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

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