One week…one week of finishing work, packing up a white flat, jamming in flat whites, lingering in the bush and avoiding the fog. A week successfully navigated, with the generous bonus of a grating cough and snotty nose from the city of Canberra to see me on my way. Something to make an interminable fourteen hour flight even cheerier. But one week and fourteen hours later, I descended through a cloud of smoke and a sinus of pain into the city of Vancouver, and then beyond, out into the grizzly wilds…
In Whistler while you work
Skipping through Vancouver I had decided to head straight to the hills, for some post-journey restitution and mountain air. What sounded good on paper was challenged in practice, as huge forest fires courtesy of a severe drought had enshrouded most of BC in a layer of smoke. Whistler, it seems, was quite probably the worst place to be, with an air quality rating akin to bad days in Beijing. Oh to live in Beijing.
There was little for it than to venture out in short bursts, around the shops and maze of pedestrian streets that make navigating Canberra suburbs seem a breeze. Oh for a breeze, to lift this constant eau-de-campfire. It came eventually, and there was minor visibility later in the day. Enough to see a red sun above the pines, encounter a moose, and stumble across a black bear.
The black bear sighting was a definitive highlight of the day, even more for the fact that I had probably already passed it once without noticing. Just munching on some berries beside a shared cycle and walking path, possibly waiting for some hapless campers with a picnic basket. Or people like me lost and doing an about turn. I passed, I saw, I lingered for a few seconds to weigh up the pros of making the most of a picture opportunity and the cons of being eaten. I carried on and the bear carried on regardless.
So one day in and I had already ticked off a few Canadian clichés. The next day I had a Canadian coffee, which was still relatively awful despite it being called a flat white and despite at least one Australian working in the coffee shop at the time. Never fear, British coffee awaits! Oh wait. On the plus side, while there was still a distinctive campfire smell, the smoke haze had lifted a little, meaning some bigger lumps of terrain could be spotted, down which numerous mountain bikers hurtled themselves faithfully like lemmings off a cliff.
What goes down must go up and there is a generous lift system in Whistler for the intrepid explorer. This includes the Peak to Peak, a seemingly endless high wire linking Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, its small red cabins dangling over a gigantic precipice in between. Turns out the Swiss don’t have a monopoly on gravity defiance after all. Thanks to such engineering feats I was able to walk in a high alpine environment, and while the views were naturally hazy and the going a challenge (think jetlag, chest infection, altitude, smoke, heat, bad coffee) I made it to a small tarn on the Blackcomb side of the world.
The trails stretch on to glacial views and craggy ridges and summit peaks and hidden valleys and – in another time, in other conditions – I could have gone on and on. But Whistler proved hard work and there was some relief at coming down from the mountains, away from the smoke and into brief Vancouver sea-level summertime ambience.
Clearer and coola
Not that there was much time for recovery. Early Friday and I was off to the airport to hop on a twelve-seater to the Bella Coola Valley. Where I hear you ask? Exactly. I am not sure myself how I first found out about this place and how I came to be here. But, after an hour flying over an astonishing wilderness of glacial river valleys, high ridges and gigantic icefields, I emerged in clear blue skies, uplifted to arrive in a momentously attractive spot.
A short boat ride took me across to the ever-photogenic and sublimely blissful Tallheo Cannery. Here stand the remnants of a once bustling enterprise, in which the plentiful salmon – sockeye, pink, and the highly prized spring – were netted, off-loaded, canned and shipped away to Vancouver and beyond. Nowadays, it is preserved in a ramshackle kind of way by a young family who have taken on with passion and gusto the task of maintaining and sharing this magical place with those lucky enough to find their way here.
Making landfall again upon the small jetty I knew I had stumbled across what would be the undoubted highlight of my time in Canada. A pathway meandered through a small pocket of forest towards a rocky beach, next to which the remains of the cannery building protruded upon a series of weathered stilts, stained by the constant ebb and flow of the tide. Elsewhere, various other wooden structures – the old general store, bunkhouse, outhouse, and two or three more buildings for the important people – offered testament to the thriving place this once was, with up to 300 souls living and working here during peak seasons. Throughout, there are enough trinkets and relics – from fishing nets and boats to paperwork for credit accounts and old cans of soda – to keep anyone with curiosity and a camera happy for several hours.
