Flying a Culvert into Bella Coola

I’d forgotten how beautiful the mountains were in Hagensborg. Hagensborg, where I’m staying at my friend Karl’s, is about halfway up the Bella Coola valley, which is about 60 kilometers long (40 miles for the metrically challenged) and here in Hagensborg, less than a kilometer wide – you can’t go very far before you bump into a mountain. When you walk down the highway which runs down the center of the valley, you feel like you could just fling out your arms and touch the mountains on both sides – that’s what it felt like flying in here as well.

The ferry trip over from the island was lovely. It was one of those wonderful sunny blue sky days we occasionally get on the coast and I sat the entire trip outside on the upper deck, looking at the ocean, envying the sailboats sailing by heeled over in full sail [there was wind Harry and a perfect day to be out! (Harry is my sailing buddy but there never seems to be much wind when we go out – just when I’m traveling on the ferry – couldn’t get them to put up their sails though)]. It was great fun looking at the islands going by, watching people hiking along the shore of Pender Island as we went through Active Pass, and then a little bit of Georgia Straight where you can imagine yourself all alone on the open ocean basking on a cruise ship. But only for a short while. The mainland hove in sight and we were treated by the sight of another ferry practicing rescue maneuvers with helicopter. Who says the ferry trip is boring! But then I only do it once in awhile.

I spent a few days in Vancouver visiting friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. I love how excited we get when people come to visit – it’s always a good excuse to stock up the larder and indulge in food and drink we don’t normally have. As I staggered around Westminster Quay Market, my arms being pulled from their sockets by the load of grocery bags my friend kept piling on me, I jokingly reminded my friend that I was only staying for the night and was she sure that she had enough food to tide me over. Well, I was only half joking. The chicken breast with mushrooms and nuts and then cheesecake for desert tasted mighty fine with that bottle of wine. Friends with gourmet tastes are nice to have. And I’m sure the rest didn’t go to waste…any more then it went to mine…

On Thursday I flew out of Vancouver from the South Terminal, the ‘Little Terminal’ for Bella Coola. I call it the ‘Little Terminal’ because it’s a lot smaller than Vancouver International – a lot smaller – probably because the planes are smaller – a lot smaller. Getting aboard this particular airplane is an experience in itself. As Karl said when I landed: “How did you like flying in a culvert?” It was about a 19 passenger airplane. A narrow aisle with a single row of seats on each side and about 4 and a half feet from floor to ceiling. You’re OK sitting down – barely – but it’s quite funny to watch 6 foot plus burly American fishermen trying to negotiate the aisle and do a fancy corkscrew twist into the seat and then both heave a sigh of relief at having made it and at the same time wondering what the hell kind of a coffin we’d settled ourselves into. I must have been quite a sight myself. (Please notice I classed myself with the “burly” types…). The co-pilot squatted on his heels in the front of the plane as he made some announcements. Hey – it’s bush flying – what can I say. I must say that I did experience some twinges of claustrophobia when I first settled in. However, after a couple of deep meditative breaths and imagining myself as one with the plane and the universe and sky and the ground (whoops – scratch that – not one with the ground – at least not inadvertently) I was fine and ready to fly.

Years ago I flew out of Bella Coola in the fog and overcast all the way down to Vancouver – but this day was different. The traveling gods must have been with me. I got to see Vancouver below as we took off and the mass of houses and congestion always amazes me – nice place to visit but too crowded for me to live there. The was a little cloud cover just North of Van but there’s something comforting drifting above the clouds when the horizon floats away into an endless blue sky all around you. It gives an illusion of peace and comfort – and then the plane hits an air pocket and the bottom drops out from under you and the cold truth of reality hit: I’m sitting in a goddamn flying culvert God knows how many feet up in the air and there are mountains below – cold hard pointy mountains – ARE YOU CRAZY BRADEN!!???

