Paddle Bella Bella to Bella Coola

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My ocean paddling goal was to get to Kitimat but, my ultimate destination was to paddle the length of the Mackenzie River and reach Inuvik.  In 1789 Alexander Mackenzie and his crew ‘discovered’ the river which now bears his name.  He hoped it would lead to the Pacific but instead he reached the Arctic Ocean.  In 1793 he did reach the Pacific at Bella Coola but he wanted to see the open Pacific Ocean.  That idea was abandoned roughly half way out to the open coast, in Dean Inlet, and he marked his turn around point with an inscription on a rock.  I thought it appropriate that my journey to Sir Alex’s river should include a visit to his rock.

My original plan was to paddle to Mackenzie Rock and then retrace the latter part of that route and visit Ocean Falls.  I found getting to the rock to be a huge challenge, due to the lack of landing spots and sheltered bays.  No thanks to ever doing that again!  Upon reaching Mackenzie’s Rock, I decided that I’d take my chances and head for Bella Coola rather than back track the way I’d came.  I didn’t know if it would be any safer but I knew it couldn’t be any worse.  From Bella Coola I would take the ferry to Ocean Falls.

DSC_0007One o’clock in the morning arrival at the Bella Bella ferry terminal.  I found a covered spot to spend the remainder of the night and launched the canoe the next morning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was getting late when I spotted this ‘first suitable’ camp spot after day one out of Bella Bella.  A good spot but I was lucky it was high tide or I wouldn’t have been able to reach the only suitable place to pitch a tent.  Even then I had to spend a half hour clearing a spot above the tide line.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis picture was not taken on the trip to Bella Coola but it shows what I called my ‘beach ladders’.  I purchased kids ‘water noodles’, cut them in thirds and tied the pieces together with light rope to make three, nine foot ladder sections – enough for one and a half canoe lengths.  I used them whenever I had to drag the canoe up a rocky beach and they worked great!  They protected the hull from some darn ugly rocks and  I expected they’d get shredded after a few such uses but they never tore at all.  The alternative was to find enough driftwood, which wasn’t always available. Getting the canoe above the high tide mark for the night was a time consuming task except for the few times a month when the the tide was high late in the day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGunboat Passage.  Being that it is relatively narrow I was wary of the possibility of tidal currents but there were none.  Instead a number of small islands and the unique scenery made this section seem more like a lake.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA very narrow passage on the inside of Stokes Island would seem the logical route to enjoy benign waters but I didn’t consider, that given the tide, I might be without any water.  Rather than turn about I unloaded the bagged items, packed them ahead, and dragged the canoe over the mud-like surface.  It was only a couple hundred yards, and had it been further, I would have taken more weight from the canoe. As it was, the canoe was too heavy to drag easily and it was an unnecessarily strenuous job.

Pepe 1915Meet my ‘Gran-pere’, my Mom’s dad, circa 1915.  Mom was born in very rural Quebec and he made a living trapping.  He was, of course, totally at home living off the land.  When I was doing my gps work there were times when I would have a couple of hours walk, in the dark, back to my vehicle at the end of a very long day.  Sometimes I would say ‘come on old man, help me get back to my truck’ and imagine that he was guiding me back.  On this journey there were times when a raven would fly along with me for a time, and it was easy to play along that it was Ovila watching over me.  That thinking really came to the fore though one evening when again I was overdue for finding a suitable landing spot to spend the night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I arrived at this rocky site the tide was sitting perfectly at the level of the log in the foreground.  Landing was a cinch, no concern about the canoe taking a pounding from the waves and large rocks.  Back onto the log, step out and quickly slide the canoe completely out of the water.  I was happy to be have found a landing spot but wasn’t at all optimistic about finding a suitable place to sleep on this rocky shore.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut when I surveyed the shore I discovered these nailed together boards lying upside down a short distance from the canoe.  Very strange as it was not common to find any cut lumber on the beaches let alone something that was made to fit my cot perfectly.  Merci Gran-pere?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis shot is looking back, from Mackenzie Rock, to the point I rounded when it first came into view.   That day started at about 2 AM.  I had to cross Dean Channel which would take about a half hour and daybreak was the safest time for that.  It was still too dark to see properly when I started out but with daylight approaching there was no reason to wait.   The odd part of that morning was, that until full light, there was a steady stream of seagulls flying out from the shore to check me out.  I assume they took me for a feeding whale or sea lion.

