What Travel Writers Say

Discovery Coast: rough it with locals along BC's inaccessible,
wild, central coast

By Susan Musgrave

Aboard BC Ferries' Queen of Chilliwack you'll sleep on the deck under the stars, spot grey whales, dine on clam fritters at the church hall.
     There are no cabins on board the Queen of Chilliwack, so for the next two nights I will be roughing it. I chat with Tess and Margaret, two Heiltsuk women from Bella Bella, who are first in line, waiting to board the ferry when the gates open, to stake out "a place to set up camp for the night." Tess volunteers her nine-year-old son, Kyle, to help me raise my rented tent-I've chosen to sleep out on deck, under the August stars.
     There is something in our nature which has kept us seeking in this country a new Eden, writes Vancouver Island's Jack Hodgins. There is something in my own nature that keeps drawing me to places inaccessible by road, and BC's central coast is one of them. This area was largely inaccessible by water, also, until 1996, when BC Ferries launched the Discovery Coast Passage run from Port Hardy at the northeastern end of Vancouver Island to Bella Coola halfway up the mainland coast, from June to September. The Queen of Chilliwack is also a working freight ship, providing supplies to six remote communities. Now locals as well as visitors can view some of the most stunning wilderness left on the planet.
     Kyle disappears to play video games as soon as we board the ship, so Tess and a sea kayaker from Salt Lake City help pitch my tent before the ferry pulls away from the dock and plunges into the rough, unprotected waters of Queen Charlotte Sound. Tess says this is a good time to lie down, but I need to eat and head to the cafeteria through the lounge now filled with bodies already stretched out on reclining chairs, or cocooned in sleeping bags on the floor. I step around a woman with twins and a 12-pack of Pampers and nod to an elderly gentleman pulling on a pair of striped pyjamas. One of the main attractions of this route, I've heard, is the relaxed sociable atmosphere.
     At dawn the next day we dock at Namu, one of North America's oldest archaeological sites, where people lived over 10,000 years ago. Namu is now a dropping-off point for sea kayakers or canoeists wanting to explore BC's largest marine park, the Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy Area. These adventurers can rejoin the ferry on a subsequent day.
     As we sail to our next stop, the captain announces there's a grey whale feeding off the starboard bow.
     "The greys aren't as sociable as the orcas," a crew member tells me, when the whale sounds before anyone takes a photograph. On the ship's maiden voyage the crew watched a pod of killer whales teaching a calf how to kill and eat a seal, tossing it back and forth in the air, he says, as if performing for its audience above on the deck.
     At McLoughlin Bay we are asked to respect the wishes of the Heiltsuk band and not visit their village of Bella Bella, three km away: the Heiltsuk are "not ready" for tourists yet, and need time, a spokesperson says, to assess the impact of the ferry service on their quiet way of life. But others, like Margaret's son, Frank Brown, welcome the tourist trade. Tourism creates jobs, he says, while exposing people to the resurgence of traditional native cultures.
     We disembark and follow a series of canoe paddles, nailed as signposts along the side of an old fish plant, to the Interpretation Centre. I glimpse a ghostly cruise ship slipping between islands as two young Heiltsuk men begin to sing about setting off across the water in an ocean-going canoe, beating out the rhythm on a hollowed cedar log.
     In 1986, Frank Brown and the Heiltsuk carved a glwa, a traditional ocean-going canoe, and paddled it to Expo '86. Today, eight of us don lifejackets, choose a paddle, cross a beach covered with crushed clam shells and purple sea urchin spines, and begin our own journey with Frank in his glwa, to join the Queen of Chilliwack; she has sailed ahead to Shearwater, five km across the bay.
     Frank sits in the stern chanting a paddler's song to help us keep time. Julie, our Heiltsuk "pacemaker" in the bow, points to a bald eagle in a tree and, as eight bodies turn to look at it, our glwa almost capsizes.
     "Our people say the eagle watches over those out on the water," Julie reassures us.
