Bella Coola

May 07, 2005May 24, 2005| (1600km, 65 hours riding-time) |
participants: RS / mike warren /

My friend Ryan had been planning a bike tour for some time in the interests of some unwinding and pre-season training-kick-starting from when he finished school until his job started in June. We looked at maps a few times and came up with a plan: head to Bella Coola and take a ferry to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island and continue from there. He would eventually go via Anacordes to Washington and back to Calgary while I would take a bus to Vancouver and rent a car.


I didn't have the 6 to 8 weeks to tour which Ryan had, so week one saw him riding via the Icefields Parkway, Jasper and Valemont to Kamloops, where I would meet him on May 7. Brad and I (well, mostly Brad with some toe-rag assitance from me) were in the "Lowell Hole" at Bow Cycle with our friend Double-D trying to get my touring bike into shape when Ryan phoned and said he was in Kamloops and would be staying with his uncle D.

My mom had agreed to drive me out to Kamloops, so we started out early Saturday morning in great weather and arrived unscathed by the so-called "killer highway" at D's house, where Ryan was sunning himself (not that he needed it).

D was just getting up (he works nights) and we hung out for a while as he had coffee and headed off to the lumber mill before we headed into town for some groceries [audio] after trying out D's vapouriser.

D "promised" to wake us up at 0600 when he got home, which was pretty early after a few pre-tour beers at a crappy local faux-Irish pub with horrendous service. He arrived at 0610, apparently in desperate need of more coffee and magic cigarettes after his 12 hours shift.

Day One

[~130km, ~6 hours riding]

After rousing ourselves and packing the rest of our stuff up, we made some breakfast while D made a joint and told us stories the entire time. Packed up and ready to go, we stopped outside for some pre-tour photos and Thank-yous to D before heading out to the highway and the decently-large climb out of Kamloops.

We didn't have to stay on the highway long, luckily, as we were heading up to Cache Creek. Since this doesn't involve four lanes, most people skip it (a shame: the "back way" into Squamish/Whistler is a much nicer drive; go to Cache Creek and follow signs for Lilloette and Pemberton).

The ride into Cache Creek was through beatuiful rolling farmland, lakes and foothills with a tailwind much of the way. After finding Ryan in Cache Creek, we got some refreshments and christened my "sport" pipe for the first time on the trip before putting in some tunes for the rest of the ride, which would take us to about Clinton, we figured.

The terrain was similar for the second leg, although with more forest and a few notable climbs. Just inside Clinton, I was looking around for Ryan's bike and managed to stuff my front wheel into an unseen drain grate which was able to throw me over the bars and cause my back-end to make it quite a ways into the air. I feared the worst. The Marinoni stood up remarkably, however: a twisted brake hood, a couple new paint-chips and no destroyed wheel or fork (just a couple bruises, including one to my ego). Later, the rumour-mill of Bow Cycle would translate this into me going to the hospital for an extended stay as we discovered when Ryan was on the phone to his brother who asked, ``is Mike still in the hospital?!'' ``Uh...No, he's right here''.

Day Two

[~170km, 6.5 hours riding]

Another great day for riding. After polishing off the last of Ryan's weed-butter with yoghurt and granola (yes, it was disgusting), we headed out of town towards Williams Lake. We stopped at a german restaurant in 70 Mile House which served a great home-made Strüdel (there seemed to be a lot of Germans along this and the road to Bella Coola).

We passed some French cycle-tourists on mountain bikes, the only other tourers we saw.

After the coffee-stop, there was some climbing (to ~1200m) and a great decent down into 100 Mile House (after an aborted stop in the "suburbs" of 99 Mile House). Stopped for a fantastic cappuccino and lunch at "The Chartreuse Moose" in town, again a Swiss or German-run place.

The next leg was assisted by rocket-fuel and some Led Zeppelin, where we hit some of the only rain on the mainland portion of the trip just before a lengthy under-construction gravel section. We stopped at 150 mile house as well, and I was pretty done-in. Ryan insisted it would be best to make it the rest of the way into Williams Lake, where we could pass out after showering; he was right, and luckily the rest of the way was a giant downhill.

I recorded my food intake for the day as a sample: yoghurt+grape nuts, strüdel+coffee, 3 cliff bars, 2 fruit bars, 2 bagel+roast beef sandwiches, cappuccino, orange, banana, 750ml gatorade, veggie pannini and about 8 espresso beans. Also, giant pasta and appetizer in Williams Lake plus snacking devices beforehand.

