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The Over The Hill Gang – Bella Coola Adventure

Six veteran bikers find adventure on the infamous road to Bella Coola, British Columbia. “The Hill” always looms large.

Over coffee late last year a few ‘old’ friends and I agreed that one of the least travelled areas in British Columbia is the coastal village of Bella Coola. There is approximately 340 years of riding experience between the six of us, yet the ride to Bella Coola had been a bucket list item for some. The notion of taking a BC Ferry from Bella Coola down to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island as a route for our return trip was solidly vetoed. There would be some reflection about this decision when we all finally arrived at our destination; soaking wet, boots filled with mud and road slime. In addition to this the bikes looked as if they had just been recovered from the bottom of a mudslide. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

This old-boys riding fraternity of mine consisted of one nonagenarian, namely Ted Havens who is a veteran of the 1954 Isle of Man having achieved both a silver and bronze metal. He held the lap record in his class for a number of years at the local Westwood race track and has made many trips throughout BC, Yukon, Alaska, California and the Pacific Northwest. Havens believes he is reenergized by pure adrenalin when he climbs on his motorcycle. (Read more about Mr. Havens in ‘Rocket 88,’ Nov. 2015.)

Dan Smith, 75, a committed Vincent rider who actually rode his 1949 Vincent to Tierra del Fuego as far north as Dawson City and has crossed Australia on this bike. He has also travelled by motorcycle in Africa, parts of India and Nepal. Smith has made two previous trips to Bella Coola: the first one in 1973, on a BSA Goldstar, to celebrate two decades of the completion of the road, and again in 1993 on a 1949 Vincent to commemorate the 40th anniversary. 

Bernie Vanson, 72, completed a two-year tour around the world in 1970-72 on a 650 Triumph along with his old friend the late Tom Murray. Bernie’s fascination with motorcycles started at a very early age in the 1950s so by the time he made his trip around the globe he was very capable as a rider and a good mechanic to boot. Riding a Triumph back in those days you had to be good at both. Bernie had also made the ride to Bella Coola with Smith back in 1973 on his trusty Triumph. 

Last minute entry, Conrad Krytenburg 67, proved to be an excellent rider who started his racing career as a young lad in Holland, moved to Canada in 1972, and since then has had a history racing and rebuilding motorcycles. 

Also in the group was Jack Helps, 67, who in his youth terrorized both motocross and local flat track races, not to mention the average motorist on the streets of Vancouver. By his own admission he has toured most of the world via the History Channel. As a form of self-inflicted punishment for not spending as much time in the saddle as the rest of us, Jack decided to ride his 362-kilogram Honda Valkyrie. I’m sure this decision caused Jack to reflect on the value of life a number of times while riding through thus swamp that passed for a gravel road past Anahim Lake. 

As for me, I commenced riding motorcycles in the last century. In 1955 I rode my first bike, a Harley 45. After this it was a complete love affair with motorcycles. To date I have owned at least 40 different bikes and have travelled to Alaska, Yukon, Inuvik in the NWT and 11 trips to Mexico. I have also travelled across North America and much of Europe, explored the back roads of the Isle of Man and fought off the many fast and furious Germans during what was then referred to as “Mad Sunday” that allowed regular riders to run the official race course. The most I have ridden in one year was 48,000 kilometres. With inspiration from the likes of Havens I can hopefully ride well into my 90s.

Smith was elected team leader, by default, because of his previous trips to this area. In this group it simply means that the team leader has to buy the beer when we reached our destination.

Ted and I hooked up with the other four riders in Williams Lake after they had completed part of the Classic Motorcycle Ride the day before. 

This accounted for Conrad’s 1972 Honda 750, Bernie’s 1982 Yamaha Virago, and Smith’s ever trusty ‘49 Vincent. Jack simply rode shotgun with his Honda Valkyrie. Ted was on his 650 V-Strom and I rode my 1000 V-Strom equipped with a new set of Shinko Dual Sport tires. 

These tires performed very well on the gravel but take a bit of getting use to on the pavement. I have used Metzler tires for the last 25 years with good success but decided to try the Shinkos on a recommendation of old friend Doug Stanger. Doug used them on his V-Strom for his ride to Alaska, Yukon and recently to Bella Coola with good success. 

