This blog post was written before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when physical distancing and other COVID health and safety protocols were not in effect. The businesses and communities featured in this article may be once again welcoming visitors but please double check as some are only open with limited operations and others have not yet reopened.

I moved to Canada five years ago, and since then I have seen precisely one bear in the wild. I’d started to believe that I was a pretty effective bear-repeller, so when the chance came to visit Northern B.C., to go visit an ashram on assignment for B.C. Living, and I was promised that I was ‘absolutely guaranteed’ to see bears, I jumped at the chance. Bears I saw, and they were, indeed, amazing. And the ashram was a truly incredible experience too, but one of the other experiences I was excited to have was a visit to the Nisga’a Nation, a First Nation who’ve made history in Canada and inspired others around the world.

Back in May 2000, the Nisga’a (pronounced nish-ga) signed the Nisga’a Treaty, the first of its kind which marked the beginning of a new start for the Nisga’a people who now have self-government over their lands. The Nisga’a Nation hail this as ‘an example of hope, trust, and cooperation…(which) is being studied by governments and Indigenous peoples the world over’.

One of the many newly created programs is the excellent self-guided auto-tour route through Nisga’a territory which takes visitors through the rich cultural treasures and natural wonders of this land. Head out from Terrace on the Nisga’a Highway where the two-lane road winds gently through lush forest and past crystal clear turquoise lakes with soft sloping mountains rising on both sides. There are 18 different sites to explore along the 100-km route, all within an easy walk from the road: from hot springs to waterfalls, with a top-notch modern museum and rare geological landscapes to marvel at along the way.

Once you’re past the serpentine stretch of road from Terrace which follows the trail of the Kisumkalum river to the vast, deep waters of Kitsumkalum Lake with its bounty of cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden, you drive into the protected wilderness of Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park—another historic landmark; this is the first provincial park managed jointly by a First Nation and British Columbia — which offers up a landscape almost unlike any other in the country thanks to a volcanic explosion and an alkali basalt lava flow.

Some 250 years ago, a volcano erupted and lava spilled from the crater down the Tseax Valley to the Nass River creating some fascinating features which you can see today along the Auto Tour Route: such as Crater Lake with its petrified trees, the elephant trunk-like solid lava flows which cooled as they hit the Nass River at the Boat Launch site, and the vast expanse of the lava beds themselves—looking for all the world like a strange lunar landscape. As you progress along the route, stopping at each well-signposted attraction, it’s easy to find yourself imaging being at the start of the world as you stroll past ancient trees garlanded with Old Man’s Beard. There are two waterfalls along the way, and for me, Vedder Falls was the most beautiful, with spray from the crystal clear water misting the old-growth forest. I sat to soak up the dappled sunlight and look at the gnarly knuckles of branches sprigged with ferns, and read about the legend of the Phantom Fish; steelhead with snake-like bodies who evolved after being confined to the stream once the lava flow blocked off the stream from the Tseax River.

I have a fascination with hot springs and the little pool at Hlgu Isgwit didn’t let me down. After a satisfying tramp along boardwalks through soaring trees, I found the pool, with its little changing area, and slipped into the piping hot, naturally heated water. The water only comes to waist-height and the pool is rustic to say the least (I gingerly scooped a dead frog from the surface before getting in!) but the sulfurous-smelling pool, said to be the home of the Sbi Naxnok spirit, left my skin feeling smooth and my body ache-free.

The biggest surprise along the route was the excellent Nisga’a Museum, a thoroughly modern cultural centre, gallery, and museum, which opened in 2011, and amongst its displays includes a fascinating section on Nisga’a traditional harvesting and fishing seasons, and spiritual beliefs. But the crown jewel is the breathtaking ‘Ancestors’ Collection’ a unique treasure trove of intricately carved masks, bentwood boxes, headdresses, and other works of art which were taken from the Nisga’a people after European settlers arrived. Many of these precious historic treasures never survived after they were thought to be idols and destroyed by missionaries. The collection on display was returned to its home from museums in Victoria and Ottawa as part of the Final Agreement with this beautiful sentiment:  “Hli Goothl Wilp-Adokshl Nisga’a is our gift to each other, our fellow Canadians, and all humanity.”

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Nikki Bayley

Nikki Bayley

Nikki Bayley is an award winning international travel writer, and food and wine journalist. Originally from the UK, Nikki fell in love with Canada after a visit to Newfoundland in 2008 and moved to Vancouver in 2012. Nikki has been criss-crossing Canada ever since, learning more about the land and its peoples, and sharing their stories around the world.