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Nisga'a Highway: Across the Fields of Lava

"Imagine a BC landscape after the ravages of a violent volcanic eruption..."

Book Cover Adventure Roads of BC's Northwest Heartland

 Liz Bryan's Adventure Roads of BC's Northwest Heartland is an off-the-beaten track exploration of Interior BC, full of scenic photography, maps, and fascinating information for tourists and armchair travellers alike, and we're so pleased to be able to give you a taste of this compelling volume. 


Imagine a BC landscape after the ravages of a violent volcanic eruption. The trees and vegetation are gone, the whole valley is smothered under a carpet of rumpled hardened lava, rock so deep it has buried two whole villages and killed thousands of people. Creeks are dammed and the great Nass River itself (its Nisga'a name is K'alii-askim Lisims) is pushed aside. The Nass Valley, centre of the Nisga'a world, is almost dead space.

This adventure road, one of BC’s truly great journeys, leads through a strange volcanic landscape—after almost 250 years it has changed very little—then follows the Nass River out to the sea, to the edge of the Great Bear Rainforest. There is far more than geological excitement here. It is also a cultural excursion into the land of the Nisga'a, people who were strong enough to remain in their injured valley, rebuilding their villages, preserving their stories, their ceremonies, their language, and honouring their ancestors. The Nisga'a were also determined enough to challenge governments successfully for their land rights and titles. Today, Highway 152 from the Skeena to the Nass has been designated Highway 113, the number of years it took for Nisga'a land claims to be accepted. Culture and geology—an adventurous combination.

The drive from Terrace to Gingolx, with all the many things to see and do, could easily take a full day. Check out overnight accommodations or campgrounds before you start. And after breakfast, you have another whole day to see it all again and visit the places you missed.

Lava Lake

Lava Lake: clear and green.

The journey begins just west of the town of Terrace, where Highway 113 leads north into the heart of Nisga'a territory. The bridge across Cedar Creek marks a geological divide down into the Nass Valley by way of Sand Lake and the Tseax River. The first sign of the volcano’s action is found at Lava Lake, a narrow ten-kilometre-long finger that fills the valley floor. Formed when lava dammed the Tseax River, the lake and its surrounds are now part of Nisga'a Memorial Lava Beds Provincial Park, which extends all the way to the Nass and beyond. The lake has an otherworldly aspect: rimmed by sheets of broken, moss-covered lava, its colour is a startling milky green, the reflections very clear. Its Nisga'a name is Sii T’axl, or “new lake.” A picnic site at its northern end has a canoe-launching ramp.

Mist rising like smoke from volcanic beds

Mist rises like smoke from the lava beds.

The Tseax Cone, the volcanic source, is high above the valley and can only be reached by a steep hike led by a park guide. Check at the Park Visitor Centre farther down the valley, which offers a self-directed guide to all the points of interest. The centre is housed in a replica of a Nisga'a longhouse, its facade painted with clan emblems. The park campsite is adjacent.

Longhouse replica

The Longhouse replica at the Lava Beds Park Visitor Centre.

Nothing can prepare you for the first astounding sight of the volcanic destruction: the whole valley has been flattened, encased in a huge, shell of rumpled lava. The ground is barren, although mosses and lichens are doing their best to bring a little softness and colour, and a few cracks and crevices provide fragile toeholds for skimpy trees and shrubs. Above it all, in great contrast, snowy mountains rise high on both sides of the valley, their forests a deep and luscious green. On the ground, morning mists hover above the lava fields like smoke.

Park signs describe the geological features through this eerie landscape, and short trails lead to some of them. One is a memorial plaque to mourn the people of the lost villages. A sign here urges visitors not to move the lava rocks since they “are the gravestones of our ancestors.” There are two types of lava—smooth and wrinkled, lava tubes, like huge drainpipes, and tree moulds bearing the imprints of long-lost forest giants. 

Lava Adventure Roads

Smothered valley, lost villages.

The destructive volcanic eruption, still remembered in the oral history of the Nisga'a, is explained in an old story passed down through the generations. Many years ago, young boys playing beside the river caught some salmon and poked lighted sticks into their backs. They put the fish back into the water and laughed to see them writhe in agony, trying to swim away.