     Back on the ferry, I sip hot tea in the forward lounge where children are drawing what they have seen as they journeyed up the coast: killer whales, eagles, otters, seals, shipwrecks, a lighthouse. "We are now passing Ivory Island Lighthouse," I hear over the PA system: "A lighthouse keeper and his family still live there today, and the assistant keeper and another family, also. Many hands make light work."
     In the late afternoon the ferry slows to make its way through the shining islands and black rocks-covered with orange seaweed-of Klemtu Passage. Klemtu ("hidden passage") is a village of about 500 people, mostly of the Tsimshian group, the Kitasoo. Our guide, Cindy Robinson, takes us on a walking tour along a boardwalk that doubles as the only road linking one half of the village to the other. When a car comes we squeeze against the handrails to let it pass. The few cars we meet don't have license plates, and those that have plates probably don't have insurance, Cindy says. "If there's an accident, everybody helps out. The community gets together and decides what should be done."
     At the church hall we are served traditional food, which includes salmon-baked, smoked, dried and canned-clam fritters, venison and bannock, and a local delicacy-herring roe on seaweed. For dessert we have salmonberries in rendered oolichan grease, called ha la mootxw, which means "for curing humanity," followed by entertainment-young Kitasoo dancers dressed in button blankets.
     As we slip out into the evening through Klemtu Pass, I ask a ship's officer whether there will be anybody awake when we arrive at our next port of call. At 1:30 in the morning I won't have a chance to sample espresso-flake ice-cream at Bernie Bashar's famous floating cafe, or pick renegade hydrangeas from once well-tended gardens now choked out by salmonberry vines. Crown Zellerbach closed Ocean Falls' raison d'etre, the pulp mill, thirty years ago, and now you can buy a house for around $35,000. The 50 or so residents left are independent folk with entrepreneurial skills, the ship's officer says; one go-getter lists 46 different businesses in the phone book. "And, yes, you can bet there will be people to meet the ferry, even at 1:30 am. That's when the cold beer supply comes in."
     At sunset there is a sing-a-long, with crew members belting out Maritime and Irish shanties and the passengers joining in on the chorus of "Brown-Eyed Girl." "This is what it is meant to be like," says Lana Caulfield, the ship's customer service officer, who takes her summer holidays on board the ship. "This is how life on board ought to be."
     I fall into my tent around midnight, and don't wake up when the beer is offloaded at Ocean Falls, nor as we pass the cairn at Elcho Harbour where Alexander MacKenzie marked the end of his journey across Canada by land in 1793. When I do emerge, the ship is cruising towards Bella Coola between monolithic rock formations, through waters turned green by glacial silt. There's a consensus on board: your average city dweller never gets a chance to see scenery like this, country unmarked by the human footprint.
     A high-school guidance counselor from Surrey helps me collapse my tent as I prepare to leave the Queen of Chilliwack and journey back to the world of license plates and car insurance, one where lighthouse jokes don't have the same resonance. I have come to the end of my journey-I fly home from Bella Coola's small airport-and envy the cycle tourists for whom the Discovery Coast Passage service has opened up a whole new circle tour, back to the Lower Mainland. Lucky my fellow passengers, too, who have return tickets to Port Hardy on the ship, who will stop at MacKenzie Rock in daylight and for ice cream in Ocean Falls, on the way.
     I'll miss the new friends I've made, and the untouched wilderness we've glimpsed. I may not have found Eden on this voyage of discovery, but I've come close.

Based in British Columbia, Susan Musgrave has received awards in five different genres: poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, children's writing and for her work as an editor. She teaches in University of British Columbia's Optional Residency in Creative Writing MFA Programme. Her most recent book is YOU'RE IN CANADA NOW...A Memoir of Sorts. www.susanmusgrave.com Click for Port Hardy, British Columbia Forecast
Photo Credit & Article:
courtesy, Canadian Tourism Commission

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