In what must be a labour of love, more and more bits and pieces appear to be unearthed in cupboards and drawers on an almost daily basis, while any inclement spell can reveal a new leak, another piece of rotting timber, an additional piece of roof sheeting down. But you can likely forgive all these quirks – embrace them even – given the setting, best appreciated from the veranda or, better still, the hammock of the bunkhouse, which is now a charming guest house for people like me.
It was a house I ended up having all to myself, though I was thankful for the company of the owners in a building nearby and their dogs who were accomplished at keeping the bears and wolves at bay. There was little to do here other than relax in that hammock, broken by occasional wanderings onto the beach or out to a point to sight eagles and gaze at the changing light on the mountains, or head over behind the buildings to explore the clear waters of the back creek into which salmon spawn. Not a bad way to pass the remainder of the day, not bad at all.
After the best night’s sleep so far, a new day emerged in which the weather gradually turned and cast a new mood upon the scene. Because even I could not potter around taking pictures of the same things over and over again, I caught a lift by boat into the township of Bella Coola and explored its buzzing downtown metropolis, something which took all of twenty minutes. The town is a mixed settlement, with vital services and stores, more ramshackle wooden houses, and a significant First Nations population, the local Nuxalk people, whose land provides several totem pole and traditional craft viewing opportunities.
After a lunch here involving a quite delicious burger with a Poutine topping (yes, a meat patty topped with chips, gravy and cheese!) the greying skies finally delivered some rain. This was marvellous news for the locals, who had endured weeks on end of uncharacteristic searing dry heat; however, tourists like me were somewhat less enthused. Nonetheless, the smell of fresh rain on dry earth, the droplets forming upon ferns and pine needles, the mists and grey clouds hovering upon mountainsides, offered a new perspective, a new angle, a new opportunity to potter about the cannery and soak up its serene, wood-soaked ambience.
It was an ‘ambience’ that was to persist into the next day, shrouding scenery alongside the pristine inlets and channels of the Great Bear Rainforest as the journey moved on…
A damp inside passage
If there was one day in Canada that I was hoping would be clear and calm this was it. Bella Coola to Port Hardy, via the fjord-like waters of the Dean Channel, Inside Passage and Queen Charlotte Sound. As it turned out, it was the wettest day of my whole trip but when you are going via a place called Ocean Falls which prides itself on receiving 173 inches of rain in an average year, I guess it’s to be expected. I was, alas, viewing the area in its natural state, rather than this surreal drought of the past month.
In the end, the scheduled stop at the place where half the Ocean Falls was cancelled due to the late departure of the BC ferry from Bella Coola. The harbour was positively buzzing as cars, motorbikes and the odd foot passenger crammed onto a boat a third of the size of the Torpoint ferry. Oh, and there was a coach as well, transporting a delightful assortment of seniors on something called an Ageless tour. A coach that became stuck half on and half off the ferry for a good hour, grounded due to the incline. It was a fascinating drama for passengers and locals alike, whose intense gaze upon crew armed with a plethora of jacks and ramps and pulleys and increasing exasperation was only made all the better by the friendly advice shouted down from above.
Thankfully once again the Americans saved the day. Some smartass from Colorado with a monumental RV possessing incredible torque and a gas-guzzling capacity the size of Texas managed to use his diamond reinforced tow rope to budge the bus a few inches, getting it off the ground and on to the ferry. The whole episode meant that the Ageless people had aged a few more years and I feared some of them might not make the trip. But almost two hours late, we sailed out of port and passed the red maple leaf flying above the Tallheo Cannery, bound for Bella Bella.
