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National River Care Expedition Day 1-10: The Dogs Are Underway!

August 29, 2001

The boys have just started the trek and already feel blessed for the kindness and well wishes of family and friends. In preparation we have attempted to walk the thin line between being completely clueless and unaware of the upcoming channels, rivers, and terrain we are to encounter and being paranoid little weasels methodically planning each step and fine tuning each logistical component. We call our present state intentional, calculated unpreparedness. We were not able to find anyone who had any data on the kayak route between Bella Bella and Bella Coola- they only knew of choppy waves and outflow winds that blew from the huge coastal mountain into our intended path. We are not that certain of the terrain between Bella Coola and Glacier National Park in Montana, but if a road exists I sure our we'll find a way to haul our chunky butts up the steep grades. We intend to bike through Montana and Wyoming following a yet to be determined path and our 250 mile kayak of the Green River has a few permit kinks to work out (like we don't have any). The remaining trek south and east is not written in stone and will evolve as we yack with locals and monitor how many nights we freeze out butts off. I think Matt and I agree that cranking every detail in planning this little trip destroys its rambling, multi-dimensional, freedom seeking, job avoiding, Franklin Planner hating nature.

We scrambled like dogs to make our scheduled 9 pm BC Ferry from Port Hardy to the small fishing village of Bella Bella. I dropped our small rental car off 10 miles from the port while Matt loaded the kayaks with our gear and food. I thought if worse came to worse I could run the stretch back to the port in my Teva sandals, but I was fortunate to get picked up by a man and his son on the isolated stretch of road. The first classic of the trip was revealed as the father peeled out sending gravel flying , rattled off a series of highly perverted and highly entertaining jokes, and then looked me in the eyes and said - in all seriousness- that grizzlies were everywhere along our route and buy some bear spray or "you're dead mothers." His view was soon contrasted on board the ferry by Steven, the stereotypical cooled out travelling hippy who had been on the road for the last 4 years. Unsolicited, he offered the advice - "Dude, before entering the woods verbally communicate to the bears that "I am entering your environs, I wish to share your land with you, I will not bring you any harm, "......you should be cool."

We awoke from the floor of the ferry seating area, half dazed to the sound of the ship's loudspeaker stating "We have killer whales of the starboard side if anyone wants to take a look." In addition to the whales, pink salmon were jumping in the calm, foggy water. In the village of Bella Bella we excitedly hauled our kayaks off the stow racks at the port and carried them to the rocky shore. Two seasoned kayakers from Seattle analyzed our neophytic tendencies through the drizzling rain and displayed their huge series of spliced marine charts preserved in a monstrous plastic encasement and the remainder of their well thought out gear collection. Matty shared a hand rolled cig with one as I eyed the pink salmon jumping all over the bay - jumping to the left, to the right, next to the kayaks, ......establishing unblinking fishy eye contact with me, teasing me. I don't remember Matty's conversation, only my selfish, undisciplined yearnings to cast a fly and stick a few of those cocky salmon. We then began our trip, pushing our kayaks uneventfully into the bay ...... the stones and black, sharp mussels providing a scratchy good bye kiss.

We decided in the kayaks to follow a route to Bella Coola that wove from Bella Bella to the Gunboat Passage and through a maze of channels including the Fischer, Dean, LaBouuchere, Burke, and North Bentinck. The boys paddled cautiously east - getting a feel for our sleek rented kayaks and negotiating the large wakes from passing fishing boats. A bald eagle flew over head as we headed towards Gunboat Passage - hopefully a goodluck sign. The rain continued as we finished the paddle for the day near Dunn Pt. We spotted a lagoon on our chart and a drainage that flowed into it - it had pink salmon written all over it. We came upon a set of strong tidal rapids emptying out of the lagoon and luckily found a route to charge up them, pumping the paddles as hard as we could to its flatter upper reaches. After spotting pink salmon jumping in the calm lagoon and finding them in the adjoining river we scouted for a camp. Matty crawled into the dense rainforest declaring he had found a likely spot, but I chastised him for the hard to access, closterphobic ?? spot. I then spotted a potential site right near the river on wonderfully high ground. We set up camp at twilight and hurriedly rigged our fly rods to attack the salmon. The setting was beautiful - the low tide exposed the wonderful meandering stream, small birds flew in unison nabbing insects out of the air, geese honked over head, and the gold colored kelp and green sea grass provided fantastic color. Matt landed a fresh pink salmon just as the last of the light was sucked out of the sky. We called it a day, retiring to our warm bivy sacks at 11:30 pm, knowing that we would wake up to another low tide and fantastic fishing conditions, and thinking how we had just added British Columbia to our list of conquered destinations.

