BELLA COOLA JOURNEY (Sneak Peek, INNOVATOR, Sept. 1967)

Editor’s Note: Recently, I acquired a batch of about 25 vonu publications from Wally Conger, a gentleman I interviewed last year. These include a few years of INNOVATOR, a publication Rayo edited and contributed to, VONULIFE, March 1973 (already available here), and a few that Jim Stumm published.

I have been busy digitizing them and wanted to give you a sneak peek; this one is by Rayo. He tells us all about his trip to Bella Coola, British Columbia and how this spot fares for wilderness vonuans.

One other note: The “about the author” section at the end says that “Mr. Marshall is a former editor.” He continued his role as “Rayo”.


Bella Coola Journey
By: Tom Marshall (Rayo)

For wilderness retreats or summer anchorages, an especially attractive area is the North Coast of British Columbia – a land of snow-capped mountains, dense forests, rushing streams, and deep fjords. Its potential advantages include:

Ocean access: Myriad channels, arms and inlets – many extending over 50 miles inland – provide more sea coast than all of continental U.S. Among the almost endless inlets, bays, and islands are places a small boat could hide indefinitely.

Geographical isolation: Rugged mountain ranges limit transportation to water, which is slow, and air, which is expensive. Only two roads and one railroad penetrate the region.

Sparse population: The whole north Coast region (roughly from Queen Charlotte Strait to the Alaska panhandle and inland to the coastal divide) – larger than Ohio – has a population of less than 40,000, and most of these are concentrated around the few cities. Arable land and commercial timber exist only as small pockets in river valleys and deltas, precluding large-scale settlement.

In July and August, I explored some of the lands and waterways of this country. My route of travel was by automobile to Bella Coola, then by kayak to Nascall Bay on Dean Channel.

Although Bella Coola lies less than 300 miles from Vancouver by air, the highway distance is 650 miles. I first drove inland and north to Williams Lake, then northwest on a fair-to-middling graded-dirt road across the Fraser Plateau. Separated from the ocean by mountains, this three-thousand-foot plateau has a climate quite different from the coast – more like the higher plateaus of Colorado and Wyoming – mild summers, cold winters, and little precipitation. The road to Bella Coola crosses gently rolling land – open forests of lodgepole pine with some douglas firs, spruce, and aspin; an occasional creek or lake. Cattle ranching is the principle industry. The few small settlements have a “frontier look” – lob cabins, unpretentious yards, pole fences.

After 250 miles of little variation, the land changes abruptly as the road descends steeply with several switchbacks to the Bella Coola valley. Within a few miles, one plunges from the cool open woods of the uplands into a warmer, humid, dense jungle of giant arbor vitae and douglas firs. The road winds down the valley past a few logging operations and guest lodges. Then, 20 miles from salt water, the road becomes paved and wilderness is replaced by long-settled-looking farms and homes.

Bella Coola contrasts with the roughe and rustic interior settlements, seeming (if one ignores the spectacular snow-capped peaks around it) more like a country town of the U.S. south than the trading center for thousands of square miles. The few businesses are scattered over a several block area; judging from the types of enterprises tourism is not an important industry. Prices are surprisingly low, considering Bella Coola’s isolation and smallness as a market. A lunch consisting of a ham sandwich, pie, and milk cost about $0.70, a loaf of locally-baked bread sold for $0.26, and three pounds of powdered milk cost $1.40. (Prices are in Canadian dollars, which currently exchange for about 93¢ U.S.) Gasoline cost $0.48 per imperial gallon; equivalent to about $0.37 U.S. per U.S. gallon.

My boat was a 17-foot folding kayak, which weighs 125 pounds, complete with optional sloop sailing rig. I transported it to Bella Coola in disassembled form (parts less than 5 feet long), put it together on the banks of the river above town, and paddled downstream to the channel. The trip from Bella Coola to Nascall Bay took five days; four days were consumed struggling the 18 miles down North Bentinck Arm and Burke Channel against strong head winds and often white-capped waves. I traveled these waters only during the early morning when wind and waves were minimum; even the hard paddling netted only one knot headway. An attempt at upwind sailing in Burke Channel proved unproductive; the Folbot will go into the wind reasonably well in calm water but not when fighting three-foot waves.

Once beyond Bella Coola, the only signs of man were fishing boats (about a dozen a day passed), a couple of logging operations, and the remains of piers, log-boom, and cabins in some of the bays. The shores are mostly low cliffs with some pebbly-to-rocky beaches in the bays. On overnight stops, I either dragged the Folbot up a beach above the tidal zone (up to 15 feet) or tied up offshore. One of the most attractive camping places was a little cove (which doesn’t show up on the land-status map) just northeast of Lalakata Point – sandy beach, trickling creek, and hillsides covered with black raspberries and red bilberries.

On the fifth day, I passed Mesachie Nose, turned into Labouchere Channel and – for a change – had calm water and a light tailwind. With mainsail alone, I ghosted downwind to Dean Channel and then across it on an easy broad reach to Nascall Bay. Dean Channel was calmer than Burke had been, although a rain squall coming swiftly up channel caused some rough moments.

