Monday, January 21, 2019

Bella Coola Loop: Part 2 (of 3) -- Bella Coola Valley

Bella Coola Valley

The Bella Coola Valley in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, is worthy of national park status for its natural beauty.  It is a wide, non-claustrophobic valley, framed by mountains, glaciers, and waterfalls.  It is accessed on the eastern end by a dirt highway with hairpin turns but no guard rails leading up "The Hill" to Highway 20 and  then to the Chilcotin Plataeau and interior of British Columbia.  At the western end is the charming and unassuming First Nations town of Bella Coola, which can be accessed only by boat from the Pacific Ocean via a long inlet, the Bentinck Arm.

Bentinck Arm near Bella Coola, BC
We approached the valley and town on a BC ferry from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.  This ride was worth the journey just for the day-long view of coastal mountains, sea life, and sea scapes.

The boat was mostly wheelchair accessible.  In order to change deck levels, we had to take the elevator.  There was no problem going between the passenger deck (which has a cafeteria, gift shop, seats, and views), the sun deck on top, and the cabin deck (which I didn't explore, since ours was only a day trip).  The entrance to the elevator on the vehicle deck, where we parked the car, however, had a very steep and narrow ramp which necessitated transferring from my power chair to a manual chair (luckily the ship had one) and making the journey to and up the elevator in a manual chair.  I then waited on the passenger deck while they carried up my power chair for me to transfer back into.  This only worked because I had a travel power chair, which disassembles into parts light enough to carry.  Because of the complicated and arduous nature of this trip, I didn't take advantage of any of the breaks offered which opened up the vehicle deck to passenger access.   Rather, I made sure to bring everything with me.  I don't know whether or not other boats have this configuration.  I have read that the ferry from Part Hardy to Prince Rupert offers wheelchair accessible cabins for this longer, overnight trip.

Bella Coola townsite
Bella Coola harbor
Bella Coola has numerous ramps leading to houses and businesses.  The general and grocery stores are flat and accessible.  There are a few all-inclusive luxury lodges in the valley.  I don't know about accessibility, because the lodges were too expensive to explore.  There are some campgrounds outside of town, although the presence of grizzly bears prohibited soft-sided camping arrangements (tents).  Some campgrounds provide accessible outhouses, but some do not.  Bella Coola has couple of cheaper motels, one of which (Bella Coola Motel -- owned by the First Nations community) has one unit with a ramp.  The inside is not accessible, however, so we took off the bathroom door to make the doorway wide enough (barely) to pass through with a narrow wheelchair, and I used the shower and commode chairs that I'd brought.  The inside had a really nice "cabin" feel, with a full kitchen.  The staff were extremely friendly and helpful.  As with most of the lodging and tourist agencies along the way, the manager was very informal about paperwork and payment procedures.

Since we visited in October, the tours were mostly done for the year.  One fjord tour might have worked with the wheelchair, but it was too windy to take out the boat on our scheduled day and then the tour was done for year.  The drift boats were still operating, but they were fully booked for the week.  One of them had seats with backs and thus looked possible with a bit of work and attitude.

After the decline of the forestry and the canning industries, the town and valley seem to be in the path of an oncoming wave of tourism, which is being met slowly and with many questions.  The answers are made more complicated and challenging by the low salmon run experienced in the past couple of years.  With few salmon, come few bears.  Many bears have descended even lower into the valley, with its fruit orchards, crab pots, and small towns, in search of alternate food sources to fatten up before hibernation.  For the tourist, this means fewer bears at the usual salmon-feeding locations.  For the resident, this means more potential for conflict with bears.  For the bear, this means less food, more potential for conflict with people, and a higher chance of death on both accounts.

We spent a few days watching bears.  Because of the low salmon runs, there were only a few bears, but patience brought some good sightings.

Belarko bear-viewing platform in Tweedsmuir Park
The Belarko bear-viewing platform in Tweedsmuir Park is flat and accessible.  Bears usually fished in and across the river from the platform, although some did walk right by the platform.  Luckily, the platform was surrounded by electric wire and was always staffed by a local guide.  The platform has no steps, and the guides even allowed disabled guests to drive from the parking lot to the platform, where they could load and pick up guests (quickly and quietly).
Tweedsmuir Park Fisheries bear-viewing

At the Tweedsmuir Park Fisheries Pool, bears could be viewed in and around the pond.  The Fisheries campground also boasts an accessible outhouse.    Both wildlife-viewing areas are surrounded by gorgeous scenery.

Of course this looked much worse in reality!
We also spent a couple of days driving back roads, which opened up even more spectacular scenery of mountains, glaciers, and waterfalls.  Brochures recommended a 4WD for these unpaved roads, though we soon discovered that it was really more than a recommendation, so we rented a serious high clearance 4WD truck from Bella Coola Vehicle Rentals and were rewarded with  amazing views, such as Odegard Falls, Purgatory Point, and Bentinck Inlet.  Correctly guessing that there wouldn't be many outhouses or people in the back country, we brought along a commode chair, so we could go anywhere.

