Women and Children First Women and Children First

Built in 1978, the MV Queen of Chilliwack is a Norwegian vessel that operated near Oslo before providing service on the British Columbia coast from 1991 onwards, including Route 40 between Port Hardy and Bella Coola. She has since been retired and replaced by the comically tiny and incapable MV Nimpkish. Photo: BC Ferries

By Mike Berard

A remote jewel on BC’s mid-coastal crown, Bella Coola is bracing for king-sized change. In November 2013, when BC Ferries terminated the marine highway that connects the town to the outside world, its citizens were left with a daunting choice: Leave what could soon be a sinking community. Or batten down home’s hatches and outlast the stormy seas.

MOST OF THE infamous road into Bella Coola is not as terrifying as its reputation claims. The 43-kilometre gravel section of Highway 20 remains tame as it leaves the community of Anahim Lake and cruises easily to the Coast Range. Once it enters the mountains, however, the road transforms from easy to alarming—but it’s short. Sharp hairpin turns and two severe switchbacks punctuate a steep nine-kilometre section creatively dubbed by locals as “The Hill.” Boasting dizzying grades of up to 18 per cent, The Hill dives and diverts as it descends from the heights of the Chilcotin Plateau into picturesque Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Despite its terrible reputation, the pot-holed, sometimes-one-laned gravel descent safely delivers most drivers with anxious grace. From Duffey Lake to Rogers Pass, British Columbia, residents are well-versed in mountain driving, and locals here navigate the road without fear.

“The Freedom Road,” which Highway 20 is also referred to, was built by industrious locals frustrated by a government that didn’t see the value in pushing a route through. In 1953, starting at each end and working with bulldozers bought on credit, the residents of Bella Coola and Anahim Lake built the road. It remained the only access for motor tourists wanting to come to Bella Coola until 1996, when BC Ferries launched Route 40 on the newly marketed “Discovery Coast,” a summer-only ferry service to the town, following a circle route that invited motor tourists to drive up Vancouver Island to Port Hardy, take the ferry to Bella Coola or Prince Rupert, and then drive through the interior to finish in either Calgary or Vancouver.

Photo: Paul Morrison

Photo: Paul Morrison

Since then, a tourist-driven Bella Coola Valley has become moderately famous for deep powder skiing, incredible fishing and vibrant wildlife. Whale watching, music festivals and First Nations culture attracted a new brand of ocean-bound tourist. Then in November 2013, citing a $7.5-million loss over the past two years, the provincial government-owned but privately operated BC Ferries cancelled Route 40. In its place they installed a tiny, aged vessel and an underserviced, unpleasant 9.5-hour journey in its place, effectively making one of the most feared roads in British Columbia the only realistic way in and out of this 1,900-person town. What’s left at the end of the road is a community with more to fear than a mere gravel hill. How will Bella Coola survive when tourists cannot access it easily?

“The Freedom Road” was built by industrious locals frustrated by a government that didn’t see the value in pushing a route through. In 1953, starting at each end and working with bulldozers bought on credit, the residents of Bella Coola and Anahim Lake built the road.

MOUNT SAUGSTAD is—without hyperbole—breathtaking. With heart beating at hummingbird speed, I peer down on its hanging glacier from the passenger seat of an A-Star helicopter. Chunks of ice as large as buildings hang precipitously below. Above, the gnarly, fluted peaks of this mountain tower imposingly. There are mountains, and then there are mountains like these. Postcard mountains. Movie mountains. Icons.

The Coast Range in Bella Coola’s backyard bears little resemblance to the Coast Range most British Columbians know. Here the mountains make Whistler’s peaks look like foothills. They intimidate with their jagged backbones and their seas of ice. Only minutes after we unload our skis onto a steep glacier adjacent to Saugstad, an avalanche breaks free from her flank and falls thousands of feet. It’s terrifying, even at a distance. It’s also strikingly beautiful. The same aesthetic cascades all the way to the valley below.

Bella Coola is a rare place of beauty. The highest mountain in the vicinity—Monarch Mountain—tops out at 3,533 metres (11,591 feet) on the southernmost edge of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Only 80 kilometres away as the crow flies, the ocean laps up against the edge of town. In between is a vast mountainscape choked with ice and timber. Violent waterways weave their way through this rugged terrain until they reach the wide-open valley, where they meander through pastoral flood plains.

