Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The steepest road in North America or is it?

As this was taken from inside the car, it doesn't show the gradient
Ever since Lindsay heard there were bears in Bella Coola he has wanted to go there. Me, not so much, you see we had heard horror stories about the road in. They call it the Freedom Highway. It's the steepest road in North America, it's narrow, windy, unpaved and wait for it, has an 18% grade. What does 18% mean anyway? Shouldn't that be degrees? It descends for 43kms, with 9km of very steep descent. Anyway, it sounded scary. Maybe not for a car, but we would be towing a heifer lump of a trailer behind us. We rang the ferry to see how much it would cost, but they said they were booked up for the next few weeks, did we want to go in mid October?

An aerial view of the switchbacks - Photo from: Bella Coola Blog
It was just over 1,100 kms from when we got off the ferry from Vancouver Island. Drive down Canada 1 to Hope and continue on it north. We stopped off the first night at a rest stop along with a few other people, no signs to say we couldn't. At Williams Lake you take Highway 20 west. Further along the road we came across a serious accident where a logging truck had pulled down about five power poles on the opposite side of the road he would have been travelling and then rolled over and off the other side. Logs were still strewn everywhere and we think a few had gone through the cab. It's a dangerous profession.

Clayton's Falls - BC Hydro make power out of these falls
The bitumen stops at Anahim and we kept going for a bit finding a pull out along the way to spend our second night as I didn't want to tackle the descent in the late afternoon when we were tired.

It's autumn and the fall colours are beautiful

It rained most of the night and all of the morning. When we got to the top of the mountain, the rain turned to sleet, which then turned to snow. Before we knew it, the road had a white blanket covering the dirt. We passed a sign that said "all vehicles must carry chains", ahh, we don't have chains and we couldn't put them on the trailer anyway as the tyres are too close together. The next sign said "Avalanche Area", the following one had a picture with falling rocks. Just peachy. Are we having fun yet? As we started to go down "The Hill" the snow turned back to rain, and the first sign said 9%, then 11%, the most we saw was 14%. Having a 4WD, Lindsay went down in low range, alternating between the gears. Yes it was narrow, yes it was windy with a few hairpin bends and switchbacks. Was it 18%, apparently a small section between two switchbacks. And don't look over the side, especially when the road is only one vehicle wide. When we reached the sealed road again, I said to Lindsay "is that it?" as in, is there another section, a scary one? All that worry for nothing. Look if you didn't have a 4WD and you were towing, it probably wouldn't be advisable. Our camp host said some people find it so horrific, they get a local to drive their camper up or they wait there for sometimes weeks until there is a spot on the ferry to take them around to Vancouver!

We stayed in an RV park in Hagensborg, 15km east of Bella Coola. 40km west of the bear viewing platform. This turned out to be the closest place as the campground at Fisheries Pool only had a few spots and we weren't sure if we would have fitted in. Where we were we had full hook up and internet.

Our friends from the Netherlands, Dirk and Connie had already been there a few days, this is their fourth time here, so they know the area well and knew the right time to come.

Lindsay, Jane and Dirk taken by Connie

There are really only two areas to see the bears and they are both in the area known as Stuie, not Bella Coola - which doesn't quite have the same ring to it. An area where the float boats put in has been fenced off with an electric fence, a few tables and an undercover area. We nicknamed it the playpen, as we weren't allowed anywhere out of the enclosure and have to ask to leave - a park ranger or volunteer would then take us a few metres down to the car park - it's a joke. The other area is called Fishermen's Pool. So far this area is open but the rangers still patrol it. The valley has a number of trails to walk if you don't mind walking in bear country. We tried to find another area down near the river and walked through the rainforest. Calling out "hey bear" every few minutes just to make sure we didn't scare one and hoping that they would run away. Even though we were looking for bears, you want them to know you are there and have a safe distance between you. The trails were very confusing as many snaked around and criss crossed each other and I doubt I would have found my way back to the road by myself. We never did find the river.

There was a cute little red fox that had really dark colourings. People have obviously been feeding him as he comes right up to you.

The playpen closed on the last day of September and as if on cue, the bears disappeared. Our friends Jerry and Myra came up from Idaho right at this time. The first float trip they did, they didn't see anything and when you have paid $300 that can be really disappointing. The boats seemed to have a 50% bear viewing success rate. Jerry was determined to keep trying and booked another trip. The first one they did was in the morning, so I suggested an afternoon one just to mix it up and as a bonus they wouldn't have to get up at 4:30 in the morning. Another bonus was that they were allowed to go to the private Tweedsmuir Lodge viewing platform beforehand where they saw two bears. This platform is halfway between the playpen and Fisheries pool. Luckily they saw four bears on the next boat trip, and on another trip they saw six.

We had planned to spend two weeks in the valley but the weather was supposed to turn the day we going to leave, so as insurance we brought it forward a day. On the way to the bottom of the hill the tyre sensor started beeping. Crap, we had a flat tyre, our first one. On the up side, it happened on the flat and not half way up "the Hill". As we were leaving a local told us that Tuesday's was the day the grocery truck came in and we had heard that it wasn't a small truck, it was your everyday semi. Luckily we passed him after we reached the top.

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