Approximately 24 kilometres northwest of Smithers on Highway 16, just over the railroad tracks and up 608 Road lies a pristine set of trails that has been carved out for backcountry ski enthusiasts.
There are 13 cut non-motorized trails with a variety of terrain suitable for people of all skill levels.
About 1,700 vertical feet in elevation from the bottom sits a cozy day-use warming hut where skiers and snowshoers can warm themselves and get a spectacular view of Rocky Ridge and the Nipples.
This area is known as the Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Recreation area.
Hankin-Evelyn is the first developed backcountry ski area in Canada that provides skiers with properly signed and cut trails.
“There’s not really anything like Hankin-Evelyn anywhere in North America, it’s the first of its kind,” said Alfred Schaefer, chair of the Bulkley Backcountry Ski Society that is responsible for maintaining the area by keeping the roads ploughed.
“There’s a lot of places that you can go to ski backcountry, but this is almost like having a ski hill without any lifts. There’s cut runs up there and I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the province that’s quite like it.”
For the last seven years, the ski area has grown from an area where locals ski to an internationally-renowned ski destination for roughly 3,250 backcountry skiers per winter season.
Travel writers, bloggers and skiers from around the world have taken notice and are flocking to try their hand skiing at Hankin-Evelyn.
“It is a really unique project and I think it really interests a lot of people. There’s been, in the last couple of years, a movement towards backcountry skiing, it’s become so much more accessible for so many more people,” said Schaefer.
“This is the first project that focuses solely on backcountry skiing. There’s no other way to get up there other than getting yourselves up there by snowshoeing or hiking up.”
The project began seven years ago with local backcountry ski aficionado Brian Hall, who had been eyeing the site for a few years with the hopes of creating a designated backcountry ski area.
“I’ve been a backcountry skier all my life and I’m always looking around for opportunities to create more backcountry ski terrain,” said Hall.
“We wanted it to be fairly close to town, we didn’t want to drive forever and we wanted to find Crown land that didn’t have previous use. Part of that is to avoid user conflict.”
Since it was on Crown land, Hall sought advice from Keven Eskelin and Ben Heemskerk with Recreation Sites and Trails B.C., who work with community groups to get projects such as Hankin-Evelyn up and running.
“When Brian first proposed the idea, as a backcountry skier I thought, ‘that’s ridiculous, who would want to use that’,” said Heemskerk.
After receiving a grant, they began cutting the runs and eventually building the warming hut.
“Now it’s probably our biggest winter recreation site in the valley. We’ve seen the number of people backcountry skiing in the valley increasing,” said Heemskerk.
Mark Harrison completed his masters thesis on Hankin-Evelyn at the University of Guelph in 2012.
According to Harrison, the area allows beginners and advanced backcountry skiers to mix in an unconventional way.
“There is no other place that I’ve skied that has that kind of set up,” he said. “It bridges the gap between traditional backcountry skiing and now what we call the typical ski resort. It’s sitting somewhere in the middle.”
Harrison said that other groups will use Hankin-Evelyn as a model to develop backcountry ski areas around the world.
“It takes a lot of courage to be the first ones and be basically pioneers. I think given that it was new, I think they did a wonderful job and they’ve really contributed to the community and have really added a service,” said Harrison. “I really think that the model that they’ve created is something that you’re going to see more and more in the future.”
Hall, who is learning to take a step back from the project that he helped build from the ground up, said he’s already had numerous calls from people in Colorado, the Kootenays and Vancouver Island asking how to get a project like this off the ground.
“It’s ended up being what I hoped it would be, but it’s a long process,” said Hall. “It’s one step at a time and you just keep hoping that you move forward.”
For now, Schaefer and the backcountry ski society will focus on keeping the project viable and making sure the roads remain ploughed.