We asked the check-in lady at the hotel what the bigger towns were on the road to Bella Coola (after she asked where we were going and pointed out we were "crazy"). She claimed, ``there's nothing out there'' and re-intereted our craziness. This became a running joke for the tour every time we saw "something". Luckily, we had an email from a friendly "John Bates" — who it turns out has done a bunch of long Randonneur rides with the BC Randonneurs

detailing where one might buy groceries. There are enough B&Bs in between the major "centres" that I think one could organise a 80-100km/day all-hotel tour without too many difficulties (perhaps a couple longer days).

Day 3

We were originally going to make this a rest day of sorts and ride to a nearby lake. Instead, we ended up riding to Horsefly and turning the day into 140km and 5.5 hours of riding. That's okay, because the road was pretty wicked.

We stopped in Horsefly at the restaurant, which served some really good home-made food (I had a burger) before picking up a couple beers and heading down to the river (some import I'd never heard of "ESB, extra special bitter" from England; very good). The river was also nice.

Day 4

[116km, 5.5 hours riding]

This first day on Highway 20 to Bella Coola saw us climbing out of Williams Lake, dropping down to the Fraser river and climbing up again to around 1300m at the Loran station. Not too far past here, we stopped at a little road-house for some fantastic home-made hamburgers (the best of the trip). We had a bit of rain before this, too, and were able to mostly dry out before heading out again in the sun through rolling farmland carved out of the forest.

I wasn't really expecting this, but much of the terrain to Bella Coola was similar and afforded some great views.

We ended up stopping in Alexis Creek, a tiny town consisting of a grocery/liquor store, hotel/bar and mechanic shop (and the people who run them). A bunch of tree-planters were also at the Chilcotin Hotel where we stayed (althogh just in the bar) so it was far busier than we anticipated. After dinner and a few beers, the hotel owner/cook asked us where we were headed.

``Bella Coola''

``Oh yeah? Then where?''

``Ferry to Port Hardy and then down the Island, probably...''

``Yeah, that ferry doesn't run yet. Not until June.''

[laughter] ``Hmmm...well, I guess maybe we'll be coming back through here in about a week, then...''

``Yeah, would have made a great run, though...''

We both thought we'd checked the ferry times, but apparently missed the exact extent of the seasonal closure. Lucky, in hindsight, or we probably never would have come up this way. Undeterred, we phoned BC Ferries anyway in the morning and they seemed to think there might be some way to Port Hardy (but not via ferry).

Day 5

[113km, ~5 hours riding]

I saw a decently-large male black bear today and tried yelling at it and yeee-hawing it off the road with minimal success (it did look up at me at one point). I turned around to go back up the slight hill for some more speed and to wait for it to leave when a pickup came by and the bear ran into the woods. I took my opportunity and trundled up some speed but couldn't see it in the woods as I went by.

Mostly more rolling terrain with a few significant hills up to 10% although nothing longer than a few kilometers. Great day for riding but I was taking it easy, anticipating that we were going to Nimpo Lake, which would have made the day over 160km but would have set us up decently for the final leg into Bella Coola.

Some old dude in Tatla Lake told us there were some big climbs before Nimpo Lake so we decided to stop. He directed us to a local camping spot, but as we were having dinner at the hotel/restaurant, the owner told us it'd be $50 to stay and the lure of a shower cinched the deal. We promised ourselves (well, more like I promised Ryan) that we'd make it to Bella Coola tomorrow, despite the 240km price tag.

Day 6

[220km, ~9.5 hours riding]

We got up somewhat early and headed out into another great riding day. Similar rolling farmland brought us to the resort town of Nimpo Lake where we had some fantastic homemade pizza at the local restaurant. Some semi-local (i.e. owned a place and used it a few weeks a year) fishermen speculated that there would be no barges out of Bella Coola this time of year and gossiped loudly about various other topics.

An older bearded local minded his own business until he got up to leave and stopped by our table. ``Yes, there'll be barges out of Bella Coola, or at least out of Bella Bella,'' he informed us before pointing out how the fishermen were wrong about something else and left. Great news!

After using the last of the free oil Ryan got from a lumber-yard worker in Alexis Crek down the road a ways, we continued through Anahim Lake (another Indian reserve town) to where the road becomes gravel for ~60km. It is comparable to Powderface Trail in most parts with some wider oiled sections which were smoother. We thought that there would be a large pass on this section, but were wrong — well, there is a pass but there's not a lot of distinct climbing on the east side; mostly rolling.

The gradual appearance of more and more snow on the side of the road did attest to our climbing, however. Trying to time the ingestion of rocket fuel to power us up the climb failed; the mushrooms kicked in not too long before a "brake check" and "chains mandatory beyond here" sign and we were off down ``The Hill'', an approximately 24km decent down ~1500m of canyon with a small break in the middle to climb out of a creek bed. The middle 6km section warned of grades up to 18% — pretty interesting on a loaded touring bike (and I didn't even have a trailer pushing me)...

