The town of Smithers, BC is nestled in the beautiful Bulkley Valley equidistant from my birthplace, Whitehorse, YK and my current residence, Vancouver, BC. With world-class salmon and steelhead waters cutting directly through the town, it’s no surprise that these salmonids are an integral component of the town’s identity–from its moniker “Steelhead Paradise” to Smithers Brewing’s logo.
Travelling in the context of COVID has an air of detachment and coldness, which was a fitting contrast to the warmth my wife and I received when we landed in Smithers. Greeted by Shawn at Frontier Truck Rentals – who identified me by “Googling someone for the first time” and Gladys Atrill of Tourism Smithers, we immediately felt the glow of that small-town welcome. Wonderful people. Once Shawn had set me up with a brand new Ram 3500, we were ready to check into the quaint Bulkley Suites to drop off our bags.
First stop: Smithers Brewing Company
Our first stop, Smithers Brewing, was conveniently just a stone’s throw from the Bulkley Suites, a convenience that would become a major asset throughout the trip. I like to approach new breweries as I would a buffet: order a bit of everything and then key in on what I like best. As such, my wife and I ordered two flights, which sufficiently covered the spread. Midway through our first flight, owner-operator Blaine Etsby stopped by. Blaine and I had connected a few days prior based on our mutual interest in swinging flies, so it was great to meet up in person to get a bit of history on the area in which he grew up the brewery scene and most recent fishing reports.
It didn’t take long before we were deep in the heart of discussing the always animated topics of steelhead returns, hatchery fish, and other idiosyncratic nuances of the fishing world, which was equally as enjoyable as the frothy beverages Blaine recommended; Hudson Bay ISA is an absolute gem. Over the course of the trip it became increasingly apparent that Blaine was not only creating great craft beer, he was also fostering a communal convening point and, more importantly, demonstrating that a small-town brewery can have the same sort of cultural hub feel to rival cities of any size. From my perspective, Smithers Brewing is the beating heart of the Bulkley Valley.
Approaching our dinner reservation, we reluctantly parted ways with Blaine and headed out to the Roadhouse. We’d received several recommendations to try the cocktails, so started the evening the Old Fashioned way, before launching into a three-course display of culinary excellence. The quality of the service staff and the meals they produce rivals anything you’ll find in Vancouver, but you benefit from not stepping out into a concrete metropolis once the meal wraps up, but into the shadow of Hudson Bay Mountain.
Good eats to fuel adventures through the Bulkley Valley
Waking early to get a jump on the day, we drove some caffeinated beverages and overnight oats from Bugwood Cafe into us before driving out to Call Lake. This breezy 15-20 minute hike into the lake provided a stunning view of the surrounding area from a bit of elevation. Autumn is my favourite time of year for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the stunning palette of colours on display. The Bulkley Valley in September does not disappoint.
Lunch at the Alpenhorn provided the perfect fuel before a hike into Crater Lake. It took a minute or two to figure out my plan of attack on the mammoth burger I’d ordered; getting the proper grip is absolutely critical.
Crater Lake is located just above the Hudson Bay ski hill and is a well-manicured and -marked hike up into the alpine. At that sort of elevation in which you are largely above the trees, the views stretch for miles and, I’ll say it again, the colours in September are absolutely stunning.
After the hike, we took a jaunt along the famous Bulkley River and a stop at the Bulkley Valley Brewery. Each location offered a stunning view of the surrounding mountains, except the BVB had an excellent selection of beverages. Ranging from salted lime lagers to NEIPAs, the views and brews did not disappoint. It was also pointed out to me, after the fact, that whilst we were there Grammy and Juno award winner Alex Cuba was sitting right behind me! Smithers was full of surprises.
Small town, big flavour, big portions
After a quick post-hike snooze, it was off to Telly’s Grill for dinner: any restaurant that has a two-handed fly rod as the background image on their menu is alright with me. Interestingly, an option on the extensive cocktail menu was flights of a select cocktail in different flavours. I was immediately intrigued. Although I am primarily a craft beer guy, the prospect of having four different flavoured Dark n’ Stormys is tough to resist. Of the lime, mint, raspberry, and habanero I was most surprised by how good the raspberry was and that the habanero one was actually quite enjoyable. My wife and I lived in the UK for the better part of a decade, so when prime rib with Yorkshire pudding was the day’s special, I couldn’t resist. The take-home message from the meal was: small town, big flavour, big portions.
A one-of-a-kind town
Having spent a considerable amount of time in small towns and in particular, small towns in the north, Smithers is unique in the natural resources that define it and in its capacity to bring big-city amenities to a (relatively) remote location. I was continuously impressed by the warmth and welcome extended to my wife and I on this trip both by the people we had expected to meet, such as Shawn, Gladys, and Blaine, but also by the random people we encountered on the street and at various locations throughout the trip. The formula Smithers has created is one that if I could bottle it and sell it, I’d be able to retire in the Bulkley Valley and fish every day of my life.
Teddy Cosco is an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University, a passionate outdoorsman, enthusiastic home cook, and sometimes-lucky fly fisherman. Exploring the tundra via floatplane, fishing off the coast of Alaska and camping throughout Western Canada, he grew up with the outdoors in his blood. Follow @castandiron for adventure and recipe inspiration.