At 1 am, I felt a twinge of moisture. I heard Matty rustle and then ask "Hey Red, do feel any ...." We simultaneously blirted "Oh Shit." Our bivies were dry inside but we floating in 20 inches of water. As I turned , my knee felt as if it was pushing against a bottomless water bed. The dark, silent tide had silently attacked and covered our entire site. We bolted out of our bivies into the falling rain, scrambling for our raincoats, waders, boots, ......I turned on my mag lite and it flashed momentarily only to go dead. We scrambled, working automatically down a rapidly developing prioritized list - secure kayaks, paddles, where the heck are our flyrods, throw the water logged sleeping bags onto high ground, .... We pitifully worked side by side, since only one flashlight worked ..... half laughing, half pissed at ourselves. We spent the entire evening securing our gear, thinking of the salt water's damage, shaking our heads. I slept for 15 minutes - seated on a rock with my head resting on top of my folded arms, remembering my junior high naps in history class.

But as quickly as the silent killer tide rose upon us silly midwestern highlanders that evening, our situation suddenly improved. As dawn approached at 5:30am, the rain stopped. We paddled through a mystical low fog back out of the lagoon towards the channel. A seal swam with us, popping his fat, bald, curious head up every 30 seconds to monitor our progress. We eased gracefully through the tidal rapids, not knowing until we were already in them that the standing waves were 3 feet high and much uglier than our initial ascent. We decided it would be prudent to get the salt water out of sleeping bags and other gear, so we hauled 3 hours to a tiny marina near Bella Bella, regrouped, and headed back out.

Our next eight days paddling through the channels blurs together. We continually monitored our position using our marine charts, verifying the coordinates once a day our so with our GPS. We paddled roughly 155 miles through tidal currents that both aided and faught us. The rain did not stop for the entire 8 days and nights. We comically attempted to keep our already saturated gear dry using tarps and rolled our eyes as we jammed wet gear in "dry bags" to keep them out of the rain. Each evening we slipped into our sleeping bags with visions of crawling into a stinky, wet tube socks. We ran a bit low on food, and by the end were treating ourselves to spoonfuls of peanut butter for meals.
All this was an easy price to pay for the long list of magical moments. As we paddled we trolled white bucktail flies with our flyrods hooking about 5 beautiful, bright coho salmon. The coho had yet to enter the rivers to spawn and were gorging on herring. We came across a channel with the surface boiling from the feeding frenzy of coho gobbling bait fish. We only hooked a tiny herring though !

We continued to look for drainages in which the accompanied contour lines were far apart, signifying a relatively flat river that could potentially hold spawning fish. We paddled 2 miles down a beautiful lagoon on day 5 and talked briefly of those who said our trip was a bit risky. For us, we feel as though we couldn't be behaving more conservatively. For we can only conservatively be sure of one limited lifetime on earth, ... and wouldn't a risk adverse man try to suck as much life as possible from that finite window of time rather than banking on the risky notion of an afterlife ? Boom, thankfully the philosophy session was interrupted by a pissed off coho smacking my bucktail. I tossed my paddle to Matty and faught the brute. As I paddled to a flat rock on shore and cleaned that fish, Matty continued onward to recon the drainage for salmon It was a fantastic stretch of water, framed by high cliffs and waterfalls on each side. Miles off I picked up a barge shaped structure and eventually Matt's kayak. The old structure rose 9 feet off the surface of the lagoon and became our campsite. The high tide forced us to use a rope to haul our gear upon the abandoned platform. As we set up we spotted a black bear cub curiously watching us from 40 yards from the safety of the low growing alders. Moments later another cub stuck his head out of the brush from the opposite side of the lagoon. Twenty minutes later a cub snuck out of its thick cover and rose to its hind legs to improve his view of the strangers. Our high perch was surrounded by grass, so we had a relatively safe and unencumbered viewing area of the entire lagoon and river. But at times we felt more like the subjects rather than the viewers. The presence of black bears at least signalled that there was not any grizzlies in that drainage- for the grizzlies quickly run the milder black bears out of their territories. As we approached the river at dusk, I strained my eyes to spot fish in the cedar stained water. The viewing was difficult for the bottom was extremely dark -- but the dark bottom also gradually changed its shape like an ameba. Mercy, the river bottom wasn't dark, the river was loaded with pink salmon. On our first cast we both hooked beautiful females. Within an hour we each landed 12 fish. We had reached the holy land.