The delay at least meant that the rain had stopped and there was a sense that the cloud might even lift. Every time the odd ray of sunshine filtered through, the outside decks became laden by a hubbub of grey hair and long lenses. However, the weather worsened as we approached the area of Ocean Falls, where the people were no doubt dancing with joy in the rain and wondering where on earth the ferry had got to.
So, around eight hours after leaving port, the boat arrived in Bella Bella, having failed to encounter any whales or bears or much of note at all along the way. But at least the Ageless posse were invariably entertaining, and the glimpses of scenery were serenely beautiful. Indeed, the change of boats at Bella Bella was a little sad, the intimacy and camaraderie lost with the transfer to a much larger vessel sailing the main Inside Passage between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy.
With every dark cloud there is a silver lining, and the bigger ferry was far more luxurious – padded and reclining seats, cafes, even an all-you-can-eat buffet that proved ferry tempting but one I avoided in anticipation of what might happen in the open waters of Queen Charlotte Sound. The dark clouds outside also yielded silver, in the form of a marriage equality rainbow (now featuring everywhere but Australia), as the sun lowered through the heavy clouds and shimmered off a gently rolling tin foil sea.
The long day finally turned dark and the lights of Port Hardy twinkled as if some New York City in a sea of nothingness. Everyone from Ageless and the coach had made it, something that was not always inevitable. And I stepped off with many more foot passengers who had come down the entire passage, dumped onto land towards a school bus onwards to the hotels and motels of town.
Port Hardy – from what I saw during a couple of early morning hours – appeared a charming, even cosmopolitan place. It’s all relative I suppose, from the isolation of the cannery and the minimalism of Bella Coola to at least three cafes and possibly even a shopping mall. While there remains enough in the way of grizzled looking locals smelling of fish and sufficient remoteness to offer a frontier feel, the continuous transit of ferry passengers has also fostered an air of gentility and rustic comfort. Bears may still invade the campgrounds and giant trucks may still trawl the streets, but you can also buy an almond croissant and city-style substandard coffee.
Meandering south and east, a half empty greyhound bus trundled leisurely beside the forests and lakes of Vancouver Island, with fleeting glances of gentle mountains and occasional snatches of the Johnstone Strait. The sun became more familiar and was amply bathing the wharf three hours down the road in Campbell River. Fish and chips for lunch proved a good use of time while waiting for another ferry, though this one just the fifteen minutes, across to Quadra Island.
Like Bella Coola, I had no strong idea of what this place would be like or exactly what I would do here – the main reason for stopping being its position as an approximate halfway point between Port Hardy and Vancouver. A sunny, moderately-sized holiday island, with rocky shores, forests and a penchant for ageing hippies who have done far too many drugs in their lifetime. I did not know this before, but it became patently clear at any visit to the local shopping area.
The tie-dyed highlight here was a day with a bike, which allowed me to truly explore the flatter, southern half of the island. I say flatter, but there were a few, sustained uphill workouts made all the more arduous by a lack of gears. Who would have thought getting high here would have been so difficult? But I loved being on a bike again, exploring the thin stretch of Rebecca Spit, meandering through a forest trail, cycling and then hiking down to the water, and resting up for an afternoon doze in the sun.
Departing from Quadra and onto Vancouver meant another two ferry journeys. First it was the short hop back across to Campbell River, where I feasted on a delicious breakfast wrap before getting back on another half empty greyhound. And then, there was the longer crossing from Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay, back on the mainland. A final chance to look for elusive whales which – if this was a perfectly crafted travel story – would have launched into the sky off starboard in a climatic ecstatic finale.
Alas, this is clearly not a perfectly crafted travel story but there is a happy ending of sorts. My first and best Nanaimo bar, a gooey, creamy, chocolaty concoction from this incredibly beautiful part of the world. Like this jaunt, a touch earthy and rustic but providing a heady buzz. Smoke free, devoid of whales (I assume no whales were used in the making of this bar), and useful to temper the bitterness of the local coffee. Indeed it seems to me life here is like a local bar of chocolate. Deliciously sweet.