Nature’s Pantry owner Ali Howard sits on the bench in front of her store. (Tom Roper photo)

Nature’s Pantry owner Ali Howard sits on the bench in front of her store. (Tom Roper photo)

Is it possible to swim the Skeena? Ask Ali Howard

Nature’s Pantry owner has an accomplished past and future

Have you had the chance to meet Ali Howard?

Well, I hope someday that you do. She is something else though, you wouldn’t know it.

Ali seems like a normal northern woman, you know, strong, healthy-looking, likes the outdoors, wears those blundstone loafers (she has never owned blundstones, usually wears sneakers.) But she has done something most people can only dream of. Actually that most people would even consider a bit crazy.

Ali swam the entire length of the Skeena river. What, you say, that’s impossible. Well, it’s not and she did it.

Ali was brought up in Ottawa and could be considered to have had a normal childhood. And she did, you know, two brothers, a sister, regular mom and dad.

Well, regular if you mean a family that loved the outdoors, worked hard to be a family and liked to achieve things.

Things like swimming, not like I do thrashing once a week down the lanes at the pool, but competing in water polo at a national level.

Things like achieving a biology degree, not like me just barely getting through a couple of years of college. No, this woman can set her mind to something and get ‘er done.

Her brother Chris and sister Monica had a tree planting business and Ali worked for them in the summers during university saving for tuition.

She planted trees and found out early this is not something she wanted to do the rest of her life, not even the rest of the summer.

So, maybe I should try cooking for the planters, now that sounds like more fun, she thought.

That’s what she did, but in typical Ali form, she did not just cook, she attended the Stratford Chef school in Ontario and went on to work in the fine dining industry for several years.

Looking to leave Toronto, Ali joined her siblings in a place called Smithers, B.C.

Monica and Chris had relocated their business to northern B.C. for more opportunity.

They had work and the family liked to be together.

This town, Smithers, seemed like a neat place, people were friendly and the outdoor recreational potential was amazing.

Ali found an opportunity after planting season to get a job in a fine dining scenario out at the Bear Claw Lodge on the Kispiox river. Now, that is a beautiful place.

It was there that Ali met Shannon McPhail , kind of a fateful moment.

It seems that Shannon and some of her cohorts were embroiled in a battle to prevent Royal Dutch Shell from developing a coalbed methane project in the Sacred Headwaters.

One night, the two ladies were scheming and an idea came up of contacting this guy who had swum the Amazon.

Maybe he could swim the Skeena and raise the profile of the river.

One thing led to the next and before you knew it a challenge was up.

“You’re a strong swimmer, Ali, why don’t you do it,” said Shannon kind of joking. And would you not believe it, Ali actually gave that crazy idea some pause.

So that part of Ali’s life became history. August 2009, 26 days, this thoughtful, concerned woman jumped into the Skeena river at the headwaters and swam all the way to Prince Rupert.

I have the DVD and would love to lend it to you.

Seems for the moment, anyway, Shell backed away to wait for the next generation of people who do not have the conviction to protect our waterways.

So where is Ali and what is she doing with her life now?

Ali, Monica, and Chris bought Nature’s Pantry and continued to run this thriving business they got from Mickey and Randy Brandvold.

The ladies bought out their brother and are enjoying the challenges of running a busy operation.

This also satisfies Ali’s connection to food.

She lives close to downtown and is able to walk to work.

Yes, she still swims and enjoys cross-country skiing up on the Nordic track throughout the winter and is on the board of the club helping with races and events.

The sisters, through the store, donate a portion of sales on specific days to a charity of choice selected, of course, by Ali and Monica with the help of their staff.

Who knows what lies ahead for this determined, thoughtful woman, but I am sure it will be interesting and fun.

All the best, Ali.