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The Electric North: Exploring Route 16 by EV

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Northern BC Tourism/Marty Clemens

Learn how electric vehicle travel is becoming one of the best ways to experience the province’s rural north, as Northern BC local and EV driver Malcolm Johnson reflects on his family’s next climate-friendly adventure, a low-impact, 720-km (447.4-mi) journey along one of BC’s most iconic routes: Highway 16,  from Prince George to Prince Rupert.

On a misty Sunday morning we’re following the Telkwa High Road through rolling farmland in Wet’suwet’en Territory, the fields dotted with hay bales and the creeks full of rushing meltwater from the Babine Mountains to the east. It’s the sort of landscape that makes you feel like you’re in an electric car commercial—quiet, tranquil and green, with the wheels on the road the only sound as the batteries power us silently through a panoramic opening scene. In the back seat, however, our kids seem most excited about the sights in the nearby fields, our four-year-old counting tractors while our two-year-old eagerly points out every horse she sees.

The backroads of the North are beautiful in any weather, and after days of heat this misty morning has come as a welcome change.

Earlier that morning, we’d been plugged into a free charging station in Smithers while the kids fueled up with steamed milk from an open-air coffee shop. Like many of the electric vehicle (EV) chargers in neighbouring communities, the Smithers station is part of an ambitious network called Charge North that aims to electrify almost 2,800 kilometres of scenic highway—stretching from Kamloops to the northern hub of Prince George, then westward along Highway 16 and onwards by BC Ferries to Haida Gwaii.

 

From our home in the Bulkley Valley, we’ve been using Charge North’s rapidly evolving infrastructure to help power more of our family’s adventures. And after a few more scenic twists and turns on the High Road—accompanied, to our girl’s delight, by another sighting of buckskins munching grass—we park at the trailhead for Malkow Lookout, a favourite local hike that leads up through peaceful stands of aspen and cottonwood. With packs full of water and snacks, we lace up our shoes and set out on foot. The kids, happy to be free from their car seats, trot along ahead, while my partner and I follow along, just as happy to be out on the move in the cool, clean air.

Once into the quiet of the forest, we stop to pick a few fresh Saskatoon berries, then pause again to watch a red-breasted sapsucker and admire purple fireweed blooming beneath the trees. Farther along, as we pull a gate closed behind us and emerge into another farm field, we find a more expansive view—across the valley to the west, the high ridges and tumbling glaciers of Dzilh Yez, or Hudson Bay Mountain, soar into layers of cloud. Though it’s a high-tech grid that brought us here, these kinds of connections with unspoiled nature are what we travel for—the moments that, pardon the pun, can swiftly recharge our own bodies and minds.

Electric vehicle just off Route 16 | Northern BC Tourism/Marty Clemens

CONNECTING COMMUNITIES

A forward-thinking program led by the Community Energy Association, the $5-million Charge North network is making it possible for EV drivers like ourselves to travel swiftly and easily through a huge, lightly populated region where the towns are separated by tall forests, towering mountains, and long stretches of winding highway. Just as importantly, in a province that now has over 50,000 zero-emission vehicles on the road, the fast-growing network means that travellers from southern regions of BC—or from Alberta and the American Northwest—can now explore far-flung destinations like the Lakes District, the Skeena watershed, and Haida Gwaii in their own EV.

As a collaborative venture between six regional districts and 43 local governments, the network will eventually include 30 Level 3 (or DCFC ) chargers and 120 Level 2s, ensuring safe and secure EV travel at any time of year. With new chargers being regularly added—including some in the region that aren’t part of the Charge North network—third-party apps like PlugShare allow drivers to plan their stops and check charging station status in real time.

 

We needed to look at it holistically so reliable EV travel was built out with good connectivity and people could get wherever they need to go.

“We’ve all been working together,” explains Janice Keyes of Community Energy, “to make sure the charging stations are all in the right place. We needed to look at it holistically so reliable EV travel was built out with good connectivity and people could get wherever they need to go. You can’t achieve that by communities doing it on their own, so the collaboration is what has made Charge North so unique.”

Indigenous governments are also important members of the initiative, says Keyes—both the Nisga’a Nation and Stellat’en Nation will be installing Level 2 chargers to support EV drivers along Highway 16 and northward into the Nass Valley.

EV Living: Scott Richmond explores Route 16 with his family

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A NEW WAY TO TRAVEL

There are many good reasons to switch to electric travel—EVs are quiet, easy to drive, simple to maintain, and often more economical, too. But for my partner and I, being part of a shift away from fossil fuels was the main motivation. We love our home in the North, and this region, like everywhere else on the planet, is feeling the effects of an intensifying climate crisis; lessening our family’s impact was something we felt we needed to do. Beyond the environmental benefits, however, EV travel has also been a fantastic way to explore the North—our four-door hatchback has taken us to mountain trails and music festivals, to museums and farmer’s markets, to warm river swims and deep powder days.