But then the clouds begin to clear and you can start to see those cold hard pointy mountains – and they’re beautiful. On the west side of the plane the mountains were covered in a blanket of snow – soft downy pillows. On the east side – where I was sitting, some of the melting had begun and the mountains were not as high – so it looked like a white spiders web on a dusty brown background. Still pointy and hard, but a intricate mosaic of white and earth tones none the less. We flew over enormous lakes – a deep royal blue. And, what I think was the head of an inlet that seemed to snake on forever. From the air you could see the various colors, from an almost blackish blue to a Mediterranean green near the shore. I also saw a lot of glacier lakes – tiny little patches of clear light green water linked by frothy white ribbons of water along the mountain valleys. At one point, off to the west, we could see the peaks of Mount Waddington, the highest mountain in BC at 14,000 feet, peeking (do you like the pun John?) above the clouds – an awesome sight. The flight takes a little over an hour – but it seemed to pass in minutes.

The mountains gave way to the Cariboo plain and muskeg and scrub pine lay like a carpet below us. Our first stop was Anahiem Lake, which is on the plain above the Bella Coola valley. “Please keep your seatbelts fastened as we’re expecting some minor turbulence.” Damn flying coffin! There’s no such thing as minor turbulence! Actually I was OK but there was some girl that was a bit scared. The burly fishermen and I calmly looked out the window and kept our crossed fingers discreetly hidden in our laps. We did manage to land in one piece and the relieved burly American fishermen got off and a few more got on. “Where you from?” “Los Angelos.” “How was the fishing?” “Oh, pretty good. We got some nice pan sized trout. But next year we’re going for the really big ones and get some big Rainbows and Bull Trout.” Hope springs eternal. Got to admire those fishing guides – they do sell a good story. God knows the BC economy could use every penny it can get and we do love those American dollars!

Take off was quick and dirty – get us through that turbulence quick so we wouldn’t notice it. But it did make me wonder that if this was minor turbulence and we were up on the plain – just what was it going to be like in the valley. The plane banked sharply (“are these things supposed to fly on edge?”) and one of the fishermen pointed out the Rainbow Mountains – and that’s just what they looked like – a pointed palette of muddy colors standing out from the white peaks – nature does put on a wonderful show sometimes.

We then started our descent into the Bella Coola valley. So imagine yourself sitting in this long culvert and at the front of the culvert there’s a couple of teenage pilots who didn’t have to shave that morning, and like them, you can also see out the windshield of the plane and see what’s in front of you. It’s a tad disconcerting when the opening at the front of the culvert is filled with the top of a mountain – just a bit disconcerting! And remember I told you how when I was walking along the highway it seemed like I could just stretch out my arms and touch the mountains on either side of me – well it’s a way different experience when you’re flying along in this culvert at 160 miles per hour and a thousand meters off the ground! You know that cliché about the wing tips brushing the sides of the mountains – all I can say is that the view is fantastic – and the mountain goats didn’t seem to mind at all; I reached out and petted a few as we flew by.

“We may be experiencing some turbulence so please ensure tabletops, upright seats, fastened seatbelts blah blah blah…” Well, you know the drill. And we kept going down and down and the mountains got closer and closer and then there’s trees. Someone wondered “Isn’t there runway – are we going to land on the trees?” They did look awful close –closer than the mountains even. At one point I did get a glimpse of the runway ahead – and thought “why does the plane keep bobbing from side to side and the runway keeps disappearing and shouldn’t the plane be a bit flatter before we land and and…Oh yeah – turbulence!” The trees kept getting closer and now we were knocking the eagles which roost there off their perch (actually they roost at the local dump – but that’s another story.), and finally there was a thump and the plane did a little dance on one wheel and tried to Do Si Do (it’s Rodeo weekend in Bella Coola) and then there was another thump and a great roar as the propellers reversed and the plane started to slow down.

“So how do you like flying in a culvert?” Karl asked me as he shook my hand after I’d walked into the terminal (only slightly smaller than the “Little Terminal” in Vancouver I might add – but then it only handles smaller planes.) “Piece a’ cake” I replied, “Hardly noticed it. Was too busy looking at the beautiful scenery. I had a great trip!” The travel gods were very kind to me.

However, I’m not sorry that I’m taking the ferry home when the time comes.


Copyright©2003 Braden Corby