The Chilcotin, part 2: Bella Coola
We stopped in at the general store in Tatla Lake before continuing on to Kleena Kleene and Anahim Lake. We gassed up at Anahim, then struck out on the gravel portion of Highway 20—kept unpaved so that its famous hill is easier to maintain in winter. As you go west from Anahim Lake the road climbs very gently to Heckman Pass, and enters Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in landscape of small lakes, cottongrass bogs, and forests blackened by recent fires. Then the road literally drops off the plateau and plunges down the Young Creek Valley to the Atnarko River above Bella Coola. The Hill, as it’s simply called, has attained almost mythical stature over the past 60 years. Local residents asked the provincial government in the early 1950s to connect Bella Coola and Anahim Lake with a road, but government engineers said it couldn’t be done. So the locals built it themselves, with Alf Bracewell driving his bulldozer from the Chilcotin side and another team working up from the bottom. The road is still impressively steep (18 percent grade in places) and lacking in guardrails, but has been widened somewhat in the past few years, so there are only a few truly white-knuckle, single lane corners where you look down into the chasm and wonder what would happen if you met a large truck at that moment.
All too soon you are down, and realize that because you’ve been concentrating on staying on the road you’ve missed the dramatic change from the spruce-pine forests of the plateau to the Douglas-fir and redcedar rainforests of the valley bottom. After a few kilometres we turned off at the village (well, it’s really not a village, just a collection of a half-dozen small houses and cabins and a lodge) of Stuie. Here we hoped to visit our friends Joan Sawicki and Gary Runka before finding a campsite for the night. No reply came from a knock on the door, so I walked around the deck and saw a woman sitting at a patio table. Although I didn’t recognize her, she immediately said “Hi Dick!” and added “I know your twin brother Syd from the Yukon and you know my husband Dennis”, and at that moment Dennis Kuch walked around the corner. I’d met Dennis at various bird meetings and corresponded with him over the years about conservation issues. His wife was Katie Hayhurst, another keen environmentalist; both of them had recently retired and moved to their Stuie home full time. They were actually over at Joan and Gary’s just to use their wi-fi while their internet was under repair.
To make a long story short, we spent a wonderful three days in the Bella Coola valley, sharing stories and meals with Dennis and Katie (it turned out that Joan and Gary were away, but in the true spirit of wilderness BC, Katie and Dennis let us into Joan and Gary’s “cabin” so we could spend our nights there) and exploring the rivers, trails and communities. The Atnarko River, which flows past Stuie, is one of the two main tributaries of the Bella Coola, and is famous for its salmon runs and attendant grizzly bears. Unfortunately a major flood event two autumns ago had seriously damaged the pink salmon spawning population, so fish were few this year, and grizzlies fewer.
On a morning walk upriver, we did see one small grizzly which was very agitated, and the noises coming from the bush along the trail made us suspect that its mother was nearby, so we quietly retreated. That afternoon we rafted the Atnarko with a local guiding company, Kynoch Adventures. We slowly drifted downstream, stopping regularly to wait and watch for bears, but saw only one—a teenager who dramatically darted out onto a riverside log, huffing and puffing, then just as quickly vanished into the forest. The drift was a wonderful new look at a river—floating silently over rocks, around giant tree trunks, past magnificent stands of cottonwoods. And always the tremendous mountains towering above the valley.
We spent another day in the lower valley, exploring the towns of Bella Coola and Hagensborg. The forest changes dramatically along this section of the road as well, the old growth Douglas-firs of Stuie being replaced by western hemlocks draped in luxuriant old man’s beard lichen on the outskirts of Bella Coola. We marvelled at the beautiful Nuxalk artwork evident in poles, memorials and even school buildings. Near the mouth of the Bella Coola River, we walked down to the sea shore—this is where Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific in 1793, the first European to cross North America by land, 12 years ahead of Lewis and Clark.