I suppose it’s true that as we get older we become set in our ways or at least some of them. For example, motorcycles have been part of my life for well over 55 years. I for one, appreciate the evolutionary progress motorbikes have made over the last five decades. Simple things like the elimination of the kickstarter, electronic ignition and motors that don’t have to be rebuilt after 13,000 kilometres are aspects of motorcycle progress that are appreciated. One of the hot topics today is the number of new models in the adventure (ADV) bike category. But some of the new terminology used to describe the features on these bikes is confusing. It’s difficult to get my head around terms such as ASC, DTC, D-ESA, MSC, GSAP, and ETC. How do you repair these marvels of modern technology should they fail and you’re attempting to leave Tierra del Fuego, Inuvik or Labrador City? 

Considering the extreme slippery conditions we encountered I had to wonder if this ride would have been easier with items such as suspension adjustability on the fly and Automatic Stability Control. Motoring through the miles of mud and water my front tire felt as if it had 90 pounds of air in it. A number of times I wanted to pull over and check the dampening of the rear suspension—even though I did reset this and the tire pressure before leaving Williams Lake. 

Considerations have to be given as to how some of the new electronic features would last over a period of time riding in dusty and muddy roads. Both V-Stroms developed issues with the side stands and centre stands because of the mud and grime. The side stands had to be forcibly kicked down before they made contact with the ground. These conditions did not affect the older bikes including the Honda.

I’m not one who wishes to stop progress but when you consider that Smith rode his 1949 Vincent through this muck without incident it really does boil down to the “singer and not the song.” The thought of a novice riding one of these new, overweight and overpowered bikes in these conditions and believing that he or she could somehow outride a guy like Smith is laughable. I wont even get into Jack’s monster Valkyrie, as there are only a few riders with the necessary skills and nerve to ride such a bike in the conditions we experienced. A newly minted pilot on a ADV bike would be shattered to discover that the rider who just passed him was a 90-year-old veteran riding a grossly “underpowered” 650 V-Strom.

The ride to Bella Coola takes you through some of the finest scenery BC has to offer. From Williams Lake, Highway 20, also known as the Chilcotin Highway, heading west to Bella Coola you quickly become aware that this is truly ‘cowboy country’ with flashing overhead signs cautioning traveller’s to be aware of riders on horseback, stray horses and cattle on the road.

Departing Williams Lake early Monday morning, July 4, we decided to motor for 100 km before stopping for breakfast. We instead rode to Alexis Creek (some 324 km) to take advantage of dry riding conditions as we were fast approaching a horizon filled with menacing black clouds that eventually pounced on us few kilometres down the road after breakfast. 

Smith’s choice of the Doodle Bugs Café proved to be delightful. In fact it seemed to be the only game in town. Not only was it one of the cleanest restaurants I have seen in a long while but was, I’m sure, run by the best looking woman in town. Oh yes, the food was also excellent.

The trip from Alexis Creek to Anahim Lake, a distance of 212 km, was made in dreadful rain conditions with frequent delays due to cattle crossing the road seemingly intent on inspecting the motorcycles. 

In a few cases after sauntering past Smith’s Vincent, the only bike with a leather saddle, they seem contented it wasn’t cowhide and graciously allowed us to pass. It’s to our good fortune that horses aren’t that curious otherwise our ride to Bella Coola might still be ongoing. 

We stopped at Anahim Lake for the last bit of fuel before Bella Coola. The elevation at this point is 1,415 metres, and this elevation combined with the heavy rain and wind made for a cold wet ride. 

We proceeded out of town to the so-called gravel road that would take us to Heckman Summit some 70 km away and then down the infamous “Hill” to Bella Coola. The gravel section of the road seemed applied carefully by a time consuming process, as though by a 15-year-old with a slingshot and a bag of rocks.

Some of the worst road conditions I have ever experienced in all my years of riding were on this gumbo trail to Heckman Summit. There is nowhere for the accumulation of water to drain, so it simply remains on the road surface. Fortunately by the time we hit the formidable Hill the rain had eased up, and after a thousand yards had let up completely. Careful consideration must be given your speed in these conditions. When dry though, the road from the top of the summit to the bottom of the Hill should be effortless for most bikers and motorists.

