Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bella Coola Coastal Retreat! Car-Free Holiday Number 6!

We decided to do a number of "staycations" this summer, to explore BC. We've never been up the coast beyond the middle of Vancouver Island or the Sunshine Coast, so we figured we'd try to have a vacation "somewhere up there".

The first idea was to take BC Ferries from Port Hardy and to get off somewhere and explore locally. But that was quickly nixed when we couldn't figure out how to get to Port Hardy without a car, as it seems there's bascially no bus service up island!!! Add to this complication the fact that you have to stay overnight in Port Hardy because the ferry leaves early in the morning, and the high cost of even being a foot passenger on the thing, and we quickly gave up on this idea. So instead, we decided to fly in.

Our chosen location: Bella Coola.

[You can actually drive to Bella Coola, it's a mere 650km from Williams Lake.]

Bella Coola used to be a fishing and logging town. But this has changed - logging has pulled out of town and now the only logging going on is done in small patches by helicopter. There's no mill in town and no big logging booms being collected as far as I could tell. Fishing is - as far as I can tell - on the skids as well. The fishers we saw at the wharf were from all over BC (from Vancouver to Prince Rupert) and they were basically just waiting in their boats, day after day, for an "opening" to go out and fish. Once the short opening is done they will move to the next one. So the locals really have to scrounge around for work to make ends meet; tourism is becoming more of a draw with water-rafting for bear-watching and heli-skiing in the winter. But, these activities don't always bring money into the local economy. In many cases the guests are isolated in the lodge and the lodge is owned and operated by rich outside investors. Sometimes they will hire local staff, but not always...

Anyways, in we flew, a stunning flight in a small twin engine Beechcraft that seats 19. The landing in the Bella Coola valley is pretty amazing - the valley is very narrow and long which makes the landing rather exciting.

[view from the plane]

[Beechcraft 1900 unloading at Bella Coola]

We rented the Floathouse Inn at the Bella Coola government wharf for a week.  This cute little float home is like a little cabin on the water - shower, full kitchen, rooftop deck. Stunning views all 'round, very quiet location, and you get gently rocked to sleep every night. The guy who runs this place is a small local operator so the money stays in the valley.

The wharf is almost exclusively used by commercial fishermen; no luxury yachts with high-heeled small dogs aboard. In this way it's quite different from the marinas on the south coast.

[Highly recommended accomodations: the Floathouse Inn]

[view from the back deck of the Floathouse]

The wharf is a 20 minute walk from Bella Coola proper, where there is a co-op grocery, a liquor store, a small museum (well worth a visit), a hardware store....all the things you might require. The prices are not outrageous, although the produce and meat selection isn't what you'd see in a bigger town (there are only 1200 people or so in the whole valley).

About seafood: you cannot buy fish from the fishermen at the wharf, unless you do so "under the table". And they will only sell to you if they have fish - which they didn't when we were there because there was no fishing going on. So the only option is flash-frozen stuff from the distributor up the valley. Which is excellent, by the way...but certainly not cheap. Similarly, crab is unavailable for purchase. You have to catch it yourself (which we did - delicious! Fresh dungeness crab!). I found this kind of strange for a fishing town...but I suppose it's a sign of the times.

About telecoms: WiFi is available at the wharf but it is, shall we say, spotty and slow. The cell coverage in the valley is exclusively Telus/Bell. Rogers customers are out of luck. Thanks to this, my husband's blackberry was inoperative. Yay!!!!

There are lots of things to do while in Bella Coola; all outdoorsy of course! You can walk to the Nuxalk indian village of Four Mile, about 45 minutes inland along the one road, and visit the Petroglyph Gallery for some really nice prints and carvings (budget $100s for the prints, $1000s for the carvings!!!!), and arrange for one of the locals to take you to see the petroglyphs in the forest and to give you the local spiel on them. This is well worth it. Just don't believe everything they tell you!

[Bella Coola petroglyphs]

You can charter a sailing cruise from the Floathouse Inn guy, he'll take you out into the maze of inlets for one or more nights on a very nice sailboat. The scenery is amazing and the area is empty. There are natural hot springs you can visit, and you will see bears, seals and eagles. We did.

[Eucott Bay from the hotsprings pool]

Then, you can rent a 4x4 from a local lodge and drive yourself up one of the logging roads into the alpine for some spectacular hiking. You can wander up there for days, but be "bear aware". We didn't see any bears in the alpine - they were all down in the valley waiting for the salmon run...

[alpine lake above M. Gurr Lake]

[view of the inlets into Bella Coola from the alpine lookout above M. Gurr Lake]

Alternatively, you can take a walk through the valley's cedar forests, and see old growth. Some of the cedars are "culturally modified" - the Nuxalk harvest strips of cedar bark or planks  (a single strip or plank from a tree only, which scars the tree but does not kill it). I found the forests here more impressive than say, Cathedral Grove on the way to Port Alberni....(which always strikes me as a sad leftover of what was once there).

[one big tree]

[cedar with plank taken year ago - notice axe marks at top]

There is a lot of river fishing to be done (the ocean-going sport fishing is not done here; it is out of Bella Bella and Shearwater on the coast). During the September salmon run(s) the bears are down on the rivers so bear-watching is a huge draw. We didn't see any because this year the pink salmon run is apparently in trouble...the valley had floods in 2010 which washed away much of the eggs (Pinks run on a 2-year cycle).

[grizzly tracks in the river bank]

[hungry young grizzly along the highway]

Coming back to the lower mainland after a week of this was a bit of a shock....so...civilized!

We had a wonderful time and are planning to go back.