August 5, 2020
I’d like to acknowledge that Kitimat BC is on the unceded traditional territory of the Haisla First Nation, on which we live, work and play.
After hemming and hawing about airplane safety during COVID-19, we purchased heavily discounted flights to Kitimat to visit my brother and his family. After donning our medical masks and filling our bags with a variety of snacks and the miniscule water bottles, florescent pink gloves, desiccated pretzels and ‘conditioning aloe vera’ sanitizer that Air Canada provided us, we flew from YVR to Terrace Airport.
Upon our arrival, the vibrant, lush landscape greeted us, green and damp as a freshly misted grocery shelf of romaine. We drove into Kitimat at 7:00 pm, and noticed that the sky stays light quite late, say 10:00 pm or so. What Kitimat is lacking in public art, it makes up with attractive manicured landscaping and aluminum-augmented traffic lights. A cheerful greeting committee of flags (6 on each lamp post) welcomed us, as did a steadfast row of community group signs–Lions, Rotary and Kinsmen, oh my! When we saw the Welcome to Downtown Kitimat sign, we furrowed our brows, looking around at the ragtag collection of squat buildings surrounding a 60’s Kiwanis clock that unabashedly asserts two words: “WE BUILD’.
Our stomachs were growling, so we went to a nearby pub, The Bistro, which we discovered was closed for a private function. As we searched the nearby restaurants for places to eat, Tim Horton’s was the only thing open—and it served us well, barring the fact that both grilled chicken and fries were all sold out. That particular Tim Horton’s seemed to be fond of playing 90’s Alanis Morissette, a soundtrack I wholeheartedly approve of. Isn’t it ironic? You oughta know.
When I was preparing for this trip, I polled family and friends about what we should expect. Fishing was the unanimous recommendation. Even though we hail from the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’, Port Alberni, we just don’t fish. However, we did see dozens of families fishing together along the Kitimat River, like eager ants gathered along the edges of a spilled blue slurpee.
We were also warned that we’d see lots of wildlife: grizzlies, black bear and moose. A friend even reminisced about good times going down to the garbage dump to see the spirit bears in the 80’s. No dice. Our Kitimat wildlife experience included seeing a taxidermied Kermode bear in the Terrace airport, standing stiffly in its final home of a wood and glass display case. We also saw a dozen baby ducks trailing their mother, an abandoned fish head glistening in the sun, and many very chatty, overly confident squirrels. We’re still bearing impressive collections of nickel-sized bruises from the giant carnivorous deerflies, and look like we were at the losing end of a merciless paintball game. Maybe The Wildlife was avoiding us. Whenever we left a location, my sister in law would share a screenshot from the local Kitimat Community Awareness Facebook group showing a black bear lolling about the area—including the Dairy Queen Drive Thru.
Kitimat is a place of temperature extremes: we found ourselves sweltering in the sun and shivering in the shade. The Museum boasts that “Kitimat was the place to be in North America in the 1950’s, both for the new town plan and for the pioneer engineering of the time”. Given the current state of the community now, I had trouble reconciling the fact that the ‘planned garden city’ of Kitimat was once considered to be an international good news story for Canada and ‘touted as a model of Canadian ingenuity’. To add a royal seal of approval and a sprinkling of stardust, Prince Phillip traveled to the opening ceremony of the Alcan Smelter in 1954. The model city of Kitimat was featured at the World’s Fair, National Geographic Magazine, Life Magazine, United Nations, and Harper’s—to name a few. The community was designed to keep workers and their families happy. Its population was projected to grow to 50,000, making it the third largest city in British Columbia, behind Vancouver and Victoria. It currently sits at 8,131. My mind was reeling: How could things go so wrong?
On our first morning there, I picked up a copy of “The Northern Light” community paper. There’s a quarter page ad on the front cover, calling for residents to participate in an online survey on the community impacts of resources development. It’s hosted by the University of Northern British Columbia. The words BUZZ, BOOM, AND BUST, creating a staccato in large, uppercase jagged italics. While the booming Rio Tinto aluminum smelter continues to steadfastly ‘smelt away’, we also saw the skeletal bust of the abandoned Pulp Mill and Waterslide Park. Of course, there’s also the buzz about the controversial $40 billion LNG project. We drove by the worksite’s entrance, which is basically a large makeshift wooden frame straddling a side gravel road. Hundreds of bright orange and white streamers were tied around the wood, dancing in the wind, creating a sort of industrial-circus-party atmosphere. I felt the community’s collective hope and excitement that things are about to change.
