Story & Photos by Martina Halik
Professional photographer and writer, Martina Halik and her mother Tania are a mother, daughter adventure team duo. In the winter of 2017 as a mother and daughter team (Martina, 30 and Tania, 60 years old), we completed a backcountry ski traverse linking most of the terrain of the Coast Mountains of BC and Alaska from Squamish BC to Skagway AK over the course of 5.5 months. This trip was featured in a beautiful documentary titled "This Mountain Life" (check it out, we think it's great!).
In 2020, they had big dreams of taking on another adventure in Alaska, but COVID threw a wrench in their plans. With some quick thinking and nimble planning, along with Martina's husband Ryan, they took their expedition to their backyard of British Columbia in the Northern Rockies.
The nights sounded different from the daytime. In my mind the booming and cracking transformed into the eerie wails of a pod of whales trapped beneath us. Calling to each other and ramming the ice from below in frustration until it cracked, splintering in long moaning waves in all directions. Every time I was about to drift off, another booming crack jerked me awake. Unnerved, half in dreamland, I would picture the illusory whales breaking through - the ice buckling and the little orange tent sliding into the icy dark water below, the two of us trapped within.
It was the first week of April a year ago. We were camped for our third night on the ice, halfway up the frozen Peace Reach of the Williston Reservoir; an arm that comprises part of the largest body of fresh water in BC, created in 1968 by a dam on the Peace River. It is the 7th largest reservoir in the world, and a place I had absolutely no intention of skiing across three weeks ago. Alas the pandemic hit the world like a sledgehammer last spring and shut down all possibility of our major Alaskan expedition. Blessed to live in a part of the world with more mountains and rivers than people that visit them, and more ski lines than can possibly be enjoyed in one lifetime, it wasn’t that hard to adjust. We quarantined in the Northern Rockies on a slow spring migration from north to south.
The aim had been to packraft the reservoir to the mountains, but it was still frozen a foot thick in Mid-April. Two weeks passed, each day unique with challenges and experiences. Ryan, who had never done a ski traverse before summed up his experience up with “That was the best adventure I’ve had in a long, long time.” He left us at the first resupply with shining eyes and a wistful wave.
Challenging, beautiful weeks followed; full of wind-lashed snowstorms and the patter of spring rain on tent walls. Rich with skies colored impossible blue, and a sun so fierce we were forced to mask our faces, like the rest of the world, in a vain effort to avoid more sunburn. We glimpsed graceful mountain caribou prancing along ridges, a gangly young moose walking up a creek bed and sleepy grizzlies and black bears munching fresh alder buds. We saw a bushy tailed fox, and a cheeky marten that made a ruckus all night until it finally succeeded in stealing my shoe, for what I can only imagine was a less than tasty snack. I saw my first Fischer, (which had gone extinct in the Southern Rockies decades ago) chasing fluttering ptarmigans at dusk. There were songbirds rejoicing in the new season everywhere, and small trout winding their way up and down the clear fast streams that we skied alongside. Transfixed, we meandered along valley after valley of stunning old growth forests; wide trunked monoliths hundreds and hundreds of years old, tenaciously surviving the harsh mountain climate, unaware of the muddy cutblocks creeping up toward them from the lower valleys.
Finally, we followed two caribou, a mother and her calf, as we made the final descent to Herrick Creek. These waters would join the McGregor River and finally the mighty Fraser all the way to our finish in the city of Prince George. The bugs were out in force as we switched our skis for bikes and rafts at the river and were joined once more by Ryan and newly by my mom’s adventurous border collie Summit. It was incredibly exciting to switch things up after so many weeks of skiing with just the two of us.
After a mix of bushwhacking and fun muddy biking we dipped our paddles into the very murky snowmelt from those high places we had just left. It was a relief to use new muscles and enjoy a novel style of adventure as we wound our fast-paced way down the icy river. It rained. The next day it poured. There’s something absolutely beautiful and unique about being on a river during a rainstorm. The way the water surface morphs into a thousand winking jewels, as momentary as the raindrops that create them. We stayed warm in drysuits and did our best for the dog, who seemed to love the ride despite needing to shiver at times to stay warm.
When the sun came out so did the bugs, in droves. Each season in these northern mountains comes with its unique challenges and beauty. Conditions are never perfect and never boring. It got so hot that days later, reaching the mellow brown of the Fraser River, we ditched all clothes and drifted sleepily downriver, washing our laundry as we floated, draping it on our rafts to dry under the hot sun.
After a month and half, when it was all over, I was grateful not to have to get up and walk or paddle for hours and hours each day anymore. There would be no more swearing my way though hauling heavy loads in thick bush or up exhausting boot packs to high summits. No anxiety wondering what rapids the next bend in the river might bring. I wouldn’t have to rappel off sudden cliffs guarding the only passable route below or wade through more icy rivers. There was no more worrying about staying dry, difficult navigating, or managing avalanche hazard. No more howling winds jolting the tent walls at night or the booming cracks of ice shifting. But I would miss the epic three-kilometer-long ski descents; sunset colors teasing scattered clouds as we effortlessly skied down perfect corn snow from the high alpine into darkly forested old growth. Before long I would yearn for the excitement and icy spray of bobbing through a long train of class two rapids. I would miss waking up to birdsong and the ceaseless resonance of the river and the novelty of being in a new place with every step and paddle stroke I take. Maybe, with enough time going by I would even miss the suffering of all the those experiences I was so happy to leave behind. Adventuring is funny that way, we need the suffering as much as the easy good times. There is a simplicity, an elusive perfection in the migration of a long traverse that I haven’t found elsewhere.