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Exploring Wild British Columbia 1999 & 2004

Posted: May 14th, 2020, 7:34 am
by arieshiker
Since it appears many of us will have a few more weeks of waiting out all the closures and suggested re-openings, I’ll make this the final of my posts of the old days - 1999 and 2004 - two trips I consider among the most enjoyable wanderings and adventures of my life. I was hoping to get more older posts from more of our contributors during this COVID thing , so if you haven’t yet, but have been thinking about it, now’s a good time as any as it seems a good time passer.

As previously mentioned, before moving to the Gorge area in 2009, I lived in Port Angeles for almost 11 years. During those years I spent a lot of time in Olympic National Park, but I also rode the Coho ferry over to Vancouver Island often, AND, also just wandered on up into British Columbia for road trips that took me up into the central interior.

I hiked and climbed and kayaked in Wells Gray Provincial Park, Mount Robson and countless other places. This was back at a time when the USD was about 150% to the Canuck Loonie, and prices were reasonably on par. The “good ol’ days?”

Through all my wanderings north of 49, much time was spent scouring old and new maps, and one region that always fascinated me was the Chilcotin-Cariboo region: Bella Coola, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park and Ts’yl’os Provincial Park, areas accessible only by the “highway” west out of Williams Lake.

Eventually all the looking got the better of me, so off I went, destination: Bella Coola.

Prior to leaving I found and read the book, “The Road Runs West,” about the building of the “Chilcotin-Bella Coola Highway,” a 456 km road (about 290 miles) from Williams Lake to Bella Coola.

I won’t get into B.C. history or politics, but it took nearly a century for the road to be completed, and I’m not sure it’s fully paved even today. There was a short-ish stretch of gravel and sand when I went through in 2002. There is also the infamous “The Hill” as the roadway drops from the Chilcotin Plateau down to sea level, where for about three miles of continuous switchbacking - on gravel - you go downhill sometimes at 18% grade, where even in my 5-speed manual tranny Jeep, I was picking up speed in first gear.

I would imagine it’s quite the gut-tightener in any vehicle over fifteen feet in length. After returning home I had to have my clutch replaced, and I’ve no doubts it was “The Hill’s” doing.

The drive itself was both blah and fascinating. Few towns or villages, although signs often suggested something was a bit off this or that turn - but I was headed to Bella Coola, so straight I went. At one point, just past one of the First Nation’s outposts I had to stop while a grader plowed and packed some really loose gravel. I shut off the Jeep, grabbed a water and sandwich and sat out front and watched the guy do some amazing things with that big sucker.

Half an hour later I was heading past on some pretty packed gravel than might’ve given me some issues before he plowed.

Once at the bottom of “The Hill,” it’s mostly just views and more views until you reach Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, where I pulled in to pitch the tent for a couple nights. While in the park, I had my choice of sites - it was pretty empty - and found the perfect spot. Tent up, dinner fixed, walked down and talked with my nearest neighbor, a guy from Germany. When it got dark and the fires were low, I went into my tent, slept hard only waking to random noises maybe twice.

Next morning while I was fixing breakfast, a ranger walked up and we chatted a bit as she walked around my site with her tape and clipboard. Obviously I had to ask what she was looking for, then at - and she said Grizzly tracks.

“Ummm - what!?!?!” “Yes, look here,” she said. I went over and oh boy - big ol’ set of tracks about fifteen feet from my tent. Big thing walked right through my site. She said it likely wasn’t even interested in me or my tent cause it was too full of salmon and was just looking for a place to crash.

Seems I’d gotten there during a seasonal chum run in the local river, which was maybe 100 yards and down a twenty foot slope from the campground. She wrote down her findings and wandered off saying I should wait about an hour then go to the bluff overlooking the river just past campsite #so-and-so.

I did and was absolutely stunned by the view - about two dozen black bears were on the far side of the river and more than that on this side, just fishing away as bears fish. They were walking up and down the shoreline or in the shallows, and were completely disinterested in my presence, or the others in attendance who looked like they were park employees or from a nearby lodge.

Of all the sights where I didn’t have my camera available, this was my biggest regret moment. I even forgot to take a photo of the bear tracks in my site before the ranger broomed it away. They record the data then sweep the area for the next check. Neat stuff. I asked her if anyone had ever been bothered by the animals, she said “not when they were feeding like this, unless someone was a total jackass. Moral being: don’t be a jackass around them.”

