(Originally published as a column in the AM News on Friday May 23, 2014)
We left Kamloops on a rainy morning, set for a long trip to a place we’ve never been before: Bella Coola. The best kind of road trip; heading into a territory you don’t know, you cannot find enough information about and knowing there’s nothing like seeing it all up close.
Rain trailed alongside to Little Fort and then to Williams Lake. Everything was dressed in emerald green and cloudy fog.
We drove on a perfect ribbon of a road, left the rain behind and got to see grass so green it sparkled, and a horizon so inviting that you could not stop driving just so you can see what’s beyond it while the eyes were stubbornly glued to the surrounding beauty.
The evening sky turned light blue and that’s when we saw the first of many beautiful painted horses, young colts hiding behind their mothers. Running free, most of them skittish yet curious, because when we stayed long enough by the side of the road to look at them, they came closer so they could look at us too.
We passed communities so small they make you wonder how can they sustain themselves and why would people choose to live so far into the wilderness.
Countless birds studded the glittery surface of marshes, taking off suddenly to calls only they could hear. The sunset glazed gold and burgundy on long lazy clouds as we drove by burned forests, trees sticking up like ghosts… Among them, new forests were growing; tiny evergreens ready to write new stories of a land that could never grow too old.
We talked to locals and found out about the suspended ferry service that hit the communities of Anahim Lake and Bella Coola hard. Tourists from all over the world would take the ferry up, they said, but few do now. Struggles the rest of us know little about.
Awed by the picture-perfect snow-clad coastal mountains, we descended on the serpentines affectionately called ‘The Hill’ by the locals, keeping a careful eye on the dirt road that is the result of much persuasion of the government by the locals, back in the ‘50s.
A distinctive feature of small isolated communities; determination.
Hagensborg and Bella Coola opened up in green lush forests and thick grass every which way. The coastal mountains with their perpetually snowy tops guard the fertile valley.
We hiked, saw petroglyphs hidden deep into the rainforest, sloshed our way through a flooded estuary that held life and death in perfect balance, and sat down with one of the elders by the side of the river one windy evening.
The old man was anticipating the arrival of a few fishermen down the fast river. Invited to join him, we sat down. Half an hour later the river brought a couple of dinghies with it. Sure hands casted nets into the murky waters. Fishing for spring salmon, but this is not the big run yet, the elder said.
More people came to watch, a seasonal ritual we were now part of. Someone mentioned the long-gone e
ulachon, the fish that were the reason for the old Grease Trail trading route.
They’re mostly gone now, but the Nuxalk people still hope for their return, the elder said. Shrimp boats caught tonnes of them as by-catch over the years and now the abundant runs ran dry…
The fishermen were long gone but we stayed to chat. We found out about the industrial projects the community fought hard to stop just so they can have their salmon and their land the way they’ve always had them.
It’s more important than any money industry brings, the elder said. You can’t bring nature back so easily after they damage it with who-knows-what resource exploitation.
A car stops and the lady driver tells of a deer that just sprinted on the other side of the river. The old man squints to see it. He missed it, but happy to know it’s there.
You’ve seen so many during your lifetime, I told him. He smiled, looking far into the thick forest that cradles the invisible deer. It’s not about one deer, but every animal, bird and patch of land.
It’s about choices and compromises, he says, just as long as you can address the needs of a community without hurting the very land they live on and off of.
Tomorrow we’ll be heading back home, realizing yet again, that we are blessed with a land so rich it transcends imagination; rich not in resources to be gouged out, but to protect and help be, hopefully forever.
Hit the road, see the beauty and say it isn’t so… I dare you.
PS: For more road trip photographs please visit the recent Chilcotin/Central Coast/Bella Coola gallery