Grandfather, father, son, three bikes and three perspectives on one rainy destination in the isolated heart of the West Coast.
Bella Coola 3-G
By Roman, Paul and George Stastny
My son George came up with the idea for a three-generations motorcycle trip to Bella Coola, which is both a village and a valley in British Columbia’s Coast Mountain range, 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver. In the planning, it was a much bigger group. My dad expected at least one of his friends would come along, while George had a small posse in mind—including somebody named L.A. Nathan from, of all places, Los Angeles.
But as departure day drew near, only the three Stastnys were still in. None are hockey players, and no we’re not related to the former Nordique icons. Also I was getting cold feet. As much as I enjoy weekend trips with George or my dad (usually separately), how would 10 days pass between three people with very different ideas about what makes for a good vacation?
Because of our generational differences (and similarities) I thought it would be interesting, perhaps perversely so, for each invidual to summarize in their own words what they experienced enroute.
When George suggested Bella Coola as a destination, which has a gravel road leading to it, I thought, “Why not try something a little further away and more adventurous than my usual riding trips?”
So on Canada Day, we left Calgary along the Trans Canada Highway. We slept in tents by Revelstoke the first night, far from city lights. At the end of the next day we arrived at the town of Williams Lake and headed west on Highway 20, a 450-kilometre dead-end road that ends in Bella Coola.
It’s July but it’s cold. I’ve got the heated grips on full. I’m in my insulated riding suit watching George in front of me riding in jeans and a leather jacket.
“I should have brought my riding suit,” he admits, cupping his hot tea in both hands at a Husky station in Williams Lake.
From Williams Lake Hwy. 20 dives into a valley, down toward a bridge spanning the mighty Fraser River, then right back up the other side through a series of tight turns and switchbacks. All three engines work hard, fighting gravity, carrying us at break-neck speeds to our destination for the night, a secluded spot on a nameless pond teaming with fish and waterfowl.
I build a fire and set up my tent, adrenaline still coursing through my veins. Cows graze on the other side of the lake as the sun sets. Two local fishermen load up their boat and then join us at our fire to swap stories before they leave.
The next morning, the cool July weather has us stop at Becher House, a trading post/gas station with a rich history dating back to the 1800s.
I’m sitting next to the owner of the Becher House. She grew up here. Her father was a farmer and trapper. Right about this time each year, he would take his horses to Williams Lake for the stampede.
“That was a two-day ride on a horse and wagon,” she says.
“And about 45 minutes on motorcycle.”
“It was just a trail then.”
It’s my second cup of coffee. I didn’t sleep well last night. The wind was blowing all night and real or imagined bears circled our tents.
A cat jumps onto the wooden bench next to me, wanting to be petted. The woman goes back inside. A chipmunk appears under a parked van. The cat rolls up up from its side and bolts after it.
The chipmunk never had a chance. It’s lifeless body hangs from the cat’s mouth. She puts it down and stares at its lifeless body, swipes at it, throws it in the air, rolls on it, pouncing on it, as if to say, “You gave up too easily. Let’s do it again.”
By noon, the air is warmer and we stop at Tatla Lake for gas and food. The pumps are locked, but the store is open. We wander through the aisles until the owner suddenly appears, announcing he’s put on a fresh pot of coffee for us. He disappears again (to fill up our bikes, not at all discouraged by our tank bags, we find out later).
Then we cross the gravel parking lot to go for lunch at the Graham Inn. We enjoy lamb burgers and talk to the owners, a couple from Calgary who decided to escape the rat race.
Hwy. 20 passes through a rolling expanse of wilderness, vast tracks of beetle-kill forest, green thickets, lakes, rivers, a few Indian villages and some gas stations. When we come to the gravel section of the highway approaching Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, George disappears ahead of us.
The corners sharpen as we approach Anahim Lake, the former terminus of Hwy. 20. The Coastal Mountains stand like giants in front of us now. It’s time to sit forward and focus. The road is oiled gravel so dust isn’t an issue. It climbs toward Heckman Pass where we meet three Americans riding BMWs.
We take pictures of our groups at the 1,512-metre summit. Dark clouds hang over the mountains and the Americans leave ahead of us. We take more pictures and have a snack before descending the 18 per cent grade to the Bella Coola Valley.
We catch up to and pass the Americans, who seem to have limited gravel-riding experience. Along the way, we stop in a couple hairpin turns to admire the engineering feat of this road, carved out of a cliff side.
“The Hill” at Heckman Pass is the infamous barrier that barred anything but ocean access to Bella Coola until the 1950s. Then one of the locals got fed up waiting for the government to build a road and got busy with some dynamite and a bulldozer.
