Rob Bryce literally has the keys to some of the most exclusive places in northern B.C. These include former mining towns – some of which lie abandoned with shades of rust and moss taking over and some which are impeccably maintained and preserved to reflect the era when they once thrived.
Bryce is the proprietor of Northern BC Jet Boat tours offering exclusive tours to remote locations along the coast of the Observatory Inlet – Kitsault, Alice Arm and Anyox.
Some of these towns, like Kitsault, a private property bought by Indo-Canadian businessman Krishnan Suthanthiran in 2004, are off limits to visitors.
Not many have seen Kitsault first-hand, whose story is closely tied to the molybdenum rush of the late 70s. After the price of the metal crashed in 1982, more than 1,200 people abandoned the town overnight, leaving behind state of the art homes, a recreation centre, shopping mall and hospital – which are still maintained as if in a giant time capsule.
A limited number of visitors have set foot inside Kitsault in the past quarter of the century – thanks to Bryce, who is the only tour operator given the keys to Kitsault.
So how does he feel knowing that he holds the keys to one of the most exclusive places in northern B.C? “I feel very fortunate in that,” says Bryce and attributes it to having built a relationship based on trust with the people in charge of the town.
It is also a huge responsibility to make sure that the tour does not displace or destroy delicate objects in these places, especially when people “trust you enough to hand over the keys to these buildings,” he adds.
The ghost town adventure series was birthed eight years ago when the University of Northern British Columbia – where Bryce has been a program coordinator for more than 26 years – tasked him with coming up with adventure tour ideas for its students.
Later on Bryce set up his own tour company and contracted his services to UNBC.
“I had done all the legwork and put my own time and effort into building connections with different owners and doing all the exploration,” he said about setting up his business as he headed toward retirement.
This summer has already been a busy one for Bryce and his wife Simone – who helps him out with larger tour groups – as he looks at growing his business. Bookings for day trips to Kitsault and Anyox have been selling out like hot cakes.
Bryce expects more than a 100 visitors this summer for Kitsault, Alice Arm and Anyox. And these are people mainly from Terrace and the neighbouring northwest areas.
So what is the allure of these towns? “I think there’s probably a combination thing,” he says. “For some people, its about going back in time and though it’s not literally possible to go back in time, this may be the closest we’ll ever get to going back to the 8os.”
Ex-residents of these ghost towns have also come along on these tours with him. Seeing all that’s been preserved in Kitsault brings back lots of good memories, he says.
“Such trips are especially nostalgic when you hear them say things like, ‘Oh, this is where this was,’ or ‘This is where I had this,’ and ‘This is where my fridge was’. And it’s like going back and looking at their house from where they grew up as a little kid.”
Talking about this nostalgic connect with history that these towns provide for visitors, Bryce says that he is personally smitten by Anyox.
“If I had a chance to go back in time in a time machine, I’d probably go back to Anyox to spend the day there walking around the town in the early 1900s.”
Allure and fantasy apart, there’s a huge market for such abandoned places and ghost towns in B.C., he says. And according to him, it has a lot to do with exclusivity and accessibility.
“Sometimes if it’s very hard to get into, the place is even more popular.”
After eight years and multiple trips, Bryce is still excited to go visit these places. “Every time you go there, you find something new, and then just being able to share it out with different people who have that same passion is exciting,” he says.
At the end of the day, his client’s excitement fuels his own.
“People get out there and realize there’s so much more than what they expected in these places. I think I get excited when I see the people’s expressions and how they react,” he says.