(All photos: Alex Pope)
Barely Made It
Bella Coola 1000, June 26
by Gary Sparks
This was my first 1000 km brevet. I picked it for a couple of reasons. I thought it would be a challenging route, and I liked the idea of a one-way trip ending in Bella Coola. I had never been north or west of Williams Lake so at least half the route would be new territory.
The route went through Hope, up the Fraser Canyon, over to Cache Creek and north to Williams Lake. From there it headed west on Highway 20 across the Chilcotin Plateau to Bella Coola. The ride to Williams Lake seemed straight forward enough, but I expected the real adventure would be the 450 km section on Highway 20. None of the communities on the Highway (Riske Creek, Hanceville, Alexis Creek, Redstone, Tatla Lake, Nimpo Lake, Anahim Lake) have a population of much more than a few hundred people. There would be limited accommodation, no 24 hour coffee shops and no cell service along the Highway.
Heading west from Anahim Lake (868 km) Highway 20 becomes a dirt road for about 60 km. The high point is reached at Heckman Pass (elevation 1524 metres). The Pass is the top of the “Hill” and the beginning of the long descent into the Bella Coola Valley. There are lots of stories about the “Hill”. When it was carved out in the early 50’s, Bella Coola was finally connected by road to Williams Lake, ending the community’s reliance on coastal ferries. The “Hill” merits this Wikipedia entry: the “Hill” is a “steep, narrow road with sharp hairpin turns and two major switchbacks to the Bella Coola Valley. The descent includes a 9 km (5.6 mi) section with grades of up to 18% (about 1 in 6). The road is winding, in some places only wide enough for one vehicle, and in many places bordered on one side by cliffs and on the other side by a drop of hundreds of meters...”
I read about the “Hill” and the unpaved section of Highway 20 before I left. I wrongly concluded that the challenges of the route were exaggerated.
I had other commitments and couldn’t leave Vancouver until 3 pm on Saturday. Alex Pope left at 6 am for a modest field of two solo riders. The 3 pm start time was awkward. I gave up trying to figure out where I would be for sleep breaks - especially considering the limited accommodation. I decided instead to be self sufficient and simply stop when I got tired. I also thought this would give me some idea of my sleep requirements for future long rides.
The ride to Hope was uneventful, and for a pleasant change, made limited use of the Lougheed Highway. The all-night ride up the Fraser Canyon was beautiful with a full moon and no traffic. I stopped for a rest break around dawn and closed my eyes for about ten minutes. As I was leaving, I saw the first black bear of the ride, about 100 metres from my rest stop.
I stopped for a sit-down breakfast at Rumours Cafe in Spence’s Bridge. The sign promised the “best food in the Canyon”, so why would I eat anywhere else? I was the only customer and felt honoured when the owner offered me the use of the “trucker’s phone”. It was warming up and I continued riding along the Thompson River. I had a short nap at a rest stop south of Cache Creek as the wind started to pick up. The wind strengthened and alternated from a cross wind, to occasionally a tail wind, as I continued towards 100 Mile House. Long stretches of the shoulder south of 100 Mile House were rough, and I was forced onto the roadway to join the fast moving traffic. I had another sit-down meal break at Tim Hortons in 100 Mile House (462 km) and decided to keep going to Williams Lake. There was some confusing road work south of Williams Lake, and some really annoying mosquitoes along the way, but I arrived in Williams Lake around 11 pm (Sunday) for a distance of 553 km.
I stopped at the first hotel, and after a short conversation with the clerk, learned that Alex and his family were at the same hotel. I set my alarm and planned to be back on the road at 4 am (Monday). Instead, I woke up at 7 am. It took me a few minutes to process where I was, and that I had slept through my alarm. In a panic , I checked the control times and realized I still had about 14 hours to ride 220 km to the next control (Tatla Lake). I met Alex having breakfast, and learned that he had been stopped by strong winds on the Plateau. It was breezy outside, but I decided to give it a try.