We take it slow down The Hill. As the locals say, “If you miss a switchback, you’ll still have time to finish your beer before you hit bottom.”
The road is paved again at the top of the Bella Coola Valley. It starts to rain as we slalom through giant cedars to our campground in the community of Hagensborg, a few kilometres from Bella Coola.
“You fly on that bike,” I say to Grampa that night. “Seriously, those Americans were riding adventure bikes with knobbies and you blew by them. I’ve got to tell you, you’re faster than a lot of the guys I ride with.”
A handful of Norwegians settled the Bella Coola Valley in 1894. It must have reminded them of the fiords in their old country. Somehow they managed to cut down enough 10-foot diameter trees to plant a few veggies to go with the fish and wildlife they caught, shot and trapped.
Those who became disillusioned left and their fields returned to jungle. Some 70 years later, a German immigrant named Karl Osmers bought one of these abandoned parcels, cleared the second growth of trees, which were now two and three feet in diameter, and made space for our tents.
We’re now standing in a light rain and Karl is telling us tourism is the life blood of this valley. But the market crash of 2008 and the ensuing recession were a major bloodletting. The anticipated horde of German tourists wasn’t coming after all.
Our ferry doesn’t leave for another day, so we sample locally caught salmon and talk to some fishermen at the docks. Apparently, this inlet used to freeze years ago, but these days it’s ice-free year-round.
One fisherman sums up the situation today, saying, “Too many people and not enough fish.”
Bella Coola is a place of contrasts. High mountains standing on a flat ocean. The growl of boat engines lost in the silence of rain and mist. In town a native spiritual hall next to an old church. Bella Coola the native village next to Hagensborg the European community. Tenuous human settlement trying to hold its own against a backdrop of grizzly bear habitat in the mountainside suburbs.
There’s a lot to recommend Bella Coola if you look past the rundown buildings. People come here to hunt, fish, hike, boat, snap pictures, whatever … For me Bella Coola’s attraction is its isolation, the people, the silence and the intermittent rain that comes and goes like the few cars on this highway. It all seeps into your soul and resets your rhythm. It’s a place you can lie on your back on a patch of damp grass in front of the town post office and watch bald eagles cross the sky until you doze off after a big lunch.
Norwegian immigrants came to this rainy godforsaken valley from the deep fjords of Norway. I feel quite sorry for them and for their lot in life.
The following morning we get up early and we take an all-day ferry through Queen Charlotte Sound and down the coast.
We sail into sunshine and warmth for the first time in our trip. Dolphins jump next to the ferry and even some whales surface in the distance. By evening we dock at Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.
We ride south to the Comox Valley the next morning. I remember the Island Highway from 25 years ago when it wound past small towns and villages. Today, it leads past cities and resorts that are a luxury refuge for retirees from all across western Canada. Crowds and traffic are everywhere.
The next day we’re on the mainland in Horseshoe Bay. We take the Sea to Sky Highway. The perfect surface of this expensive road leads to Whistler, the site of the 2010 Olympic Winter games.
The remaining days of our trip provide the best riding. The roads in southern BC wind through beautiful valleys and over spectacular mountains. We pass through Pemberton, Lilooet, Merritt, the West Bank of Lake Okanagan and then through the Kootenays back to Calgary.
It’s sunny and warm the entire way. If one word can sum up what I feel here, it’s freedom.
I can see Calgary now and wish we could ride right through it and continue for another couple weeks. Maybe even for the rest of the summer. But that won’t happen. What will, is another multi-generational ride next year.
Three for the road
Here’s the low-down on the disparate Stastny family.
Roman: 76, retired mechanical engineer. Rides a 1994 BMW R1000.
Best vacation: A two-month solo motorcycle trip from London, Ontario, to Inuvik, NWT.
Notable: Roman was 60 when he rode to Inuvik. Lately shows a distressing tendency to risk life and limb to keep up with whoever is in front of him.
George: 27, hard-living journeyman bricklayer and proud of it. Rides a 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 1000.
Best vacation: Europe on a rented 2007 BMW R1200GS.
Notable: George likes gravel roads. He rides them fast, as though his fully-loaded machine is a dirtbike.
Paul: 48, journalist. Rides a 2006 Suzuki SV650X (the “X” stands for his fire-road modifications of extended wheelbase, longer travel suspension, a 19-inch front wheel.
Best vacation: Reading in a beach chair in Mexico, waiting for dinner.
Notable: Has never ridden more than 700 kilometres in a straight line from Calgary.
FROM May 2011