The District of Kitimat brands itself as ‘A Marvel of Nature and Industry” and uses a massive aluminum snowflake as its logo. Meanwhile, locals call it “Snow Valley” and Tourism Kitimat proclaims: “Natural Opportunity” and “Something for Everyone”.
Let’s see about that.
My brother insisted that this ‘isn’t really worth seeing’, but I maintained that we wanted to anyways. The Giant Spruce is not too far from the city centre and it’s a short, very easy walk. The beaten-up sign proudly declares: The Sitka Spruce is the oldest known organism in the Kitimat Valley.” This tree was more than 500 years old, and was the largest living Sitka Spruce in British Columbia in 1983 and stood 50.32 metres tall, 11.2 metres in circumference and 3.35 metres in diameter.
While I found the Giant Spruce to be impressive, the rest of my family members noted that it would be a lot more so if were actually still alive. Fair enough. Thanks to a storm, it’s currently a massive stump with the top half of it missing. I still think it’s totally worth seeing. The short trail is flat and stroller-friendly.
If you drive a bit further, there’s a natural sandy beach along the river, which is a favourite spot for fishing.
I found out about the scenic Gazebo Trail from the Tourism Kitimat’s Instagram page, and asked them for directions on how to get there. They immediately responded, sharing how we could get there. This made me feel like knowing ‘insider’ until my brother easily found it on google maps.
Gazebo Trail is a fairly short, medium-difficulty trail along the ocean. It requires navigating a series of uneven stumps, rooted paths and boardwalks that feels somewhat like an amusing rainforest obstacle course. Just down to the left is the most scenic beach in Kitimat. We sat there for an hour, listening to the waves crashing against the beach and felt the pebbles sinking into the soft sand as we walked. The gazebo was like a rough-hewn treehouse where the forest meets the ocean. It’s also insanely instagrammable. If you’re looking for the best photo op in Kitimat, this is it.
This trail is not stroller friendly, but small children could walk it with some help.
I felt like I was in a time warp when we arrived at City Centre Mall. In the 1950’s, Kitimat shopping was considered to be exceptional. The Hudson’s Bay attracted shoppers from Terrace and surrounding communities. It’s now long gone, and has been replaced by a Triogo’s hardware store. (Oh, the symbolism here!) Walking around, you get a whiff of dashed hopes and hear the ghostly chattering of the well-to do wives purchasing sets of Royal Doulton and designer handbags. At a time when many old malls are closing down, this was truly a delight to show my son. Despite its ‘strip mall’ curb appeal, you can actually go inside to soak up the splendidly generic burnt toffee coloured 1970’s mall tiles of my childhood, as well as the faded plastic ivy draping down the two-level centre court staircase. And there’s still a Fields. I didn’t know those were still open.
The Kitimat Museum is nearby, and was open to a limited number of drop-in visitors at a time due to COVID. My son was mesmerized by the very lively display of animals—skunk, bear, moose, mountain goats, squirrels, porcupine, beaver, birds etc. in taxidermy form. My dad and I were caught up by the timeline and artifacts from the fascinating history of Kitimat. I yearned to purchase a book on a more thorough history of the community, with the magazine articles and photos.
UPDATE: I recently spoke with the museum, and they let me know they DO have a book on the history of Kitimat, called Three Towns. It’s available in their gift shop. I clearly need to look closer next time!
Across the road from the mall, you will find Centennial Park, which features a fountain, cenotaph, shaded benches, and totem pole to honour Waa-mis, the founder of Kitimaat Village
Tired of Tim Horton’s, I asked my sister in law for the most hipster coffee shop in town. She insisted I go to Seven Tables, which does indeed have seven tables–although half are now cordoned off to create social distancing. I soaked up its live-edge wooden tables, chalkboard signs, and open industrial ceiling accentuated by decorative chandeliers. This is the place to get my freshly made smoothie and strong Americano, along with a toasted bagel and fruit cup for my son. We ate breakfast here three times. My favourite was the Warrior Smoothie, a hearty blend of almond milk, banana, peanut butter, chia seeds, vanilla and maple syrup.