I’m reminded again of the best element of EV adventuring—by lowering the environmental impact of your travels, you’re helping protect the places you enjoy along the way.

From a driver’s perspective, the DCFC stations installed by BC Hydro and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure are one of the most essential components of the Charge North network. Prince George, Burns Lake, Prince Rupert, and the Boulder Creek Rest Area all have newly added DCFCs, with more to be added this year in Vanderhoof, Fraser Lake, Houston, Smithers, New Hazelton, Terrace, and Kitimat. In 30 to 40 minutes—enough time for a lunch and a leg-stretching stroll—they can give most newer-model EVs enough charge to run a few hundred kilometres, or more than enough to get to the next destination. The new chargers are part of the province’s CleanBC plan, and as 98% of BC Hydro’s power comes from clean or renewable sources, they’ll be helping make climate-friendly adventures easier and more accessible in the years to come.

The number of registered EVs in Northern BC is growing fast, and a few hours after our family’s misty hike, I meet up with Scott Richmond, a local schoolteacher and fellow EV adventurer. The morning’s clouds have drifted away, and we chat in the warm afternoon air as we inflate standup paddleboards at a lake outside Smithers.

EV Charging station in Smithers | Northern BC Tourism/Marty Clemens

“As a family, we’ve taken our car down to Victoria twice and Kelowna once,” Scott tells me, “and lots of hiking and skiing closer to home. Other than rough logging roads, it can get us pretty much anywhere a truck can go.

You can’t fill your battery at the same rate you can fill up a tank…It’s a different mindset…And that just goes along with changing how you think about travel.

“But the thing to remember,” he notes, “is that you can’t fill your battery at the same rate you can fill up a tank. Instead of a few minutes, it’s maybe 35. So it’s a different mindset, and it gives you a chance to see the towns and places where the chargers are. You’re spending a bit more time stopping for food, taking walks, letting the kids swing around on a playground, or just checking things out. Normally you wouldn’t stop in some of these places, but they’re really cool and quaint and you meet people you wouldn’t have otherwise. And that just goes along with changing how you think about travel.”

Like my partner and I, Scott says his biggest reason for choosing an electric car is not having to fill up with gas. And as we paddle out onto the water and the summer sun shines onto lushly forested hills, I’m reminded again of the best element of EV adventuring—by lowering the environmental impact of your travels, you’re helping protect the future of the places you enjoy along the way.

In the days to come, we’ll load up the kids again and head farther along Highway 16—the Widzin Kwah Canyon House Museum at Witset, the Hagwilget bridge at Hazelton and a crossing of the Skeena at Kitwanga are all on the list. Sushi a few blocks from the ocean in Prince Rupert beckons, too.

With our EV, the journey will likely take us a bit longer than it will for most. But on a route as beautiful as this, more time on the road just means more opportunity to explore.

WRITTEN BY: Malcolm Johnson

Malcolm Johnson is a writer based in Northern British Columbia. An avid surfer, paddler, and trail runner, he writes mainly about sustainability, outdoor adventure, and how we experience and interact with the natural world.

SUGGESTED ITINERARY

DAY 1: Prince George to Burns Lake

Before setting out, explore this gateway to the North; enjoy a walk in Cottonwood Island Nature Park, where the Nechako River meets the Fraser. Take a side trip just west of Vanderhoof, the geographic centre of BC, with a stop for a swim at Peterson’s Beach along the north shore of beautiful Fraser Lake.

DAY 2: Burns Lake to Smithers

Start the day with coffee at Alternative Grounds, then head for a walk, run, or mountain bike ride along the beautifully maintained trails at Boer Mountain; stop in at Burnt Bikes for local tips before your drive to Smithers.

DAY 3: Smithers to Hazelton

Stop in at Bugwood for your morning fix of snacks and coffee. Hike Malkow Lookout, which offers picture-perfect views of the Bulkley Valley and the surrounding mountains. While you charge up in the parking lot, standup paddleboard at Tyhee Lake Provincial Park; rentals are available at Local Supply Co or Aquabatics.

On the way to Terrace, stop in Witset (Moricetown) to learn about the culture of Witsuwit’en people on a guided tour at the Widzin Kwah Canyon House Museum, and come to appreciate this ancient community’s ties to the Bulkley River.

DAY 4: Hazelton to Terrace

Before you leave Hazelton, drive over the single-lane steel suspension bridge, where once stood the original bridge constructed by the Wet’suwet’en peoples to connect communities on either side of the Hagwilget Canyon.

In Terrace, get to know the unique ecosystems of the Skeena and Nass valleys with a leave-no-trace excursion with Skeena EcoTours.

DAY 5: Terrace to Prince Rupert

In Prince Rupert, stay right in town and enjoy a meal at Fukasaku, BC’s first sushi restaurant to be 100% certified by the Ocean Wise program. For a more remote experience, book eco-accommodation in Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge, a floating lodge inside Canada’s only grizzly bear protected area.

Featured Image: Smithers | Photo: Northern BC Tourism/Marty Clemens

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