Some images from the trip are included but I can’t vouch for the quality - great 35mm Canon, but 1999 photos and several conversions to get them to this stage take a toll. Later that morning I went on into Bella Coola, which wasn’t much - a ferry stop for the B.C. ferries and a nice marina, plus the local natives and a few non-natives. Shopping wasn’t high end, and I was camping, so dinner out wasn’t on my list. There were some great trails in and around both the village and the park, but I hadn’t planned on an extended stay for the trip, so I only browsed rather than explored.

Along the road to Bella Coola, I saw a turn off that branched south towards another Provincial Park called Ts’yl’os, which if the name didn’t fascinate, the location certainly did. The park sits along Chilco Lake, which sets below a stretch of the Coast Mountain Range, which houses a humongous icefield and the tallest mountain completely within B.C.: Mount Waddington, at 13,167.

So, five years later, in 2004, back I went to Williams Lake and back on the Chilcotin-Bella Coola highway, then turned off south towards Chilco Lake. The area is mostly First Nations land, and I won’t embarrass myself by trying to spell the names of the bands populating the region.

This road was initially paved but soon turned to gravel and sand, some areas a tad rutted, but passable if you didn’t stop in anything loose. Again, I encountered a grader, but it was pushing loose sand to the sides of the road bed, so I was allowed to skirt past when he stopped to allow such.

I wonder if, sixteen years later, the road is any different? Given the politics, probably even money.

As you leave the more developed areas along the main highway behind, the scenery is really stunning. Forests, streams and you’re heading straight into the mountain range, although Waddington will never be seen from down here.

What eventually comes into view is Mount Tatlow, then the Five Brothers, which sit as a backdrop to Chilco Lake, which is just gorgeous. I had my sea kayak along and pitched tent and paddled the lake and stayed a couple of days.

When I first arrived a ranger pulled in apparently having seen me pass by the last outpost, where people tend to stop for supplies I guess. I was already self-sufficient, so getting to the park was my priority, but she was still surprised anyone had gone by. I had the place to myself except for her showing up.

She was fascinated with my kayak, which is a folding Feathercraft Expedition K-1 that she’d never seen before, so we chatted for quite a time about that while sharing some tea and crackers, then she left and I finished setting up my camp. My paddling was mostly the next day although I did put in for a short putz before fixing dinner.

I only stayed the two days with some moderate hiking close to the lake shore - the ranger had warned me a lot of black bear activity, and that I should be extra alert. I saw several while out on the lake, but none came into the camp that I was aware of. She showed up my third morning and said they were closing the areas due to an attack further up the lake.

One of the really neat moments on that trip was coming around a bend and happening upon a church the local First Nation’s people used for religious and community purposes. What made it so neat was the position it was in and how it appeared out of nowhere - a magnificent view, and it caused me to reduce the sight to a rock painting after I got home, although an artist I am not. (image attached among the other Ts’yl’os images.)

Once back in Williams Lake, and since I had my kayak with me, I decided to venture on into western Wells Gray Park and see what Mahood Lake was like and check out the waterfalls, Canim and Mahood and Helmcken. I stayed two nights before making the long journey back to Port Angeles.

Re: Exploring Wild British Columbia 1999 & 2004

Posted: May 14th, 2020, 8:36 am
by drm
Wow, driving the Chilcotin Plateau over to Bella Coola, and then taking the ferry to Vancouver Island to make a loop is one of those road trips on my list - for a long time. I remember reading about a trail leading to a campground in the vicinity of the Rainbow Range of mountains. And did you stop at Anahim Lake?

Re: Exploring Wild British Columbia 1999 & 2004

Posted: May 14th, 2020, 8:55 am
by arieshiker
I can see where that loop would attract any good adventurer....but no, as I recall the time I made that trip was one of the times when the ferry service was going through some sort of labor issue, and Bella Coola wasn't on the stop list for a spell. After Bella Coola and the drive back up The Hill, I was just anxious to get home and get the clutch fixed. Anahim Lake was where the pavement turned to that sand and gravel and the grader was at work. Out of Bella Coola there are (were) several trail's leading up into the high country above the inlet. I can't begin to imagine what's changed since 2004.

Re: Exploring Wild British Columbia 1999 & 2004

Posted: May 14th, 2020, 12:20 pm
by drm
Once when I almost went, I found an online video that somebody took through their windshield going down The Hill. They were in something really basic, like a Tercel or a Civic, and they made it with no problems - at least that they were aware of at the time. The reason I didn't go was that they had a two-tier pricing system for the ferry, and for an American to get a one-way ride with their car to Vancouver Island was going to be like $600 - it's about 24 hours.

But driving all the way to Bella Coola and then turning around and driving all the way back, that's thousands of miles.