Wildlife thrives here while few people do; the population is both small and humble, and the landscape massive. In its hospitable but remote valley, Bella Coola has reluctantly fostered human life since the Nuxalk First Nations first made it home millennia ago. Ancient petroglyphs in the forests of nearby Thorsen Creek suggest the Nuxalk may have originated from or bumped shoulders with Polynesian ancestors who would have braved unknown open oceans to arrive here. When Sir Alexander Mackenzie beat Lewis and Clark to complete the first overland North American crossing north of Mexico in 1793, he chose this valley as his entrance to the Pacific. Indeed, transportation to Bella Coola has never been easy, but in these modern times of convenience it’s hard to believe the termination of one ferry may sink this town’s tourism aspirations.

Bella Coola Helisports guide Woody Tribe on the Atnarko River.

Bella Coola Helisports guide Woody Tribe on the Atnarko River.

“I give my business two years before it goes under…at most,” exclaims skipper Garrett Newkirk. We’re at Bella Coola’s Government Wharf on an overcast day. The harbour is two-thirds full of fishing boats, both commercial and charter. A deteriorating cannery tenuously rises out of the water in the distance. Decommissioned, rusting ships list in shallow water. Newkirk stands on the prow of his aluminum vessel, the 27-foot Slim Jim. Born and raised in Bella Coola, Newkirk is an amiable and excitable man with a passion for his hometown. He speaks enthusiastically about the outdoors. As an owner of multiple tourism businesses, including a bed and breakfast, a wildlife-viewing outfit, and a kayak guiding business, Newkirk fears what the loss of the Route 40 will mean for him. “At least half of our annual revenue relies on the ferry traffic,” he says. “Without it, we can’t expect to carry through the slow season. I’m not the only one either. Everyone is in the same boat.”

Later that day, I speak to Leonard Ellis, a 30-year resident of the mid-coast, owner of Bella Coola Grizzly Tours, and former president of the Bella Coola Valley Tourism Association. “The majority of the revenue for the area comes in during that summer period,” he says, agreeing with Newkirk. “Everyone relies on it, even the gas stations. There were 2,500 cars that came in last year [through the ferry route]. They come in, they buy lunch, tours, fuel, groceries…they spend a lot of money.”

Bella Coola is a rare place of beauty. The highest mountain in the vicinity—Monarch Mountain—tops out at 3,533 metres (11,591 feet) on the southernmost edge of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Only 80 kilometres away as the crow flies, the ocean laps up against the edge of town. In between is a vast mountainscape choked with ice and timber. Violent waterways weave their way through this rugged terrain until they reach the wide-open valley, where they meander through pastoral flood plains.

The numbers do seem to add up. In a Tourism Industry Association of British Columbia survey, 62 tourism operators between northern Vancouver Island and the Cariboo-Chilcotin were asked how the cancellation of Route 40 would affect them. Forty-seven per cent of businesses between Bella Coola and Williams Lake said they were “somewhat” or “highly” likely to close their businesses. On Northern Vancouver Island, 11 per cent said the same.

The report calculated that Route 40 passenger spending generates 110 full-time equivalent jobs and $5.6 million in provincial tourism revenue, not to mention $783,000 in provincial tax revenues. The same report claims that “When the total provincial tax revenues from Route 40 passenger spending are taken into consideration, the [BC Ferries] annual operating deficit becomes a $58,000 surplus.”

Now, who’s afraid of a little surplus? 

Leonard Ellis in the Bella Coola Harbour.

Leonard Ellis in the Bella Coola Harbour.

Nuxalk citizen Sheldon Tallio. Photos: Mike Berard

Nuxalk citizen Sheldon Tallio. Photos: Mike Berard

BELOW ME, an icy shelf betrays its nature with a seemingly powdery surface. Despite being an easy spring day of skiing, I’ve somehow ended up feeling gripped in what feels like a no-fall zone. Perhaps it’s because I am following ski mountaineer Peter Mattsson. Or perhaps it’s the uncharacteristically steep ice he’s brought me to. If I fall here, I won’t stop. With Bella Coola Helisports’ clients, we’ve been skiing modest but fun powder the past few days, but today Mattsson knows he has a stronger group of skiers—partners Christian Begin and Beat Steiner, plus me—so he continues to push farther into his expansive tenure, looking for steeper terrain and deeper snow. It appears the search ends on this icy test piece. At the end of the run we fly back to the sunny Bella Coola airport and load into the van home. 

A report calculated that Route 40 passenger spending generates 110 full-time equivalent jobs and $5.6 million in provincial tourism revenue, not to mention $783,000 in provincial tax revenues. The same report claims that “When the total provincial tax revenues from Route 40 passenger spending are taken into consideration, the [BC Ferries] annual operating deficit becomes a $58,000 surplus.”