Purgatory Glacier

Bentinck Arm 

The Hll
We left the valley on the eastern route, by going up "The Hill" (unpaved) to Hechtman Pass and coming down on the paved Highway 20 to the Chilcotin Plateau of British Columbia.

Next: Part 3 (Highways 20, 97, and 99)

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Bella Coola Loop: Part 1 (of 3) -- Northern Vancouver Island

Once again, like the trip to the Arctic Circle a few years ago, our 2018 trip was formed by a map.  Not a very good one.  While looking at our map of British Columbia (BC) several years ago, we noticed that the BC Ferries stopped about 1/3 of the way up the coast, at the end of an inlet, at a place called Bella Coola.  It also looked possible, based on a barely-visible grey line, to drive east out of Bella Coola to a major road that would lead south to Vancouver and then Seattle.

Well, it turned out that not only was this loop possible, but it was actually a named "thing," packaged and advertised by BC Ferries and made even more attractive by the opportunity to photograph grizzly bears, who descended to the Great Bear Rain Forest from the mountains in September and October to feast on the salmon returning to their birth streams to spawn.

Despite the dissipation of some of the mystery, we decided to give this circuit a try.  We drove to Vancouver, where we crossed over from Tsawassen to Vancouver Island by ferry, and then we drove up to Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.  We explored the northern part of the island for several days, and then we took an all-day ferry from Port Hardy to Bella Coola, where we stayed for a week.  After that, we drove east from Bella Coola, up "the Hill" and across Highway 20, stopping at Nimpo Lake and Lake Tatlayoko.  At Williams Lake we joined Highway 97, which took us, by way of Highway 99 (Sea-to-Sky Highway) and the mountain towns of Lillooet, Pemberton, and Whistler, south to Vancouver and eventually home to Seattle.

The most stunning impression of this trip was that of non-stop beauty.  We continually remarked that every part of BC was worthy of national park status, simply transitioning from one awe-inspiring view to another.  The second most striking impression was that of color.  Reminiscent of our trip to the arctic circle a few years ago, this trip (and especially the second half) stunned us with the colors of autumn: golden deciduous trees and red sumac, vine maples, and blueberry bushes.

"Was the area wheelchair accessible?" you ask.  Well, the answer depends on your definition of "wheelchair accessible."  As expected, the further north we went, the fewer options for wheelchairs there were.  In fact, there are very few officially accessible choices in Bella Coola Valley or on Highway 20.  Unofficial accessibility is also limited, varying by individual needs, willingness to accept help, and attitude.

Northern Vancouver Island was a mixed bag of accessibility.  The main town of Port Hardy had the most scooters per capita I've seen (probably because it's a small town, so lots people use scooters instead of cars), which helped ensure that sidewalks and retail entrances were accessible.  I spent a good amount of time and money at Cafe Guido.   We stayed at the Kwa'lilas Hotel, a First Nations hotel in the center of town, with at least one officially accessible room, complete with a (too narrow) roll-in shower and a toilet grab bar.  There was an accessible restaurant/bar on site, and it was perhaps the most beautifully-decorated hotel I've ever seen.

Trail to Eternal Fountain
Eternal Fountain
We drove the unpaved Alice Lake Loop.  Aside from beautiful views from the car, we were able to get out and go for a short hike at the Eternal Fountain -- a waterfall where the water disappears into the karst landscape.  We also passed Link River Campground, a park in the trees with large, flat campsites and a ramped bathroom.

About 1 1/2 hours from Port Hardy, on the unpaved logging road to Cape Scott Provincial Park, is a pull-out for Ronning's Garden.  This 5-acre garden in the middle of the rain forest is reached by 10 minute accessible-but-muddy path, and the garden (not very accessible to roll around) is worth a quick stop.

San Josef Bay
We also spent a few days camping at San Josef Bay in Cape Scott Provincial Parkas I've blogged about previously.  There is a miraculous trail that is accessible for all-terrain wheelchairs with hill-assistance from the parking lot to the campsites on San Josef Bay.  This 3 km trail through a coastal rainforest, with its old growth trees, lowland bogs, and mossy second growth forest, allowed me to backpack for the first time in years. My caveats and warnings, however, include that there is no water (potable or not) at the trail's end, that the campsites are challenging for wheelchairs (sandy ground and overgrown access trails), and that the accessible  outhouse (large and with bars) at the end of the trail is on a concrete platform raised 4" above the ground.  If you are able and willing to circumvent these obstacles, hiking to -- and camping at -- the bay is an unforgettable experience.  With the right wheelchair, you can even travel on the hard-packed sand of First Beach at low tide (be careful -- in some places the sand turns too loose and deep for even all-terrain wheelchairs) and see the amazing seastacks coming out of the beach.

Sea stacks on First Beach in San Josef Bay
Accessible rainforest trail to First Beach

Next part (2 of 3): Bella Coola Valley