Two nights and a day of rain after leaving Port Hardy on Vancouver Island and we disembarked the ferry at Bella Coola. The journey had taken us along the Discovery Coast. Through fjords and narrow passages enshrouded in mist. Thick clouds clung to the thick forest hillsides, obscuring snow-capped mountain-tops.
The Queen of Chilliwack slowly navigated its way between the islands. The 1978-built Norwegian icebreaker boat originally called Bastøs I had come from Europe, passed through the Panama canal and then travelled up the US coast when bought by BC Ferries. Now it transports tourists, cargo and much needed supplies to the native locals who live on these remote islands.
Stopping at Shearwater, a small shoreline community, we took a stroll through the street past the shop, post office and cafe, which took barely 3 minutes and then wandered back amongst the rusting boats aloft on oil drums – a ship graveyard. Other villages existed for logging or salmon fishing. The salmon would leap and fly in their holding tanks, oblivious to the rain falling heavily.
We had our tent pitched at the stern if the boat but moved into the ‘solarium’ for the second night as the deck was under water.
Waking in the morning, berthed in Bella Coola, there was a break in the clouds and a single ray of light beckoned us on to land. By the time we had re-packed our bags ready for the ride ahead, the sky was clearing and the air warming.
It was a pleasant cycle up through the valley. We camped at the bottom of the pass. A short explore in the vicinity of our chosen camp spot revealed bear prints. Lars stepped in a perfect outline of one and still you could see heel and claw embedded in the earth. We stashed our food well away from our tents. As well as my pan; which I inadvertently loosed on the raging waters while trying to wash it. A couple of weeks later and I still optimistically scan each river in vain that I may see that pan bobbing downstream.
And so began the ride up the Heckman Pass. But it didn’t last long. Soon we were walking and pushing!
Locally known simply as ‘The Hill’, the road winds its way steeply inland. Once Bella Coola was inaccessible by road and the government refused to build one which clearly violated regulations by being too steep and therefore potentially dangerous. So one enterprising contractor simply took matters into his own hands. With bulldozers and diggers working from opposite ends, they eventually met in the middle and had created what must be the steepest road in North America.
Terrific 200 year rains exactly a year ago however had flooded much of Bella Coola and washed away large sections of road. By the time we arrived though, the road had been largely rebuilt and the only other visible signs were the large numbers of property for sale.
‘Ooh, I could buy that house’, I would comment again as we passed another lovely farmstead, which was clearly outside the means of a wageless cyclist. Eventually, Lars joined in the game… ‘Ooh, I could buy that tree’, he commented as we passed a ‘For Sale’ sign nailed to a random tree in a section of forest.
Pushing the bike ever so slowly, trudging onward and upward through blackened spines of trees burned and deadened by an old forest fire had a never-ending, McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ quality to it. Fortunately for us there was an end. At 1524m.
Four hours after starting on the gravel road, we arrived at the top with expansive views of distant glaciers and the road we had toiled up.
Now we were on the Chilcotin Plateau. And bathed in sunlight. In the late afternoon, lakes reflected mountain tops like mirrors. Red leaves and dry golden grasses. Deep green firs and pine. A rainbow of colours embedded deep against the bright blue sky. It was postcard perfect. We travelled down the gravel road. Wilderness untouched. There is beauty in solitude and freedom. That’s what the Chilocotin is. Especially if you are a wandering cyclist.
Slowly however, the wilds turned to ranchland. Wooden fences would line the road. For keeping cattle in. Not cougars out.
This I discovered one night when rudely awoken by a disturbing wailing sound piercing through the silent darkness up the mountainside. My mind leapt back to South Africa and listening through a long night to the mating call of the caracal. There are no caracal in Canada, but there are cougars, also known as mountain lions, a close cousin. I suddenly realised that my tent door was open to the starlight and any potential gazing felines. By now the local farm dogs were in a frenzy, barking incessantly. And then from my left came two gunshots. Silence. For a moment. And then the banshee wailing resumed. To the Apaches and Walapai of Arizona the cougar’s wail was the harbinger of death. Another gunshot from my right. Silence again. Silence in nature is unnatural. This time I broke it… ‘Lars, did you hear that?’ A dreary voice replied, ‘What? The gunshots?’ I should not have been surprised that Lars neither heard the animals or cared. He went back to sleep. To me though, the cougar’s wail is the harbinger of sleepless nights. So for the first time (and most likely only time) we were packed and on the road before the sun was shining on our tents and a blanket of mist still hung in the valley. Lars was unimpressed.
A driver would say the Chilcotin plateau is flat and from there it is downhill to Williams Lake. The reality to the cyclist is something else entirely.
Take Redstone for example. First of all we pass a sign saying 25km to the town. Perfect, we’d be there for lunch. Minutes later we arrive in Redstone. No, we don’t cycle fast. Since the km sign was erected, the town had moved. Yes, the town; not the sign. When the highway was built a few years ago, the guy who owned most of Redstone (that’s the town lying 25km from the sign) refused to have his land disturbed by a new road. So the road was built around his land. The town was cut off. So the people moved. The new Redstone is now where the native community have always resided. The old Redstone is presumably inhabited by its sole owner. For us, this meant the road no longer followed the river but detoured up and around the hillside. Great.
Eventually we reached a low point which was actually another highlight. The Fraser River. We camped under the bridge and I enjoyed the luxury of a bush shower. (That’s washing my hair by the river using a 2 litre water bottle). Historically, people flocked to the Fraser Canyon, not for any cleansing effect, but in the hope of making a fortune. This was of course, the centre of British Columbia’s first gold rush, in 1858. Over 150 years later, and there was no sign of gold on the river’s banks. Or my pan floating downstream.
The following morning we slogged our way out of the canyon and on into William’s Lake. It was just a big, noisy town. And once Lars had devoured 4 quarterpounders with cheese and we’d resupplied, there was little to keep us. So on we continued.
There will be many highlights on this journey, but for now, the Chilcotin is top of the list. Beautiful scenery. Relatively unspoilt. And plenty wildlife. We saw bears, a wolf (we think, or maybe a coyote) and some snakes too.
Lars is also writing about the trip… you can read his version of events here (but you will need to use the translate function unless you are fluent in Swedish.
Next update on our ride to Jasper and through the Icefields Parkway to Banff coming soon…. (well, in a couple of weeks when we have a proper break in Boise, Idaho. Plans have changed… stay posted for full details)