In all my years of criss-crossing the province, I have performed in more schools than not, and there aren’t a lot of the paved roads I haven’t driven. But I have never before been to the Central Coast. This fjord-filled region is roughly midway between Vancouver and the southern tip of Alaska. The main village, at the mouth of the Bella Coola River and the end of an arm of the ocean, is Bella Coola; it is also the access point to the smaller villages scattered along the coast and the islands. I confess I’ve never really thought about Bella Coola, beyond being confused between it and the village of Bella Bella, (a smaller community on one of the islands). But this year, for the first time, I have work there.
Bella Coola can be accessed by boat, and I briefly contemplated taking a ferry. I would have left Prince Rupert at 11 a.m., changed to a water taxi at 2:00 a.m. and arrived in Bella Coola at 7 a.m. My car would have arrived at the end of the day, on a barge. This 30-hour marine adventure, although seemingly custom-made for a nocturnal soul, would have cost about $700. I decided to drive.
From Williams Lake, Highway 20 winds west across the Chilcotin Plateau. I set out from the hotel with a copy of the instructions my hosts emailed, assuming (correctly) that there would be no cell phone coverage or wifi for the day. Furthermore, once again, neither Google nor GPS has been able to make sense of the address I am heading for.
I find almost no traffic along this 2-lane road. Sleep deprived, in the late morning I pull over and nap, waking to the taste of smoke. There are forest fires burning north of here; for the next 3 hours I drive through smokey haze. Occasionally I pass an old abandoned cabin, or a village that appears to consist of a shack or two. There are also, here and there, active farms, including one whose cows amble comfortably across the dirt highway, grazing at the shoulders. The road is flanked by skeletons of burnt trees surrounded by new young growth. Near Heckman Summit (1515 m), there are patches of snow among the trees, although the air is hot and bugs pester me when I step out of the car.
Anyone who has been to Bella Coola by car (other options being air and sea) mentions The Hill. Their eyebrows go up, their eyes widen, and they shudder. Some shudder because they have an appetite for things like bungy jumping, roller coasters and sky diving. Others shudder because they consider themselves lucky to have survived the drive. I happen to be the kind of person who loves roller coasters. I cheer for turbulence on planes, swells at sea, and loud thunder storms. But I am cautious at the wheel, and am already feeling fatigued at the end of two long days of driving. I am 42 days, 36 shows and 5800 km into this tour and I’m tired.
So I slow down when the road turns to dirt, just past the tiny village of Anahim, and I’m on alert. I’ve heard that when you come to the hill, “it’s like suddenly the earth drops away.” I don’t want to be taken by surprise. But the road is still stretching out along the plateau, with nothing sudden in sight. A black bear lumbers into the woods. I pass more trees, more patches of snow, another deer. Now the Coast Mountains are in view; even in this hazy air they rise magnificent, white-topped and faint in the distance.
I pass a generous pull-off for checking brakes, and then, sure enough, the earth drops away. It starts with a double hairpin turn, just to set the tone. From the edge of the dirt road it’s a steep and very long drop. I don’t look. I can’t look. I keep my eyes on the road right in front of me. I think of people who drove up and down this road before it was improved, and lived to tell the tale. I creep down the 18% gravelly grade. I tell myself my brakes are (probably) fine. I tell myself that actually, it’s a good road. Well maintained, most of it is wide enough for two cars to pass. Even the single lane parts aren’t too bad, I reason. (“Yield to oncoming traffic,” a sign says; another sign nearby says “Avalance Zone, No Stopping.”) Some of the turns have enough space that I can pull over; I step out gingerly to peer towards the edge. We are high. It is steep.
It takes me about 40 creeping minutes to descend into the valley, and the relief I feel when I roll down the dirt onto level pavement is akin to jubilation. I am breathing again, and my stress chemicals might finally be leveling out when I come around a bend and stop abruptly because the road ahead of me is flooded from shoulder to shoulder where a temporary river has taken up residence. I get out, walk to the edge, and wonder what depth of water one can safely drive through. Fortunately it’s an academic question as this proves to be only a few inches deep. I roll through slowly, and drive on. After 40 drama-free minutes, I find my first landmark, turn off the main road onto another and then another until sure enough, I find the home of my hosts.
Claire and Barry are friends of a friend, who taught here years ago. “You will love them,” my friend said. She’s right. Barry ambles out of the garden in tattered jeans and a huge relaxed smile, like he has the best life he could ever have and he knows it. As I unfold from too long in the driver’s seat, we establish that yes I was the presenter who visited his school in Gold River back in 2001 and left a wake of frenzied string play behind. I admire the yard and garden, nestled into the woods, and he tells about leaving Ontario in the 70’s in search of a place “at the end of a road” where he would not be crowded by development. Along the way across the country, he picked up Claire, who was looking for a ride to the Sunshine Coast. He jokes that 40 years and 4 kids later, they’re still on their way to the Sunshine Coast.
Claire returns from the neighbour’s with bedding plants and welcomes me. She’s Franco-Ontarian from Ottawa, a tiny lady with a stylish haircut that belies her gutsy, down-to-earth lifestyle. She tells me the story of coming here in the 70’s, having caught a ride with a guy who was to take her to the Sunshine Coast. Barry catches my eye, smiling. “We only have one story,” he says with an apologetic shrug.
But of course they don’t. They have a million stories about gardening and raising kids and driving up and down that hill in all seasons, and the time they were towing the trailer and started to slide on a steep section. About moving away and coming back; about teaching in Africa and teaching here and doing many jobs other than teaching; about yoga and food and accidentally running right up to a grizzly while out for a jog; about the Norwegian settlers in the 1880s, and the Nuxalk (pronounced “newhawk”) and the trading route dubbed the “Grease Trail” where coast natives traded oolichan grease for supplies from the interior. They tell stories until my head spins because they are too funny, too poignant, too stunning, and there is no way I will ever remember them all.
That evening, we have supper at the home of friends of theirs, retired commercial fishers. I eat the best halibut I’ve ever had. Deep-fried, fresh halibut. I fill up on it and have no room for the rhubarb crumble. We sit on the deck high above a large meadow where bears graze every morning at dawn; across the valley, a mighty wall of mountain rises steep and high above us.
In the morning, we head off with more friends for a hike in Tweedsmuir Park. We walk part of the Grease Trail, which is also the trail Alexander Mackenzie took in 1793 when he first came through to the coast, guided by the Nuxalk who had lived here for thousands of years by then. The forests are beautiful and untrammeled. The mountains are massive, steep and close. The river is loud with pounding rapids.
Yes, to get to Bella Coola there is the long drive across the plateau, and there is The Hill. They are like filters, keeping most of the traffic on the main roads, diverting the throngs away from this jewel on the coast. At the end of the long weekend we sit in the still evening air. The mountains’ shadow has crossed the yard, Claire has fed us and prepared organic gourmet lunches. The baby kale plants are in the garden, the raspberries are watered, and we are 457 km from the nearest traffic light.