Retribution came swiftly: The mountains roared and a great pillar of smoke and fire appeared. The people watched in terror as a river of burning molten rock surged relentlessly down into the valley. Many were overcome by deadly fumes; others fled as best they could, or tried to hide in earth cellars. When the violent episode was over, the Nisga'a world had changed forever. Their whole valley and two of their villages were buried under a thick blanket of solidified lava, and more than two thousand people were dead.

A written report of the event has also survived. In 1775, sailors on the Spanish ship Sonora, under the command of explorer Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, witnessed the eruption from the mouth of the Nass River. The expedition chronicler described great heat and flames shooting up from four or five mouths of a volcano and fires so bright they lit up the night. 

Scientific radiometric dating confirms two eruptions in the Nass Valley, approximately 650 and 250 years ago, and offers evidence of other older flows. The culprit volcano, pinpointed today by the cinder cone, erupted violently, spewing lava downhill for five kilometres, where it piled up, damming the Tseax River and spilling over to flow another twenty-two kilometres down and across the Nass Valley. More than thirty-eight square kilometres of fertile coastal forest was gone, and in its place lay a wasteland of solidified lava. It was Canada’s worst known geophysical disaster.

Nass Road continues our journey to the sea. The village of Greenville, about ten kilometres along the road, was named for Methodist missionary Alfred Green, who arrived here in 1877 and was tasked with persuading the villagers to abandon their old beliefs. Today, the community is called Laxgalts’ap, which means “village on village,” because it is on the same site as the many others that came before it. 

Nishga'a Museum

The Nisga'a Museum, a towering architectural masterpiece of symbolic design.

The highlight of a visit here is the Nisga'a Museum, just a short distance west of the village. Its modern architecture alone is astonishing: it is five storeys tall, to accommodate the height of the totem pole that forms the corner point of its angled, all-glass front. A bold choice, this see-through wall brings the mountain scenery right into the lofty entrance hall. And here, a building within a building (perhaps a play on the meaning of Laxgalts’ap itself ) takes the modern world right back into the rich spiritual past of the Nisga'a. Flying out from above the circular doorway of a traditional longhouse, a huge, dramatic carving captures the powerful supernatural being Txseemsim transmuted into his favourite form, the trickster, Raven. His beak, far too short for any earthly raven, protrudes like a canopy. The sculpture was made by a dedicated team of carvers: George McKay, Calvin McNeil, Gerald Robinson, and Albert Stephens Jr., under the technical guidance of Mel Leeson.

If this great dramatic work of art does not overwhelm you, then wait. When the red button blanket across the house doorway is drawn back, like a theatre curtain, it reveals the Ancestors’ Collection on display on the stage behind. No, “display” is too poor a word. All the once-lost naxnok or spirit masks, headdresses, and regalia are worn by manikins who pose in different positions. More than three hundred recovered items are rehoused here, most of them repatriated from the Royal BC Museum in Victoria and the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. 

The price of admission includes a tour given by a local guide who will lead you deeper into the world of the Nisga'a naxnok and might share some of the old stories. In the village of Laxgalts’ap itself there’s a carving shed (visitors welcome) beside the river, and fishing boats are tied up nearby. 

Fishing Boat Adventure Roads

A fishboat hauled up for repairs near Laxgalts'ap is a reminder that fishing has always been a mainstay for the Nisga'a People.

Excerpt from Adventure Roads of BC’s Northwest Heartland, by Liz Bryan (Heritage House, 2022).

Book Cover Adventure Roads of BC's Northwest Heartland

Learn more about the book: From lush forests to majestic mountains, sleepy ghost towns to pastoral farmland, Adventure Roads of BC’s Northwest Heartland captures the beauty, history, and unexpected twists and turns of a region often overlooked by tourists and ideal for would-be road trippers. Fuelled by the philosophy that any road can lead to adventure—not always of the visceral sort, but of the mind and heart—travel writer, historian, and photographer Liz Bryan takes readers on a virtual tour. Taking scenic routes from Merritt to Barkerville, Kamloops to Bella Coola, and into the valleys of the Bulkley and Skeena Rivers, Bryan tells the story of this land, its peoples, and their history. With stunning photography and fascinating prose, this book will compel anyone to follow their own adventure road, wherever it may take them.

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