I wolfed down some food and headed out. Alex had mentioned there were a few climbs on the route out of Williams Lake – a bit of an understatement – there were a few huge climbs from the Fraser River, up to the Plateau. The wind was brisk, but it had shifted and was now mainly a cross wind hitting me at about 45 degrees. Alex and his family caught up with me at Riske Creek (599 km). After some encouraging words, they continued on to Bella Coola and I got back on my bicycle. The cross winds continued all day, getting stronger in the late afternoon.
After a screaming descent I stopped at Hanceville (643 km) for supplies. I was falling a bit behind so I ignored the great looking pies and jammed some take-out treats into the bike bag. A tourist heading east told me he had seen a couple of grizzly bears near Anahim Lake and said if I was lucky, maybe I would also see them.
The road was relatively flat with very little traffic. For some reason there were tar strips across the road about every 10 metres. The combination of hitting the strips and the vibration from the rough road surface was killing my hands. I tried (with limited success) to deaden the vibration with different pieces of clothing wrapped around the handle bars.
I rode through long stretches of burned forest on both sides of the road and as far as I could see. The magnitude of the fires that had closed the Highway last year was obvious. It was getting warmer and I was paying attention to water sources and supply. I thought there was a store in Redstone (698 km), but seeing none, I stopped at a house and was offered water by the friendly, but surprised residents - recent arrivals to Canada, who had somehow found their way to a new life in Redstone. By now I was putting on the sunscreen and trying to keep cool and hydrated.
I finally arrived at the Tatla Lake (772 km) control with about 90 minutes to spare. The Tatla Lake Manor Motel was the only sign of life. I went inside and interrupted what looked like poker night in Tatla Lake (population 123). I declined friendly offers to stay for the night, and starting putting on all my extra clothes before leaving in the dark at about 10 pm. It was starting to get cold, so I put everything on (long tights, wind proof over-pants, three merino wool T shirts (two long sleeved), wind shell, waterproof jacket, wool gloves, skull cap). I later read that the daily temperature extremes in Tatla Lake are greater than anywhere else in Canada, and that in September, the temperature can be over 32° during the day and below freezing at night.
The road was deserted and I climbed steadily. The full moon behind me was so bright, I turned around several times thinking it was an approaching car. I was reasonably comfortable, but the temperature was continuing to drop. It started to rain around 3 am. I was heading into a bad combination of cold and wet. It was time to take shelter. Of course there was nothing around, so I stopped at a small pull-out and crawled into my bivy sack. I warmed up immediately and slept for about two hours. I was later told the temperature had dropped to four degrees. I got up just before dawn. The rain had stopped, and I started down the road. It sounds bizarre, but I wasn’t sure which way to go on the Highway. There were no visual cues and it was still dark. I rode a few kilometres down the road. It didn’t feel right, so I turned around and headed the other way. I flagged down the only passing car, and confirmed that I was headed the right way to Bella Coola.
I arrived at Anahim Lake (868 km) around 6 am (Tuesday). There was nothing open, so I had a light “breakfast” from supplies in my bag and went looking for some water. I didn’t have time to wait until the restaurant opened. I saw someone heading into the Highway’s Yard and asked about water. I was invited into the trailer where I filled the bottles and warmed up. I was told that the road ahead would be a little rough but very scenic. Strangely, there was no mention of possible wildlife sightings. As a reminder of the remoteness of the region, I was told there are no power lines to Anahim Lake. The Highway’s Yard also housed the diesel generators that power everything in Anahim Lake.
The Highway became dirt just outside Anahim Lake. I expected a hard packed, oiled surface with gravel pushed off to the side. Instead it was a rough, potholed surface. The road was tree lined and barely two lanes wide. I would have been much happier on a mountain bike for the first hour. I navigated around the worst spots, but was probably riding at 5 to 10 km/hr (the cyclo-computer had quit hours ago) and slowly gaining elevation. The more interesting thing was the bear scat on the side of the road. The piles were about every 20 metres and on both sides of the road. Some were petrified but others looked like they were still steaming. I’ve been in bear country before, but this was a bit much. I started thinking I was heading into an ambush.
