Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The journey North, part 1

Actually, it wasn't very far North.  When we came, we thought we'd 'explore Canada' - then we realised, actually, it's not just big, it's vast.  So we thought we'd focus on our own province of British Columbia.  But turns out that's pretty big too, about the size of France and Germany combined.  So now we're mainly focussing on southern BC, where people happily drive 2 hours for a nice lunch...  And in that context, although it was an 8 hour drive back to Van from our most northerly point, we still would only have covered the first quarter of the province. 

So the journey.  We planned to copy BC Ferries' vacation route 'the Discovery Coast circle route' pictured left, travelling on two ferries, one float plane and up Western Canada's most notorious road 'the Hill'.  With the ever adventurous Kat game for the challenge (but with an Arbuthnott family gathering to return to at the end) we had an ambitious 6 day timeline...

Leg 1:  Vancouver to Port Hardy

Celebrating no rain, yet...
Ferry number 1 took us across to Vancouver Island with the regular beautiful Friday night sunset on display.  A quick stop at a family campground and we were off up the eastern coast of 'the island' to picnic with my ecologist cousin, E. C. Pielou, who took up sea kayaking at 75 and once woke up in her tent on the arctic tundra to find a wolf gazing in.  Always an inspiration, she updated us on her latest book project and after a bird-filled beach hike, we said our goodbyes to carry on up the coast.  

Our first taste of the remote north was the sign proudly welcoming us to Port Hardy and setting out their priorities underneath 'fishing, logging, mining'.  Our second taste was the panic induced when the BC Ferries port staff asked Kat for her photo ID (passport sensibly left safely in Vancouver) and informed us she couldn't travel without it.  Eventually, in true laid back West Coast style, Kat just signed a declaration that 'I, Katherine Arbuthnott, am Katherine Arbuthnott.  Signed: Katherine Arbuthnott' which served as her passport for the next two days on the 'Queen of Chilliwack ferry'.

Leg 2:  Port Hardy to Bella Coola 

Still no rain!
The last time Kat and I visited a fjord together it was Milford Sound, NZ, and not only could you not see the snow capped mountain peaks surrounding it, you couldn't even see 5 metres in front of your face.  Combined with one of the worst months of June weather in western Canadian history, I was understandably nervous about what the weather gods would bring...

Kat's pretty excited re: no rain
The first night on the ferry was therefore a real treat, incredible views back over to the mainland, the snowy peak of Monarch mountain (see more later) towering over the skyline, and a lacy network of inlets and islands before us.  The night didn't prove so serene; a stern warning over alcohol was delivered; a couple's romantic liasion on the deck resulted in being escorted from the boat the following morning by the Mounties; and the ferry stopped dead at 5am to allow 4 sea kayakers a 'wet launch' into an empty bay.  We slept in the solarium on the floor (no beds provided on the 2 night journey), the stars overhead and the sound of the engines lulling us to sleep (well sort of, mainly just being really noisy).  

Klemtu 'big house'
We spent Sunday cruising up and down the coast line, dropping off people and goods to the tiny and unbelievably remote First Nations communities along the coast.  With no roads to them, no shops and no restaurants, it shouldn't really have surprised us that at our most northerly point, Klemtu, 103 of the 300 inhabitants boarded the ferry as visitors to have their regular Sunday night dinner in the cafe.  Reliant on fishing, some forestry and eco-tourism, most of the communities are trying (actually fairly successfully) to keep their young people from leaving for the big smoke.  But given that if you forget the milk on your monthly  shopping trip to Port Hardy (2 day return journey) I can understand why it might be attractive to leave.  

Yay, our first whale tail!
We, of course, spent a lot of time combing the ocean's surface for whales, although happened to all be dozing when the first humpback whale was announced.  We saw 6 or 7, most very obligingly doing 'the tail thing' just ahead of the ferry.  Bald eagles were a regular, as always on the coast, but our first golden eagle, with juvenile, was a real treat.

The weather turned, later than anticipated luckily, so we spent the second night sleeping in the lounge, waking up at 5.30am to a very rainy Bella Cool, pysching ourselves up for... the Hill...

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