The next day we fished the morning, following the river upwards. As we approached new upstream areas we sang every John Mellencamp song we knew to give the bears fair warning of our presence. As we proceeded further into the alders, our Mellencamp transformed into a harsher and louder collection of Judas Priest, with an occasional shout of "Oh yeah baby, the boys are in bear country." We each landed approximately 30 fish. I only had a 6 weight, so I stuck to the smaller pinks, while Matty banged a few aging king salmon for diversity's sake with his 10 weight. I'll always cherish the memory of fishing a smaller, clear shallow run and spotting several fresh pinks. Presenting my pink "dancing girl" fly a fiesty 4 pounder athletically moved 4 feet sideways, arched, rose up the water column and attacked the fly in a surreal slow motion. It was a very difficult decision to move on that day, for the area had everything we had ever been looking for - abundant wildlife, a river teaming with salmon, raw rugged mountains, and a wonderfully calm lagoon. As we packed up, we spotted a pack of 5 wolves 50 yards away near the shoreline. They embodied wildness. Surrounding by uninhabitable rugged country, rain pouring, scampering in a pack with their wild brothers, jumping small tidal pools and streams, stealthfully sneaking upon a flock of seagulls and forcing the birds to flight.

Another highlight of our soggy days was stumbling upon "the Rock," a place were Alexander MacKenzie finished his unbelievable feat of travelling by land and rivers across Canada from Montreal to this very place. Scribbled on a rock above the high tide mark were the words "Alex. MacKenzie, from Canada, by land, 22nd July 1793." He achieved his goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean, but was forced back by irritated indians before he saw the big water at the point at which we stood. As Americans we highlight Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery - breezing over the brutal trip accomplished by MacKenzie years earlier.

After a particularly difficult fight with the hard to predict tidal currents under a continuous rain on Day 6, the boys found themselves after 8 hours of paddling in a warm cozy natural hot springs. The aches, constant chill, and musty dampness were relinquished as we stretched out in the toasty waters of Eucott Springs. Life has a way of evening out. To top the evening off a boat pulled up, with a lady , her 2 male fishing companions, and a fine plate of fresh crab dip and crackers. They were stuffed from a large meal and forced us to engulf the plate. I hate it when that happens.

The mind of paddler of these waters flows in this weird pattern : " Man this is beautiful, we probably have 2 miles to that next point, the snow is streaked up on that high mountain, how the hell did MacKenzie cross the Coastal Mountains to get here, we are pansies compared to him, sit up and use your abs to paddle, I'm getting addicted to sunflower seeds, there's another bald eagle, those eagles should cover their heads with their wings when they are in those high trees- we would never be able to see them, another coho porpoised - I hope he hits my fly, I could never kill a trout in a river, but damn that fresh coho tastes wonderful out here, those seals are goofy-their heads are so round and bald, rest back now and use your arms to paddle, my legs are turning to mush- I hope they are ready to pedal a bike in a few days, the fog changes the scenery every 20 minutes, rain is no big deal- I'm getting used to it, sit up and use your abs to paddle, I've only seen my hands the last 8 days- I wonder if my body looks like I've been in a concentratiion camp, that point is not approaching very quickly - the tide is supposed to be coming in, ah whatever, it is what it is, sit back and use your arms to paddle, I love spitting our sunflower seed shells, nice.... that was a pink that jumped all the way out of the water, ........."

On our final approach to Bella Coola, the sky opened. We actually paddled with our shirts off - but our sunglasses were so buried from disuse that we did without them. We rode across several funky bands of tidal current - standing waves in the middle of relatively calm water. The last stretch on North Bentinck Arm was huffing and puffing, with large waves pushing us towards our destination. Instead of cursing the chop we attempted to surf some of the large swells- paddling short strokes to stay atop the crest. We finally hit the docks of the village, found a landing spot, and stood up like 2 old men. Holy regamortis. An old couple approached as we celebrated the completion of our first leg. We gave them a warm hello- but the lady walked a large radius around us saying nothing while her husbank avoided eye contact. We must have looked like rats. We hitchhiked the couple miles to the village area to the Bella Coola Motel and Campground - meeting our wonderful host Gabriella. She was gracious enough to receive our bikes (though Matt's was currently stuck in customs) and catered to our every wish. We've spent the last few days in drying our soggy gear, putting bikes together, talking with Flemming the cool pizza man, and hearing from the locals of "the Hill," - the 5000 ft, 18 % grade beast we will shortly climb.


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