On the drive back, I ride shotgun next to Mattsson. Each side of the valley is dramatically lined with mountains rising sharply into the skyline. On the south side, a succession of Mount Currie-sized peaks stack up like shark’s teeth. On the other, Stawamus Chief-like chunks of rock rise above. This is serious terrain—the kind of ski terrain that brought Mattsson here in the 90s to scout fresh filming spots. In innumerable ski movies since, I’ve watched names like Seth Morrison, Hugo Harrison and Kye Petersen put down serious lines in these mountains. All of them have been through Mattsson’s expertise, including feature films like Seven Days in Tibet and The Incredible Hulk. When skiers, snowboarders and Hollywood directors need big mountains, Bella Coola is where they come. Today, however, Mattsson is not talking about mountains. He wants to talk ferries.

“I think we should send a letter and tell them we don’t want to see them,” says Peter Mattsson. “Fuck you. Don’t come here.” Mattsson’s anger is directed at BC Ferries, who offered to visit the town to speak of compensation for the cancelled route. “Compensation?” he exclaims. “We should not open that door for them. We’d rather starve. Tell them that, and the world has got to see it happen to us.”

While Mattsson’s winter business won’t be as affected—Bella Coola Helisports flies most of its clients in via a Vancouver charter—his summer clientele relies on the ferry like everyone else, and staff and supplies come largely from Bella Coola. He fears they will lose the services small towns need to attract tourism. “The worst to get it will be the Cariboo-Chilcotin and the Coast,” he says. “That’s why it’s so devastating. Tourism is what everyone has turned to.”

   “All we have left is tourism,” added Ellis of Bella Coola Grizzly Tours, when I asked him if he agreed with Mattsson. “In the old days, logging was going [strong]. There was commercial fishing. Now that’s gone by the wayside. All we have left is the natural raw beauty of the area. You lose the ferry service. You get concerned you don’t have the mass of people. The real mainstay of the community is the hospital. If you lose people they start to look at removing those services. It’s a bad thing.” Ellis once lived in another Central Coast town, Ocean Falls, before that community lost its services amidst the loss of a hydro power plant. It now has a permanent population of less than 50 people. I ask him where he will go next if Bella Coola suffers a similar fate. “I don’t know,” he nervously laughs. “I think this is the end of the road for me.”

Actor Adam Beach speaks to a crowd at Nuxalk Hall.

Actor Adam Beach speaks to a crowd at Nuxalk Hall.

The speed at which Bella Coola moves depends on whom you speak with.

The speed at which Bella Coola moves depends on whom you speak with.

“DISEASE LOVES ISOLATION,” says Adam Beach, addressing a mostly First Nations crowd in Bella Coola’s Nuxalk Hall. “There will be people who come here to take advantage of your isolation.” The Manitoba-born, Flags of our Fathers and Wind Talkers Hollywood actor is of Saulteaux First Nation descent, but he is here on a speaking tour of remote Canadian reserves. Beach plans to bring movie theatres to these communities in the hopes of inspiring youth and battling addiction. He tearfully speaks of isolation in terms of his own struggles with alcohol, but the metaphor for the loss of services is poignant. The youth in the room struggle to focus, instead punching each other in the arm and whispering loudly to each other. The adults listen intently.

“I look in your backyard and I see drugs. I see alcohol,” he points out. “Isolation will only bring more of these things unless you pay attention to who you are.” He is right. Beyond the natural beauty of the Bella Coola Valley, the actual town site shows painful signs of social problems: scavenged skeletons of vehicles dot the streets and spray paint is prevalent; however, the Nuxalk are still proud. Earlier in the day I’d stumbled into a march, the annual Walk of Hope, aimed at addressing the problem of violence against women and girls. Approximately 500 people walked with Beach throughout the town, eventually arriving at the hall where he spoke. It was a lucky chance to witness a part of the coastal community urban Canadians rarely get to access. 

Like most tourist towns, the people who come to Bella Coola have more money than the people who live there. In exchange for thrilling encounters with wildlife or peaceful hikes in alpine, they leave behind money. It’s a simple equation with an important solution for locals. Tourists pay the rent. Tourists like the easy life. And there’s nothing easy about getting to Bella Coola by car.

