Last summer I decided to take my 170,000-mile, 1986 Isuzu Trooper for a month-long, solo road trip from California to British Columbia and back. I was looking forward to the thrill of the open road, clear-blue water, wildlife, and remote wilderness, so I prepared well, packing my tent, my gear, and a month’s worth of food into the Trooper in case I got stranded and needed to wait for the Mounties, a passing husky team, or whoever handles that sort of thing in Canada.
I’m glad I did. Despite a snag or two, I learned a few things and returned to tell the tale. Not everything in the wild is so lucky.
Into the Wild: Sointula, BC
While waiting for the ferry on the island of Sointula, just offshore Vancouver Island, I met a guy who offered advice on the British Columbian “bush.” “You got bear spray?” he asked. Bear spray? I was going to see actual bears? I checked: $40 for a single-use can. Pass. From the stories I’d heard, bears aren’t much interested in you unless you’re packing a pot roast or, of course, loitering near their cubs.
Humans are often more dangerous to animals than vice versa — case in point, the very dead deer I spotted on the road out of town. As for bears, we offer free food with one hand while wielding a gun in the other. A sign at a nearby campground puts it succinctly, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
Aboard the Ferry, Queen of Chilliwack
At some point in the planning process, I realized that there are no roads along the coast of British Columbia north of Vancouver Island, so I reserved a seat (and a parking space) on the BC Ferry to Bella Coola via the Inside Passage. (If you go, book well in advance.)
During the 12-hour trip, the captain plied us with tales of the gruesome ends met by local lighthouse keepers, while one of the crew sang banjo-fueled sea shanties on the aft deck. I, meanwhile, happened upon a public service poster designed to help visitors identify bear and cougar footprints. Really? Cougars too?
Bella Coola, BC
Bella Coola is the only town for 175 miles north or south that can be reached by land. I headed for the Bailey Bridge Campsite, a beautiful private campground on the banks of the Bella Coola river. On the way, I crossed an overpass, where I noticed several people staring intently into the water. Surely, they weren’t thinking of jumping into ankle-deep stream below?
No, it turned out that they had been staring at about 200 large salmon. The salmon remained mostly still, but occasionally jockeyed for position, then spawned and, one by one, slept with the fishes — literally and figuratively. Amazing.
McCall Flats Recreation Site
On a forest road east of Bella Coola, I found what I thought was a very nice public campground. Everything was free, down to the neat stacks of firewood — thank you, Canadian hospitality! I walked down to the glacial-blue river and surveyed the scene: 8,000′ peaks, lush forest, not a soul in sight, plenty of fresh bear and cougar tracks — iirrrrck! Fresh bear and cougar tracks!?
According to my bush guide back in Sointula, cougars sneak up behind you and chomp your neck—you never hear them coming. The trick, he said, was to always sit facing your buddy. You watch his back and he watches yours, so, together, you have a 360˚, cougar-scanning view of the forest. I didn’t know at the time that this was a day-use-only site on account of all the wild animals. I ended up trusting my gut (and those tracks, of course) and headed back for another night at Bailey Bridge campground.
Along Highway 20
Since the mid-1950s there’s been an overland route out of the Bella Coola Valley: Highway 20. What passes for a highway up there is a steep, one-lane, guardrail-free, dirt track known as ”The Hill.” It’s important to know the rules of the road: uphill-facing cars have the right of way, since it’s harder for them to get going again once stopped. However, I found that, confronted with an 80,000 lb 18-wheeler heading downhill, straight towards me, I didn’t mind bending the rules a bit.
I nudged the Trooper to the cliff edge and was greeted with a friendly wave as the semi lumbered past. I also decided not to travel the road at night, since cougar or bears are most active then. Actually, I only ever saw one bear the whole trip, a little cub, 40 feet up a tree, climbing around, busily doing bear stuff, as I drove past.
Outside Squamish, BC
On the return leg, in the forests near Squamish, I explored a dry riverbed. Upon encountering the river itself, I put the truck in reverse and backed towards the road. No such luck. I ended up on a sandy slope, with the rocker panels scraped up and resting on a boulder. No problem… I’d prepared for such an eventuality. Out came my hand winch, anchor, and rope. But 45 minutes later, the rope had stretched, and the anchor hadn’t held. I had prepared but not well enough it seemed.
I thought about waiting for someone to come by, or hiking the ten miles back to the highway. Then I remembered the trick for getting out of sand: low tire pressure. I dug the truck free, deflated the tires to about 18 psi, and, like magic, the tires found grip and I drove out. After I reached the highway, I reinflated the tires and headed south toward home.
I was sweaty and dirty, but still very much alive.