The route along the Skeena River is flat, yet it cuts through the Coast Mountains Photo by Jeff Bartlett
The route along the Skeena River is flat, yet it cuts through the Coast Mountains Photo by Jeff Bartlett

During the August 2012 Skeena River Challenge, the racers seemed to pay little attention to the Coast Mountains that line the road. The cyclists in the lead group of 11 were too busy taking turns pulling. The prevailing wind was at their backs and pushing them along the river. It was sunny but cool, perfect weather to chase down the recreational riders who had a one-hour head start. They were going to cover the 144 km from Prince Rupert to Terrace, B.C., and a 16-km detour to the North Pacific Cannery in Port Edward to make it a true century ride. They’d ride along one of the few sections of the Trans-Canada Highway where it’s possible to see both a grizzly bear and bald eagle head to the river to fish for salmon.

British Columbia’s cycling scene centres on the lower mainland. Whether it’s the year-round training home of Canada’s best road cyclists, such as Victoria native Ryder Hesjedal, or the thrill seeking downhill crowds in Whistler, it’s all found within 150 km of Vancouver. But since my sister moved to Terrace, located nearly 1,400 km north of the city, she’s been speaking highly of the northwest’s cycling routes and close-knit community. A quick glance at Bicycling in Terrace’s Facebook group proves her point. People are not just biking in the province’s northwest corner, despite its rainy weather, but they are also encouraging each other.

“I don’t know which four ladies rode from Terrace to Rupert today, bucking the Skeena headwind,” read one Facebook post, “but I just wanted to say well done. nicely played.”

I could understand the area’s appeal, too. Even the shortest ride, known locally as The Jackpine, loops riders quickly from Terrace’s downtown through old growth cedar forests and past duck-filled wetlands in only 30 km. The two signature rides – east along the Skeena River between Terrace and Prince Rupert, where the race takes place, or north through the Nass Valley – are both freshly paved routes that cut through swathes of wilderness.

The Nisg’a Highway and Nass Road connect Terrace and Gingolx along a 170 km paved route with little traffic. Most local cyclists drive out to Kitsumkalum Lake, a jade green testament to the Coast Mountain’s glacier networks, to start their rides. North of the lake, the highway crosses a moon-like lava plain caused by a volcanic eruption that happened 200 years ago. The eruption didn’t just leave its mark on the landscape, either. It left the valley communities in ruins and killed nearly 2,000 Nisga’a people. The area now sits within the boundaries of the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park, whose visitor centre replicates the nation’s traditional longhouse design.

The valley is also home to the Kermode bear, which is also known as the spirit bear. A Kermode has cream-coloured fur but is neither albino nor related to the polar bear. It is a subspecies of the black bear. It’s believed that as few as 400-1,000 live in northwestern B.C. Its presence as a spirit in Nisga’a folklore may be the link to its survival. The animal was never trapped and its presence was kept hidden from early settlers. Lucky, cyclists sometimes happen upon this unique northwest resident ambling along the roadsides surrounding Terrace.

The story of Terrace is like many industry towns. At its peak, it was the world’s largest producer of cedar poles used for telephone and electric lines throughout North America. When timber sales slowed, the Skeena Cellulose Inc. sawmill closed and the city lost its largest employer. While the two closest towns, Prince Rupert and Kitimat, continue to thrive with new industrial seaports, Terrace struggles to reinvent itself as both a service hub for the northwest and a tourist town.

The Skeena River attracts anglers with its annual runs of Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon. It is also home to world-class steelhead trout fishing. A keen ear at the Saturday morning farmers market will pick up Italian, German, Russian, and Spanish accents all delivering their own fishermans’ tales of huge fish.

The Terrace Off-Road Cycling Association (TORCA) is expanding its trail networks on both Terrace and Copper Mountains. The former area includes a technical cross-country circuit, while the latter is a network of 20 downhill trails. The organization also hosts both road and mountain-bike group rides and local events, including the 25-year-old Skeena River Challenge.

At at that race in August, where the course turned away from the river, a group of six led a breakaway on the steep climb past the Shames Ski Area road. On the final 30 km, they had built their lead until Peter Krause, owner of McBike and Sport in Smithers, B.C., jumped ahead at the line to win with a time just under 4:30. The recreational riders were already across the line, marking the first time that they’d beat the chase group. It turned out this close-knit community is getting faster, too.

How to get there
Terrace is 575 km west of Prince George on the Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16). Daily flights are available between Vancouver and Terrace with Air Canada.

Where to stay
Terrace offers a large selection of motels and hotels in town, including a Best Western Plus (4553 Greig Ave.) and the Bear Country Inn (4702 Lakelse Ave.). Both the New Remo and Fisherman’s #1 Bed and Breakfasts are located west along Highway 16.

Where to eat

Group rides tend to begin and end at Cafenara (108-4716 Lazelle Ave.), a locally owned coffee shop. But locals claim the best breakfast is at the Bear Country Inn. Don Diego’s offers up more than the Mexican dishes its name suggests. Its menu is handwritten on a whiteboard and changes each day depending on the cook’s whims and what fresh seafood is on hand.

Where to shop
McBike and Sport, with locations in Terrace (105-4710 Lazelle Ave.) and Smithers (1191 Main St.), is the only dedicated cycle shop; however, All Season Source for Sports (4555 Lakelse Ave.) offers a wide selection of sports apparel.

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