There are no guide rails, and in places the road is only wide enough for one vehicle to pass with steep drop-offs. The drop-offs are hundreds of metres, and if a traveller is prone to vertigo then a blindfold is recommended, except for the driver of course. 

The local joke about travelling the Hill is that they always pack a lunch for their return trip home. If you miss one of the sharp turns and go over the bank you’ll still have time for lunch before reaching the bottom.

The road from Bella Coola to Anahim Lake was built entirely by the local residents; professional engineers from the government claimed that such a road was impossible to build. Local logger Elijah Gurr, the emissary for the Bella Coola Board of Trade, chose wisely when he enlisted the aid of an Anahim native, Thomas Squiness a local legend know as the Wolf Hunter. Gurr followed and marked the route Squiness picked out in the wilderness from Anahim Lake to the bottom of what is now reverently referred to as the Hill. The locals proved the government wrong and completed the road in September 1953.

Phil Gaglardi was the new highways minister at the time and was truly impressed by the chutzpah of the local residentsand in total contributed $58,000 for the project. Private funds amounted to $4,000 not counting the endless hours of the volunteer workers.

It’s controversial that the past and present governments have, of this date, not paved the short section of road from Anahim Lake to the very top of Heckman Summit. In theory, this would greatly reduce the travel time to Bella Coola. The cost of paving this section of road would probably be a fraction of the cost that Vancouver spends on bike lanes. The grade is already there; all that is needed is gravel and some asphalt. 

But to this day the Hill remains a graveled surface because of the steep grades and constant risk of slides. The changing weather conditions from sea level rising to an altitude of 1,828 metres in just 21 km present too many varying and challenging conditions for winter travel if the road was to be paved. One wily old time resident I spoke to said if the road was ever paved it would prove to be the world’s fastest bobsleigh run during the winter. After experiencing its steep grades and sharp hairpin turns I would have to agree that the Hill should remain unpaved. From the bottom of the Hill the road is excellent and is paved all the way into Bella Coola.

The most feared section of the Hill is 11 km of steep grades of 18 per cent. Combine this with tight hairpin turns and switchbacks that have been chewed up by overloaded camper trucks and cars losing traction when the road is wet. Motorists in desperation apply more power, spin and grind their way around the hairpins, chopping up the road in the process. The local tourist bureau described this road as, “an exquisite winding mountain drive with sharp blind curves and hairpin switchbacks leading the traveler over the mountains.” You have to love their prose. They also go on to mention people who have driven or ridden as passengers to Bella Coola from Anahim Lake, and have on a number of occasions refused to complete the return trip. As a result they have had to be flown out or make the ferry trip to Port Hardy with its many connections. The Hill is definitely something the locals hold in high regard and laugh good-naturedly at the people who have been intimidated by it.

British Columbia as a political entity is very young compared to eastern Canada. When Captain Cook first sailed into the area of Bella Coola in 1793 the Constitutional Act of the previous year divided Canada into Upper and Lower Canada. Western Canada remained an enigma where very few Europeans dared to venture. 

A young Scotsman by the name of Alexander Mackenzie was the first white man in North America to travel overland in 1793 to reach Bella Coola and the Pacific Ocean. This predates the famous American expedition of Lewis and Clark by 13 years. Mackenzie arranged for the use of a large cedar canoe from the Nuxalx (Bella Coola natives) to reach the open costal waters where he hastily managed to paint his famous message “Alex MacKenzie from Canada by land” on a large rock above the high tide mark. It should be noted that without the help of the local Nuxalx, MacKenzie’s trip would be nothing more than a footnote in Canadian history books.

The next wave of settlers was the Norwegians lead by Reverend Christian Saugstad. These early settlers arrived in Bella Coola in late October 1894 with the promise of 160 acres of land for each family. Conditions were brutal. However given the spirit and determination of these early Norse people they did succeed. Considering the farms these early pioneers carved out in the densest rainforest in all of North America its little wonder that in 1953 their descendants, along with other residents, pushed a road through in what was considered a hopeless task. 

I believe Smith said it best when he compared our ride to the hardships of the early settlers. Our ride was simply “a walk in the park.” Mind you our walk in the park was completed as a much older crowd. 

By Aeron Stedmann Canadian Biker Issue #325


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