You can find out more HERE
Yes, exploring the suburbs are on my list. I’d recommend stopping by the Chamber of Commerce to pick up a Heritage Walkway Circle Tour pamphlet and take some time to learn about the award-winning master planned community by famed American planner Clarence Stein. He was a champion of the ‘Garden City’ concept—peaceful green space and separation of traffic from pedestrians. This was considered revolutionary for its time, and its goal was to keep the workers and their families happy and healthy. This design endures today, and we enjoyed walking on the scenic paved walkways every evening. I was surprised at how manicured the common greenspace around these pathways are, and was told the paths are plowed before 8am in the dead of winter, since “The city has lots of Rio Tinto money”. This is part of the community’s plan to keep the workers and their families happy.
Curiously, we were told that Kitimat has more trampolines per capita than any other—we made a game of counting the trampolines sticking out of people’s backyard fences.
Next time, we’d love to rent the bikes available from the Chamber of Commerce. We chose not to this time, as it was just too hot and the Chamber currently only offers adult-sized bikes at this time. I hope they’ll invest in some child-sized bikes for our next trip!
You can find out more HERE
I can’t quite believe I’m including a pharmacy on this list. You’ll have to trust me that this isn’t just any old pharmacy. It’s a minimally-branded hipster hidden gem that probably belongs in a much bigger city. The shelves are full of natural products and snacks, fair-trade African baskets, salt lamps, organic teas, local beeswax candles and handmade mugs, puzzle games for kids, as well as their signature bamboo clothing line (which is soft, breathable and also minimally branded). Oh, and yes, there’s also a full-service pharmacy. I really couldn’t believe there could be such an on-trend business in such a blue-collar small town.
You can find out more HERE
I was told that the best eating in Kitimat could be found not at local restaurants, but at the wide assortment of Food Trucks. They just might be right. We ate the flavoursome ‘Memphis Belle’ BBQ pork and honey mustard slaw tacos at No Bun Intended Fusion Taco, a blinding radioactive green food truck often parked at City Centre Mall. I want to go back to sample the others whenever my sister-in-law sends me Kitimat food truck food porn. I heard that these food trucks often go out to the camps, where the owners will cover the bill. Gotta keep the workers happy, indeed. I’m told other food trucks are named Posh Eaters and Red Neck Kitchen.
You can find out more HERE
This is my brother’s favourite spot in Kitimat, and the distinction is well deserved. This thundering white waterfall, surrounded by a canopy of emerald coloured evergreens is postcard-worthy. It also doesn’t demand a grueling hike, wearing pricey boots bought at MEC, and a backpack full of Cliff Bars. It’s a surprisingly short, easy hike up a few steps, 3 minutes total. At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s jaw dropping. I’m told the daring can jump the fence and cross the river to get even closer—but do at your own risk, and risking the wrath of Rio Tinto who are strongly discouraging visitors to do this (although Kitimat Tourism’s recent Instagram post begs to differ).
Moore Creek Waterfall rivals Gazebo Trail as the best photo op in Kitimat. It’s not stroller friendly, but young children could manage it.
If you’re expecting a serene, attractive beach, you will be sorely disappointed. The public washrooms are scrolled with anti-police and pipeline sentiments and appear to be permanently closed. The waterfront is barred off by red construction tape. There’s a barely legible weathered sign that describes the history of Kitimat’s original hospital on the beach. It’s under construction, so will look very different in a few years’ time.
Despite the unflattering portrait I’ve created, I recommend you go to Alcan Beach anyways. It’s the flattest beach around and offers a spectacular view of Rio Tinto one way, and of the Douglas Channel the other way. If you venture a bit further to the boat launch, there are some First Nations carvings on the washed up trees—a striking sun and moon by local artist Voldemar—that offer an unexpected bit of magic to this otherwise industrial place.
Don’t be like me and mispronounce this lake: it’s Lake-ELSE Lake. Locals might argue with me that Lakelse Lake is much closer to Terrace than Kitimat. It’s a popular spot for families to swim with their kids, and there’s dozens of wooden picnic tables, shady trees, a grassy lawn and large wooden picnic shelter. We debated about whether the sandy beach was ‘trucked in’ or natural. From what I saw, Lakelse Lake is the best outdoor place to take your kids swimming in the summer.
We stayed for four nights at this newly renovated, centrally located hotel. The mom in me really appreciated its proximity to restaurants, park, Central City Mall and the museum. The service was exceptional, with the signed letter from the general manager encouraging us to email directly if we had any concerns, along with handwritten welcome notes and towel-origami creatures every day from the housekeepers. And there was David’s Tea and lots of snacks in the lobby. We will insist on staying there again. There are even newer hotels, but they’re not nearly as centrally located for walking with kids.
You can find out more HERE
I love writing candid portraits of local BC communities. All opinions are my own.