After about two hours I reached a long, wide straight section. To that point, about four vehicles had passed me. A truck travelling the opposite way slowed and stopped beside me. The middle-aged driver said, “Well you’re a brave man”. He continued and told me he had lived in the area all his life, and had never seen so many bears as this year. He said there was a grizzly sow with two cubs just up the road, and a black bear a little further along. He strongly encouraged me to wait for a ride to take me around them. Common sense prevailed, and I waited at the midpoint of the straight section for a ride.
Looking up the road to the limits of my vision, I could see brown objects moving on the side of the road - I rode further back down the road. After about fifteen minutes, there were a few snow flurries and the wind picked up. I looked down the road to the opposite corner. My eyes were tired, but I was sure I saw a large black object moving on the side of the road. For a very brief moment I thought this was kind of funny - these guys must be working together - they have both ends of the road covered. Then I filled my pockets with rocks.
I waited an uncomfortable twenty more minutes until a car approached heading towards Bella Coola. I flagged it down and met Augustine and his two sons. They had been in the woods picking mushrooms. I asked him what he thought about the bears. He had a simple answer – he said he tried not think about them when he was working. We jammed my bike into the trunk and headed up the road.
We drove past the grizzly bear, sitting with her two cubs by the side of the road. Augustine stopped about 50 metres away. He said he didn’t want to get any closer because grizzly bears will charge at cars. I didn’t ask, “what about bicycles?” We passed a black bear and stopped at the top of Heckman Pass (918 km). At this point, finishing the brevet didn't seem particularly important, but I was fairly sure there was some allowance in the rules for avoiding extraordinary hazards on the road, even if grizzly bears weren't contemplated by the founders. I didn’t bother to check, but I had taken about a three kilometre car ride. (It didn't take me long to make up the kilometres.)
The “Hill” descends from Heckman Pass. It was cold with fresh snow on the side of the road. I didn’t waste any time and started the descent. I look forward to descents , but the “Hill” was the first one I wanted to get off. The road was rough, hard-packed, wet dirt, with an unprotected long drop to the valley. I was on the brakes all the way down to control my speed on the steep runs between the switchbacks. It felt like I was slowly destroying my rims as I ground and rattled my way down the “Hill”. I stopped several times to rest and passed another black bear about half way down.
The pavement resumed at the bottom of the “Hill”, and I continued on to Bella Coola. For some reason, I thought the “Hill” ended in Bella Coola so I was disappointed to discover that I still had about 80 km left.
The next control was at “Stuie”. I thought this was a town so I kept expecting to see a sign. Eventually I stopped for road construction and asked the flag person where “Stuie”was. He told me it was six or eight kilometres back, but there wasn’t a sign, since it was just a few houses and Tweedsmuir Lodge. He thought I might have heard of it because part of the “Incredible Hulk” had been filmed there (I must have missed that part...). Riding past the control was a little demoralizing, and for a few minutes I considered skipping it , but it felt like I’d been through a fair bit already, and I decided I wasn’t quitting then.
I turned around and rode back to Tweedsmuir Lodge. I needed food because I hadn’t had “real” food since the morning and it was now about 1 pm. I thought it would be a quick stop, but it didn’t take much to change my mind. I had long since decided to take all the time available for the ride, so I sat down for a big lunch in the Lodge’s dining room. I stayed for about two hours and then left for what I expected would be a leisurely 60 km ride to the finish. As soon as I turned onto the Highway I was hit by a vicious headwind bending the trees and roaring up the Valley. Of course it had been dead calm when I stopped for lunch. Instead of a slow ride in, it was now looking like I wouldn’t make it in time. The thought of losing it in the last hour or two, got me working harder than on any other part of the route. For the final insult it started to rain as I got closer to Bella Coola. After some confusion finding the control, I arrived at the finish around 6 pm with 20 minutes to spare. I joined Alex and his family for dinner, stayed the night and flew home the next day.
I learned a lot on this ride - most of it from my mistakes. I love to do it again. This is a spectacular route with limited traffic - and a few special challenges. Thanks to Alex Pope for organizing this one and (along with the rest of his family) for welcoming me to Bella Coola.
(My apologies for the title for this report - I couldn’t resist.)
June 26-29, 2010
Go to: Ultra
Go to: Alex's Photos 1 & Photos 2
July 9, 2010