Half-mile-long Nascall Bay has the shape of an hourglass open on one end. A boat can anchor in the back portion out of sight of Dean Channel or the front. It is variously bordered by grassy, swampy, and rocky beaches and, in one spot, by sheer cliffs. Nascall Hot Springs lies near the mouth. Reportedly about ten years ago, Crown Zellerbach Corporation, which has a large pulp mill at Ocean Falls 20 miles to the west, surveyed Nascall Valley for hydro-electric potential. The survey crew built a bathhouse – a shack whose sole furnishing is a bathtub set into the floor. A pipe runs back into the hot spring. Since then, the bath has been used and fortuitously maintained by passing fishing and pleasure craft. During the three days I was in or around the bay, at least a dozen boats stopped.

On the return trip, I found a light northeast breeze down Dean Channel and sailed across to Labouchere Channel. There I encountered a light headwind. But with calm water and the wind following the zigzag channel, I made good headway with minimum tacking. Reaching Burke Channel, the sails caught the prevailing southwest wind and the boat was off racing the waves. Sometimes surfing on long swells for a minute at a time, sometimes crashing through short chop, the boat ran before the wind.

Comments on equipment: The basic Folbot proved to be sea-worthy, riding easily with the largest non-breaking waves encountered; under the same conditions, 40-foot fishing boats pounded heavily. With a waterproof kayak covering (which I lacked) to prevent swamping, I would trust it on the open ocean in average weather. However, the sailing gear has some design faults. A small outboard motor (available as an option) would facilitate cruising. Hip boots are desirable for travel along rivers and through swamps. A hand gun, although illegal in Canada, is much easier to carry through the woods (for defense) than is a rifle. One-sixteenth-inch netting will stop horse flies and mosquitos but not the gnats which live on the coast (I encountered none in the interior). Several layers of loose clothing plus liberal and frequent applications of repellant on exposed skin kept the bugs at bay during the day. Insect pests are about as common as in more moist portions of the U.S.

At low elevations, forest grows everywhere except on naked rock, tidal flats, and swamps (any natural clearing in a river valley will be marsh, not dry grassland). Common species include: western hemlock, giant arbor vitae, sitka spruce, western white birch, douglas fir, yellow cypress, and black cottonwood plus on the more exposed slopes, the lodgepole pine. In the shade of some of the denser stands on delta lands, there is little undergrowth; elsewhere, it is heavy, and includes young hemlock, bilberries, ferns, mosses, smilacinas, and, in wet spots, devil’s club. Rocks seen were exclusively igneous, many showing intrusions.

Paltable berries include blue and red bilberries, salmonberries, and red and black raspberries. The blue bilberry (Vaccinium avalifolium Sm) which makes up most of the undergrowth in many places, is related to and bears fruit shaped like blueberries. Bluebilberries are usually mildly sweet like a blueberry but some bushes (which look no different) bear berries which taste weedy or foul. Unlike raspberries, all berries on a bush ripen together and remain edible for a long time. Edible greens include plantain, fireweed, clover, ferns, and the various conifers. The only poisonous plants I noticed were water hemlock and baneberries (a few in swampy areas).

Salmon were running in Dean Channel while I was there. Mussels grow on some rocky beaches; near large rivers, the water is apparently too fresh. I did not see large game animals; perhaps they move to higher ground in summer. A few squirrels were encountered.

Due to the highly irregular terrain, coastal British Columbia shows great climactic variation – each river valley, channel, or inlet essentially has one or more local climates. A few generalizations can be made: summers are dryer and sunnier than winters, precipitation usually increases with elevation. But many anomalies remain. For instance, Bella Coola, at the head of an inlet, averages 55 inches of precipitation per year; Ocean Falls, 50 miles to the west and also at the head of an inlet, averages 164 inches; Bella Bella, 30 miles still further west and on a channel, receives 99 inches. Judging from plant maturity and comments by local people (weather stations being few and far between), Dean Channel has about the same summer weather as Bella Coola but a colder winter; it is more exposed to frigid northeast winds from the interior. One man said that the high precipitation and cloudiness at Ocean Falls is a localized condition caused by the shape of the valley; reporting that Ocean Falls would be overcast and raining for days at a time, while, eight miles away in Dean Channel, the sun was shining.

The most detailed map available (1) does not show terrain features smaller than a quarter mile. Aside from that, only a few discrepancies were noted, including, if the map be believed, a river which flows uphill (King Island, about Lat. 52° 17’ N. Long. 126° 27’ W). Perhaps this can be attributed to wishful thinking by the government’s Department of Lands, Forests, and Water Resources.

During my stay in Canada, I was not molested by any large animals, not even the most vicious and loathsome of predators – the State bureaucrat. I camped out exclusively, not only in the wilderness but in relatively settled areas. During 10 days spent on rough waters in a conspicuously small, open, and unlicensed boat, a few passing fishermen solicitously asked if everything was alright; no Canadian equivalent of the Coast Guard ordered me off the waters. (During a one-day try-out of the Folbot on Piru Lake, Calif., I was ordered out for not having registration and local permit.) While many Canadian laws and regulations are as onerous as their U.S. counterparts ON PAPER, enforcement in an area with a population of less than one person per square mile presents something of a problem for even the most determined power seeker. The Canadian government will not sell outright any waterfront land; of course, this is to “preserve it for recreational use.” But this poses no problem for the libertarian nomad who intends to only be a “squatter.” TOM MARSHALL

(1) Bella Coola, B.C., sheet 93D, second status edition, 1962, Department of Lands, Forests, and Water Resources, Victoria, B.C., 60¢. Variousu types of maps and nautical charts are sold by Dominion Map Limited, 626 Howe Street, Vancouver 1, B.C. Mail orders are accepted.

(Mr. Marshall is a former editor of INNOVATOR.)



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