Go West to the ‘Other’ Fort
… and no, this has nothing to do with the Pet Shop Boys
Story and Photos by Ruth Lloyd
Never Here is a section that explores small towns and hidden geographical gems in Canada that few people really know about. The places that, for most, are never their planned endpoint destination. This post shares what Fort St. James, B.C. is like from a resident’s point of view.
Should you find yourself at the end of Highway 27 winding along a sparsely populated commercial centre on the shores of beautiful Stuart Lake, make no mistake, you are not in Fort St. John. No, the tiny town that looks out across Stuart Lake towards the impressive cliffs of Mount Pope is the one and only, Fort St. James.
It is easy to confuse “Forts,” since you hear the name used so often when referring to oil-boom towns, but Fort St. James is no John, Nelson or McMurray.
And the locals, like most places, make or break the place and wouldn’t want you to mistake their Fort for another. They all know that Fort St. James is magical, as well as challenging.
Locals are proud of the history of this tiny town centred around the Fort St. James National Historic Site, an original fur-trading post with a handful of restored buildings and live interpreters.
The historic site brings to life the Old Fort, established in 1806 by explorer Simon Fraser as a post for the North West Company. Yet the area had already long-been inhabited by a group of the Dakelh (Carrier) First Nations, who called the spot Nak’al and themselves, Nak’azdli. They have lived side-by-side to the settlers since Fraser’s visit, quite literally: The Nak’azdli First Nation is on one side of Kwah Road and the District of Fort St. James is on the other.
The two neighbouring governments preside over a community that still contains the area’s historical frontier spirit. (Fort St. James was incorporated as a village in 1952 and became a district municipality in 1995.) The area became a major hub for bush-plane access to northern areas once fur trading waned. Two airlines, Canadian Pacific Air Lines and Pacific Western Airlines, had beginnings in Fort St. James to later become part of Air Canada.
Fur trading and bush planes are long gone now for the local economy with few reminders of those times, save the historical site and a model float plane at the public beach. Yet many members of the local First Nation maintain traditions in medicine gathering, fishing, hunting and sharing skills and knowledge with others. Also, storytelling, singing and drumming are regular features at community events. Economically, though, the area today relies most heavily on the forest industry, tourism and some mining to make up the majority of the employment base.
Most people of Fort St. James have either grown up there, or moved there for a job – loved it and never left. The locals are innovative individuals who, over time, created their own playground full of recreational and social opportunities to suit their tastes. For example, an Austrian, with the help of other community members, built a community ski hill that has enough tree glades and black diamond runs to keep the advanced skiers happy.
Also, some golfers built a nine-hole, lake-view golf course, while some mountain bikers cleared trails used by walkers, runners and bikers alike.
The Fort St. James Snowmobile and ATV Club and Fort St. James Sleddog Association maintain over 300 kilometres of trails. The Sleddog Association has an annual race, the Caledonia Classic, which attracts mushers from all over North America for three days of competition and camaraderie.
There is always something to do in Fort St. James – it just won’t include shopping at a mall or going to a nightclub.
Visitors can take a walk through the past starting at the town’s historic site, head into the community and end at Russ Baker Memorial on the lake (Baker is an aviation legend who was one of the first bush pilots in Fort St. James). Those with canoes, kayaks or power boats can head up Stuart Lake along the north side to view some of the many pictographs painted on the cliffs by the local First Nations.
The people who live in Nak’al/Fort St. James are a tightly knit group woven together by endless connections. There is plenty of beauty to be found in this lesser-known fort.