British Columbia Coast: a Fantastic Wilderness Retreat

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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.
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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.   

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: Myrian 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. Most of these people are
concentrated around the few cities. Arable land and
commercial timber exist only in small pockets in river
valleys and deltas, precluding large scale settlement.

In July and August of 1967, I explored some of the land and
waterways of this region. 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, 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 3,000
foot highland has a climate quite different from the coast.
It’s more like the higher plateaus of Colorado and Wyoming
with mild summers, cold winters and little precipitation.
The road to Bella Coola crosses gently rolling land, open
forests of lodgepole pine with some Douglas fir, spruce and
aspen and an occasional creek or lake. Cattle ranching is
the main industry. The few small settlements have a
“frontier” look: Log cabins, unpretentious yards and 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 fir. The road winds down the valley past a few
logging operations and guest lodges. Then, 20 miles from
sale water, the highway becomes paved and wilderness is
replaced by farms and homes that look long-settled.

Bella Coola contrasts with the rough 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 the small size of the market. A lunch consisting of ham sandwich, pie and milk cost $0.70, locally baked
bread sold for $0.26 a loaf and three pounds of powered
milk cost $1.40. (Prices are in Canadian dollars which–at that time-exchanged for about 93¢ U.S.)
Gasoline cost $0.48 per Imperial gallon, equivalent to
about $0.37 U.S. per U.S. gallon.

My kayak was a 17-foot folding model which weighed 125
pounds complete with optional sloop sailing rig. I
transported it to Bella Coola disassembled (parts less than
five feet long), put it together on the banks of the river
above town and paddled down stream 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 then, 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), a couple of logging operations
and the remains of piers, log booms 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 (not shown on the land-status map)
just northeast of Lalakata Point. It was a near-ideal
combination of 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–or a change–had
calm water and a light tailwind. With mainsail alone I
ghosted downwind to Dean Channel and across on an easy
broad reach to Nascall Bay. Dean Channel was calmer than
Burke had been although a rain squall caused some rough
moments.

Half mile-long Nascall Bay has the shape of an hourglass
opened on one end. A boat can anchor in the back portion
out of sight of Dean Channel or the front. The Bay is
variously bordered by grassy, swampy and rocky beaches. In
one spot, there are even sheer cliffs.

Nascall Hot Springs lies near the mouth of the bay. About
ten years ago, according to reports, Crown Zellerbach
Corp., which has a large pulp mill at Ocean Falls 20 miles
to the west, surveyed Nascall Valley for hydroelectric
potential. The survey crew built a bathhouse: A shack whose
sole furnishing is a bathtub set into the floor. A pipe
runs back to the hot spring. Since its construction, the
bath has been used and maintained by passing pleasure and
fishing craft. During the three days I was in and around
the bay, at least a dozen boats stopped.

Comments on Kayak Equipment

The basic Folbot proved to be seaworthy, riding easily with
the largest non-breaking waves encountered. Under the same
conditions, 40-foot fishing boats pounded heavily. With a
waterproof kayak cover (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
mosquitoes 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.

On my return trip I found a light northeast breeze down
Dean Channel and sailed across to Labouchere where I
encountered a light headwind: But, with calm water and a
following wind down the zigzag channel, I made good headway
with minimum tacking. When I reached 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 and sometimes crashing through short
chop, the little craft ran before the wind.

At low elevations in the Bella Coola area, 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 trees include western hemlock, giant
arbor vitae, Sitka spruce, western white birch, Douglas
fir, yellow cypress and black cottonwood. Lodgepole pine
also grows on the more exposed slopes.

There is little undergrowth in the shade of some of the
denser stands of trees on delta lands. Elsewhere the
tanglefoot is heavy and includes young hemlock, bilberries,
ferns, mosses, smilacinas and–in wet spots– devil’s club. The rocks I noted were exclusively igneous
and many showed intrusions.

Blue and red bilberries, salmonberries and red and black
raspberries are abundant. The blue bilberry (Vaccinium
ovalifolium Sm),
which makes up most of the
undergrowth in many places, is related to and bears fruit
shaped like blueberries. Blue bilberries are usually mildly
sweet but some bushes (which look no different) bear fruit
which tastes weedy or foul. Unlike raspberries, all
bilberries on a bush ripen together and remain edible for a
long time.

Plantain, fireweed, clover, ferns and the various conifers
are a few of the edible greens found near Bella Coola. 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 but, near large rivers,
the water is apparently too fresh. I did not see large game
animals (perhaps they move to higher ground in summer)
although a few squirrels were encountered.

Due to the highly irregular terrain, coastal British
Columbia shows great climatic variation and each river
valley, inlet or channel essentially has one or more local
climates. A few generalizations can be made (summers are
drier 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 a 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 folk
(weather stations being few and far between), Dean Channel
has about the same summer weather as Bella Coola, but a
colder winter since 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. He reports that Ocean Falls will be overcast
and raining for days at a time while–eight miles
away in Dean Channel–the sun is shining.

During my visit in late July and early August, there were
stratus clouds in the early morning. They usually cleared
by afternoon. There was a build-up of cumulus clouds with
occasional rain squalls in late afternoon on a few days.
The channels tended to clear earlier and receive less rain
than the adjacent land. Temperatures did not exceed 85°
F nor fall below 50° F.

The most detailed map available* 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 that most loathsome of predators –
the State bureaucrat. I camped out exclusively, both in the
wilderness and relatively settled areas.

I spent ten days on rough waters in a conspicuously small,
open and unlicensed boat and my only noteworthy contacts
were with a few passing fishermen who solicitously asked if
everything was all right. No Canadian equivalent of the
Coast Guard ordered me off the water (During a one-day
tryout of the Folbot on Piru Lake, California, 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 seekers.

The Canadian government will not sell outright any
waterfront land. This is to “preserve it for recreational
use”, of course, and poses no problem for the libertarian
nomad who intends to be only a squatter.

* Bella Coola, RC, sheet 93D, second status edition,
1962, Department of Lands, Forests and Water Resources,
Victoria, B. C. Various maps and nautical charts
are also sold by Dominion Map Limited, B. C.