Absolulely fantastic decent, with single-lane gravel switchbacks and a view (if one rode to the side far enough) down into the valley below. By the time we hit pavement again it was about 1900, but we decided to push on and have a break in about an hour. The road was now paved and mostly gently downhill. (We later learned that some bears had followed us down part of The Hill; Ryan saw a couple cubs about half-way, but I didn't see any. Cool, nevertheless.)

We stopped at a historical Alexander MacKenzie exhibit (he was the first white-man to cross Canada, intending to find a way to exploit the local natives, at which he succeeded) and went down to the creek to listen to the unseaonally high waters roll large boulders around.

Knowing it would be dark soon, we nevertheless decided to push on to Bella Coola, now that we were within 50km. This was short-circuited in Hägensborg when Ryan stopped to get a pop at a promisingly-lit-up place and met Fraser, who had somewhat recently completed a 2.5 year bike trip and wanted to repay the hospitality he'd received in South America by giving us a free room in his hotel (Brockton Place) and BBQ/beers with him and his friends out back. We of course accepted and enjoyed ribs, chicken, corn, fresh lobster and free beers (the best kind).

Day 7

[18km, 1 hour]

Pretty beat from the previous day, we got up late and sweated our way pathetically through the last 20km into Bella Coola and checked into the motel for a nap.

Later that night, we had a bit of a night ride down to the harbour and checked it out.

Day 8

Rest day in Bella Coola. We also needed to figure out a way to get to the island. Fraser had mentioned the previous morning that he knew a guy who flew a float plane and so we could probably get out to Bella Bella for about $200 each.

A few phone calls and about 15 minutes later we had a worst-case plan: fly to Bella Bella and catch the ferry to Port Hardy from McLauglin Bay, apparently a water-taxi ride away. (Actually, Bella Bella and McLauglin Bay are both on the same island, while Shearwater — the "white" community — was a water-taxi away from Bella Bella). So much for all the "impossibile" nay-sayers. It's also very worth noting that most of the implied racial tension seemed to come from the white people, who all without fail suggested we go to Shearwater (although to be fair, there aren't any hotels or campgrounds on the Bella Bella island). The natives were friendlier in our experience, however.

Ryan talked to the harbour-master — who sounded quite drunk, apparently — who said there might be a barge coming back the next day which could take us to Bella Bella. On with the rest day!

Our de-facto guide of Bella Coola — a 9-or-so-year-old kid named Frankie who riped around on his bike a lot showing us stuff and coming to our motel room with news of good deals and local happenings — told us a little about local Sasquatch lore, which we fleshed out by asking some of the other locals. Seems well-believed around town by both natives and whites; most people just told us their various Sasquatch sighting stories (mostly second- or third-hand) when we asked. Neat stuff! If anywhere is Sasquatch country, this is it.

Day 9

[155km, ~7 hours riding]

We hung around in Bella Coola for a side trip up to the base of "The Hill", which turned out to be about 70km. Had a couple Kokanees (possibly fitting due to their Sasquatch advertising-imagry) and headed back into town. I scared a black-bear out of the bushes at the side of the road just before seeing a large male mountain goat run across the road. Cool!

Day 10

[~30km, ~2 hours]

No luck with the barge option to Bella Bella, so we rode back to Hägensborg to catch a float plane — the owner had said we could go for $200 for the two of us since he had to pick someone up in Bella Bella anyway.

When we got there, he expressed concern that we wouldn't fit due to Ryan's trailer. Nevertheless, after some disassembly and gear-shoving, the pilot managed to get it all in (although there was at one point some talk of strapping the bikes to one of the pontoons) and we were off to Bella Bella. Really good views of the surroundings, and a bunch of great-looking granite slabs, all riviling Squamish in size and appeal, most of which have apparently never been climbed. Good options for ski-traversing the nearby Monarch range, too, allegedly.

After getting cheap native-reserve alcohol, we took the water taxi over to Shearwater and hung around in the bar and near the water all day until the last water taxi back (needed to catch the ferry at 0600, before the water taxi ran again) and camped down a logging road near the terminal.

Day 11

After getting up nice and early out of fear of missing the once-every-second-week ferry, we ended up hanging around the Atco trailer which served as the BC Ferry terminal in McLaughlin Bay for at least two hours since, ``the ferry is always about an hour late on Wednesdays.'' Of course!

We finally boarded a much-bigger-than-expected boat for the ~6 hour ride to Port Hardy (actually Bear Cove), most of which was spent in the cafeteria chatting.

After riding into Port Hardy proper for some snacks and a coffee, we checked our options and decided to try and make it to Woss, about XXXkm down the road. This was successful, but it was just about dark by the time we made it to this mountain logging community and we also got to experience our first full day of Island rain.

