin-Evelyn shines as a beacon of backcountry development with its accessibility. With a plowed access road, a selection of 11 cut trails all signed as beginner, intermediate and advanced and quick access to complex alpine terrain for the more adventurous users — there is literally something for everyone at this recreation area. Snowshoers and nordic skiers also use the lower trails and dogs are welcome.
But just like commercial ski areas, to be truly sustainable Hankin-Evelyn's trails need to have four season appeal and be suitable for all non-motorized user groups. Summer hiking is gaining popularity in the area and mountain bike trails are also slowly getting developed. Support from the government has been strong both provincially through Recreation Sites and Trails B.C. and federally through the Western Economic Diversification program.
With planned and coordinated development that now offers a ski touring experience like nowhere else in North America, the community of Smithers has clearly set the bar.
Hawk Air flies daily to Smithers from Vancouver Airport www.hawkair.com. For comfortable rooms at a great price, stay at Stork Nest Inn in Smithers. Special rates apply for longer stays and a full breakfast is included every day. www.storknestinn.com. The best time to travel for ski touring is between late January and late March.