Re: Exploring Wild British Columbia 1999 & 2004

Posted: May 14th, 2020, 1:38 pm
by arieshiker
Actually probably only about 1500 miles and change over the course of a week. Maybe 100 miles from Port Angeles to Abbotsford, 320 to Williams Lake, then 280 to Bella Coola. Probably about 70-80 gallons of fuel at less than $3 per, and I camped all the way. That's what retirement does to ya Dean. It was a place I'd never been to before and it fascinated me, so..... And the geography and topography and history is always worth it to me. And yeah, I made the Hill with no problem too, except for the clutch - and my nerves. If they were in an automatic, I'd guess they came pretty close to burning up their brakes. I guess some depends on time of season as well. It was dry and sandy for me. I've read stories about when it's wet. Going back up was just a matter of accelerating and shifting up and down.

Re: Exploring Wild British Columbia 1999 & 2004

Posted: May 15th, 2020, 3:51 pm
by pcg
Ha! Surprised and a bit saddened to see you have just exposed one of our favorite areas. We have been taking fall trips there for many years. We usually go both ways across the Chilcotin Plateau in our 4x4 w/pop-up camper, but last fall (or maybe fall before can't remember) we took advantage of the half price ferry (due to a snafu in BC Ferry's planning) and did one leg from Port Hardy (14 hours on the new ferry), which was fun.
drm wrote:
May 14th, 2020, 8:36 am
I remember reading about a trail leading to a campground in the vicinity of the Rainbow Range of mountains.
The Rainbow Range, accessed by a pullout at the top of the Hill, has no "campgrounds" that I'm aware of. It's open sub-alpine country with dozens of lakes with views of the coast range. You can go for days and not see a human soul. Our goal has always been to see caribou, which are there, but we settle for apex predators instead. ;)
arieshiker wrote:
May 14th, 2020, 8:55 am
Out of Bella Coola there are (were) several trail's leading up into the high country above the inlet. I can't begin to imagine what's changed since 2004.
The same 4x4 roads and a few foot trails are still there. No new have been added except for logging roads down in the valley that don't go up into the alpine. There are some new foot trails going up the north side of the valley, mainly to access the granite slabs for climbing.

We've seen many changes in the twenty plus years since we first went there. The most obvious is the proliferation of lodges for bear viewing and heli skiing. Others - there are now published climbing routes on the granite slabs in the valley and there's a FB group that publishes hiking routes there as well. The grocery store in Haggensborg now sells organic produce and trendy items that one might find in Whole Foods. Also RV parks are springing up so there's no point in making the long drive now - the area is ruined for those looking for remote adventure. ;) The most recent change is all for the good though - grizzly bear hunting is now illegal, except for subsistence hunting by indigenous people....
Re. bears... there are lots of them. If you aren't comfortable in grizzly country there's no point in visiting this area. Also, some years, like this past fall, it can be cold and rainy/snowy every single day. So go prepared to freeze in the mud and rain and snow while looking over your shoulder for grizzly bears amongst the skads of noisy obnoxious tourists in their RVs.

Seriously, this is a magnificent area. You have to have 4x4 and be willing to backpack if you want to get to the remaining remote areas. The saddest thing about going there is that you will be part of a growing wave of people, largely of white European descent like myself, that are changing for the worse a wild and beautiful place that has been inhabited by indigenous people, in a harmonious fashion, for thousands of years. Qualms and mixed emotions for me.

Re: Exploring Wild British Columbia 1999 & 2004

Posted: May 15th, 2020, 5:09 pm
by arieshiker
Thanks for the great follow up detail. Sure know what you mean about the changes. On my 1999 trip, there were probably no more than half a dozen lodges the entire route, and they were mostly touting fishing camps. It was somewhat obvious that once the highway was fully paved, "civilization" was just a matter of time. Back when the road was first suggested and started, more than a few wars were fought by the local natives trying to stop construction. I feel blessed that I got my trips in when I did to both Bella Coola and Ts'yl'os. They always realize what they're about to lose and never regain.

Re: Exploring Wild British Columbia 1999 & 2004

Posted: May 15th, 2020, 6:24 pm
by pcg
arieshiker wrote:
May 15th, 2020, 5:09 pm
once the highway was fully paved, "civilization" was just a matter of time.
Still long section of gravel across the plateau and the hill is still gravel.
arieshiker wrote:
May 15th, 2020, 5:09 pm
I feel blessed that I got my trips in when I did to both Bella Coola and Ts'yl'os.
Yes! And thanks for the photos!