At the end of the presentation, some of the Nuxalk sing a traditional song as the kids reach the end of their youthful patience. When the drums stop and the kids bolt for the doors, I stay and speak with some of the locals. I’m introduced to Sheldon Tallio, a 41-year-old Nuxalk helicopter logger. A friend brings us together in hopes that Tallio will take me to the famous petroglyphs. Tallio stands with a humble quietness as his daughter climbs on him, but in his eyes I see a glimmer of intensity.

“You can’t experience them without a storyteller,” he says. “There’s a magic up there. Some of the other guides…they will sugarcoat things. I will tell you the truth.” Tallio is one of a few of his people learning the Nuxalk language. Only 15 elders remain fluent. I trust him inherently. In the end, Tallio cannot find a babysitter. I go alone. The petroglyphs are magical. I wonder what kind of truth Tallio could have shared had he been able to come. 

The march and the town hall meeting I attended are the precise sorts of attractions that tourists in search of authentic First Nations culture can find here. Beyond freeze-dried pemmican and metropolitan galleries toting culturally insensitive inuksuk, there are First Nations communities who continue to struggle to remain intimate with their true history. But if a petroglyph gleans in the forest and no one is there to see it, will it resonate?

Against all odds, the plastic surgeon from Minneapolis has hooked a beautiful Dolly Varden trout. Standing thigh-deep in the frigid waters of the Atnarko River, he struggles to pull in the line on his fly-fishing rod as the small fish puts up a surprisingly strong struggle. With a look on his face something akin to terror, he stumbles in the soft gravel bank and almost falls into the moving water. Just as he starts to panic, guide Sean Tribe comes to the rescue, his casual stroll belying his experience in British Columbia’s rivers. A Squamish-based skiing and fly-fishing guide, Tribe—or “Woody” as he’s known around Tweedsmuir Lodge—is a friendly, down-to-earth man with simple pleasures. After unhooking the fish and taking a photo for the client—a man who recently celebrated five million vertical feet with another heliskiing operation—Tribe rolls his own cigarette, lights it, and begins fishing again.

Joining the wealthy plastic surgeon in the river are three globetrotting Russians. Back at the lodge, an American Internet entrepreneur, and an Italian woman and her San Franciscan husband round out this week’s heliski group. Later that evening, we’ll drink delicious wine and dine on fresh fish. Like most tourist towns, the people who come to Bella Coola have more money than the people who live there. In exchange for thrilling encounters with wildlife or peaceful hikes in alpine, they leave behind money. It’s a simple equation with an important solution for locals. Tourists pay the rent. Tourists like the easy life. And there’s nothing easy about getting to Bella Coola by car.

In a hilarious March 17, 2014 editorial in The Vancouver Sun, writer Michael McCarthy described an experience on the “new” Bella Coola ferry. The oldest and smallest ship in the BC Ferries’ fleet, the M.V. Nimpkish is 41 years old, 33 metres long and holds a maximum of 16 vehicles. As McCarthy reports, “Its ancient engine clunks along at a maximum speed of 11 knots; no wonder the trip to Bella Bella takes 9.5 hours, then another five hours to Port Hardy.” The ship has no drinking water on board. The only food available is a vending machine. There are a few plastic benches for people to sit on.

Compare this to the Queen of Chilliwack, which measures 100 metres long and weighs 3,500 tonnes, and carried 115 cars and 400 passengers. Three times a week the vessel would arrive in Bella Coola and unload an international cross section of RV and motor tourists. They would indulge the way only tourists can, purchasing with joyful abandon in the travellers’ exhaustive search for experience. Then they would get back in their cars and throw money out the window in towns from Anahim Lake to Calgary. Why are we stopping them?

“It’s a gold mine for the province if they’d just keep the services going and market the product,” says Leonard Ellis, exhausted by the hopelessness of our conversation. “Nothing compares to it in the province. What is it that our government doesn’t understand?”

At the end of an amazing week in Bella Coola, I attempt to catch the ferry home in the interest of telling the whole story. I call a friend who lives in Bella Bella, the first community on Vancouver Island where the tiny M.V. Nimkish makes landfall—at 2 a.m.—after leaving port. The trip would cost $163.80 and I would be in my car most of the time. Additionally, I would need to stay in the tiny community on coastal Campbell Island for five days before leaving for my final Port Hardy destination. This leg would cost an additional $281.00. When I express surprise, my friend says, “Travel on the Central Coast is a bitch. They do not care about us.”
“I guess I’ll just head home.” I say.

The next morning I get in my car and drive straight back up The Hill to Whistler, without spending a dime on anything but gas./

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Mike Berard is the editor of Coast Mountain Culture. He fears losing the access and cultures of the lesser-known but no less grander corners of British Columbia.

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