Prior to rounding the final point conditions were again rougher than I liked but there was nothing but rock walls rising from the sea.  A couple of times I found small protective nooks and marked time hoping conditions would improve.  At least they didn’t get any worse.  It was a relief when I did finally round the corner and I could see a patch of lighter green on the far shore indicating the Park site.   But now there was the long reach of the inlet feeding the approaching waves and the waves were hitting the adjacent shore more perpendicular so there was no possibility of any shelter if conditions worsened.  I chose to paddle a straight line to the site.  Progress was slow with it taking more than an hour to paddle the few kilometre crossing.   I wondered what would be available at the site.  Would I be able to make a landing?  I knew that boat tours from Bella Coola visited the park so assumed there would be a dock so visitors could disembark.  I wondered too what the visible lighter green foliage was and thought maybe it was maintained lawns. Gradually an obelisk and the other details of the site became clearer.   The detail I liked most was what appeared to be a beach, although at first I was reluctant to believe that it could be. It turned out to be a fabulous beach, small rocks and protected too.  No wonder Alex chose this spot to end his journey west.

DSC_0024Oh what a beach and camping spot!  I spent two nights here.  I was surprised though, at the lack of any maintenance at this Provincial Park.   It’s not required though, as anybody visiting here, except for the foolish like me,  are not likely to come by small boat.  Otherwise there is no need to go ashore as the inscribed rock face is easily viewed from any boat.

DSC_0018This obelisk was erected in 1927, three years after Captain R.P. Bishop determined, from Mackenzie’s notes, that this indeed was the location where Mackenzie, using oil and the red dye, vermilion, marked the terminus of his journey across the continent.  Sir Alex’s inscription would not have lasted too many years before being washed away and there is no way to know that the present, now engraved, rock face is the same one used by Mackenzie.  It likely is though, as it would have been the logical spot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe inscription on the obelisk.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe smooth rock face mid photo is the location of the inscription which reads,  Alex Mackenzie From Canada by land  22nd July 1793.  The rock was engraved for a CBC documentary.  This is a very hazardous site to view as one misstep backwards could easily result in a fall into very deep, and potentially rough water.

DSC_0015Dare ya to match this selfie!  But I sure don’t recommend anyone try it.  Get me safely out of here please.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking up Dean Channel, the route to Bella Coola.  The weather was good when I started out and stayed that way until late in the day.  My usual paddling route was to follow along close to the shore.  Both for the lighter winds nearer in than mid channel, and because it offered a closer look of any small potential landing spots, should conditions worsen.  This day though, with fair weather that looked consistent, I elected to straight line it directly up the channel.  I kept expecting the wind to pick up but instead it lessened and at times I was paddling on ‘glass’.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaddling on glass.  Dean Channel done with and a turn south into Labouchere Channel.  With the continuing absence of the wind the ocean shows off both the beauty of the land and it’s true subtle self.  But how long can this last?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA bead on Deas Point.  The favourable conditions had me paddling hard all day to make as many miles as possible before the inevitable return of the wind.   That had the adrenaline flowing and my GPS gave me a means of being competitive with myself.  If I set a waypoint to a location ahead it would show the decreasing distance to that point and the speed.  Another available reading it calculated was ‘Time of Day at Next’.  So if my best strokes had that calculation indicating I’d reach the mark at say 4:10, I’d ‘race’ myself to see if I could reduce that time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMesachie Nose.  Here Labouchere Channel meets the long reach of Burke Channel which runs south west, the direction of the prevailing winds.  Here my nemesis would suddenly return and my good fortune with the all day calm would end.  As always in rounding a point in rough conditions, I was hoping that a nice landing spot would be just around the corner.  No such luck but there was a bay that, by hugging tight to the upwind side, offered some protection from the waves.  I would spend the next couple of hours once again using the kayak paddle to mark time, going nowhere, doing nothing but concentrating on keeping the bow into the wind.  The wind would come into the bay in strong gusts that kept me on my toes but in between I could relax some as the gusts would of course show their approach on the water’s surface.   My GPS was my only map and I’m not certain how it was that I spent so much time in the limited shelter of this bay when the next bay down offered both good shelter and a beach.  I was relieved to finally be off the water after such a long but productive day.

The beach was covered with criss-crossed logs and home for the night was under some of them using the tarp for shelter as there was not enough open space to pitch the tent.  Bella Coola was now within one days reach and I intended to make it to the town before night fall.  The winds cooperated until late in the afternoon when a tail wind whipped up whitecaps.   I only had one more point to get around to reach the town but had no choice but to duck into a lee offered by a log sort operation.  I thought the winds would subside before dark but instead spent the night in an oil shed on a nearby dock.

No matter as I had an extra day before the ferry to Ocean Falls was due.  I arrived in Bella Coola the following day and was pleasantly surprised when twice, I was recognized as the fellow who had, the previous year, cycled down ‘the Hill’ pulling a canoe.  And that recognition was by people I had only met briefly, and it didn’t include the canoe’s presence.

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