We checked into the motel and convinced the bar to utilise the just-closed kitchen to make us dinner. We also grabbed a 6-pack of off-sales and Ryan — taking a liking to the waitress — invited us along to a house party, which turned out to be a bunch of loggers.

They were reasonably drunk by the time we got there and so I learned way more than I ever wanted to about rigging cutblocks and the various bits of gossip about co-workers on their team. (One of them later semi-apologised about this by pointing out that every logger is the fastest and best at what they do.) Anyway, nice accomodating folks. After Ryan finally gave up on sleeping with the waitress we walked back to the motel about 0300 or so.

Day 12

Another day of pretty steady rain brought us closer to "civil"isation in the form of XXX. Ryan was pretty bagged, apparently, as he was checked into the first motel outside town by the time I arrived, which was fine by me, since I was also quite tired.

Our continued joke about "progress" took a turn for the slightly-weird as I noted that the road leading to the giant pulp mill spewing god-knows-what into the harbour was called, ``#1 quality way''. Apparently tolerated due to high wages and the fact that they employ a large portion of the town.

Day 13

Going through town to get to the coast highway, we stopped briefly at a bike store for a new rain-cape for Ryan; the staples and tape acquired the previous day at the "world's only cable cookhouse" (a restaurant made out of old logging cable welded to I-beam supports) wasn't quite holding up.

We continued through suburbs and semi-rural areas for most of the day and did some decent amount of loitering by purchasing beers and drinking them from brown bags out front under awnings at a couple different spots. Some very stoned guy pointed out we'd be going over, ``some of the steepest hills in Western Canada — up to 8%!'' on our planned route to Tofino. We kind of laughed (as we'd been down the 18% grades of "The Hill" already).

After a flat before Qualicum Beach, we started climbing towards Port Alberni. It then became apparent that we'd miscalculated how far it is to Tofino, as we had about 140km on the clock and the signs indicated another 180km to Tofino. After going over a very nice pass (375m) through Cathedral Grove (now being logged; more information) and a wicked decent into Port Alberni, we decided it might be best to just stop.

Also worth noting at this point that local information is terrible; we asked the gas station clerks if there were any towns or hotels or B&Bs between here and Tofino and they claimed not. There are a bunch, however, all the way out of town for about 40km. Have these people never left town, or what?!

Day 14

It turned out that stoned-guy from a couple days ago was indeed right about the hills, just fuzzy on the figures: there are some relatively short sections of 18% grades on the way to Tofino, but only really one big climb (out of Port Alberni) up to ~300m.

We were riding through, apparently, one of the worst spring storms in some time and the rain was indeed impressive: it looked like clich&eacut; movie-rain and I even chocked a couple times inhaling it. Luckily, the winds along Long Beach were from behind or the last 40km into Tofino would have sucked indeed.

As it was, we checked into a B&B which luckily had a washer/dryer. We used the latter extensively and went into town to check things out. Turned out Big John Bates was playing at the Legion. We missed most of the show, being fascinated by the sit-down Galaga and Pac Man tables in the other local bar, but what we did catch was pretty good. Apparently, Big John is "notorious".

Since the last time I went to Tofino (a few years ago, surfing with my brother) my fears (and those of at least the B&B owners) are being realised: slow gentrification and rising property values and an apparent influx of kids who desperately want to be just like their "heros" in the surfing magazines. Alas.

Day 15


I was hoping to catch a bus back to Vancouver, but it was full, so I hung out with Ryan on his rest day. We chatted with an interested guy (XXX) at the local coffee hole over coffees and joints; he was discussing various techniques Ryan's dad might try to relieve his back pain, most stemming from martial arts and somehow aligned with Tantric teachings. Sounded interesting, but I haven't read any of the books he recommended to Ryan. Mostly dealing with mind-over-body sorts of control and acupuncture without the needles. Anyway.

Checked some more of town generally did as little as possible. I did some final packing up for the bus ride at 0700 the next day (on the "Tofino Bus", fueled by biodiesel and an over-caffinated driver — which was fine for me, but apparently put the fear of god into some people). I also noted that there was a biodiesel pump in Tofino and at XXX on the way towards Port Alberni; just 25% biodiesel, but cool nonetheless.

I then rode to Sydney, had lunch, rode to the ferry terminal, took the ferry to Tswassen and rode to the airport. This turned out to be a giant hassle, since you can't ride under the tunnel and so must detour about 30km upriver to the nearest bridge (I got some beta on the precise route on and off the bridge from a local who passed me). I eventually got to the airport and rented a car about 2100 and started driving. I didn't make it very far and slept somewhere off the Cocquihalla and made it back the next evening.


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